Sunday, 17 June 2012

Structure & Struggle A Reply To Mike McNair - Part 1

If You Build It They Will Come”

This is an extended version of a recent letter, to the Weekly Worker, responding to Mike McNair's argument in relation to the – Labour Party. Mike's article was itself a response to my earlier letter, which was, in turn, a response to a previous article by Mike. The issues raised expose serious questions that Marxists need to address in relation to the issues of the role played by both structure and struggle, and how we apply the theory of Historical Materialism, and the method of dialectical logic.

In his original article of 12th April, Mike set out the CPGB's attitude towards the LP. The CPGB adhere to the conventional Leninist description of the Labour Party as a “Bourgeois Workers Party”. This description, developed by Lenin, is based on the idea that the LP is a Party, which is based upon the working-class, particularly via its historic link, with the Trades Unions, its membership is drawn largely from the working-class, its voting base resides, largely, within the working-class, but the Party has never been founded upon the ideas of Marxism (or even Socialism), but has, from the beginning, been based on a bourgeois ideology, which commits it merely to seeking reforms within Capitalism. In fact, this ideology of reformism, or bargaining within the system, is merely an extension, into the political sphere, of the ideas which lie behind Trades Unionism. This makes the Labour Party different to the Workers' Parties developed in the rest of Europe, for example in Germany, which were founded upon Marxist principles.

Herein lies what I think is the crux of the argument. The distinction here is that the other Workers' Parties were established not on bourgeois ideas, but on Marxist principles. The reason these parties, every one, ended up indistinguishable from the LP, in the ideas they promote, is seen as being down to some kind of degeneration, rather than the actual nature of these Parties at inception, or the material conditions within society, which conditioned that. Often, the degeneration is laid at the feet of the leaders of these parties, who “betrayed” the working-class, and the principles they once proclaimed.

The implications, for the CPGB, of this, are clear. Those who declare that the Labour Party is not now a bourgeois Workers' Party, but a bourgeois Party pure and simple, are wrong, Mike argues – correctly. The Labour Party continues to attract the support of the vast majority of workers. Any attempt to create some new “Workers' Party”, that simply recreates the old Labour Party, is then not only pointless – because why would Marxists want to create a bourgeois Workers Party? - but is doomed to failure, because no space exists to create such a Party, given that workers continue to adhere to Labour. That has been repeatedly shown in the abysmal performances of the Left, where they have stood, and by the strong showing of Labour, in working-class districts, in 2010.

If Marxists are to seek to build a new Workers' Party then, Mike argues, they should build, not a new bourgeois Workers Party, not a LP Mark II, but a new Marxist Party, even if that Party is very small to begin with. They should begin by uniting their own forces for such a project. This doesn't preclude such a Party working within the LP, but they should do so on the basis that Lenin had proposed, by demanding to be allowed in, as an affiliated organisation, on the same basis as, say, the Fabian Society. In the meantime, those outside the LP are to be free to continue to act in such a way as to ensure no such demand would be granted, and to alienate ordinary workers within the LP, by, for example, standing their own candidates, in elections, against Labour, or supporting other candidates, against Labour, as the CPGB did in relation to TUSC.
Hegel's Dialectic saw the
material world as a reflection
of the unfolding of The Idea
Mike's argument here is fairly straightforward. He privileges ideas in his dialectical logic over material conditions. The most important thing is to establish a structure – a new Marxist Party – which can present the kind of Marxist programme that can offer to workers the kind of solutions that break with bourgeois ideas. Only on this basis, according to Mike's logic, is it possible to win workers from Labour. His premise for this argument is the experience of the German SPD, who, through the fusion of the Lassalleans and the Eisenachers, obtained sufficient critical mass, to go from a party of a few hundred, to a Party of tens of thousands. So Marxists can argue for this fusion of the Left, outside the LP, and, in the meantime, can continue working with workers inside the LP, as a forerunner to the demand for Labour to admit the Marxist Party. According, to this logic, it is not the nature of the material conditions, that workers face, on a daily basis, that are responsible for the fact that they have not yet reached a revolutionary, or just higher, level of class consciousness, nor is it the fact that the ideas, that the Marxists have been promoting, fail to connect with the workers, and the experiences they have, which explains the singular lack of success of the Marxists. Rather it is simply, the absence of the necessary structure, the Marxist Party.

