'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Broken Stick 

The recent split in the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, initiated by the departure of long time leadership figure Lindsey German, has precipitated a round of soul searching that may ultimately be beneficial to it, and the broader left as a whole. For those of you who want the complete blow by blow account, go here and here and here in addition to the Splintered Sunrise link already provided. Obsessives who work their way through to the last one from Luna 17, a blog with posts by Alex Snowden, a participant in the Left Platform group that abandoned the SWP, will be amused by the fact that two of his posts on the subject have been scrubbed clean of comments, while a third one allowed none at all from the inception.

As activists know, splits within political groups can be as painful, and sometimes even more painful, than the end of a relationship. Invariably, the personal and political become confused, as ideological, tactical and organizational differences are enmeshed with an accumulation of personal resentments. For this reason, it is difficult for people on the outside to initially understand the reasons for the split as the differences don't appear very significant in the absence of the personal dimension. The comment sections of the posts linked above are full of ones in which the dirty laundry is hung out to dry in full public view. Quite consciously, I don't call them petty disputes, because, for people who have dedicated their lives to radical politics within a particular group or party, such personal conflicts have a centrality in their lives that they otherwise wouldn't.

Despite over 100 years of trying to figure it out, Marxist-Leninists have not found a way round this intersection of the personal and the political and the destructive consequences that often ensue. Far Left at Splintered Sunrise lays it out for us:

So, are we just scraping the barrel in terms of human material, or are there explicable reasons? I like to think it’s the latter. It’s not innate but a learned behaviour, traceable back to the left’s social isolation but also ensuring it can’t escape that isolation. There are issues about groups with fantastically grandiose perspectives – small far-left groups most real people have never heard of, but who aspire to overthrow every government in the world – but whose lack of impact in society at large means their posturing carries with it very little in the way of consequences. Allied to that is a cod-Leninism – which is really a cod-Machiavellianism without the merits of either Lenin or Machiavelli – which disdains personal probity as just bourgeois moralism, which preaches that the ends justify any means, and which carries with it a highly elitist view of leadership. There are many worse examples out there than Lindsey German, but when I hear talk about bending the stick, seizing the key link in the chain or the small cog moving the big cog, a shiver runs up my spine and I wonder who’s about to be shafted.

The Platypus Affliated Society encourages us to return to Marx, Lenin, Luxemborg, Trotsky and Adorno to understand why the current left is dead, and what sort of new left can emerge to replace it. But Far Left may have already shortened the path to understanding considerably. A leftism that encourages its most prominent activists and intellectuals, such as, according to Far Left, Tony Cliff in the 1960s and 1970s, to paint a social portrait of Lenin that conforms to them, so as to justify otherwise contradictory and self-aggrandizing actions, no longer has any allure, if it ever really did. After all, if your activist experience reveals to you that the vanguard is composed of several people that you don't consider personally reliable in your daily life, you might just have some apprehension about collectivizing the economy and turning it over to their control.

This is the hidden pillar that buttresses capitalism, the willingness of people to accept its grotesque excesses as the price for preserving their limited and conditional personal autonomy. The outward appearance of its fragmentation provides a reassuring contrast to the concentrated egoism of Marxist-Leninism. It is a form of class consciousness in the negative, based upon an acceptance of the tyranny of capital over the assumption of power by a few who claim a special, scientific insight into how society should be structured.

Of course, this is not a new perspective. Anarchists have been saying something along these lines since the Bolsheviks began to concentrate power within themselves after the October Revolution. But it deserves repetition. In theory, anarchists consider the means by which the revolution is carried out as important as the outcome, because they believe that a better, alternative society cannot be created by a recourse to the methods of coercion that make capitalism objectionable. Now, in practice, things don't always turn out that way, human nature being what it is, but at least, they recognize the problem, and strive to overcome it. There are no shortage of anarchist publications, such as this and this, focused upon the theme of democratizing decision making processes and social relations.

But is there a more profound dimension to it? One anarchist novelist recently said, I distrust any activists who don't read fiction. The remark struck a nerve with me, because I have had a similar experience with political activists generally, that the ones who were disinterested in various forms of cultural expression, like theatre, film and literature, were the most rigid and intolerant. There is a relativism in such creations that enhances one's perception of the world and one's place in it. Such relativism is not incompatible with radical left beliefs, one need only look at the novels of Tariq Ali and Victor Serge as examples of the harmonization of it. One of the reasons that I post book reviews and film notes on this site is to encourage people to recognize that politics and culture are interrelated aspects of a broader social vision. If only I could get visitors to the site to read them as much as my political posts.

The development of such a vision is certainly urgent. As Eric Hobsbawm said in the most recent New Left Review:

Can you envisage any political recomposition of what was once the working class?

Not in traditional form. Marx was undoubtedly right in predicting the formation of major class parties at a certain stage of industrialization. But these parties, if they were successful, were operating not purely as working-class parties: if they wanted to extend beyond a narrow class, they did so as people’s parties, structured around an organization invented by and for the purposes of the working class. Even so, there were limits to class consciousness. In Britain, the Labour Party never got beyond 50 per cent of the vote. The same is true in Italy, where the pci was much more of a people’s party. In France, the left was based on a relatively weak working class, but one which happened to be politically reinforced by the great revolutionary tradition, of which it managed to make itself the essential successor—and that gave it and the left far more leverage.

The decline of the manual working class in industry does seem terminal. There are, or will be, plenty of people left doing manual work, and defence of their conditions remains a major task for all left governments. But it can no longer be the principal foundation of their hopes: they no longer have, even in theory, political potential, because they lack the potential for organization of the old working class. There have been three other major negative developments. One is, of course, xenophobia—which, for most of the working class is, as Bebel once put it, ‘the socialism of fools’: safeguard my job against people who are competing with me. The weaker the labour movement is, the more xenophobia appeals. Second, a lot of manual labour and work in what the British Civil Service used to call ‘minor and manipulative grades’ is not permanent, it’s temporary: students or migrants, working in catering, for instance. And therefore it’s not easy to see it as potentially organizable. The only readily organizable form of that kind of labour is that employed by public authorities, and this is because those authorities are politically vulnerable.

The third and most important development, in my view, is the growing divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you like, meritocracy; but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to opposition to toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us. America is a standard example of this, but it’s not absent in the uk, if you look at the British press. The fact that, increasingly, getting a PhD or at least being a postgraduate also gives you a better chance of getting millions complicates the situation a bit.

Is this not an acknowledgement, by one of the most highly regarded leftist intellectuals of the 20th Century, that Marxist-Leninism is now an antiquated form of political action? For, if the working class as understood by Marx no longer exists, and cannot be reconstituted, then how can it be effectively mobilized by a revolutionary vanguard? It would seem that a new integration of theory and practice is required to adapt to contemporary conditions.

FOOTNOTE: Long time readers may also be amused by the discovery that the purported ultra-leftism of Left Platform advocate, and former SWP member, Lindsey German manifests itself practically by an insistence upon the importance of voting Labour in the anticipated election in the United Kingdom.

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