Historical idealism or Marxist analysis? (Part II)

Phil Sharpe argues that the Economic and Philosophic Science Review defends utopian socialism and opposes revolutionary Marxism

The Economic and Philosophic Science Review editorial board has outlined a second reply to my Weekly Worker article of December 17 1998. This response of the EPSR is generally a defensive exercise consisting of repeating its political positions, and denouncing my article as an example of academic Marxism. Significantly, this approach represents a regression from the polemical content of Steve Johns’ letter in the Weekly Worker of January 7.

Johns was content to define my emphasis upon the importance of competing theories for understanding the world as idealist, but now the EPSR prefers to exaggerate this point and contend that I am arguing that these various theories have equal validity. This caricature of my original stance serves a purpose for the EPSR in that it allows it to dogmatically uphold its own theories about social reality without having to thoroughly compare and contrast them with rival theories. Thus the EPSR denounces alternatives as petty bourgeois and revisionist.

This point can be shown in relation to understanding the history of the Soviet Union. The EPSR maintains that despite Stalin’s revisionism and bureaucratic deformations the Soviet Union was a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and its achievements showed the superiority of the workers’ state compared to the capitalist system. Thus it is deductively argued that the achievements of the Soviet Union represent an important criterion for defining and comprehending its class character. This generalised abstraction does not explain the content and character of the social system in relation to the extraction of a surplus from the producers. A profound silence on this question is necessary, because it means that the EPSR can ignore examining whether there are class differences between the bureaucracy and proletariat. Instead the EPSR insists that the bureaucracy and proletariat are united around the achievements.

If we apply this transhistorical abstraction of achievements to other societies, we could argue that the formation of the NHS is an achievement that represents class unity within Britain, and it expresses the potential to overcome class contradictions. This standpoint is part of the ideological mythology of the British ruling class and Labour Party, because the structural mechanisms of British capitalism, which are based upon the extraction of surplus value, were still upheld and consolidated when the NHS was formed. Yes, to a certain extent it is an achievement of proletarian political pressure, which means the NHS was a concession made by the ruling class and Labour Party in order to prevent the possible development of revolutionary struggles, but this achievement cannot be abstracted from the class content of British capitalist society. In the Soviet Union the proletariat, peasantry, and gulag labour have all contributed to the making of immense achievements, such as massive industrial projects, and there have been impressive cultural advances. But these developments do not alter the situation that the bureaucracy dominated the relations of production in an exploitative manner.

Hillel Ticktin and the journal Critique have shown that the Soviet system was not durable because it was not possible to establish a systematic process of the extraction of a surplus from the proletariat, and it was this problem that primarily established the acute contradictions of the Soviet Union (I differ with Ticktin concerning his refusal to define the bureaucracy as a ruling class). However, it is also necessary to explain that the increasingly serious ideological crisis within the bureaucracy in the 1980s was a dynamic mediation of the economic situation. In this context of tensions within the ruling class Gorbachev’s perestroika became a failed attempt to overcome the economic crisis. This acute economic situation of decline, and the related ideological crisis, led to a fragmentation of the bureaucracy and facilitated the development of Yeltsin’s bourgeois counterrevolution. In contrast to this analysis the EPSR dismisses any suggestion that the system was failing as defeatist.

The EPSR dogmatically refuses to recognise the contradictions within the Soviet Union, and instead blames its demise upon Gorbachev. This subjective approach means it does not have to acknowledge that the system was not the dictatorship of the proletariat, and was not as efficient as capitalism in relation to extracting a surplus from the proletariat. The EPSR praises the economic system of the Soviet Union, yet planning and the nationalised economy were essentially fictions in revolutionary Marxist terms. But they were the necessary economic forms for the production of an exploitative surplus.

Does criticism of the Soviet Union express an indifference towards the dictatorship of the proletariat? I would suggest that it is vitally necessary to struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has to be based upon the highest forms of democracy and internationalism. The EPSR uses different criteria in its definition of the term. This is shown in relation to its proclamation of China as an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The reality of ruthless capitalist exploitation and one-party oppressive rule is glossed over in order that the EPSR can maintain its artificial optimism that socialism is not finished and its inevitable victory is imminent. Thus it identifies the interests, content and future of socialism with the nation state. Or, in other words, it justifies its own version of socialism in one country. This means it contemptuously denies that the approach and ideology of socialism in one country is utopian and so facilitates the rule of an oppressive bureaucratic socialist regime, which has a tendency towards capitalist restoration.

