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You say you want a revolution…but I want detail. June 18, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Marxism.
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A discussion on Politics.ie (here) has set me thinking about just what is the left looking for, particularly the revolutionary left. After all, so much of leftism these days is defined by what it's against rather than what it's for… Mostly anti-war, generally anti-capitalist, broadly anti-racist/sexist etc. But what's the goal, the end-point? The withering away of the state? A goal shared by anarcho-capitalists as much as the most fervent Marxist. Entirely new social relationships? Well there I suspect the Catholic Church, or indeed many Southern Baptists would be in agreement. I'm not entirely sure of the end goal, and I'll bet most people aren't either.

There are good reasons for vagueness. Marx was rather good on Capital, but much less so on what came after. Historically revolutionary left regimes have when implemented tended to the worst rather than the best. Failed is another word one can use. And it's a bit like having someone over for a bite of food. Often it's best not to tell them what's on the table for fear of heightening expectations unreasonably. But the future shape of society isn't a meal, and it's also unreasonable not to tell us what the outcome is going to be…

First one has to consider the way in which our society has altered over the past quarter of a century or more. One doesn't have to be a techno-utopian to notice that personal autonomy and individualism has extended into new spheres of daily life. Partially this is on the back of new technologies which centre on the individual. This has led to some degree of dilution of hierarchy, and it's striking to me how rapidly workplaces have altered from entirely top down enterprises to more nuanced negotiated enterprises. Having said that there's no point in being starry eyed about these things. Owners own, directors direct, managers manage and workers work.

Secondly, if one considers the situation on the right there is a fairly clear outline of an optimal society, depending on which strand of the right. Social conservatives offer a traditional, hierarchical, conservative society, sometimes diluted by capitalism, often not. Libertarian conservatives offer a much more free-form society with little regulation of public or private spheres. Moderate conservatives tend towards caution in everything, although it's interesting to consider David Cameron and what the UK might be like under his administration.

By contrast, beyond the confines of social democracy it's difficult to envisage exactly what leftists want. It's a bit like a car where the driver has the foot down on the accelerator, as we leave the Social Democracyville we screech through Democratic Socialist Town, speed past Command Economy Heights and then onto…where? More regulation in the economic sphere? Or none at all as the society slides towards a left-libertarian utopia? Or on into Anarchism, but is it anarcho-syndicalism or autonomous collectivism?

Reading Paul Foot's The case for socialism: what the Socialist Workers Party stands for, many years ago, I was struck by how little was mentioned of the future society. Indeed something of a fetish has been made by the Trotskyite left of how this is a transitional period. Yeh, sure, but transition to what?
It's disturbing to think that the Communist Party of Great Britain's New Times project of the late 1980s might have been the last serious effort by an anglophone non-social democrat party to mark out the future, and while it was interesting, it was extremely flawed in that it came across largely as a paean to the market. No surprise then that the party collapsed within three years of it's publication.

I don't want to be unfair, it's difficult to envisage the transitions some would see as necessary. But envisage them they must.
One thinker who offered a better outline was French post-Marxist André Gorz whose Farewell to the Working Class depicted a future society informed by environmental and social concerns. I remember reading this around 1985 or so and being mightily impressed by the idea of…bus lanes, and thinking "that'll never catch on". But I was also mightily sceptical of his ideas for a television or radio studio in every tower block. And yet, although the collectivist impulse he to hasn't quite worked out it's certainly true that the internet has permitted a reflection of that to fold into our contemporary society, at least on an individual level. And let's be honest, that's down largely to market forces. But Gorz was writing for his time, the 1980s and the technological developments of the last quarter century have perhaps altered the emphasis again to one of tone rather than specific policy.

And this is important too, perhaps it's the general ethos which is most important, that a society is about society rather than simply the individual. However, the challenge now has to be that non-social democratic leftism stops talking in platitudes about democracy and social good and starts charting out a clear course. Because we've been here before with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, the masters of tone over policy, or perhaps more accurately tone masking policy. Tone is great, but it's not enough.

On Politics.ie I had a discussion with a member of the Socialist Party (Ireland) about democracy and the party (here). I was assured that democracy was a key component. And why was this? Because Lenin had apparently mentioned it in the State and Revolution. Very true, Lenin did mention it, in a couple of sentences, a rather aspirational piece which frankly would be laughed out of if were it presented in a contemporary party manifesto. That's simply not good enough. If one seeks the transformation of our economic, political and social relationships the very least that can be done is to tell us exactly what are the mechanisms that will constitute the new situation. In the US and the UK there are serious public policy think-tanks of right left and centre working away on these issues. Documents are produced, positions put out in the public domain. But that sort of serious thinking on the – shall we term it – 'further left' is absent. We need information, because we already have a society, and for all it's faults, flaws and imperfections we have a reasonably good idea how it works and how it's going to work in the future.
Provide us with proper detailed information and then maybe it'll will be easier to convince the rest of us who are hoping there might be something better ahead…

Comments»

1. Pidge - June 18, 2006

Great blog, really great (not only this specific one, but the entire site is fantastic.

There are a broad range of reasons as to why “the left” haven’t provided such cogent arguments as to their desired future. I’m not particularly involved, so I can’t speak authoritatively, but I’ve a few ideas.

