Sunday, 17 June 2012

Structure & Struggle A Reply To Mike McNair - Part 3

Against The Idealists

Engels in his writings to the US socialists in relation to the establishment of a Workers Party, emphasised that he and Marx in 1848 had joined the German Democrats despite them being a bourgeois party, because they were the Party which the German workers looked to. It was by being members of the Democrats, Engels says, that they were able to get the ear of the workers. In other words, what we have here is an application of the dialectic as Lenin understood it – “The truth is always concrete.” That is, the question “What is a Workers Party?” can only be answered concretely according to the reality existing at the time. In this case, the Workers Party, the Party which had the support of the German Workers, was an openly bourgeois party, much as could be said about the US Democrats today, or as some believe the UK Labour Party. That merely reflected the reality of the stage of development of workers class consciousness of the time. It was in this context, Engels continues, that the phrase in the Communist Manifesto,

The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties”,

was to be understood. Sectarians can proclaim as many new Workers' Parties as they like, but experience demonstrates that they are no such thing, but only adventures by petit-bourgeois dilettantes, who have no stomach for the real working-class, and who prefer their own sterile purity.

Engels put forward similar views to those he advocated to the US socialists, in relation to Britain. Then as now, there was no shortage of petit-bourgeois sects scrabbling to promote themselves as the saviours of the working-class, each with their own particular truth, their own Philosopher’s Stone that would unlock the secrets of creating Socialism. But, Engels' recommendation to Eleanor Marx and her comrades was to keep a distance from all of these sects, including those that called themselves Marxist, such as Hyndman’s SDF, as well as the ILP, and instead to go directly to the mass of workers, who at the time were organised within the Liberal Party, and particularly the Liberal Clubs. In the end it was this strategy, and from it, the decision of the Trades Unions to create their own political party, separate from the Liberals, which created the real mass movement for the creation of the LP.

Marxists could do worse than follow Engels' advice today. The best, easiest route to the majority of workers within the workplace, within the communities, remains through the LP. It is work in these grass roots places, in the daily lives of the workers that Marxists need to immerse themselves, not in the Trades Union branches, the CLP’s, or any of the other forums which are inhabited by the same milieu of activists. In reality, the political programme of the LP is not, in any real sense, a hindrance to that work, any more than was the programme of the German Democrats a hindrance to Marx and Engels, in relating to the workers in 1848, or that of the Liberals to Eleanor Marx. On the contrary, it is a basis upon which to encourage the newly mobilised workers to take their struggle into the political sphere, to transform the existing Workers Party, and make it more adequate to their needs. Those who disdain the existing Workers' Party, in reality, merely disdain the existing working-class, of which it is merely a political reflection – in fact, the LP remains significantly to the Left of the majority of the working class. Those who believe they can simply short-cut this reality, by proclaiming their own new Workers' Party, essentially base themselves on Idealism, not Marxist Materialism. They do not see that the dominant ideas, are based upon material conditions within society. A Workers Party can act via a dynamic, dialectical interaction with the class to stimulate the class struggle, but it cannot substitute for it. To change the dominant ideas, it is necessary to change material conditions, which means addressing the immediate problems and needs of ordinary workers on a daily basis, by encouraging and facilitating their own self-activity. On that basis, the class consciousness of the workers becomes transformed, which is the fundamental requirement for developing a mass Workers Party, whose programme develops along with it. As Engels put it,


”….It is far more important that the movement should spread, proceed harmoniously, take root and embrace as much as possible the whole American proletariat, than that it should start and proceed from the beginning on theoretically perfectly correct lines. There is no better road to theoretical clearness of comprehension than "durch Schaden klug tererden" [to learn by one's own mistakes]. And for a whole large class, there is no other road, especially for a nation so eminently practical as the Americans. The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist, H.G. or Powderly, will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.” (Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetsky In Zurich)
In response Mike in his article of 17th May writes,

Comrade Bough’s formulation that “the dominant ideas are based upon material conditions” is a vulgarisation of Marx’s and Engels’ “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class. When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence” (Communist manifesto chapter 2).

The quotation (from the Communist Manifesto) makes clear that comrade Bough’s inference does not follow. The society is in process of change, and in consequence the dominant ideas are themselves in process of change: the process of change raises up negations to them and they do not go unchallenged.”


