Bifurcation Of The Historical Process
“The importance of Purdy and Prior is that they do not try to explain away this uncomfortable fact. They do not fall back on the traditional scapegoats – a popular press which churns out reactionary propaganda; the congenital propensity of leaders of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions to ‘betray’ the working class; the ‘false consciousness’ and ‘backwardness’ of certain sections of the working class who fail to see where their real interests lie. Instead of looking for reasons outside the Left, Purdy and prior suggest that the reasons lie within the theory and practice of the left itself….
…The most important of these (problems addressed by P&P) is the problem of understanding the struggle for Socialism as an historical process in which human agency unlocks a new potential already inscribed within existing societies; and, on this basis, of conducting a politics which is practical (i.e. materially based) and pre-figurative (i.e. incorporates aspects of the Socialism it is trying to create).”
(C&C 9 pp 97-8)
This is absolutely correct, as I have been arguing for some time. One of the reasons that the LP continues to win millions of workers votes (and the reason actually why Liberals have been successful at local Council level, the reason the BNP have begun to have some similar success, and the reason even that Sinn Fein has had similar success) is not their political programme, but is down to the fact that these organisations have been able to integrate themselves into local communities, and to offer practical solutions to problems in the here and now. Now, of course, in the longer term those practical solutions turn out to be no solutions at all, precisely because these organisations are not socialist, but workers are practical people, given a choice between a practical solution here and now that might fail at some point in the future, and a solution that says, “Make great sacrifices to defend what you have/improve your condition, but in the knowledge that only the Revolution can really save you” (with the added call to ‘join the party’) workers will most frequently choose the former, even if they understood or believed the latter. The real task for revolutionary socialists is how to connect that desire for immediate practical solutions (which is innately reformist) with actual practical solutions that workers can both believe in, and achieve through their own self-activity, and which are also subversive of the reproduction of Capitalist norms i.e. solutions which do not simply replicate bourgeois forms, content and ideology, but which immediately counterpose to it, not just proletarian forms and content and ideology (because for now the proletariat is itself bourgeois), but socialist forms, content and ideology. The role of Marxists in this process is, therefore, crucial. It is to base ourselves precisely on the advice of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto,
“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”
It is not an accident that the Left is locked into this praxis, because this concept of revolution as being some single big event like 1917 is what dominates the view of such organisations. They believe that essentially nothing is possible other than that Economistic struggle short of that political revolution, and therefore, their practice is based on the logical conclusion from that, the need to “build the Party”, ready for that fateful moment, to ensure its purity, and so on. The consequence was inevitable, a growing separation from the real working class, its needs and interests, its real level of class consciousness – which has to be romanticised away by blaming any inadequacies on “the Leadership”, the “Reformists”, or the “Bureaucracy”. Its what leads organisations, like the AWL, and others, when confronted by that real working class, for example at LOR, to go into a sectarian convulsion to the extent of even proposing to organise a picket against striking workers! As Elson states,
“Purdy and Prior locate the fundamental weakness of the British left in its bifurcation of historical process, its belief that there is a sharp separation in time between the overthrowing of Capitalism and the building of Socialism. Filled only by the climacteric moment of the capture of State power. (Whether by a victory at the polls, as envisaged by those who believe in the ‘Parliamentary Road’, or by a coup d’etat carried out by the Workers Party by those who subscribe to a Bolshevik model). Nothing can be done about the building of Socialism until after that moment; and unless it is judged that that moment is imminent, political practice can only be negative and oppositional, against Capitalism, but not building Socialism. The left in Britain has judged that such a moment is not imminent and thus its political practice is to foster a one-sided destructive militancy under such slogans as ‘the working class is in no way responsible for the crisis and refuses to pay any of the costs’. It encourages the working-class to fight against Capital by wage-militancy, while theoretically recognising that pure wage-militancy will have to be superseded if Socialism is to e achieved. This gap between theory and practice is glossed over by postponing socialist practice to the ever more distant future, after the revolution. In the words of Purdy and Prior, it is assumed that ‘current policies need have no more than a sloganistic connection with a future socialist society’. (p 106) Or, we might say, instead pf Left politics being practical and pre-figurative of Socialism, it is merely rhetorical and its forms mirror those of Capitalism.”
“I agree with these criticisms which Purdy and prior make of the British left, and which as far as I can see apply to every major tendency of the organised left. Whatever the differences in historical origins, and theoretical tradition, current political practice on the Left almost invariably exemplifies the belief that there is a discrete distinction between struggling against Capitalism and building Socialism. The former is what we must do now, the latter can only be begun after the revolution, (i.e. the climacteric seizure of state power). One symptom of this is the dominance of Economism, i.e. the struggle to defend and further working class interests as delimited and defined by the Capitalist Mode of Production, a struggle which is essentially for better terms of exploitation, in particular for higher wages. Claims to be ‘Leninist’ an/or ‘Trotskyite’ do not get round the fact that in practical terms this politics does not transcend that of ‘trade union consciousness’. The illusion that it does is the result of the superimposition of a revolutionary rhetoric upon an essentially Economistic practice”.
I’ve referred to this in the past, and contrasted it with the position of Marx. For example,
In the Left & Vestas I quoted Marx’s comments from Value, Price and Profit.
“At the same time, and quite apart from the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto: “A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!” they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword: “Abolition of the wages system!"
After this very long and, I fear, tedious exposition, which I was obliged to enter into to do some justice to the subject matter, I shall conclude by proposing the following resolutions:
Firstly. A general rise in the rate of wages would result in a fall of the general rate of profit, but, broadly speaking, not affect the prices of commodities.
Secondly. The general tendency of capitalist production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.
Thirdly. Trades Unions work well as centers of resistance against the encroachments of capital. They fail partially from an injudicious use of their power. They fail generally from limiting themselves to a guerilla war against the effects of the existing system, instead of simultaneously trying to change it, instead of using their organized forces as a lever for the final emancipation of the working class that is to say the ultimate abolition of the wages system.”
Perhaps the most crucial phrase here is “They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.”
In addition I’ve dealt with the necessity for this Economism to result in what is an essentially Redistributive notion of Socialism. That is true whether the redistribution is effected by means of higher wages, or by the consequence of taxation. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx attacks this vulgar Socialism saying,
“If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”