A previous post [‘Fundamentalism’] noted that whilst the numerous current popular upsurges throughout the world are mainly targeted against the neo-liberal capitalist system, its western elites and their numerous puppet regimes, they are not taking on an explicitly anti-capitalist form. Indeed, in many places there has been expressed a desire to return to forms of governance based upon ancient religious foundations. Whilst the general content of these struggles continues to be dissatisfaction over basic economic needs such as jobs, housing, health, food and water etc., the perceived means of achieving these have not generally been seen as involving a change to the capitalist mode of production. In the current world-wide battle of ideas, anti-capitalist ones have been largely overlooked or deliberately ignored.
As a consequence, achieving these 21st century economic aspirations is predominantly seen by participants in the modern uprisings, continued sectarian killings and quasi-civil wars, as only requiring a change in forms of governance. The most extreme examples of such struggles have been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and now the Ukraine. Only slightly lesser extreme examples are everywhere. The changes envisaged by such determined anti-regime activists leave the capitalist mode of production intact and instead focus upon one or two alternatives. Either one of creating a ‘truly’ representative democracy or alternatively establishing a ‘strong’ theological autocracy. However, such sectarian religious and divisive political ideologies cannot even partially create the necessary unity or the circumstances for realising such a minimalist political aspiration.
Considering the undeniable fact that the 20th and 21st century neo-liberal phase of the capitalist mode of production has ruthlessly dispossessed further millions from former subsistence agriculture and craft production in even more regions of the world, this conceptual disconnect between the base and superstructure; between politics and the mode of production, is quite remarkable. For these large-scale neo-liberal capitalist-inspired dispossessions continue to cause huge socio-economic problems in developed as well as less capitalistically developed countries. From a revolutionary-humanist, anti-capitalist perspective, trying to fulfil the basic economic, ecological and social needs of the mass of people on the basis of politics and religion, is to struggle against the symptoms and not the cause. Thus making a difficult task impossible.
It perhaps should be obvious to millions by now that a change in the global mode of production is actually what is needed. But clearly it is not! It should be obvious to left economists and politicians that renewed economic competition between capitalist countries for markets and resources can now only lead to lower wages, more over-production, further ecological damage and even more armed confrontations. But again it is obviously not! By now it should also be obvious among anti-capitalists, that only a non-sectarian revolutionary-humanist anti-capitalist perspective has a hope of offering the necessary basis for uniting working people, from different countries and different traditions. Yet this too is not generally recognised! In fact only a few individuals among the anti-capitalist left are articulating such a non-sectarian perspective and even less are actually operating in such a manner.
That large-scale and obvious wide-spread effects and defects of the capitalist mode of production have not resulted in a massive turn to revolutionary anti-capitalist ideas and practices, but to various religious fundamentalisms and nostalgia for an idealised authentic petite–bourgeois democracy, should be cause for considerable concern. Importantly, the dominance of these two tendencies needs both explanation and resolution. But of course, any serious explanation requires serious study and evaluation. In our field of study it requires a development of anti-capitalist and revolutionary-humanist theory. Among the anti-capitalist left the case for critical study, including self-critical study, should not need to be made, but given all the above noted problems, and some to follow, I suggest it does.
The general – and obvious – importance of theory.
If things are as they first appear to perception and common sense then there would be no need for science nor any form of critical study of the world and its constituent parts. There would be no need for complicated reasoning, evaluation and therefore no real need for theory. Simple common-sense observation would suffice to guide us through our lives. However, one of the lessons we often painfully learn first hand is that things are not always what they seem – and this lesson does not apply just to ex-partners, con-men, telesales personnel and politicians, but to many other areas of life. [So for this reason bear with me until I get to the main points of this section.]
Our eyes, ears, touch and common sense do not always reveal the world as it really is. In everyday life, for the main part, common sense and our unaided senses are sufficient, but the more serious the situation or need gets the more superficial our common-sense opinions can become. Consequently, the modern world is full of branches of science, (medical, metallurgical, electrical, biological, geological, astronomical, mechanical, anthropological, meteorological, etc.) in which common-sense and unaided sensory perception are insufficient. Instruments and theories have become a necessary part of these areas of modern life upon – which to a greater or lesser degree – we all depend.
Point 1. It took decades of intense study of economics and history by many individuals before an adequate theoretical understanding of the capitalist mode of production was achieved. The common-sense of most capitalists held one view (its the best economic system ever.); most bourgeois theorists held another (its a system of efficiently producing goods), whilst the common-sense views of workers varied. Very few people actually understood its contradictions, nor that it was just the latest form of social production, and one with dire consequences for humanity and the planet.
It took a decade or so of economic study by one person, Karl Marx, to minutely examine the workings of the then relatively new mode of production and expose what was hidden beneath the various common sense views and within the bourgeois prejudiced theoretical ones. What was not perceived by the unaided senses allied to common sense ideas, was exactly how workers were robbed of the full value of what they created by the wages system (the mechanism of surplus-value extraction) and that the system periodically created more goods than could be sold at a profit – the phenomena of relative over-production crises.
Point 2. We would not think much of a doctor, electrician, engineer, weather forecaster, astronomer, etc., who had not bothered to study the theoretical and practical applications of his or her area of expertise and had not kept up-to-date with the latest discoveries and evaluations appropriate to this field. We would feel even less confidence in someone claiming to be a leader in his or her particular field if they too relied upon common-sense and unaided observations supplemented by a meagre smattering of almost 100 year old ideas and practices. Would any sensible working person be advised to trust them? In that case; Why should those active in revolutionary-humanism and anti-capitalism be treated any differently by working people?
