Neoliberal ghosts and the art of brevity
Jack Conrad answers criticisms of the CPGB's Draft programme in the second of a three-part article
Our Draft programme has been criticised for being weak or wanting when it comes to neoliberalism. There are two main critics we have published in the Weekly Worker: Paul Cockshott and Nick Rogers.
Comrade Cockshott, coming from a thoroughly eclectic background - which includes the pro-imperialist, pro-Stalin, pro-loyalist British and Irish Communist Organisation - alleges that the CPGB has been intimidated, blinded, seduced by neoliberalism.
After all, according to the highly creative, not to say downright delusional, comrade, the CPGB’s Draft programme proposes “no measures at all to abolish capitalism”, baselessly criticises the “disaster” of bureaucratic socialism and seeks to “justify leaving the economy in private hands”.
Intriguingly, having successfully conquered state power across the whole European continent, we are pictured as timorously relegating “progress beyond capitalism” to the “long-term future”. That is, until communist parties hold power on a “worldwide scale”. Using the same jaundiced approach, he patronisingly mocks the CPGB because the Draft programme claims that “unemployment is inevitable until capitalism is abolished” (or words to that effect). Don’t we recall the Labour and Tory governments of the 1940s-60s and the policy of full employment?
Apparently, such propositions, real or imagined, are “testimony to the ideological power of neoliberal and neo-classical economics”. So we have supposedly fallen under the spell of the grey consensus.
Then there is Nick Rogers. This CPGB comrade maintains that our Draft programme’s treatment of the post-1970s turn towards financialisation by the “world capitalist class” - ie, what is often called neoliberalism - is either “parochial” or totally absent. However, in the course of his argument, he also dismisses the idea that British capitalism shows signs of relative weakness and that the entire capitalist system is in secular decline. Sadly, not essential laws and tendencies, but strike days, trade union membership, privatisations and other statistics are cited as evidence. Like comrade Cockshott, he too maintains that our Draft programme is “wrong” when it states that “unemployment is an inevitable by-product of capitalism.”
Let me disentangle these criticisms and answer them one by one.
Our Draft programme is quite emphatic: “Capitalism can only be superseded by the working class uniting itself internationally and rallying all who are oppressed” (section 4). There can be no transition to communism in one country. So, yes, we envisage a global process and one that might last several decades or more.
The world socialist revolution will begin first in this or that country. Perhaps a Brazil, a South Africa or an India. But the working class has to break out of narrow national confines (even if they happen to be of continental proportions). Power must be won in a “tranche of advanced countries” as quickly as possible, if the revolution is not to suffer “deformation or counterrevolution in one form or another” (section 1.6). Capitalism is a global system that can only be superseded globally. National roads are therefore completely illusory.
This explains the strategic emphasis placed by the CPGB on Europe. Though only constituting a tiny portion of the earth’s land mass, because of Europe’s economic strength, socialistic traditions and relatively high cultural level, winning the battle for democracy here would decisively tilt the global balance of power. And, far from passively sitting on its hands and waiting upon events, socialist Europe would energetically, boldly spread the flame of liberation. Assuredly, Europe would provide a beacon “for the oppressed peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America”, as they make or complete their own revolutions (section 3.6.1). And, once united in some kind of socialist federation, such a gigantic bloc would be able to confidently face down all threats. Meanwhile, the working class in North America have every reason to follow the example of their brothers and sisters in Europe. What Europeans decisively begin surely Americans will finally complete.
However, comrade Cockshott’s main criterion for judging social progress is nationalisation. This, not the working class conquering state power, is what he means by “measures” to “abolish capitalism”.
Leave aside our demand, under present-day capitalist conditions, for the nationalisation of “workplaces and industries” threatening “mass sackings”, our demand for the nationalisation of “land, banks and financial institutions” and our demand for the nationalisation of “basic infrastructure such as public transport, electricity, gas and water supplies” (section 3.7). Needless to say, the socialist state inherits all nationalised sectors of the economy from capitalism. However, universal nationalisation, forced collectivisation and flat-wage egalitarianism are ruled out by our Draft programme because “historic experience certainly shows that they lead to disaster” (section 4.3).
