Mike Macnair accuses me of “Toryism” (‘Magna Carta and long history’, March 26), to which my natural response would be to accuse him of ‘Whiggism’ and progressivist history. Macnair’s recent article (‘Thinking the alternative’, April 9) helps dispatch that potential charge, however, in favour of a new issue: the politics of ‘class’ beyond the socialist revolution.
Still, the problem of Bernsteinian evolutionism versus Marxist revolutionism remains - which is not that the goal is literally nil, but rather the gradualist belief that socialism is nothing apart from the struggle for it and as a goal is thus absorbed into the movement itself. By contrast, Marxists, such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, recognised a dialectic of means and ends, practice and theory, movement and goal: the struggle for socialism took place within the contradiction of capital, and the revolution was a necessary expression of that contradiction to be worked through.
The problem with Bernstein as well as Kautsky is the endless deferral of the political revolution for socialism at the expense of its actuality. It should not take us centuries to get out of capitalism. Neither the storming of the Bastille nor the Tennis Court Oath nor the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence were the realisation of Machiavelli’s vision of politics or a confirmation of Hobbes on the state. On the other hand, they consolidated bourgeois society politically in ways that the political revolution for socialism will only inaugurate the struggle for its potential achievement.
Macnair thinks that an adequate socialist politics needs to offer a better collectivism than Islamism or Christian fundamentalism, etc, which is conservative-reactionary, but I think that socialism needs to offer a better individualism (as well as a better collectivism) than capitalism, which is progressive-emancipatory. But the progressive-emancipatory character of capitalism is expressed in bourgeois-revolutionary terms, not that of capital: ‘capital’ is a critical term.
Islamic State is not a misguided freedom movement, but revels in unfreedom. So does neoliberalism, which must be distinguished from classical bourgeois thought, as bourgeois emancipation must be distinguished from capitalism. Neoliberalism does not posit religious fundamentalism or the police state as external and internal other: these are expressions of the failure of society in capitalism, not the success of the capitalist politics. Liberal democracy has failed, and for a long time now: the only question is, why?
The Abbé Sieyès was inspired both conceptually and politically not by the Christian Bible, but by Locke and Rousseau. The French Revolution was not a peasant jacquerie, but a bourgeois revolution, expressed through urban plebeian revolt. Communists historically are not on the side of the peasants against the clergy and nobility, but with the burghers against all of the above. The question is what happens in the industrial revolution when the labouring classes against the ruling castes become the working class against the capitalists, which is a new and different social contradiction, the self-contradiction of bourgeois society: wage-labour against capital.
The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Marxism’s original sense was meant to be global: if not absolutely every single territory of the earth, then at least in very short order all the advanced capitalist countries, and so a form of political rule of global import.
Comrade Macnair’s attribution of class to productive technique is mistaken. This causes him to reconceive the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of egalitarianism against the basis of middle classes in the development of high productive technique. Lenin, by contrast, followed Marx and described the problem not in such sociological terms, but in the historical social relations of ‘bourgeois right’, which came into self-contradiction in capitalism.
Macnair mistakes capital for social surplus: that, so long as advanced technique allows the opportunity for accumulation of social surplus through knowledge of specialist technicians, it will be necessary to suppress them. But capital is not like the surplus of grain in peasant agriculture, on which the aristocracy and church depended. According to Bukharin’s ABC of communism, capital is not a thing, but a social relation. And it is one not of the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but of the domination of society by the valorisation process of capital. This is a change and crisis of both individuality and collectivity in society. Marx distinguished between the phases of bourgeois society in cooperation, manufacture and industry for just this reason. Industry was a crisis for bourgeois society, not due to technology itself, but its role.
According to Moishe Postone’s interpretation of Marx’s critique of capital, after the industrial revolution the issue is the accumulation not of goods, but time - or a matter of the power to command not the value of work, but time in society - not by proprietor capitalists as either entrepreneurs making a killing through competition or as capital-rentiers living off interest, but rather by capital in its ‘valorisation process’. Liberalism is inadequate to just this problem. Furthermore, capital dominates - constrains and distorts - not only living, but also dead, labour.
So credit is an entirely different matter in capitalism than previously. Interest expresses not usury, but the imperative to increase productivity in time, and not for the purpose of profit, but rather to preserve the social value of capital from the depreciation of the value of labour-power in production in the changing organic composition of capital.
