The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (3) – broad parties

The third document  of the majority is entitled ‘Toward a text on Role and Tasks of the Fourth International’.  Its basic premise is the following:

“Our understanding of the role and tasks of the Fourth International at a national level is that we want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle. That is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme, the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

This is presented as a continuation of long standing policy, a policy its critics in the opposition have branded a failure, one admitted to, at least by implication, in the immediately following sentence – “This perspective commits the forces of the FI to being an integral and loyal part of building and leading these new parties, not simply aiming to recruit or wait to denounce eventual betrayals.”

It might be said that if the ultimate point of building these parties is to lead the overthrow of capitalism, but that instead it leads to eventual betrayal, an obvious objection arises – what’s the point? If these parties must lead the overthrow of capitalism, do they not have to have this objective in the first place in order for this to be so, to be revolutionary in their programme, as their opposition critics claim, and not merely “useful”?

Of course, there is no guarantee of success.  But surely, if one believes that a party can and must overthrow capitalism, then having an explicit programme of doing so is a necessary prerequisite?

I stated in the first post that small Trotskyist organisations suffer from an inability to learn from their capacity to actually implement their programme, but in this case the objective of the FI for some time has been to build large and successful anti-capitalist parties, and the experience has been one of repeated failure.

Instead of learning from this failure however the objective now appears to be so diluted as to become almost homeopathic, with an inability to actually measure the positive content of the proposal.  No balance sheet, no real evaluation and learning from experience becomes possible, partly explaining why it appears not to have been carried out.

It should be noted that the document situates this perspective within a period of “geopolitical chaos” and “crisis of class-consciousness,” and in my view states correctly that:

“The project of a socialist society offering an alternative both to capitalism and to the disastrous experiences of bureaucratic “socialism”, lacks credibility: it is severely hampered by the balance sheet of Stalinism, of social democracy, and of populist nationalism in the “third world”, as well as by the weakness of those who put it forward today.”

“In a large number of dominated countries, broad vanguard forces are now sceptical about the chances of a success of a revolutionary break with imperialism; and sceptical about the possibilities of taking power and keeping it in the new world balance of power”… “revolutionary internationalism appears as a utopia”.

This view has been criticised by the opposition within the FI as unnecessarily pessimistic and a means of ditching the historic revolutionary programme of the movement. In my view the assessment of the majority about the generally low level of class consciousness and of the working class movement across the world, with obvious national and regional variations, is broadly correct.

To deny it is to retreat into make-believe, and to do so only in order to hold tight to an historic politics, which it is believed requires the possibility of more or less short-term potential for socialist revolution. But this period of working class history has passed.  We do not live in the shadow of the Russian Revolution and do not see mass efforts to repeat it in any form in important capitalist countries.

This tide of rising working class struggle was smashed by reaction, including fascism, and world war; then solidified by a strong hegemonic US capitalism, in which genuine working class socialism, Marxism, was capped and suffocated by a mass of Stalinist and other state-socialist concrete.

When the level of class struggle rose again in more developed countries in the late 1960s and 1970s, it was defeated not by fascism but by bourgeois democratic forces, aided by the role of Stalinist and social-democratic parties. Now the latter have been severely weakened or discredited in most countries, a view has arisen that there exists some ever-present working class constituency on the left which only has to be tapped into by revolutionaries.  This, however, has been exposed as a rather naïve, marketing-type view of politics.

What the FI majority (and opposition) have failed to do is to explain how working class political consciousness has been formed in the past and how it can be reconstructed today.  The betrayals of Stalinism etc. ultimately reflect the strength of capitalism, but more importantly the relative weakness of the working class as a revolutionary subject.  In periods of defeat all sorts of confusion and misdirection takes place and the policy of the FI shows this confusion in spades.

We have a formulation of the task of Marxists that reeks of equivocation.  So, the majority FI “want to build parties that are useful in the class struggle.” But this invites questions, such as what on earth does useful mean? How useful and useful for what, to whom, and to what end?  If it is to overthrow capitalism then we are no step forward, but are invited to accept any such claim in “whatever general terms this may be expressed.”