Comrade Cockshott bridles at this statement. Defensively, revealingly, he asks where universal nationalisation, forced collectivisation and flat-wage egalitarianism led to “disaster”? Eg, what disasters followed nationalisations in, say, “the UK or Czechoslovakia in the 1940s?”
Well, we must remove Britain from this particular line of discussion. Unless I am badly mistaken the Attlee government did not preside over universal nationalisation, forced collectivisation or flat-wage egalitarianism. But, as the respected historian EH Carr notes, ideas about wage egalitarianism had to be quickly put on hold in Soviet Russia. Instead there was the reintroduction of “piece rates and other forms of discriminatory rewards as incentives to higher production.” And from what I can gather similar observations can be made for the egalitarian experiments flagged and/or implemented by Che Guevara in Cuba and Mao’s Cultural Revolution (though, of course, these two examples were ultra-leftist attempts at Stalinite mystification).
Not that I would rule out labour tokens and workers receiving equal rewards for equal time-work once socialism is fully established globally. But such a measure would also rest on a qualitative raising of the general cultural level of the population.
As to the history of universal nationalisation and forced collectivisation, I will do nothing more than point to the almost unprecedented suffering inflicted upon the peoples of the USSR from the late 1920s onwards. We all know the hellish record: widespread starvation, plunging living standards, chronic economic inefficiency, crazy irrationality, mass terror, millions killed directly or indirectly by the state, endemic spying, social atomisation, a complete absence of democracy, etc. Needless to say, disassociating ourselves from this barbarism has nothing to do with associating ourselves with neoliberalism.
If all these horrors allowed Russia to “catch up” with and overtake the west, then perhaps Stalinists could claim a modicum of historic justification. But it did not. Backwardness came to backwardness. Stalinism proved to be a hugely costly road from a disintegrating feudal-capitalist hybrid to a disintegrating bureaucratic-capitalist hybrid. I feel no need to further elaborate, but suffice to say bureaucratic socialism in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Albania, China, North Korea, Cambodia, etc were in human terms no less a disaster.
I agree with comrade Cockshott about one thing, however. He says 1989-91 was a disaster for the common people in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe. Absolutely right. Nonetheless, this elite-triggered transition has historical roots which have to be traced back to the isolation of the Russian Revolution, Stalin’s nationalist doctrine of socialism in one country and the 1928 counterrevolution within the revolution. And providing eloquent testimony to the true nature of Stalinism: nowhere did the masses resist the 1989-91 counterrevolution within the counterrevolution. Indeed capitalism was seen as infinitely preferable to bureaucratic socialism.
State and capital
What of “leaving the economy in private hands”? Utter nonsense, of course. For at least a century the state and capital has become inextricably interwoven in advanced capitalist countries such as Britain. Nikolai Bukharin’s article, ‘Towards a theory of the imperialist state’ (1915), being the seminal study of the phenomenon within the Marxist tradition.
And, as one would expect of a declining system, the state plays an ever greater role. Caesar Rome, the Byzantine empire, the Abbasid caliphate, China from the Sui dynasty, absolutist Europe are all parallels. Thatcherism, Reaganism, neoliberalism and privatisation have made not a jot of difference. State control of money, state debt, state armies, state taxation, state regulation, state bail-outs, state subsidies, state education and state orders are vital for the functioning and survival of the system.
Eg, according to The Sunday Times an estimated 49% of the UK economy consisted of state spending in 2008-09. And since the Labour Party came to power in 1997 those working in the public sector “increased by more than 500,000.” In 1997, some 5.1 million were employed in the public sector. The figure for 2008 was 5.7 million. Obviously with privatisation, PFI and a much enlarged pseudo-market such figures only hint at the true scope of the state’s role.
The socialist state inherits not only nationalised and state-controlled sectors of the economy from capitalism. If it had not already been done, a newly installed CPGB government would immediately extend that sector to include banking, finance and insurance and all natural monopolies. From this wide starting point, planning of the economy, already “posed by capitalist development itself”, can begin in earnest (section 4.3).
However, alongside this state-organised, democratically planned, steadily expanding, sector of the economy, there also exists those manufacturing plants, haulage firms, building contractors, shops, farms and services provided by “small and medium capital and the petty bourgeoisie” (section 4.3).