Overcoming capitalism will not mean a continuation of wage-labour, but its abolition. The compulsion to wage-labour is not the exploitation of workers by capitalists, but rather the need to valorise capital in society - at least according to Marx. Macnair finds labour subsisting.
The point is that the social value of capital is for Marx the (distorted expression of) ‘general social intellect’ and the (self-contradictory) social relations of this, which is no longer, after the industrial revolution, adequately mediated by the value of the exchange and circulation of labour-power as a commodity. Capital is not a thing; it is not the means of production, but a social relation of the working class to the means of production through the self-alienation of their wage-labour in capital, which is not the same as capitalist private property ownership of the means of production, but rather the role of the means of production as ‘general social intellect’ in the valorisation process of capital. Capital is a social relation not of the capitalists to the means of production through their private property, but of the working class through their wage-labour.
So the dictatorship of the proletariat will mean making the social value of both capital and labour (human activity as a social resource) into an explicitly political rather than chaotic (and politically irresponsible) ‘economic’ matter. Marx thought that this was already placed on the agenda by the demand for the ‘social republic’ in the mid-19th century.
This is a very different issue from that of the social surplus commanded by the ruling castes in feudalism that Macnair thinks produced ‘directly’ capitalism rather than a bourgeois society of free exchange. The accumulation of capital is not the same as the political command of social resources (as in feudalism). And it is not a matter of individual countries, but rather of the global system of production.
When Luxemburg wrote that the proletariat could not build its economic power in capitalism as the bourgeoisie did in feudalism, she did not mean to distinguish between economics and politics, but rather to foreground the issue of society.
This will not mean a levelling down to protect equality, enforced by the working class in a protracted dictatorship of the proletariat, but the separation of human activity from the social value of production, which will become an immediate political issue, as it is indeed already in capitalism, however obscurely. That will be decided by a free (‘democratic’) association of the producers, whose status as producers will not be literally through their labour, but rather as subjects of humanity, as the inheritor of the accumulated history of technique, no longer mediated as a function of time in capital. The relation between society and time will be changed.
Technique will not be the province of specialised technicians potentially become capitalists, but rather the collective property of society, and on a global scale - as it already is under capitalism, but in alienated form: in the form of ‘capital’.
For Luxemburg as well as Lenin this meant that, for instance, the already developed system of banking and credit provided the coordinating technique for socialist planning. But it will require a political revolution and a continued politics of socialism - subject to dispute - after the revolution to achieve this. Politics will survive the dictatorship of the proletariat into socialism.
That is what it will mean, as Lenin put it, to achieve socialism “on the basis of capitalism itself”.
While I agree with almost everything that Mike Macnair has to say against Chris Cutrone, he errs in claiming that the late American socialist, Michael Harrington, was a “cold warrior”.
Harrington made a great many political mistakes during his lifetime, but at no point could he be accurately termed a cold warrior. Contrary to popular belief, at no point did he ever support US imperialism in Vietnam, and he and his wing of the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation split from that organisation because - among other reasons - the dominant faction refused to support immediate US withdrawal. For evidence, see Maurice Isserman’s biography of Harrington, The other American: The life of Michael Harrington (New York 2001).
Harrington also opposed the overthrow of the Chilean Unidad Popular government (as one would expect any real socialist to do) and critically supported the FSLN (Sandinistas) against the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s. The organisation Harrington helped found in 1982, the Democratic Socialists of America, also sponsored a national speaking tour in 1988 by Rubén Zamora, then the vice-president of the El Salvadoran FMLN, another target of US imperialism.
None of these actions are compatible with the outlook of a cold war social democrat. Imperfect as he was, Michael Harrington was no Sidney Hook.
Tony Greenstein makes some truly bizarre claims (Letters, April 9). He tells us that “the attitude towards Israel’s Arab or Palestinian population is not a question of national oppression (as opposed to settler racism directed towards a minority)”. This would astonish Israel’s Arab citizens, who so alarmed Netanyahu by voting “in droves” for the Joint List. The brief platform of this mostly Arab electoral bloc describes Israel’s regime as one of “racist discrimination and national oppression”.
