The Party question: Fighting for human freedom

Single issue campaigns, especially those based around environmental questions, have dominated the political agenda. Eddie Ford argues that communists need to reassess their attitudes to these movements

Old-fashioned party politics is coming to an end. ‘Organised’ politics is a turn-off, especially for the young. The big ideas, schemes and projects of the past - ie, socialism versus capitalism - have faded into near total irrelevancy. Non-political protest action and ‘lifestyle’ is the order of the day. Single issue campaigns and a desire for individual freedom represent the future.

These are the sort of messages and statements that appear almost daily in newspapers, journals and magazines of all descriptions. No ‘radical’ political discussion is complete without reference to the new phenomenon of ‘anti-politics’ politics. Regardless of whether this ‘new politics’ is being applauded or savaged, it now appears to be a permanent feature of the political landscape.

This poses many questions for communists and revolutionaries, the main one being: are we indeed living relics of a bygone political age and destined to remain passive spectators? Or, to put it more crudely but probably more accurately, are we flogging a dead (Marxist) horse?

Without doubt this is the accepted political wisdom. Since the ignoble collapse of the Soviet Union and the remorseless withering away of ‘official communism’ worldwide, there has been a torrent of learned propaganda informing us that there is no alternative to capitalism and that we are entering a ‘new historical chapter’. David Marquand, born-again Blairite academic, contemptuously brushes aside “great universalist simplifiers” like Karl Marx and concludes without any hint of regret: “The question is no longer whether capitalism should be replaced by socialism, or the market by the state. It is what kind of capitalism we should embrace” (The Independent, January 15 1996). 

This ‘anti-universalist’ angst seems mirrored in the steady proliferation of single issue campaigns, especially those connected with the environment and so-called animal rights. This does seem living proof that the Marxist project - collective and disciplined struggle to overthrow the bourgeois state and transform the whole nature of society - is a non-starter.

It is not just the number of protest campaigns that is significant. Greater importance lies in the fact that these essentially spontaneously generated protests appear to attract some of the most self-sacrificing and idealistic elements in our society - ie, those who are prepared to make a stand and thus find themselves consigned to the margins of ‘normal’ bourgeois society. Yet these very same people would be suspicious of, if not hostile towards, ‘established’ revolutionary organisations and groups. Among many environmental campaigners for instance, moderate or ‘extremist’, you will encounter anti-communist sentiments of some sort and a general philosophical/ideological antipathy to leftwing politics.

Communists might therefore be tempted to reciprocate this suspicion - ‘Come on, we know that these tree protesters are nothing but crusties and hippies.’ The opinion has even been expressed by some that anti-road protesters are somehow reactionary - they are blocking the glorious and inevitable march towards socialism - which nice, gleaming motorways represent! At best, according to this strand of thought, environmentalists and the like are a diversion from the real terrain of struggle - ie, class struggle, which has to remain pure and unalloyed.

This is a fundamental mistake. Communists should be the first to recognise that the growth of single issue campaigns - environmental and ecological ones in particular - signifies a striving for human freedom, no matter how partial or one-sided they may be. The struggle of the anti-bypass campaigners in Newbury reflects their desire, their yearning, for control over their own lives and their burning resentment against the oppressive forces of the state.

There are useful historical parallels to be found. At the turn of the century in Russia there was an explosion of “exposure literature”, which were leaflets mainly devoted to the exposure of factory conditions. Lenin talked about how these leaflets stirred up the passions of even the most backward workers, who felt compelled to go into print about their grievances. In the words of Lenin this compulsion was motivated by a “noble passion for this rudimentary form of war against the whole of the contemporary social system which is based upon robbery and oppression” (What is to be done?, Peking Press 1973, p69).

Similarly, communists and revolutionaries in today’s conditions need to bring conscious revolutionary expression, and communist passion, to the “rudimentary form of war” we saw breaking out in Newbury and other ‘hot spots’. The task of communists is to be the democratic hegemon of these, and other, movements. In case anybody thinks this means that we are advocating that revolutionaries ‘dilute’ their programme, or tail-end the spontaneous activism of a non-revolutionary stratum, remember the stern rebuke of Lenin when castigating the communist who in reality “abandons the task of actively intervening in every ‘liberal’ issue and of defining his own, [communist], attitude towards this question” (original italics, Ibid, p117).