We shall remove the sacred shield of limited liability, ruthlessly extend trade union and other such workers’ rights, close tax loopholes, impose a genuinely progressive inheritance tax, but, simultaneously patiently encourage the formation and progress of cooperatives. The CPGB sees no advantage in universal nationalisation. Why take over the local fish and chip shop, flower stall, chemist and newsagent? We are quite content to dominate and slowly absorb these highly fragmented remnants of capitalism into the socialist commonwealth through voluntary agreement.
Division of labour
As an aside, comrade Cockshott loftily dismisses our wish to abolish the division of labour. Truly amazing for someone who calls himself a Marxist. He sneers at the authors of the Draft programme because they “loosely” speak of “eliminating the division of labour, as if this was either a necessary or desirable goal. Eliminate the division of labour and you eliminate civilised society. Without a division of labour we would regress to the Neolithic.” Yes, that is exactly what he says.
Of course, as anyone familiar with the ABC of Marxism knows full well, what we mean by the “abolition of the division of labour” is not ending the breakdown of the work process into specific detailed tasks. What is referred to is the hierarchy of command, the elevation of mental over manual labour, the monopoly of skills exercised by professional specialists in fields such as computer programme design, bio-technology, statistical analysis, nano-engineering, medicine, administration, etc. That is why we are committed to electing and rotating managers, reducing necessary working hours, putting all important decisions to a democratic vote, massively expanding adult education and facilitating the regular changing of jobs (section 4.3). We want to overproduce specialists so that there will no longer be a select few who monopolise key skills.
In communist society there remains the breakdown of work into detailed specific tasks. But no individual would be trapped into a lifetime of being a hospital porter, a machinist or a teacher of German, “from which there is no escape”. Such a division of labour counterposes collective and individual interests and constitutes an alien power which oppresses people instead of being controlled by them. Hence under communism the socially rounded individual will one day write their novel, the next teach a foreign language, after that do their stint as an elected decision-maker, the following day work in the local hospital, etc. But, this individual never becomes a writer, a teacher, an administrator, a surgeon, etc.
Marx and Engels, whose The German ideology (1846), I have just paraphrased, go on to sum up their expectations about the division of labour: “in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow.” Manifestly nothing Neolithic about this truly desirable goal.
After the working class wins state power the CPGB envisages an evolutionary socialism, whereby, step by step, the working class takes over the running of all aspects of society, including, of course, the economy. The production of the means of production and the production of the means of consumption will become one giant enterprise. This will have the effect of abolishing private property and thus the entirely bourgeois distinction between politics and economics, proletarianising the whole population and thereby ending classes and class distinctions.
To begin with, however, the economy presided over by the working class and its party will be highly contradictory: there will be a socialised part and a part which consists of surviving capitalist elements. The aim is clear though: “slowly extend the socialised part of the economy so as to finally replace the market and the law of value with conscious planning and production for human need” (section 4.3).
Therefore, for what it is worth, claims that the CPGB proposes “no measures at all to abolish capitalism” are transparently bogus. The same goes for the suggestion that we would leave “the economy in private hands”. All we are left asking is why comrade Cockshott thinks he can get away with concocting such silly fabrications.
Finally, on the subject of comrade Cockshott and neoliberalism, let me deal with unemployment. As comrade Rogers raises the exact same criticism in the exact same terms it will be a case of two birds and one stone. Here is what the first two paragraphs of our Draft programme say about unemployment under capitalism:
“Unemployment is an inevitable by-product of capitalism. Full employment can only be a temporary phenomenon in a system which reduces people to the mere possessors of the commodity, labour-power - that is, objects of exploitation.
“Especially in periods of crisis, millions cannot profitably be employed and are therefore discarded. Maintained at below subsistence levels, the unemployed increasingly constitute a permanently marginalised section of the population. Unemployment is not due to the policies or coloration of this or that government. The only way to eradicate unemployment is to end the system that causes it” (section 3.6).
To remind the reader, comrades Cockshott and Rogers quote the experience of the 1940s-60s economic boom and the policy of full employment. It may surprise the comrades, but we are well aware of this period in history. The Draft programme calls it the “social democratic settlement” - a thoroughly capitalist form of institutionalised concessions, which, despite that, in a “negative and perverted way … anticipated and carried out some of the measures of socialism - cheap housing allocated according to a points system, healthcare based on need, free comprehensive education, an ethos of equality, etc” (section 2.1).