Besides, one of the many important changes the capitalist mode of production has gone through are the broad economic categories of modern life. There are now more white-collar workers than blue. Another is that practically all working people in the advanced countries and in many less advanced, can read and write. Furthermore, the once large class of small businesses in production, distribution and sales, along with their owners and siblings have all but disappeared. These changes have now led in the advanced capitalist countries and in some less advanced, to a massive relative over-production of university educated, white-collar workers.
Literally hundreds of thousands of trained lawyers, teachers, social workers, doctors, engineers, mathematicians, biologists, chemists, and other disciplines in the 21st century are having their aspirations frustrated. The world-wide production of such job-requiring and seeking categories has far exceeded the vacancies capitalists have available. Increasingly, frustrated educated young people will be both angry and deeply concerned with their futures. With nothing to lose, for they have had to work hard without gaining anything but a paper certificate, they are likely to be in the forefront of coming struggles for something to change.
Point 3. The present and future activists among them are unlikely to be attracted to an anti-capitalist movement, split into warring factions and whose grasp of their own area of concern is fragmentary, contradictory and based predominantly on wishful thinking allied to little more than a smattering of commonsense.
Theoretical problems facing the anti-capitalist left.
There is a further closely related fact facing the anti-capitalist project. After several severe, world-scale crises of the capitalist mode of production and two capitalist inspired world-wars, there is still no positive example of a large-scale alternative to the capitalist mode of production. Despite fortuitous circumstances, only several disastrous attempts have taken place. This lack of a positive example is also in need of explaining. Why they have all failed, is not something which can be answered by a few quotations and some commonsense. And in turn this failure raises yet another related issue. From within the anti-capitalist left, there is no clear, comprehensive and convincing explanation of why previous attempts at a large-scale post-capitalist economic system turned out to be disastrous failures. Critical observers are left to draw their own conclusions as to why this is so.
It is a fact that not one attempt at post-capitalist construction has produced a humane and egalitarian social and economic system, for even a short time. Nor one in which the workers escaped wage-slavery and savage exploitation. Yet all we have from the past defenders of such attempts are various, often puerile, excuses. This notable absence of a convincing explanation also needs explaining. Self-critical and evaluative explanations for these previous failures cannot be expected from the bourgeois and petite bourgeois intelligentsia, nor their analogues in the academic and political spheres of neo-liberal capitalism. Such thoroughness must be motivated and articulated from within the revolutionary-humanist and anti-capitalist movement itself. So far this has not been the case and for this reason the bourgeois condemnation of the post-capitalist project dominates common-sense thinking.
Unfortunately, the sectarian fragmentation of this traditional milieu and its partisan nature has prevented such a wide-spread, comprehensive analysis and self-critical evaluation. There is a veritable wide-spread vacuum in this regard. In place of this necessary work, the intellects and literary efforts of this anti-capitalist milieu (Stalinist, Leninist, Trotskist and Maoist) has been dominated by confirmation biased evidence and mainly directed at self-justification of their own and their name-sakes efforts, ideas and reputation. To this self-serving output has been added an internal and external atmosphere of sectarian point-scoring, character-assassination and frequent sabotage – aimed at rival anti-capitalist sects.
Since Bolshevism (Leninist, Stalinist or Trotskyist varieties) and Maoism began to dominate 20th century anti-capitalism, the intellectual output of those who accepted this model have reduced the problems of humanity to the relationship between themselves (the so-called vanguard) and the masses. In very few instances has this self-appointed sectarian elite recognised the need for a critical attitude to itself. In their criticisms of the capitalist world and of other anti-capitalists, Leninists, Trotskyists, Stalinists and Maoists have for decades demonstrated a completely uncritical attitude to their own tradition of elitism, patriarchy, sectarianism and dogmatism. As a result these characteristics persist. What else can be expected?
This state of affairs has in turn led to further fragmentations, disgust and the haemorrhaging of individuals from these groups. Obvious too, has been a distancing from these sectarian theoretical polemics and the groups which conduct them, by many individuals wishing to work for an alternative society. All these factors should lead directly to a realisation that attention to critical evaluation (or an increased attention to up-dated anti-capitalist theory) is a necessary requirement for those proposing that a post-capitalist socio-economic form is both necessary and possible. Otherwise why should anyone listen?
In my view we are well overdue for a permanent revolution in this particular regard. To constructively engage with workers influenced by education, religion or petite-bourgeois notions of democracy, the anti-capitalist movement will need to change and become a non-sectarian revolutionary-humanist movement. It will need to display these non-patriarchal and humanist characteristics in its everyday practice and do so consistently over a very long period of time. It will also need to be self-critical and armed with sufficient knowledge to convince others that all its members know what they are talking about when they offer to play a facilitative role in the coming struggles.
My own view is that we need more updated theory of the self-critical and evaluative kind and not less. Less of the self-serving sectarian kind of course. Further anyone within the anti-capitalist milieu who suggests or implies that theory (critical and self-critical) is not important or belittles its pursuit in contrast to practical activism not only contradicts Marx, but to my mind attempts to undermine the crucial interaction and balance between reflective thinking and purposeful acting.
The current and past left pattern of a sectarian elite (elected or not) producing the ‘paper’ and the ‘party line’ and a rank and file rushing around distributing ‘it’ is outmoded and needs discarding. A final word from Marx on how we should play a critical, evaluative, non-sectarian and facilitative role with regard those who may not as yet agree with us.
“..we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it doesn’t want to……The reform of consciousness consists only…..in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.” (Marx to Ruge, September 1843)
Roy Ratcliffe (February 2013.)