The high profile, and media-saturated, Battle of Newbury is an illuminating case-study. The state has taken Newbury seriously - very seriously. An intimidating raft of anti-democratic laws and ‘low level’ state terrorism has been directed against the stalwart protesters. The draconian Criminal Justice Act has been ruthlessly deployed, particularly the section dealing with ‘aggravated trespass’. The roads minister, John Watts, made clear his intention: “These protesters are anarchists who have taken the law into their own hands. They will not win.”

Splendidly formulated, in its own way. The ruling class recognised that there was a basic, fundamental issue at stake in Newbury which cannot be fudged or downplayed - who is the master of society, and who is the servant? John Watts and his class are clearly affronted by this ‘anarchist’ challenge to their god-given right to rule.

Democracy, and the fight for democratic rights, is being raised to the foreground. The campaigners are not primarily driven by a sentimental, or mystical, attachment to trees and ‘mother earth’ - even if that is the form, the frustrated outlet, their protest takes. They are rebelling against the “harmful rationality” (Marx) of capitalism and its relentless quest to crush the human spirit - ‘Accept your preordained slot in bourgeois society and be happy.’

The Hungarian-born Marxist, Istvan Mészáros, reminds us that the “Marxist programme is formulated precisely as the emancipation of human action from the power of relentless economic determinations” (original italics, The Necessity of Social Control, Merlin Press 1971, p62).

This desire to resist the power of “economic determinations” can be seen in Wandsworth, South London. The eco-activist group, Land is Ours, has expropriated a derelict 13-acre site owned by the Guinness company and is busily turning it into an eco-village. Naturally, the company is outraged by this interference in the natural order and has served a summons on George Monbiot, one of the activist leaders, as part of their campaign to repossess the entire site - and put it back in the service of profit, where it will help to generate more unemployment and homelessness.   

Newbury, the Twyford Down/M11 protests before it, and now the Guinness occupation, have acted as a magnet for the discontented and disaffected of all ages - and all classes. The crisis in ‘official’ bourgeois ideology is being made flesh, as it is no longer able to motivate, or even mollify, larger and larger segments of the population. The standard explanations are no longer convincing (‘It’s progress’; ‘The experts have given it the OK’; ‘It’s profitable’, etc) and people, as always, are looking for answers.

Some sections of the bourgeoisie are painfully aware of this crisis of faith in bourgeois ideology - if not embarrassed by it. The dedicated and visionary activism of the Newbury campaigners is contrasted to the humdrum venality of ordinary politicians. Hugo Young of The Guardian confessed that Ballin - one of the veterans of the campaign - was the “most awe-inspiring political figures I’ve met this year” and almost wistfully added: “One is reminded, first of all, that neither Mr Major nor Mr Blair has ever made a truly personal sacrifice for anything he believes in” (January 30 1996).

Communists and revolutionaries have a natural sea to swim in with these campaigns, and it would be a monstrous violation of our duty if we did not endeavour to “collect, if one may put it that way, and concentrate all these drops and streamlets of popular excitement ... into a single gigantic torrent” (original italics, What is to be done?, Peking Press 1973, p96).

This requires more than passive support. We must bring leadership and our own communist vision to all campaigns like Newbury by elevating the struggles to the highest level possible - ie, pose the question of state power and the necessity to overthrow the capitalist socio-economic system which is leading all of humanity towards degradation and destruction.

Unfortunately, such inspirational leadership and vision is absent from most of the revolutionary left. Militant approaches the Newbury question with its usual dull philistinism, dragging the issue downwards to a technicality about traffic flow. Thus, our home-grown Bolsheviks inform us: “There is an obvious traffic flow problem in [Newbury] the same as in any town; one-person cars clog up roads at rush hour. But building a bypass will only be a short-term solution” (January 1996). Heady stuff.

