Flogging a dead horse
“Anyone who thinks that the British left is in a good state needs to take a reality check.”
THIS BOLD ASSERTION opens Simon Hardy’s most recent article. In it he reiterates the calls for flexibility, tolerance, and common sense, made at the formation of The Anticapitalist Initiative in April this year. Simon’s appeal reflects the aspirations, and the tone, of the ACI, which is a group of seventy or eighty young activists who have fled from authoritarian groupuscules, or retreated in dismay and some confusion, from loosely organized networks of anarchists and libertarian communists. These militants have earned their spurs in the student movement, in numerous peace and solidarity campaigns, and in broader struggles against austerity. By and large they are a savvy lot, capable organizers, and closely attuned to the spirit of their times and of their generation.
Consequently, they are at a loss to explain their political isolation and the marginal character of the left’s initiatives. They are, not unreasonably, dismayed by the fact that the left has made no inroads whatsoever against the Labour Party’s commitment to capitalism and to the primacy of parliamentary politics. With capitalism teetering at the edge of common ruin and systemic dislocation, “Where”, they ask, “is the popular revolutionary movement?”
Where, indeed? Looking around, the ACI militants attribute their failure to rally the populace against Cameron and Clegg to a number of features which appear to be constitutive of life on the left. They point the finger at the inflexibility, the intolerance, and the resulting disunity, typical of life in the frantically rustling political undergrowth in which they live. They are appalled by the fact that disagreement is so often met with vituperation worthy of Lenin, and with jeers and sneers typical of Marx’s polemical attacks on his contemporaries. The people of the ACI want to be able to participate in genuine discussions, to float new ideas, and to test out novel theories, without being immediately shot down by the cliques and cabals that guard the textual sanctuaries in which the ‘lessons of history’ are carefully preserved.
Who can blame them? Certainly not me.
However, I think that the ACI are wrong at attributing the failure of the left to disunity, to the dogmatism of Marxist-Leninists, or to the sentimental dreams of anarchists and libertarians, insistently harking back to the glories of Barcelona, or the International Workers of the World. The loony tunes aspect of much of life on the far left is the product, not the cause, of defeat and isolation. The left is querulous and disunited because it is perpetually marginal – it has the permanent characteristics of an émigré life, in which the real action is always taking place elsewhere. Inescapably, those on the left attempting to hold their world view together, against all the odds, have had to pay a high price in material and psychical terms, in order to maintain the coherence of obscure and largely forgotten ideas.
I know that the leading lights of the ACI have been taken aback by the peculiar personal intensity of the opposition and feuding that their initiative has provoked among some of their erstwhile comrades and friends. The venom, and the expressions of betrayal, more commonly wrought by infidelity between lovers are, on the left, reserved for those who have jilted the tiny embattled revolutionary party, or those who have started political affairs with unreliable elements who they should have known are persona non grata.
It is not at all surprising that young revolutionaries confronted by this sectarian nonsense should attribute the failure of the movement to disunity and to the prevalence of this nonsense. However, this is a serious error. More fertile is an observation which Simon makes at the beginning of his article when he says, “Despite the biggest crisis for a generation, there is a desperate lack of new thinking and a failure to reappraise old assumptions.” Here, he is on to something.
The truth is that revolutionary socialism is radically unpopular. This is not because of feuding between little unworldly political groups. The unpopularity of revolutionary socialism has deep roots in the history of the twentieth century. Indeed, the great majority of working class people have never had much time for communism. Even when communist parties have achieved big memberships, and won millions of votes in bourgeois democracies, they have done so as parties openly prepared to work in more or less social democratic ways within the capitalist system.
This profound historical truth has been deepened, and reaffirmed, by the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the ‘Peoples Democracies’ in the great counter-revolution of 1989-91. The unravelling of state socialism put a decisive end to the Trotskyist belief that some kind of revolutionary socialist alternative might arise on the ruins of Stalinism. Everywhere the party-states pioneered by Lenin, and built by the likes of Stalin and Mao Zedong, were replaced by oligarchic capitalism, or by a form of capitalism developed and sustained by the party-state. Even sui generis survivors like Cuba – paradoxically kept in place only by the terms of America’s trade embargo – or North Korea, where a bizarre people’s dynasty, is sustained only by the fear in Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, of the unknown consequences of dismantling the mad kingdom. Whichever way you cut it revolutionary socialism does not have an appealing record. It is not popular.
Alternatively, most people do not love capitalism; particularly in periods of crisis, recession, and austerity. On the whole they distrust their bosses, detest the unfairness and manifest injustice in which those who do most, seem always to get least. With the peculiar exception of the United States, most working class people favour universal health insurance, and the maintenance of the social wage inherent in social democratic forms of welfare. They are sympathetic to measures calculated to stem the growth of monopolies, and of the corruption inherent in the ‘old boys‘ networks‘, which staff the remuneration committees of banks and big businesses, and furnish their boardrooms with all-too-compliant non-executive directors. Working class people are, by-and-large, distrustful of foreign military adventures, and of promises of peace and prosperity offered by Tory and Labour governments alike. So here’s the mystery – why don’t resolutely socialist ideas have greater purchase on the minds, aspirations, and imaginations of the great majority of working people?
Firstly, people are not enthusiasts for rebellions or fans of revolutions. They are well aware that revolutions only occur when the state, and the writ of the powers-that-be, disintegrates and is no longer capable of ruling. Working people, particularly the disabled, and those with kids, or elderly relatives, do not favour the violent dislocation of everyday life, which are an inevitable consequence of revolution. Furthermore, they know, that the outcome of revolutions are, like the outcome of wars, radically unpredictable. Most people know that the revolutionary dissolution of states only occurs when all other options have failed – for most normal people revolutions are a last resort, not something eagerly anticipated. The “common sense” to which Simon Hardy literally appeals should tell him this.
Secondly, people do not believe in the abolition of private property. Enormous numbers of working people in the middle class and in the working class have worked hard to buy their houses, to maintain their mortgages, to improve their houses and flats, with endless trips to B & Q and thousands of hours of unpaid labour; they work tirelessly to conserve their savings, and pay into their pension pots. Indeed, this is why they are so outraged by the theft of pension funds, by the manipulation of interest rates, by tax evaders, and freeloaders on the welfare system. Most working class people, and tens of millions of middle class people, have what they perceive to be a vested interest in the protection of private property from the depredations of common criminals and ‘nefarious entities’ like local councils, the state, and big capitalists.
Thirdly, most working people do not want to see the abolition of the labour market. They want to be able to seek employment, training, promotions, and an improvement in the opportunities for their kids, where they can, independently of any state or social controls which determine where they can work, and who they can work for. The depredations of unemployment, notwithstanding, the working class are the product of the “free wage labour” system generalised by capitalism, and they are unlikely to favour any schemes, whether determined by popular assemblies, or by state bureaucracies, which seeks to trap them into a system of conscription or the direction of labour by political means or entities. Indeed, the voluntary mass migrations of workers, often circumventing the best efforts of the border police, and evading incarceration in detention centres, are a tribute to this working class commitment to the free movement of labour.
Surely, the reappraisal of “old assumptions” must take account of the core reasons for the unpopularity of revolutionary socialism and attempt to forge a politics, which aims to strengthen social solidarity, and posits here and now, policies and practical measures that might enhance the security and welfare of the great mass of the population. It may be that ways of doing things, which anticipate a future beyond the world of “generalised commodity production”, can be found, but most assuredly the promotion of a politics predicated upon the catastrophic collapse of capitalism can never be popular.