There are a number of elements in this approach, which I would take issue with, as I set out in my letter of 19th April. It sees struggle almost entirely in ideological terms, and in the process also privileges struggle over structure, seeing the latter as almost entirely a function of the former, a shapeless form that can be simply given shape by a top down process of ideological determination. So, the primary task is seen as being the establishment of the necessary structure – the Marxist Party – and the means of achieving this is through struggle, which in turn is essentially reduced to an ideological struggle. So class struggle becomes primarily a struggle to “Build The Party”. The first thing to say is that this approach belies a strangely narrow Parliamentarist approach for a revolutionary organisation. Its whole emphasis revolves around seeing the activities of the revolutionaries in electoralist terms. That is not necessarily electoralism in the sense of winning bourgeois Parliamentary elections, but in the broader sense that the Left has consumed itself with. That is of seeing everything in terms of passing resolutions, through Trade Union or other Labour Movement bodies, and of getting its supporters elected to positions within it. This is the necessary consequence of privileging ideas over material conditions in the dialectical relation between the two. It also provides an explanation as to why each of the sects fails to unite with others, because each privileges its own ideas over the ideas of every other sect, as each seeks to build its own “Party”, as the necessary precondition for any further development. In his latest response, Mike seems to argue that, if material conditions have any role to play, it is in that they create conditions, in society, that necessarily lead the workers to oppose the bosses, and, on the basis of that opposition, to automatically be driven towards socialist ideas, thereby facilitating the work of the Marxists in winning them over. But, as I pointed out in my letter of the 19th April,

"Revolutionaries" have often captured positions,
but on what real basis, to what real effect?
The point is, does this (the fact that there is no real difference between the LP and the US Democrats) make any real difference for the way in which Marxists relate to such a Party. The answer to that question comes down to what you believe the real reason for Marxists being in such a Party to be. If you believe in Parliamentary Socialism, if you believe, then that the function of Marxists in such a Party is to commit it to Socialist politics, then clearly such limitations are important. Even, then, however, it is not clear how the condition of the LP now, is significant for what you intend it to become. The difficulties of building a mass Workers Party remain essentially the same whether that Party is a transformation of the existing LP, or is a brand new Party built in opposition to it. In fact, the experience of the latter suggests that it is far more difficult than the former, as there have been several instances of the LP being transformed from a right-wing moribund rump, into a large active Party. But, surely the important point here is that Marxists do not believe in Parliamentary Socialism, and our perspective is not simply one of transforming the LP, pushing it Left in the shape of adoption of largely meaningless “Left” Conference resolutions etc. The whole point about a Marxist perspective is that it is based upon the idea of the working-class liberating itself via its own self-activity and self-government, and our goal is to be able to assist the working-class in achieving that.”

In other words, as Marxists, we recognise that ideas do not spring into existence out of the ether as the Idealists suppose. Certain sets of ideas gain traction, not for wholly inexplicable reasons, but do so because they represent the real experiences of human beings in their everyday lives. But, this is not some mechanical process, whereby, for example, workers experience the horrors of Capitalism and automatically become Socialists! Were that the case, there would be no need for a Workers Party, and Capitalism would have been swept away long ago. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. It is the experience of every day life, under Capitalism, that, not only reproduces the material foundations of the system, that reproduces Capital and Wage Labour, but it is the fact, as Marx sets out in Capital, in the Grundrisse, and elsewhere, that these are, in reality, two sides of the same social relation, which ensures that it also reproduces the very ideological basis upon which it rests. To the extent that it does not, it has the fall back of the Capitalist State, whose function is also to ensure the reproduction of the material conditions of Capitalism (a Welfare State to ensure the adequate reproduction of Labour Power, a Warfare State to secure the external defence of domestic Capital, property laws to defend Capital internally, bodies of armed men to defend it physically from internal dissent, and a panoply of ideological means from the Schools and Universities, through the Churches, and the media to ensure conformity within the bounds of pluralism) as well as the continued dominance of bourgeois ideas.

The Fabian view of Socialism was workers
settling merely for an amelioration of their
condition under Capitalism through Economistic
distributional struggles over wages and the Social Wage.
To believe that, all of this can be turned upside down, simply on the basis of an ideological struggle – on the basis that, in relation to the Marxist Party, “if we build it they will come” - is to fly completely in the face of Historical Materialism, and all experience. Nor can this be objected to on the basis that the day to day struggles, of the workers, through their Trades Unions, is not just an ideological struggle, but is a struggle for a change in material conditions. That is also to misunderstand the nature of such Economistic struggles. Far from being a struggle to change material conditions, and thereby to create the basis for a different set of (socialist) ideas, such struggles can only ever do the opposite, they can only act to reinforce bourgeois ideas, and bourgeois relations, because they are premised on the continuation of the system, and the idea of bargaining within it, for merely a larger slice of the pie. That is true whether these struggles are the classic distributional struggles over wages, or their equivalent in the reformist distributional struggles over the size of the social wage. In fact, it was for that reason that some members of the SPD opposed – wrongly – the attempts of Bismark to introduce the Welfare State in Germany.

