In recent discussions among the anti-capitalist left, a number of questions have been raised, and assumptions made, which seem to me to have missed the mark by a considerable margin. An important assumption I heard recently was that because the working class has not engaged in struggle ‘en-masse’ against the proposed cuts and austerity measures, the working classes must be politically backward. The fact that they are also not turning up in great numbers to anti-cuts events organised by the left was also voiced as evidence that the working class and oppressed are backward or have some other deficiency of understanding which impedes their fight-back. An allied assumption has been that working people need a political party of their own. One that truly represents them. Personally I have not seen or heard of any such demands emanating from within the working and oppressed classes only from the left. And can it ever be the case that a party can truly represent them? We shall see. In the spirit of comradely discussion I wish to argue against this type of opinion which I suggest is more of an expression of ‘left’ frustration, than it is of anything else.
Perhaps it is a frustration born of the fact that working people are not doing what the ’left’ think they should do. And what is that? Basically, the various left groups, think the workers and oppressed should follow one or other of the versions of the ’lefts’ suggestions currently on offer. However, as yet, the vast majority of workers and non-working oppressed in the UK are still thinking about the situation, making economic adjustments and do not yet seem to have concluded they need to do more than they already are. This situation should not be surprising. It has historically been the case that working and oppressed people in general only become really active – on mass or otherwise – when they think they need to as in Greece and elsewhere – not when the left think they ought to. And of course there are many good reasons for not quickly following the lead of those trying to provide a political way forward.
For a start, there is a great deal of soundly based scepticism among the working class over politics and politicians – all politicians – left, right and centre. This scepticism is born of years of experience in which politicians have demonstrated that politics and political parties are a one-sided, self-serving, elite-controlling, means of obtaining power and influence ‘within the system’ for a relative few. Politics is full, bursting to the seams one might say, with politico’s who make many promises, but keep very few. This working class scepticism, is not a symptom of backwardness. And it is extended to the left, including the anti-capitalist left, who whilst often stridently advocating ‘political’ solutions at the same time make obvious their own mini, elite controlling, one-sided, sectarian patterns of behaviour.
For the last fifty years, or more, the anti-capitalist left, for example, have demonstrated to the working class and oppressed, very little other than divisions, disrespect for each other, demagogic outbursts and unrealistic calls such as for an immediate general strike. This well considered, intelligent scepticism about politics and politicians, of all shades, is also nothing new. It is generations old. Indeed, Marx, after studying the problems workers were having in previous pre-revolutionary situations came to very clear conclusions, based not on his own experiences, but primarily that of workers in struggle. He noted;
“Where political parties exist, each party sees the root of every evil in the fact that instead of itself an opposing party stands at the helm of the state. Even radical and revolutionary politicians seek the root of the evil not in the essential nature of the state, but in a definite state form, which they wish to replace by a different state form.” (Marx/Engels. Collected Works. Volume 3. page 197.)
This analysis has particular relevance to the development of politics in Russia, prior to and after the October 1917 revolution, but that’s a line of development for another article. However, the above is not the only criticism of the political mind-set with regard to understanding the nature of society and the needs of the working and oppressed classes. In more general terms, within the same article, Marx noted;
“The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics. The keener and more lively it is, the more incapable is it of understanding social ills.” (ibid. page 199)
Let’s repeat the essence of that observation. ‘The keener and more lively the political mind, the more incapable it is of understanding social ills‘. And further;
“The more one-sided and, therefore, the more perfected the political mind is, the more does it believe in the omnipotence of the will, the more is it blind to the natural and spiritual limits of the will, and the more incapable is it therefore of discovering the source of social ills.” (ibid. page 199)
These statements can come as quite a surprise to those who have become accustomed or ‘trained’ to view politics as the primary solution to human affairs. They did to me when I first came across them. Yet on reflection, this incapacity is exactly what I had encountered in my own experience mixing with the politicians in the Labour Party and the revolutionary politico’s in various left groups I joined. Politico’s in these left milieu’s, as in mainstream politics, also felt they must speak more often than anyone else, felt they must speak longer than anyone else, must speak more eloquently than anyone else, would patronisingly listen or rudely brush aside criticism – Why? Because these are the requirements of politics.
Even in left politics the culture of party building is one of grooming and competition for leadership positions, control of membership, always knowing better and never admitting being wrong. I think it should be frankly stated that this process occurs within some parts of the revolutionary left as well as elsewhere. As a consequence of this ‘culture‘, as Marx puts it, the more perfected the political mind – the more one-sided and limited it is. What a body blow Marx delivers to politics – all politics – including revolutionary politics. This is an amazing 19th century theoretical indictment of full-time (and even part-time) politicians of whatever persuasion. And yet it is still one fully in line with the experiences and opinions of 21st century working and oppressed people across the globe. The over-politicised reader may need to ponder the implications of this pivotal insight for a moment or two. It implies that dedicated anti-capitalist politicians can be incapable of discovering the real source of social ills. It implies that professional revolutionaries can also become blind to the natural and spiritual limits of the will. And this by the way is not simply a personal failing.