Tony alleges that “the suggestion that Israel’s Arab population are members of another nation, which is an idea that many subscribe to without even thinking of the consequences, is a dangerous one. It suggests that their real ‘home’ lies elsewhere, over the borders.” But this “dangerous suggestion” is made explicitly in the Joint List’s platform: noting that “the Palestinian-Arab community in Israel [is] an indigenous minority”, which must be accorded “collective and individual rights”, it demands official recognition of this community “as a national minority” and of “its rights to autonomy in the domains of culture, education and religion”. It goes on pointedly to demand its recognition as “part of the Palestinian-Arab people (sha’ab) and the [all-]Arab nation (qawmah)”. These just demands, supported by the Palestinian-Arab masses in Israel and by Hebrew anti-Zionist leftists, are opposed by the Zionist regime … and, it seems, by comrade Greenstein.
But anyway since when does recognition of an indigenous community as a distinct national minority amount to the suggestion that its “real ‘home’ lies elsewhere”? For instance, does the demand for Kurdish national rights in Turkey imply that the Kurds should go elsewhere?
Tony rejects the idea that Israel’s Hebrew (‘Jewish’) population forms “a nation separate from that of the Palestinians”. Why? “Because of the nature of settler colonialists: they are incapable of forming separate nations unless they utterly vanquish or exterminate the indigenous population.” If that were true, an American nation could not exist until late into the 19th century. In fact, as Wikipedia notes, many of the best known ‘Indian wars’ occurred during and after the civil war, until the closing of the frontier in about 1890.
To his absurd claims Tony adds an invention: a single nation in Palestine, in the borders of the British mandate, consisting of both “Jewish Palestinians or Hebrews and Arab Palestinians”. This fictional entity is clearly modelled on South-Africa’s ‘rainbow nation’.
Tony’s reductionism - reducing the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict entirely to ‘racism’, while ignoring its national dimension - is a false triumph of doctrinaire ideology over reality. So is his persistent conflation of the Zionist mode of colonisation with that of apartheid South Africa, ignoring the crucial structural differences between their political economies, which should be plain to any Marxist.
Tusc, not LU
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition has confirmed that it is standing 136 candidates at the general election. This makes Tusc the sixth largest party contesting the general election. That is a tremendous achievement. Tusc was only set up in 2010. Within five years, we have built the largest coordinated left challenge since World War II - over 70 years ago.
I was proud to attend the national launch of our manifesto at Canary Wharf last Friday, when national chair Dave Nellist outlined how Tusc was the only genuinely anti-austerity party in these elections, with a commitment to full, democratic public ownership of education, health, energy companies, transport and banks, so that the country’s wealth could be adequately redistributed.
I would like to think I have played a role in Tusc’s development. I was involved at national level in a liaison capacity with other groups on the left in 2010; set up a Tusc branch in Rugby the following year, and became a member of the national steering committee, representing independent socialists, later that year. In 2013, I was elected as the Tusc local group development officer, and I have used that role to encourage the development of local groups up and down the country.
I was the first Tusc candidate to be selected nationally, by Rugby branch, in June 2013, and I was the first Tusc candidate in England to be authorised by the national steering committee to stand last autumn. More significantly, last year I was suddenly put in a position to influence events in a way I could not have foreseen.
This was through one of my other political roles over the last 10 years, as national secretary of the Socialist Alliance, the party with the previous highest number of left candidates (98 in 2001). The SA was informed last June that it had come into a legacy of £100,000 from former supporter Archie Dilloway, to be used “solely for the purposes of the Socialist Alliance”. The SA agreed that this had consistently been about building unity on the left as part of the process of creating a new left party.
As a result, the SA agreed part of the legacy would be used to support the largest ever coordinated left challenge in the 2015 general election, a policy emanating from our 2013 AGM. With the newly formed Left Unity party continually rejecting proposals to join in an electoral coalition for 2015 with Tusc and others on the left, that I myself tried unsuccessfully to promote, the SA agreed to donate £500 each to candidates selected and endorsed by a left coalition, such as Tusc, which would help create the largest possible left challenge. The SA subsequently identified Tusc as that left coalition to receive such donations.
The funding from the SA helped ensure Tusc could stand enough candidates to reach thresholds which would guarantee national media coverage, and this is now happening, starting with party political broadcasts this Friday, April 17. I was a member of the subcommittee that devised the script, so I will be watching the broadcasts with added interest.