The EPSR critique of my article refers to Ireland in order to indicate my supposed self-indulgent academic Marxism, and abdication of political responsibility in relation to building revolutionary Marxism. I think that what has motivated this criticism is the desire to establish differences between myself and the Weekly Worker about Ireland and the peace process. Well, Weekly Worker supporters already know I have differences with their perspective, and I have never hidden my views. But, in the world of the EPSR, differences between comrades is perplexing and requires Bolshevik explanation.

I would maintain that whilst Sinn Féin and the IRA have a bourgeois democratic class content in relation to policy and perspectives, they also have a proletarian mass base, and have opposed British imperialism successfully. This has resulted in the peace process, and has led to moves towards overcoming the sectarian nature of the Northern Irish state. In general bourgeois democratic opposition to imperialism has been limited and unsuccessful because the national bourgeoisie of an oppressed nation is still dependent upon the economic power of imperialism. Thus Rosa Luxemburg was right to suggest that the demand for national self-determination is only an attempt to transcend class antagonisms, but in practice expresses the domination of the national bourgeoisie over the proletariat. However, in Northern Ireland the proletarian mass basis of republicanism is expressed through principled anti-imperialism, even if this is not socialist anti-imperialism.

Proletarian revolutionary leadership and perspective cannot be achieved spontaneously. Realising bourgeois democracy does not represent a mechanical, objectivist and inevitable process, in which Irish republicanism will automatically accept the supposed ongoing logic of bourgeois democratic revolution merging into social revolution. A revolutionary party should attempt to win over Irish republicanism to a perspective that the bourgeois democratic revolution is not separated from the social and proletarian revolution. In this manner the contradictory proletarian aspect of Irish republicanism is realised and becomes hegemonic.

However, if a revolutionary party does not intervene and try to establish dialogue with Irish republicanism, its bourgeois democratic aspects may become increasingly dominant, and the proletarian base will become subordinate and secondary. In contrast, the EPSR defines political leadership as cheerleading anti-imperialist struggles, and thereby effectively denies the need for conscious political struggle to establish the hegemony of a proletarian revolutionary perspective.

In relation once more to the question of predictions, the EPSR refers to Marx as providing the definitive answer to my criticism of the usefulness of predictions. Reference is made to the Communist manifesto and Marx’s view that the proletariat is the “gravedigger of capitalism”. In terms of the important structural location of the proletariat within capitalist society it certainly has the potential to carry out revolution and overthrow capitalism.

However, to the EPSR ‘potential’ seems to have the same meaning as ‘inevitability’ but, as we know from history, this revolutionary potential of the proletariat can be undermined in many different ways, such as through the counterrevolutionary actions of capitalism, social democracy and Stalinism. This shows that history contains the contradictory aspects of uncertainty, barbarism and defeat, as well as the potential for victory and progress. The EPSR turns Marx’s comments about inevitability into a timeless formulation that transcends analysis and is beyond criticism. But, if we are to be serious about our theoretical responsibilities, we have to decisively reinterpret, and if necessary modify, the significance of comments from past theoretical works if these comments no longer seem to explain a constantly changing social reality. To the EPSR this theoretical task is identical with revisionism and opportunism because it represents disagreement with Marx, who is a world historical individual not capable of being wrong.

This formal approach - Marx wrote something: we agree with it - does not recognise that it is objective reality itself, and its developments, which should be the primary basis to evaluate classic texts. In this context of relating the text to reality, the word ‘inevitable’ has become more descriptive than analytical, and does not contribute profoundly to the elaboration of perspectives. Indeed, if inevitability is defended dogmatically it can be used to justify historical idealism, or the conception of a predetermined end to history. Such ideological consolation may express formal support from Marx, but it does not explain profoundly the complexity of social reality, and it does not provide the basis for a perspective that acknowledges this complexity in relation to developing a revolutionary approach to the problems of the class struggle. Indeed, in the Communist manifesto Marx refers to history consisting of class struggle, and class struggle can lead to the common ruin of the contending classes. This approach, which Engels and Luxemburg reconstructed as ‘socialism or barbarism’, defends an understanding of history as being open-ended.