Clearly comrades Cockshott and Rogers believe that unemployment in due to the policies and coloration of “this or that government”. Of course, throughout the 1940s-60s Labour and Tory governments alike were committed to Keynesian macro-economic management that went hand in hand with the social democratic settlement. However, from the mid-1970s the ruling class in the core imperialist countries - crucially the United States and Britain - began to retreat from production and turn to financialisation. In Britain both main parties embraced monetarism and in the name of a fetishised market they pulled the plug on full employment in the attempt to roll back the social democratic settlement. It was not only Margaret Thatcher, Keith Joseph and John Major, but Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey and, of course, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson.
However - and this is the point - that strategic shift happened because the social democratic settlement was no longer tenable. Integral to the attempt by capitalism to manage its secular decline the social democratic settlement caused the system to further malfunction. With full employment, council housing, a national health service and strong trade unions, profits were squeezed, working class militancy soared, wages doubled, management began to lose the ability to manage and people, especially the young, began to reject wage-slavery, the nine-to-five routine, the regimentation, stultification and drab tyranny of everyday life and gropingly, instinctively, joyfully sought out alternatives to capitalism.
Therefore the Keynesian strategy had to be abandoned. Put another way, “full employment” under capitalism “can only be a temporary phenomenon”. Perhaps comrade Cockshott fondly looks forward to a modern Clement Attlee and the election of an old-fashioned centre-right Labour government. Perhaps comrade Rogers thinks that the balance of class forces can be tilted back and once again full employment imposed on the capitalist class. But if that were possible, why not use that renewed strength for winning a socialist society? A socialist society would doubtless be in a position to abolish unemployment virtually overnight, so comrade Cockshott is wrong to believe that unemployment is something we would resignedly tolerate.
Comrade Rogers includes a thousand-word discussion on neoliberalism as part of his first double-page Weekly Worker articles on the CPGB Draft programme. What he has to say is not without merit. Far from it. He is definitely right, for example, when he says the working class needs to “understand the nature of the system which exploits and oppresses them”. In other words workers need Marxist consciousness if they are to come to power as a class.
But comrade Roger’s underlying agenda is pretty clear. Section one of our Draft programme ought to be amended with something closely resembling his contribution on neliberalism.
The comrade protests that section one contains nothing about the “global anti-working class offensive of the last 30 years”. And where we do actually touch upon it in section two, when dealing with capitalism in Britain, he brushes it aside as “parochial”.
There is a problem. Neoliberalism as an ideology now looks “dated at best and a failure at worst”. Not only has there been nothing like this ongoing crisis since the 1930s: the financial meltdown of 2008 blew neoliberalism apart as a credible capitalist strategy. Of course, the ghost remains shuffling about on the stage. But everyone knows that it took truly massive government intervention to stop the entire capitalist system from going into meltdown. Given that this was a worldwide phenomenon, blaming the so-called profligacy of Gordon Brown fools very few people, very little of the time.
Indisputably though, the Thatcherite dictum, “You can’t buck the market”, now stands exposed as a complete fraud. Hence Keynesianism has made something of an anaemic comeback. And not only with Barack Obama in the USA. Ed Balls, once Gordon Brown’s right-hand man, has abandoned prudence and discovered a sudden fondness for Keynes quotes.
Nonetheless, it is more than clear that the capitalist class has no viable solution. They are not going to opt for full-blown Keynesian reflation. The risks are far too high. But the same can be said of Europe’s class-war cuts and the attempt to balance the books. This course runs the danger of triggering a double-dip recession. Definitely prolonged stagnation. The cuts will certainly provoke mass resistance. Even without the examples of Greece, Spain and France before us that was always eminently predictable.
The TUC and the trade union bureaucracy doubtless wants Grand old Duke of York demonstrations, strikes and protests. Manchester saw a deal of posturing. But when the working class begins to move, at it will, things could easily pass out of their control and just as easily pass out of the control of the capitalist class.
No wonder a whole raft of Britain’s top economists have expressed the gravest reservations about George Osborne’s “age of austerity”. In the run-up to the May 2010 general election 60 of these modern witch doctors signed a joint letter to the Financial Times worriedly urging a policy of stimulating growth rather than imposing savage cuts.