I am delighted to have been centrally involved with Tusc’s development from a number of angles, and I am convinced that the support Tusc gets on May 7 will help progress it towards being the new, mass socialist party we so desperately need.
Recently after the general election hustings at Southwark Trade Council, a local press reporter asked me about the controversy over my candidature for the Republican Socialists in Bermondsey and Old Southwark, where Left Unity is supporting Tusc’s Kingsley Abrams. My answer was simply that the big capitalists had three parties in Bermondsey for workers to vote for - Tory, Liberal Democrats and Labour. So there was no reason why the working class should not have two socialist alternatives.
We need one to represent the best of reformism and the other to stand for a revolution. Standing under one big umbrella sounds comforting, but not when it is full of holes. Of course, the Republican Socialists have not launched any party and so part of my campaign is about making the case for one. But then Tusc is not a party either, having no membership, and the lash-up with LU does not make it one. However, this is not the main point.
If the Republican Socialists and Trade Union Socialists had the same policies and programme, then it would be counterproductive, if not sect-like, to duplicate the politics. This is obviously not the case here. Both are anti-austerity. But that is where it ends. Only the most rabid sectarians refuse to recognise what politics is staring them in the face. Tusc and the Republican Socialists have distinct and different policies and priorities.
One is arguing for the closure of Westminster, for a democratic revolution, an end to the Acts of Union and a new republican constitution. The other is making the case for a return to 1945 and the golden days of His Majesty’s Labour Party. I will leave readers to work out which is which.
It is worth reminding the rest of the left that working class people are not stupid and don’t like the idea that they can only have one political choice or are only fit to be fed one line. That is the old Stalinist method of fixing up what workers will be allowed to think about.
Neither can it be assumed there is a fixed pie of socialist votes and a zero sum game, where if one candidate gets more votes it is only by stealing them from the other. It is quite possible that our joint efforts might mobilise more voters for socialism than by assuming that one party has all the answers. The problem is not therefore in Bermondsey, but in the rest of the country, where the only choice is reheated Labourism.
This election is far from normal. Therefore it is vital that the working class is presented with a revolutionary alternative, not least when ‘official communists’ seem to have gone Awol and are putting forward no candidates at all. I was surprised to hear that the CPGB had volunteered to carry out the Socialist Resistance policy of expelling me from LU. I see in this a clever tactic of ‘proving’ your ‘loyalty’ to halfway houses. Good try, but it won’t work!
For my part I am concentrating on opposing Westminster, attacking the twin evils of the immigration laws and the Acts of Union, and calling for the people to take the path of democratic revolution. It is a difficult task when all the major and minor Trotskyist forces are against you. Still somebody has to do it and I’ve drawn the short straw!
In Left Unity, but not a prisoner of Left Unity.
Bermondsey and Old Southwark
I cannot help but think that the left continues to gaze at its navel, arguing over whether the belly-button fluff is decreasing or increasing. Comrade Freeman’s letter (April 9), which followed mine, summed it up. Let me count the ways.
1. “To the left is the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. The election is establishing it as the major power, with over 120 candidates and rising.”
In what dimension is Tusc a “major power”? It has 120 candidates? Yay! ’Cos losing deposits means you’re a serious party.
2. “For some unfathomable reason the Republican Socialists have decided to come out in the open and appeal directly to the working class.”
I have no idea if this is sarcasm or genuine criticism. As a communist, this sentence makes no sense. As someone who’s decided that the British left is a Marx brothers’ film, it makes perfect sense.
3. “British politics has changed significantly as a result of the 45% that voted to reject the Westminster constitutional system.”
This is the nonsense that is in the media. I set aside the politics for now, and focus on the logic. British politics has changed because of the people voting for a change in British politics. And 45% of whom?
4. “Therefore the working class movement in England must be won to anti-unionism. Communists must be hard-line anti-unionists and call openly for the immediate end to the Acts of Union and a new democratic relationship between the people of England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The election in Bermondsey is a test for the CPGB to see where it stands - not as a theoretical abstract, but when choosing whether to back the unionist Tusc-LU or the anti-unionist Republican Socialist.”
We get in to serious bonkers nonsense here. Attacking the Act of Union? Really? That’s the key? No suggestion of a federal republic? No suggestion that the working class should oppose the capitalists? No. Repeal the Act of Union. And we can test where all our fraternal parties stand about independence in Bermondsey. Well done.