Can the EPSR consider favourably this open-ended approach, or will its historical idealism remain dominant? The comment that the world imperialist crisis is “heading towards worldwide revolutionary upheaval” (EPSR January 12) shows that the perspective of imminent revolution is upheld by the concept of inevitability, and this is why the EPSR is eager to locate inevitability within the classic texts of Marxism. This stance is historical idealism, because even though the EPSR would probably formally acknowledge the complex problems involved in trying to build a world revolutionary party, it would also effectively deny these problems through placing emphasis upon economic crisis leading to world revolution. Thus the objective processes, or the logic of history, are going towards socialism and will resolve the subjective problem of consciousness.

This approach is similar to Pablo’s 1950s thesis that the prospect of World War III will lead to political confrontations that express a logic of international civil war and the transition to (deformed) workers’ states. Hence there was no time to build the Fourth International, which was effectively reduced to being a cheerleader for revolutions led by Stalinism. With a form of this catastrophist perspective, the EPSR considers the SLP as a centrist agency of revolution, even if the SLP is not considered to be revolutionary. This opportunist logic is important for understanding why the EPSR puts emphasis upon a determinist Marx, and is indifferent about a more explanatory Marx.

The EPSR argues that its main aim “is not to predict but to precisely explain reality whilst it is happening and before the history is completed - ie, before the facts are fully known or knowable” (EPSR January 12). The EPSR has made an important concession in that it now agrees with me that the main aspect of developing a theory is to explain reality. But it is still trying to justify prediction, even though this is formally a more modest formulation about describing things before history has been completed. But it does not differentiate between cause and effect. The cause of something, such as the law of value, can be explained in relation to economic changes, as with the development of monopoly capital. But the unknown, that which has not yet happened, or the potential effects of these economic changes, may be very complex and difficult to describe in advance.

This is why to Lenin and Luxemburg monopoly capital seemed to have only a short-term future because of the problems involved in accumulating capital, but Hilferding and Bukharin considered that monopoly capital could have a long-term future because monopolies were able to organise the production of value in a less anarchic manner than smaller competitive capital.

Thus whilst Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding and Bukharin all had something explanatory to contribute about monopoly capital, it could be argued that all of them were wrong about its effects. Lenin and Luxemburg were right to suggest that the contradictions of monopoly capital did contribute to the acute crisis of capitalism, leading to two world wars. But, as Bukharin and Hilferding may have argued, it was monopoly capital that also proved to be the main structural basis of the economic boom after 1945. Unknown (future) counterrevolutionary political factors were crucial to the prospect of the continuation of monopoly capital. It is not possible to predict in a rigid manner the outcome of the development of monopoly capital - although we can explain the causes of its development and decline, such as the falling rate of profit - because the complexity of the balance of class forces means that the political effects of the structural cause will be initially unknown and constantly changing. Indeed, the political is the dynamic aspect of the economic crisis and its development. In contrast, for economic determinists the future can be predicted because it is reduced to its economic causes.

The EPSR once again makes the comment that the Weekly Worker and Phil Sharpe have ignored Marx’s comments about homosexuality. These comments relate to a supposed rightwing homosexual political conspiracy within Germany, and so they do not represent any real theoretical basis to develop an understanding of sexuality. Hence, the ‘significance’ of Marx’s comments is used by the EPSR to claim Marx for its rightwing Freudian views about homosexuality. The EPSR has nothing constructive to add to its views about sexuality apart from calling the Weekly Worker and Phil Sharpe ‘politically correct’.

This shows that the EPSR uncritically accepts bourgeois ideological opinion, and so fails to acknowledge that to use the ‘politically correct’ label in an insulting manner is a linguistic means to oppose sexual emancipation and liberation from all forms of oppression. The EPSR, which criticises Trotskyist accommodation to bourgeois ideology, is itself prepared to uphold conventional views about sexuality, whilst formally supporting sexual equality.