In actual fact, it is based more on what Marx writes in “The Poverty of Philosophy”, but I will come back to that later. But my argument does follow precisely from this! Material changes in society do indeed proceed “behind men's backs” and produce changed social relations and changed sets of ideas. But, the point is precisely what kinds of social relations, and what ideas? It is the implication from Mike's argument here that tends towards “determinism” not mine. The implication of his statement above is that the “negations” are in some way inherently socialist, but it is that which does not at all follow. As Engels makes clear in his letter to Bloch,


In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals — each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) — do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.”


And the result of all these intersecting forces can just as easily be workers arriving at reactionary ideas such as nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, or simply bourgeois reformist ideas such as Trades Unionism, Parliamentarism etc. as revolutionary socialist ideas. In fact, they are more likely to be led to the former than the latter, because the former by their nature tend to be reproduced and reinforced by the daily life of the worker. That can be seen in relation to Greece today. As Dave Osler has pointed out in the quote above, even under the extreme conditions in Greece, it is not Marxism that has seen a flood of new support, but the Left Reformism of Syriza. The revolutuonary Marxists have fared no better than they do in Britain or elsewhere. Even then, as Paul Mason has pointed out, Syriza itself has not become a mass party, and many of those who intend to vote for it, to not agree with their politics. They are doing so out of frustration and hostility to the bankruptcy and corruption of the main parties, and PASOK, in particular. If, any party outside the centre ground of European politics has benefitted, it is not the revolutionary Left, but the fascists of Golden Dawn, just as in France, Britain, and a number of Nordic countries it is not the Marxist Left that has gained ground but the Neo-Nazis and Extreme Nationalists like the BNP, UKIP, FN and so on. It is precisely for this reason that Marx based his ideas on fusing revolutionary ideas, that are developed by sections of the bourgeois intelligentsia, with the mass movement. Its precisely in that context that I argued, 

A workers’ party can act via a dynamic, dialectical interaction with the class to stimulate the class struggle, but it cannot substitute for it.”

In other words, the Workers Party – and more specifically the Marxists within that Party – can help the workers to draw out the lessons of the experiences they go through, and from that can attempt to direct them towards appropriate solutions, which in turn change the material conditions i.e. new Co-operative and democratic forms, which enhance the workers position vis a vis Capital, and which, in the process, also replace the conditions the workers daily face, of a competition of all against all etc., which lead them to the adoption of those reactionary or reformist ideas. And, of course, the extent to which the workers are able to advance on this basis, and to develop their Party, their Trades Unions etc. a transformation of these structures from the bottom up, based on their changing class consciousness, these too form a change in the material conditions existing in society, because this represents a material force, which can act to further these ideas, and challenge Capital ideologically and politically.

Mike continues,

In the first place, “Marxists do not believe in a parliamentary socialism” muddles the difference between, on the one hand, the belief in a socialism introduced within the framework of the constitution; and, on the other, the idea that communists winning an electoral (not necessarily a parliamentary) majority might be a decisive moment in the end of today’s ‘capitalist old regime’”

I don't think it does muddle the two. I believe the Marxist position remains that the bourgeoisie would launch an all out attack on the Workers and their Party long before any truly revolutionary party was able to win any such election. More importantly, to the extent that such an election victory was not based upon an extra-Parliamentary mobilisation of the working-class, the establishment of alternative organs of Workers Power i.e. unless this was a situation of dual power, and the Government was essentially a Workers Government, then such a Government would certainly be swept away as was Allende's in Chile. One again, the whole point is that the material conditions existing in society have to have changed prior to this point, and these developments will not occur spontaneously, but only with the assistance of the Workers' Party, which in the process will itself be transformed – possibly as a result of a split of its right-wing, or as a result of the Workers simply breaking out of the bounds of the existing Party, and creating their own revolutionary alternative – indeed as the British workers broke out of the bounds of the Liberal Party.