However, none of this should be included in our Draft programme. At least not in my opinion. Writing a programme is not a science. It is an art. And part of that art is an appreciation of the necessity of keeping the whole thing as concise as possible. That means excluding everything that is non-essential, everything that is repetitive, everything that is wordy, everything that is passing.
Engels made a telling series of points in opening his Critique of the Erfurt programme (1891). The programme should not attempt to combine “two things that are uncombinable: a programme and a commentary on the programme”. He proceeded to chide his German comrades for fearing that “a short, pointed exposition would not be intelligible enough”. Trying to make the programme an easy read, trying to avoid possible misinterpretations, trying to steer clear of difficult concepts, Eduard Bernstein, August Bebel and Karl Kautsky (the principal authors) had added explanation after explanation, which undoubtedly made the programme “verbose and drawn out”.
Engels bluntly states that “the programme should be as short and precise as possible.”. No harm is done “even if it contains the occasional foreign word, or a sentence whose full significance cannot be understood at first sight”.
Even when our Draft programme was in its earliest embryonic stage of development we were determined to follow that recommendation. We do not fear if some cannot, or will not, grasp what our Draft programme means by the “abolition of the division of labour”, or that unemployment is “inevitable” under capitalism, or that capitalism is in “decline”, etc.
Engels rightly thought that “verbal exposition at meetings” and “written commentaries in the press” would take care of “all that”. He offers some further programmatic advice. The “short, precise phrase”, “once understood”, “takes root in the memory”, and becomes a “slogan”. Something that never happens with “verbose explanations”.
Not that we should underestimate the ability of modern workers to quickly digest what factional opponents find impossibly enigmatic. Our class is in general highly educated, certainly compared to their parents and grandparents.
Unsurprisingly, not being masochists, a clear majority of the British population recoil from the Con-Lib programme of cuts. But how to fight back? A wide swathe of the working class has lost all faith in Labourism as an anti-capitalism. Where is the realistic alternative? When so-called ordinary people happen across one or another of the 57 varieties, they are quick to discover the inbuilt dishonestly, dreary narrowness, cynical control-freakery and complete uselessness of the sects. The Greens, Scottish and Welsh nats, Ukip and the BNP are obvious dead ends because of their explicit or implicit commitment to the continuation of an increasingly malfunctioning and unpopular capitalism. And have no doubt - it is unpopular.
A recent BBC global poll, published in November 2009, showed almost a quarter - 23% of those who responded - feel that capitalism “is fatally flawed.” The view of 43% in France, 38% in Mexico and 35% in Brazil. As can be seen from the bar chart, in Britain the figure stands just under the average, ie at about 20%. Certainly there is widespread support for “governments to distribute wealth more evenly”. A proposition backed by majorities in 22 of the 27 countries involved in the survey.
Once people begin to decisively move - and surely they will - the anti-capitalist vanguard will experience few if any problems in comprehending, coming to grips with and making our Draft programme their own.
- Weekly Worker March 18 2010.
- Weekly Worker April 8 2010.
- See my pamphlet Remaking Europe (London 2004) for a full treatment of our approach.
- EH Carr The Bolshevik revolution Vol 2, Harmondsworth 1976, p116.
- Weekly Worker March 18 2010.
- K Marx, F Engels CW Vol 5, Moscow 1976, p47.
- Evgeny Preobrazhensky (1886-1937) interestingly discusses the Soviet Union’s mixed economy in the 1920s. He produced a whole series of books and pamphlets, the most famous being his New economics (1926). Of course, the Soviet Union had a huge peasant sector as well as a capitalist and a state sector. In advanced countries such as Britain the working class will be in a far stronger position. Not least if our starting point was the European Union.
- Weekly Worker March 18 2010.
- Hillel Tictin Critique No46, 2008.
- They pleaded that “for the good of the British people, the first priority must be to restore robust economic growth” (Financial Times February 19 2010).
- I am sure readers will welcome our plan to produce a commentary on the Draft programme.
- See J Conrad Which road? London 1991, p239.
- A Populus/Times poll “showed that three-quarters of voters reject the speed and scale of cuts to the public sector” (London Evening Standard September 14 2010).