It is not merely that there are one-sided and blind politicians, it is that politics itself is a one-sided and frequently deceitful human endeavour. It is not just that there are ineffective politicians, it is that politics by its very nature, beyond a certain narrow range of circumstances, is ineffective. This viewpoint enhances and supplements the frequent working-class observation that all politicians, even their own representatives, soon get out of touch with them. The term ‘out of touch’ being a catch-all term to cover the one-sided, self-serving and narrow concerns of politicians, who love it when you follow them and hate it when you don‘t. In tracing the material foundations of political culture, Marx argued that social distress, often experienced by workers, does not produce political understanding but on the contrary, it is social well being which produces political understanding.
In other words political understanding and political culture arises and is developed in those who already are relatively comfortably situated, who therefore have the time and opportunity to develop their political mentality and reflexes and dedicate their lives to it. And isn’t this precisely why politics – all politics – is dominated by men and predominantly middle or upper-class men? And isn’t it why the few women who succeed in politics must, to a greater or lesser extent, emulate the life-styles and attitudes of fully politicised men? Politics is not only designed to exclude the majority of citizens, but to exclude 90% of the other important human issues, which only the involvement of the majority can address and solve. But this very development of narrow political understanding, where it occurs among workers, can create serious problems. Marx pointed to the example of the French workers of Lyons. They felt confident in their success since they were pursuing clear political objectives. Marx commented;
“Thus their political understanding concealed from them the roots of social distress, thus it falsified their insight into their real aim, thus their political understanding deceived their social instinct.” (ibid. page 204)
A similar problem may well have arose with regard to the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Mass participation in 2011 uprisings destroyed the political figureheads of Mubarak and Ben Ali, and brought about their removal. However, the military power, behind the political throne, so to speak, still remains. The political focus given to the revolts and which later came to dominate them led the participants to place political demands upon the regime rather than pursue unity and their own social and economic needs. In granting these political demands, the regime has now created a massive checkpoint barrier across the road to their real needs.
The once united workers and oppressed assembling on Tahrir square in pursuit of economic and social demands, must now divide themselves up on religious or secular grounds, form a wide-range of political parties, fund them, elect representatives, woo voters, win elections – and still the real power will lie elsewhere. In Egypt it is an economic and military power, funded in part by the US, which will be used to corrupt and control their newly elected representatives and frustrate their aspirations. The Egyptian, Tunisians and Libyans now nearly have what we have in UK, Europe and North America. Nearly, because they still have the military really in charge – we in Europe don’t – yet? Their situation may be better than the circumstances they previously faced, but it by no means solves their problems and the political system granted them will remain a substantial barrier to be overcome, (as it is for us) not an instrument of their liberation. And it is the type of case that was anticipated by Marx;
“Hence, too, a revolution with a political soul, in accordance with the limited and dichotomous nature of this soul, organises a ruling stratum in society at the expense of society itself.” (ibid.)
In uprisings and revolutions with a political focus, the results will invariably be political, and politics is the system of rule by a particular stratum over the rest of society. In a period of crisis and mass uprisings, the political form needs to correspond to the numbers, and direct needs of the masses, which are social and economic, not directly political. This is the reason that Peoples Assemblies, Soviets, Workers Councils and other mass forms of participation were devised. The real political act of the masses engaged in a social revolution is to organise to create a dual power and use this to overthrow the existing political system of power and to dissolve the old socio-economic forms. The political actions, energies and sacrifices of the masses organised in their own committees and assemblies, is ill-advised if it is directed to ‘re-forming’ and re-introducing the rule politics, rather than abolishing political forms of rule.
Any uprisings against the present conditions will be an uprising against the current social and economic system, including its present political forms. To mistakenly channel such uprisings into the framework of existing political structures would be to betray its economic and social purpose and delay or demolish this purpose. Hence the money and influence of the ‘powers that be’ will press in this ‘reform’ direction in the future as they have in the past. ‘Lets give them reform or they might give us revolution’ many current pro-capitalist will start to think as the crisis deepens and if many are already asking for it – well they are half-way there!. As Marx emphasised again, with regard to any sustained political emphasis in a revolution;
“The ‘political soul’ of revolution, on the other hand, consists in the tendency of classes having no political influence to abolish their isolation from statehood and ‘rule’.” (ibid. page 205.)
Uprisings are political acts in themselves and a revolution is also a continuation of this new form of mass political act. As a consequence, in a revolution, mass participation must destroy formal politics and positions of power, or formal politics and positions of power, will destroy mass participation. The two cannot co-exist. Although Marx, does mention politics in various of his other writings, the essence of his position does not recognise politics and political parties as the primary means of liberating the working and oppressed classes, nor overthrowing the capitalist system. The role of politics, according to his revolutionary-humanist position is limited to the act of revolution, a political act, and is the business of the mass of people, not the purview of an elite class. Marx again.
“Revolution in general – the overthrow of the existing power and the dissolution of the old relationships – is a political act. But socialism cannot be realised without revolution. It needs this political act insofar as it needs destruction and dissolution. But where its organising activity begins, where its proper object, its soul comes to the fore – there socialism throws off the political cloak.” (ibid. page 206).