When Mike says,

The task of “legitimising the actions of the workers” therefore involves efforts both to create workers’ press and media, and to delegitimise the existing constitutional order: the politicians’ false claim to a majority mandate, the corrupt press’s false claim to represent their readers, the judiciary’s false claims to represent unbiased justice or to ‘merely apply the law’”,

what is this other than changing the material conditions within society? And, if this Workers Press and Media really is to belong to the workers and achieve those aims, it must actually be the Workers who own and control it, and not some sect – however large – substituting itself for them. In fact, it is some surprise to me that the Labour Movement has made little progress in this regard. Not only is the print media dead on its feet, but broadcast media is not far behind, because increasingly people get their information and their entertainment, as and when they want it, online. Given that the Capital to establish an Internet TV station is quite modest, and given that there are large number of people in the media and entertainment industries, from writers to actors, to Directors and so on, who proclaim their affinity with the Left,the question is why these forces have not united with the Trades Unions, Co-operatives and others to establish such an alternative on a Co-operative basis!

Mike continues,

It (the LP) is a long-established institution controlled by a professional bureaucracy, deeply committed to the British constitution and hence against workers’ democracy, and a component of the capitalist two-party system which generates fake ‘majorities’.”

Which is, of course true. But, it is no more true than it is of the Trades Unions. So what would Mike conclude from that? Should we then adopt a Luxemburgist approach that relies on the kind of spontaneous arrival at socialist ideas that is inherent in Mike's argument above?

In response to my argument in relation to Engels advice to Eleanor Marx, Mike says,

The problem with this narrative is that it is flatly false history. Outside Britain, the German Social Democratic Party was created when the 1875 fusion of ‘Eisenachers’ and ‘Lassalleans’ which Marx and Engels opposed, gave the fused group the ‘critical mass’ to go beyond thousands to tens of thousands.”

But, I was not suggesting that a mass Workers Party could only be built by the Trades Unions. I was suggesting that Marxists had to go to the mass of the Workers wherever they were! In Britain, it was in the Trades Unions and the Liberal Clubs. Actually, its not true that Marx and Engels opposed the fusion of the Eisenachers and the Lassalleans. Marx opposed the Gotha Programme, which he believed gave unnecessary concessions to the Lassalleans, but he commented that “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.” - Marx To Bracke. And in his Preface to Anti-Duhring, Engels makes clear that his main concern for writing it was to minimise the damage to the newly unified organisation that a sectarian split might cause.

But, the main point is that the development of the SDP fully conforms with the argument I have put forward. Yes, a mass party was built, but what were the ideas that it pursued. In reality, the ideas that dominated the Party were the same ideas that dominated the British Labour Party, Lassallean Statism and Fabian Reformism. Nor is it any coincidence that this should be the case, because in both instances those ideas reflected the experiences and consciousness of the working class, or at least its most advanced sections within the Trades Unions, and other Labour Movement organisations. In practice SPD politicians were not as radical as even this programme would suggest, and the reality also was that although the Party on paper had membership in the millions, the vast majority of the membership were inactive, with local branches being dominated by a small core, much like happens within the Trades Unions themselves. The limitations of that were most stark when in 1914, the party voted to line up with its own bourgeoisie, a position which again only reflected the nationalist sentiment that dominated the German workers, and which again demonstrated the power of the material conditions in shaping their ideas even against the counterweight of such a large Workers Party.

The reality is that the material conditions that the workers faced in Germany, as in France or in Britain were ones which through the war of all against all, forced workers into competition against each other, and thereby generated ideas of individualism. Remember only a minority are ever organised within Trades Unions, often only a small minority. Of these many see it not as an organ of collective action, but merely as an insurance policy. But, even the basis of Trades Unionism not only encourages the development of a bourgeois reformist ideology, and acceptance of the existence of Capitalism (Luxemburg was right about that), but it also engenders ideas of craft exclusiveness, and other forms of chauvinism such as sectionalism, whose natural extension is regionalism, and nationalism. The truth is that these ideas continued to dominate the working class of Europe, and were reflected in their Parties too. The development of “Socialism In One Country”, in the USSR even tied into those feelings under Stalinism, and they were reflected in the Nationalistic policies of the various Stalinist parties too. It is one reason the Trotskyists were never able to draw the workers away from the Stalinists and reformists.

Back To Part 2


S&N said...

"Marxists could do worse than follow Engels' advice today. The best, easiest route to the majority of workers within the workplace, within the communities, remains through the LP."

Maybe. But I suspect that the Labour Party today, which no longer has the roots and authority within working class communities that it once had, is regarded as irrelevant by many people.

