Friday, January 12, 2007

Learning from the past

It is common for newcomers to Marxism to start their study of the Great Man with the Communist Manifesto, or even, Capital Volume 1.

My own advice would be to start with the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napolean. The title is a bit inaccessible nowadays, but when it was written it would have made perfect sense to the average educated reader. It describes the military coup in 1851 that ushered in the French Second Empire. (It also provides an explanation of some of the obscure private language used by Marxists, such as “Bonapartism”)

The 18th Brumaire contains the essential arguments about historical materialism, not in an abstract way, but entertainingly and wittily, linked to real events. The most famous quote from the book is that history repeats itself “first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Through over familiarity we tend to read this as simply as an ahistorical witticism. But Marx was making a very serious point: that in new historical circumstances we borrow the forms and language of the past, although the content has changed. It is also true that organisations and ideological traditions have a life of their own, and their development is through a combination of internal dynamic, and interaction with the external circumstances.

As Marx writes: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95”

The condition of the left in England today is tragic, but it is also farcical. Left groups parody the forms and language of Russian socialists from a century ago, and in so doing, they undermine attempts to build socialist traditions relevant to the actually existing political and social circumstances of today.

The parody of the Leninist paradigm, as I described before, is to seek organisational separation justified by claiming a coherent world vision based upon a unique or semi unique interpretation of Marxism. Yet if we judge the coherence of these variant Marxisms, based upon the same burden of evidence that we would use for the physical sciences, then we can see that these pretensions are unwarranted.

The largest fish in the small pond is the SWP. Interestingly, it is actually quite hard nowadays to determine what the politics of the SWP actually are, except that they regard it as question of principle that there needs to be an organisational separation between “reformists” and “revolutionaries”, and a characteristic interpretation of the “United Front” (largely shared with the Taafeites of the SP) involving single issue campaigns.

Understanding the politics of the SWP is impeded because they present themselves as having a living continuity with the politics of the old International Socialists (IS), which mediates the manner that they present their current politics.

The most important aspect of rupture between the IS and SWP, which took several years to work through, was the adoption of “Bolshevik” forms of organisation during the 1970s. But concomitant with that rupture was a transformation of the content of the SWP’s approach to trade unions. Focus on Rank and File organisation became changed from an original concept of lay trade unionism developing a capacity for self organisation and action that was independent of the bureaucracy, and therefore could transcend the limitations of trade union consciousness. Such a concept of Rank and Fileism inevitably required learning from the most advanced industrial militants, and developing a patient long term relationship.

In contrast, today the R&F strategy of the SWP is basically a propaganda one, and is not oriented on the established militants. Bizarrely for example, the lead speech on trade unions at the SWP’s recent conference was by Chris Harman, who while a formidable figure, has never done a days work in his life. According to Socialist Worker: “he said, “The trade union leaders are caught between the pressure and anger over neoliberalism and being tied to Labour and Gordon Brown.”

Surely, no experienced trade unionist today believes that shopfloor organisation is characterised by “anger” over neo-liberalism or anything else. The inference is that the link with New labour is influencing the bureucracy to hold back workplace anger flowing into action. In reality workplace organisation is sparse and lacking class consciousness, and the unions' bureaucracies are servicing routine greivances because there are insufficient work place reps.

Note that the article quotes a post worker reporting about setting up an anti-war group in their depot, but was their any discussion at conference about why Jane Loftus, the SWP’s comrade on the CWU executive, was absent from a crucial vote on management attacks on pay and conditions, and that some of the CWU activists they have loved up to for their “Post Worker” publication voted to accept the deal?

I will return to this theme in later posts, but in the meantime I would strongly recommend that you follow Mike Pearn’s blog, where he is posting historical documents from the IS. I don’t always agree with Mike’s analysis, but hopefully they may inform the debate, especially for younger comrades in the SWP, who may not be aware of the organisation’s history and traditions.


Sean said...

2 unimportant bits of trivia Andy. First, Chris Harman actually did have a job back in 1968/9. He was briefly a socialogy lecturer at Enfield College of Technology, a forunner of Middlesex University. Second, I was delighted to see the illustration of your posting - the giant worker kicking the boss up the arse is me in my early twenties (thin and with hair). The 'boss' is actually Ross Pritchard, IS's printer. The photo was designed by me and shot by Red Saunders, a brilliant advertising photograher who went on to become a founder of Rock Against Racism. Ask Me Another!

AN said...

Absolutley brilliant Sean!

I thought the workers in the piucture miighht have also been the inspiration for Evans' "Our Norman" strip cartoons, was that you?? B

TW, I used to have a book of "Our Norman" cartoons, but someone nicked it. If ever there was a worthy publishing project it would be to reprint that book - as both an excellent piece of social history, a great example of IS politics, and an all round belly laugh.

And let us leave open the question of whether being a sociology lecturer qualifiues as doing a day's work! :o)

Sean said...

No, Phil's Norman was entirely his own idea, although he seemed to embody the general spirit of IS at the time - irreverant, anti-authoritarian and thoroughly disrespectful.