5. “Since you have ‘Great Britain’ in your party name, it is going to be very difficult for you.” Great Britain is geographic description, covering the mainland and the islands. English, Welsh and Scottish are all British. The whole frikkin’ point is that workers are not well served by national divisions and it is better for the English, Welsh and Scottish workers to unite than rely on nationalism promising them a brighter future.
To return to the problem of navel-gazing, the manifesto that seems to be suggested is this:
1. No-one cares. 2. No-one cares. 3. It’d all be okay if it wasn’t for them pesky Englishers. 4. It was that god-damn Queen Anne that screwed us over in the Bermondsey election. 5. It’s more important to have everyone have the same accent.
Good Friedrich Engels alive, stop. Hold your nose and vote Labour or Green. And work to get Tusc and Left Unity into a Socialist Alliance thing. That’d be useful.
Stephen Diamond (Letters, April 9) seems to be encouraging us to the view that collapse is too instant and apocalyptic a characterisation of the much needed social change. Just so. But in any case are we supposed to wait until the “expansion” of the productive forces ‘exhausts’ itself before we can make a move? Does this mean there will come a day when those profit-seekers who haven’t diverted into finance, luxury services or online trading will cease building better nuclear weapons or bigger yachts and when breakfast cereals will finish their progress by being made entirely of sugar - the day expansion is concluded?
It seems to me that the contradictions peculiar to the current mode of production exert pressure for change in quite a different way. Rather, the question is how long people will continue to accept profit-seeking and the decay of working and living conditions which benefit only a few billionaires and their metropolitan hangers-on.
In Marx’s famous ‘Preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy’, new productive forces emerge within the older productive relations, the existing class hierarchy. “From forms of development of the productive forces,” he further comments, “these relations turn into their fetters.”
And this takes time. The dialectic of England, from Tudor sheep farm to industrial empire, took three centuries, with an agriculture-for-profit system starting under the feudal lords and passing through several epochs of attempted absolutism and compromise with commercial capital - where the balance of forces were only finally transformed by a parliamentary struggle between free trade and monopoly, as exercised in the Corn Laws and plantation slavery.
Since 1945 at least, capitalism can be seen to be declining as a ‘pure’ form. For it needs the assistance of the state, by such bodies as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and in the form of military spending, government welfare and now bailouts - not to mention sponsorship of inventions like the internet, which are then privatised. And need we point to the EU or the state-led economy of China? This may not be a collapse, but it is a holding operation with the help of socialised support. Where would our brave entrepreneurs and titanic corporations be without government favouritism and the general taxpayer?
Recently, the communitarian populist front running the ‘workers’ government’ in Greece put forward a plan to combat tax evasion: tax inspectors.
Apparently, this is an attempt to emulate the Whistleblower Office of the US Internal Revenue Service. However, this agency only goes after (illegal) tax evasion, not after the broader (and legal) tax avoidance. Less positive reactions have suggested that the Syriza-led government is establishing a ‘secret tax police’ and a ‘tax-collecting police state’.
The more I think about this in the context of tax avoidance problems in developed countries, the more I think both that Yanis Varoufakis has a crucial point, and yet that he has overlooked the issue of tax literacy. Liberal economists like Piketty like to point out the ‘golden’ post-World War II era of high progressive taxation and reduced inequality, but there is scant literature on the history of (illegal) tax evasion and (legal) tax avoidance, so the purported levels of tax compliance by corporations and the wealthy back then is suspect at best.
I’m thinking right now that a radical reform demand on the threshold regarding maximum tax compliance for full-spectrum progressive taxation (income, inheritance, land value, broadcast spectrum, financial transactions, etc) would be the coupling of awareness and/or literacy in taxation and tax policy with a mass phenomenon of tax anti-avoidance surveillance and informants. Think ‘Tax NSA’ and ‘Tax Stasi’.
This would illustrate the bourgeois and petty bourgeois hypocrisy on mass surveillance/panopticism/panopticon society, never wanting any focus on themselves, especially in the area of (legal) tax avoidance - whether it’s tax deductions within gross income or total income for tax purposes; tax deductions after gross income or total income for tax purposes to arrive at taxable income; ‘nudge’ tax credits based on the prevailing social policies of the day, alternative minimum taxes or dealing with the general anti-avoidance rule.