Socialist Worker is not much better. Its coverage has been characterised by typical ‘anti-Tory’ narrowness, which ultimately ends up accepting the capitalist agenda. For the SWP this mildly inconvenient diversion from ‘normal’ politics - ie, the workplace - is merely an argument about subsidies and the merits of nationalisation. Oddly enough for an paper which claims to be implacably opposed to all forms of state capitalism, Socialist Worker believes that the real problem lies in the (near inexplicable) fact that, “Labour has turned its back on renationalising any part of British Rail the Tories manage to sell off before the next election” (January 20 1996).

Socialist Worker obviously believes that a hardy dose of ‘clause four-ism’, in propaganda and in deed, will magically solve all our fundamental environmental and ecological problems. The question of who runs society and how we organise it are distant, remote matters for the eminently ‘practical’ members of the SWP. In this down to earth spirit, Socialist Worker adopts a condescending attitude towards the campaigners: “The people of Newbury and many other towns need something done, but the answer does not lie in simply fighting for or against any particular road” (January 20). In the background can I hear the chant of ‘Vote Labour, but ...’?

Ironically, the senile ‘official communist’/Labourite rag, the Morning Star, stumbled upon the truth - albeit in its usual stupid manner. In an otherwise execrable article on Newbury, the Morning Star noted that there is a “battle taking place that is more akin to the conflicts of the 17th century than a modern-day roads protest” (January 30). The primitive communism of the Levellers and the Diggers is being resurrected in Berkshire, admittedly in a tattered and weakened form. Many of the campaigners are very conscious of their heroic ancestors, going so far as to dress up in ‘authentic’ 17th century costume and even to recreate the Diggers’ communitarian lifestyle.

Of course, for ‘official communist’ epigones like the Morning Star this is just amusing material for an article - all jolly good fun. Frivolous jibes about how the “protesters are as committed as fellows selling vodaphones” only serve to reveal the Star’s skin-deep commitment to human liberation.

Genuine communists take seriously, and respect, the healthy instincts which lie behind the primitive communistic aspirations of the ‘anti-road’ protesters. Any rebellion against the stifling conformity of capitalist society, and its alienated social relations, is to be eagerly welcomed. This makes it even more imperative that Marxists intervene in all environmental/ecological disputes. If the campaigners are left high-and-dry, continue to wallow in isolation and localism, it is inevitable that the pull of backward and mystical ideologies will prove irresistible. If the future looks bleak, the past - even if it is a mythical one - will start to look rosier.

Worldwide there is a growing realisation that economic ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency’ pose a grave danger to humanity. Pollution, destruction of wildlife, blind and chaotic urbanisation, diminishing of the quality of human life, etc, are by-products generated by the “white heat of technology” - capitalist white heat.

This myopic faith in inevitable ‘progress’, assisted by benign scientists, was replicated in the ‘official’ world communist movement, with its cult of ‘productivism’. The most crass example of productivism was Nikita Khruschev banging his shoe on a UN table, screaming, “We will bury you!” at the American delegates - under consumer goods.

Mészáros, one of the pioneers of what you could loosely label ‘eco-Marxism’, made the stinging observation: “To say that ‘science and technology can solve all our problems in the long run’ is much worse than to believe in witchcraft, for it tendentiously ignores the devastating social embeddedness of present-day science and technology” (original italics, The Necessity of Social Control, Merlin Press 1971, p23). Who can deny that present-day science is utterly “embedded” into the capitalist system and is “determined and circumscribed by the self-perpetuating needs of the maximisation of profit” (Ibid, p23)?

Communists must now step forward and enter the environmentalist arena, not yield to liberalism and narrow ‘green’ politics. The passions and convictions of environmentalists and campaigners need not be a source of distress for communists, committed though we are to “scientific socialism”.

The crisis in bourgeois ideology and the chronic failure of ‘official communism’ presents us with an opportunity to fill the vacuum. As a matter of urgency we need to convince this ‘ready-made’ audience that, in order to avert global catastrophe, communism is the “necessary form and the dynamic principle of the immediate future” (Karl Marx, Early Writings, Penguin Classics 1992, p358).

The prize is still for the taking.