The quasi-tribal loyalities and identities that gave labourism and the Labour Party their weight within many communities and workplaces in the past are now gone. The Labour Party is just another electoral machine dominated by the white-collar middle classes and their technocratic policy agendas.

Yes, the Labour Party continues to attract the votes of many working people. But levels of positive identification with the Party have declined markedly in recent decades. The view that being in the Party is the most effective way to connect with working people may have been true in the past - but disillusion and discontent with formal party politics today mean I doubt this remains the case.

Boffy said...

What evidence do you have that Labour no longer has roots and authority in w.c. communities. All my experience is exactly the opposite. The LP Branches I have been a member of, have been made up overwhelmingly of ordinary workers mostly manual, but white collar workers are still workers. Moreover, they have been wholly imedded within the communties where they lived. people continued to come to them when they had problems, they still saw people in the clubs and pubs.

When I was a County Councillor, most of the Labour Councillors were ordinary workers. The leader was an ex GEC production line worker, the deputy a fireman.

The LP at levels up from the CLP may have many of the features you describe - in reality most TU Branches and above have that feature too - but that is why I beleive the focus for Marxists should be within the LP Branches so as to relate directly with WC communities, with the workplace and so on.

My experience is that when some event arises within a community, you can get a hearing as a LP member in a way that you can't if you are an individual or member of some sect. I don't see disillusion and discontent with formal party politics as an advance, but a step backwards that has to be remedied, and it will not be remedied through individual activity in pressure group politics, or through the actions of the sects in parachuting in to try to build the party.

S&N said...

I was a member of the LP in Hammersmith in west London in the 1990s. The area contained several large council estates (such as White City). The membership of the branch was overwhelmingly white collar professional middle class (teachers, academics, social workers, a few journalists, lawyers and accountants). No one lived on the White City estate. No one was unemployed.

Several years later I lived in Cowgate, one of the most deprived working class areas of Newcastle upon Tyne. The LP was nowhere to be seen. Elections would come and go and the LP didn't bother to canvass, put up posters or give out leaflets. In the local tenants group if anyone was a member of the LP (or any political party) they never said so.

Of course, this is anecdotal. But sociological analysis of the membership of the LP suggests that - in general - the class composition of the party has become more middle class. So my anecdotal experience may be evidence of a broader trend - of the the LP in many places (though not all) no longer having an active base in many working class communities.

Boffy said...

I don't think much of London is typical of the rest of the country in so many ways. There clearly was a denuding of LP membership at various points of the last 20 years, and that probably explains why you didn't see LP members in Newcastle. But only probably.

When I first joined the LP in 1974, I could have said the same thing. We also never saw the LP even during elections. That was because like newcastle they took it for granted that workers would come out and vote for them.

When I joined, the Branch had about 6-8 "active" members who were the Councillors and their spouses. The Branch met twice a year. They actually opposed the idea of actively campaigning, and it took several of us a number of years to change that.

So, this is nothing new. There have been lots of occasions in the LP's past where that has been the case. In fact, one of the things Blair cannot be excused of is that. The Sedgefield Constituency had a large membership, many of them miners.

Also I know that in many working class areas around here, lapsed LP members often continue to have links with their communtiy and act as though they were still acive. people still come to LP Councillors after they have lost their seats to ask for help.

But, I agree that often the LP is not active. It is an electoral party. That is the whole point. Marxists have to use the mechanisms and connections with workers to organise the activity. Again my expereince is that once you do that you can lever a number of people within the Branch to take part in it, which in turn acts to lever in members of the community and so on.

I'm not convinced about sociological studies because they often describe white collar workers as middle class, and most of them are not. Given that the vast majority of workers today are employed in Services not in industry, its inevitable that there will be more white collar workers.

Boffy said...


I'd also be interested to hear about your experiences with the Cowgate Tenants Association. In particular, what were its activities, perspectives? How did it pursue them? What weere the limits/problems associated with that?

I'm interested for genuine reasons of understanding that experience and how it compares with my own, but I'm also interested to see how it could have been furthered, precisely by having a connection with the local LP Branch, how it could have fed into building such a Branch.

The only real example of some Left group being able to key into such activities in its own name, is the experience of Militant/Socialist Party in respect of the Poll Tax, but it began as LP members, and the gains seem to have been rather ephemeral.