Firstly, you’ve mentioned “the left” or, somewhat more pointedly, the “revolutionary left”. It goes without saying (but for some reason I’ll say it anyway), that “the left” isn’t a unified group and is, at least in Ireland, fragmented into a variety of micro-groupings. These groups (again, based on my limited understanding of them) seem to split over what outsiders would see as minor issues. This means that there’s a lack of creative diversity within these groups, which obviously cramps discussion of any new ideas.

Secondly, I’d imagine that there’s a certain amount of trepidation in, say, the SWP to propose any policy which is specific (short of “Down with capitalist lackeys” etc etc), since anything specific causes members to think whether this policy suits them perfectly. If such a policy didn’t (suit them, that is), the group could split again; doing the only things these groups seem good at – further decreasing their relevance.

Leftist groupings always seem much more based around a particular person (eg – Lenin, Marx, Trotsky etc) – so perhaps it’s easier for them to stick to whatever that person said, as opposed to coming up with their own ideas.

But then again, I’m just an extremely bored, politically confused teenager who hasn’t any sort of basis for what he’s saying. Ah well, sure this passes the time.

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2. WorldbyStorm - June 18, 2006

I think you’re on to something really interesting there in the way the left has moved towards cults of personality, even amongst those who seemingly would be antagonistic towards it, i.e. those who have some vague allegiance to the Fourth International, but are better known as Trotskyites… There seems to be an enormous tension between personification of the struggle and an identification with the working class, as in the first thread on politics.ie listed above. The working class is, in some respects rather unlovable, as indeed is any class, so once one moves beyond (to my mind rather middle class) cant about how great it is one has to fall back on the great individuals, which seems weirdly counterintuitive. Having said that, I suspect it’s a bit like one of Marx’s best quotations when he said that he ‘was not a Marxist’…

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3. mbarihogun - June 18, 2006

WBS, I think it’s a bit of a mistake to ask a revolutionary left-winger to more-or-less predict the next half-century or century. I mean, if you really see our time or the near future as a historic epoch, a state of transition etc. etc., then a detailed map of the years to come seems both impossible and superfluous. Did the French and American bourgeois revolutionaries provide the masses with a full description of what the future would be like? It seems to me that they more relied on rather vague ideas, liberty, fraternity, equality, and for all their piss poor ideas, the organized revleft sure have quite a few vague platitudes.

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4. Pidge - June 18, 2006

Surely then it’s a tad irresponsible to rush into a dramatic revolution without even having a stab at what the future may hold. That’s just not enough.

Even a loose plan of what should follow the revolution would be good – as opposed to an exact prediction.

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5. WorldbyStorm - June 18, 2006

mbari, I guess I’m just making a larger point that the destination, even accepting your caveat, which I do, simply isn’t worked out enough.

Most Marxists would, I think, accept that the nature of human relationships be entirely different, yet it seems to me that the only people working through these thoughts are…right libertarians…and we all have a fair idea of what sort of collective or individual autonomy their utopia will bring.

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6. Pax - June 19, 2006

“Most Marxists would, I think, accept that the nature of human relationships be entirely different, yet it seems to me that the only people working through these thoughts are…right libertarians”

The only people? What about the (imo very worked out) proposed economic system of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel in Participatory economics (or shortened to parecon)?
See “The Political Economy of Participatory Economics” published in 1991 and Parecon Life After Capitalism 2003 ( available to read free at http://www.zmag.org/books/pareconv/parefinal.htm )
It at least deals with the issues of a ‘working-class’ as diverse as the hospital consultant and the self-employed plasterer, (as touched upon on the p.ie thread), in its balanced job complexes and “participatory planning” while still having the core principals (or the diffuse vague platitudes mbari) of socialism at its heart. (
http://www.parecon.org/writings/qabjcs.htm )

Also see ‘Socialism as it was Always Meant to Be’ below and excerpt…
http://www.parecon.org/writings/hahnelURPE.htm
‘But they [public enterprise market economies] all share three major deficiencies:

(1) All variants of public enterprise market economies distribute the burdens and benefits of social labor unfairly. The distributive maxim implicit in public enterprise market economies is “to each according to the social value of his or her labor.” Contrary to popular opinion in many “progressive” circles, this outcome is neither fair nor efficient.

(2) Received wisdom not withstanding, markets allocate resources very inefficiently, and create a great deal of environmental destruction and antipathy among buyers and sellers in the process.

(3) Markets create a social environment in which a class of managers, professionals, intellectuals and technicians — who we call coordinators — increasingly dominate and ultimately exploit ordinary workers.’

-Top blog btw.-

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7. WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2006

Mea culpa Pax, I’m not for a moment doubting the efforts of Parecon etc, but my original post, and the thread to which it referred was very clearly about a specific segment of the Marxist ‘further left’, possibly because they promise the most radical transformative changes, but give the least information.

I think the important thinking that has evolved from the Greens, or Green associated sources, and other areas such as that you rightly note, is closer towards the mainstream, and arguably more likely to influence future developments – perhaps in a similar way to the way social democracy and democratic socialism influenced 20th century welfarism etc…

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8. WorldbyStorm - June 21, 2006

incidentally Pax, thanks very much, we aim to please… or incite…

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