The process of revolutionary development is itself an unfolding political act. The revolutionary activity of the working class, in forming its mass means of organisation is its form of political supremacy. It does not need any further political form than those participative ones it throws up during any pre-revolutionary uprising. And after the dissolution of the old forms of politics, social and economic forms, consistent revolutionaries cast off the political form and begin their organisational activities. Why would this be the case? And yes it’s Marx yet again.
“The community from which the worker is isolated by his own labour is life itself, physical and mental life, human morality, human activity, human enjoyment, human nature….The disastrous isolation from this essential nature is incomparably more universal, more intolerable, more dreadful, and more contradictory, than isolation from the political community. Hence to the `abolition’ of this isolation…”(ibid page 205)
How well that speaks to real experiences of the working and oppressed classes. All the above descriptions of the limitations of politics as well as historical experience of political parties, point to the fact that a political party could never represent the real interests of the working class, because the real interests of the working and oppressed are social, economic, environmental and now ecological, not simply political. Even Trotsky for a time recognised this diversion between the interests of a class and a political party. In Results and Prospects’ Trotsky wrote;
“Of course, parties are not classes Between the position of a party and the interests of the social stratum upon which it rests, there may be a certain lack of harmony which later on may be converted into a profound contradiction.“ (Trotsky. ‘Results and Prospects‘. Page 118.)
A lack of harmony is putting it mildly as we can see from Marx’s opinion above and the later ‘profound contradiction’, noted by Trotsky, is confirmed by historical and contemporary evidence. This lack of harmony becomes a ‘profound contradiction’ because the essence of any future post-capitalist society is citizen control of the means of production, and the form through which this is exercised cannot be assured through the medium of a political party. The unity of a class is based ultimately upon its economic and social position, as Marx ably and consistently demonstrated. In contrast, the unity of a political party is based upon a political programme, which is determined by its members, as logic and experience has amply indicated. In fact a political party, even one calling itself a workers party, could only represent the political interests of its members, not the socio-economic interests of the working class. And even in this limited political milieu it would quickly come to represent only the interests of its dominant leadership figures, as did the Bolshevik Party, before, during and after any uprisings and revolutionary events. However, before such a revolutionary outcome there is the question of the processes which lead up to it and the agency of its development. And of course, Marx, as usual, had something interesting to say on how and by whom, this process of emancipation might develop.
“The emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. We cannot therefore co-operate with people who openly state that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves and must be freed from above by philanthropic persons from the upper and lower middle classes.” (Marx/Engels. Selected Correspondence. Progress. page 307.emphasis added. RR)
This is the ‘essence’ of Marx’s revolutionary-humanism and it was Marx’s position with regard to the level of education and abilities of workers in the 19th century. Those who think that modern 21st century workers are backward, need leading everywhere and must be freed by the benevolent efforts of those who think they know better in this or that left group, will need to mount a powerful case against Marx and simultaneously against the abilities of contemporary working people. My own view is that we on the revolutionary left would be better to critically look to our own development in order to ensure we eventually don’t fall into the following category ourselves.
“In every revolution there intrude, at the side of its true agents, men of a different stamp; some of them survivors and devotees to past revolutions, without insight into the present movement, but preserving popular influence by their known honesty and courage, or by the sheer force of tradition; others mere brawlers, who by dint of repeating year after year the same set of stereotyped declamations against the government of the day, have sneaked into the reputation of revolutionists of the first water. After the 18th of March, some such men did also turn up, and in some cases contrived to play pre-eminent parts. As far as their power went they hampered the real action of the working class, exactly as men of that sort have hampered the full development of every previous revolution.” (Marx. Class Struggles in France. page 84 emphasis added. RR)
So I would argue, that when you think about it carefully, it is not (as many sectarians themselves often imagine) that working people need a ‘higher level’ of consciousness or more revolutionary commitment in order to join or ‘follow’ the direction advocated by this or that anti-capitalist political sect. The real situation is that working people – with revolutionary thoughts or not – do not yet feel the need or desire to rise up. It would seem they also realise that the barren soil of sectarianism, with its petty internal wrangles and its arrogant assumption of correctness, is of no use to them in furtherance of any of their struggles. So on the contrary, I would suggest it is many of us anti-capitalists within our sects or outside them who need to reach a higher level of unity and consciousness, in order to transcend an inherited narrow sectarian outlook and become of some real use to any unfolding anti-capitalist struggle.
Viewed from the standpoint of the anti-capitalist struggle, it is the left who are often backward and need to learn from workers and in particular from a critical examination of the history of their own, often tragically dysfunctional, tradition. The more recent, our anti-capitalist forces, the more severely we should judge ourselves, for we have much more evidence available than previous generations with which to correct earlier deformations and learn from previous mistakes as well as learn new methods of struggle. We have the considerable literary and historical evidence of previous failures available in printed and electronic form that previous generations did not have. In addition we have more widespread educational advantages and we are more generally literate than any previous generations.
R. Ratcliffe (February 2012) http://www.critical-mass.net