As Marx and Engels pointed out, these kinds of struggles are extremely limited precisely because they occur within, and accept the continuation of the structures of Capitalism.

“The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves.”

“I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.

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.”

In other words, here we have the question posed in stark contrast of structure and struggle. So long as workers remain within the structure of Capitalism, the limits of their struggles are defined. As Luxemburg put it,

In other words, the objective conditions of capitalist society transform the two economic functions of the trade unions into a sort of labour of Sisyphus...”

The Miners Strike was heroic but
 what has been the long term effect
on workers class consciousness?
And for so long as workers remain within the structures of the Trades Unions, and of Workers Parties whose ideas are merely a translation of that Economistic struggle into the political sphere – which is not actually the case because it only appears a political rather than an economic struggle, because it is conducted in Parliament rather than in the workplace – the ideas that flow from these struggles cannot go beyond the bourgeois level either. A truly political struggle would be one about the extent to which workers have control over the productive process, and the overall productive relations, not merely one about what their share should be after the bosses have determined what and how to produce. But, Capital will never concede such Control, and without a fundamental change in workers consciousness, workers will never insist upon it. So, we have what appears to be a chicken and egg situation. The workers do not remain within the structures of the Trades Unions and the LP for no reason, but because their consciousness is determined by their experiences, conditioned by the material conditions they encounter on a daily basis, and the reproduction of the social relations that engenders. The whole point is how to bring about that necessary change in consciousness. The workers' consciousness can only be changed if the material conditions change, providing a basis for the Marxists ideas to gain traction. Mike believes that it can arise simply on the basis of an ideological struggle waged by a Marxist Workers' Party. I believe such a perspective is Idealist, rather than Materialist. Mike believes the history of the German SPD proves his point, I believe it proves the opposite. But, then the question arises how to change the material conditions in such a way as to facilitate that change in consciousness.

As Marx put it,

For revolutions require a passive element, a material basis. Theory is fulfilled in a people only insofar as it is the fulfilment of the needs of that people. But will the monstrous discrepancy between the demands of German thought and the answers of German reality find a corresponding discrepancy between civil society and the state, and between civil society and itself? Will the theoretical needs be immediate practical needs? It is not enough for thought to strive for realization, reality must itself strive towards thought.”

Forward To Part 2

1 comment:

Jacob Richter said...

Ah, but there are two types of bourgeois worker parties to begin with:

To start off, no bourgeois worker party or "party" strives for all three goals of "formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat" (Marx and Engels). However, a recent discussion that overrated British organized labour prompted me to start this discussion on the types of bourgeois worker formations. There are two types, but lots of leftists, even the likes of the CPGB, haven't realized the significant differences between the two, and thus tactics pursued have proven to be fruitless.

There are Labourite bourgeois worker formations and there are Continental bourgeois worker formations.

The first type of formation is established by so-called "organized labour," by tred-iunionisty bureaucrats and member grunts. Income-wise they tend to be the country's "aristocracy of labour" (Engels) or "labour aristocracy." Economic struggles are conducted by "organized labour" directly at the point of production, while political and even semi-political struggles are channeled to the formation. Here, the logic of growing political struggles out of mere economic ones is most self-evident. Examples of this first type of formation include the British Labour Party, the Socialist Labour Party, any front work initiated and led by SPEW, the historic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and present-day New Democratic Party of Canada, the Australian Labor Party, the New Zealand Labour Party, and even the Workers Party in Brazil.

[Polemically, "Labour Mark II" projects are more accurately described as those seeking new formations based on the above.]

The second type of formation, "Continental," is established outside so-called "organized labour," which comes into play as either a tail or as a vehicle of co-option. Income-wise they tend to be less dependent on the country's labour aristocracy, and linked to this, more importantly, is the members' immediate realization that their immediate problems can only be solved politically, not economically. Point-of-production-struggles, other mere labour disputes, and other equally not-so-important economic struggles take a back seat to the political formation's political program, activism, and, for the more successful formations, even communication savvyness. Examples of this second type of formation include Die Linke, Front de gauche, the Left Alliance in Finland, the Left-Green Movement in Iceland (a governing coalition partner), the Movimiento al Socialismo in Bolivia, the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, Quebec solidaire, Sinn Fein in Ireland, SYRIZA, the Brazilian Socialist Party, and the newly-formed United Left and Peasants formation in the Ukraine. More mainstream formations include the Social-Democratic Alliance in Iceland (the main governing coalition partner) and Spanish Socialist Workers Party.

[In relation to Guy Standing's literature on the so-called "precariat," this new social strata would be more at home in a "Continental" formation.]