The text says, “that is to say parties that can assemble the forces and decide on actions that have an effect and advance the class struggle on the basis of a class struggle approach and programme.”  What change in the conduct of the class struggle is intended; as a contribution to what working class organisation, strategy and raising of consciousness? What exactly is the class struggle programme proposed, or is it one useful to the class struggle as it spontaneously, or if one prefers, organically arises?

We are told that “the ultimate goal of such a party being obviously to get rid of the existing (capitalist) system, in whatever general terms this may be expressed.”  Unfortunately, the first sentence is not only imprecise but also incomplete – and replace capitalism with what and how?  “In whatever terms this may be expressed” leaves nothing excluded and nothing by which to evaluate inclusion.

Building a party that is useful in these terms appears vacuous.  Not for nothing is it therefore explained that “the key idea is that we cannot generalise a model for what the FI has to do”.

The appearance is given of a leadership that is politically exhausted and has nothing much to say.

There are lessons that have been, or need to be, learned from the struggles of the working class in the last two centuries, which might be considered to be the foundation of the programme that socialists should advance, in order to make themselves “useful”.  What are they?

One of these explains a fundamental problem with the formulation, which is that it implies abrogating a task of the class and devolving it to the party, for it is the working class that must overthrow capitalism and create a new society, because that new society is precisely the expression of its own power – through the relations of production and the subordination of its own state to its social power and control.

It is no answer to such a criticism to say that what is being proposed is that the party leads the working class, because the party is itself created by the class through its struggles, and the party can only arise from a class conscious working class.  If the party is to be a mass phenomenon it can arise in no other way.

The working-class party has an important role to further the development of class consciousness in the working class, so the role of the ideology and programme of the party, as well as the quality and dedication of its members, is crucial.

The struggle for an adequate Marxist politics therefore loses none of its importance, and it is not a question of surrendering its theoretical gains to court popularity, or surrendering its politics in pursuit of alliances with those who would betray it.  But the overthrow of the system can only be accomplished by the working class itself. As I have said before, the working-class party cannot rise further than the class is aims to lead, or to make itself “useful” to.

If it is far in advance of the class consciousness of the mass of workers then it will not be a mass party and its programme can be as revolutionary as you could wish, but it will be an ideal construct on a very different material base, and will be in vain.  A working-class party can only truly be revolutionary if it represents, is part of and helps raise the political consciousness of, the mass of the working class through its theoretical and political clarity; but it is the working class which is the revolutionary subject.

This, anyway, was the view of Marx, and it will be necessary to look at his approach in the next post in order to contrast it again with the approach of the FI.  Ironically, such a comparison makes more sense of the view that the working-class party must be “useful”.

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (2) – fightbacks and alternatives

Photo: Attac

The second majority text ‘Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives” notes that the struggles by different groups in society for democratic rights, including the ‘global justice’ movement, takes place – “in a situation where an “international workers’ movement” no longer exists.”

It goes on to say that “refusing the consequences of capitalist policies does not automatically provoke an anticapitalist consciousness. The social identity of workers does not create a class identity as such.”  It asks “what is the capacity to include these struggles in a strategic political programme of radical challenge to capitalist society, the oppressions it has created or restructured?”

Again, as in the first document, the text starts from movements outside the main working class movement and considers its needs rather than from the working class itself, its class interests and its struggles.

Here, however, this is not the main point I want to make, for the weakness is less prominent in this text.  The paragraph quoted contains important truths, including that “refusing the consequences of capitalist policies does not automatically provoke an anticapitalist consciousness. The social identity of workers does not create a class identity as such.” (If we interpret the latter as a real socialist consciousness.)

The document correctly notes the numerical increase in the world working class, which rather raises the question how this could have happened without much expanded capital accumulation, and since the first document describes the world situation as one of permanent crisis and is unsure whether we have been living in a long period of stagnation.

Yet, while noting that wages have stagnated in the old industrialised countries it cannot deny that in new areas of production, and especially in China, real wages have increased.  Again, however, we have the curious counter-position of state and corporate power, as if they were in some sort of opposition when it comes to workers’ rights.

And again, it is unclear what processes it thinks are going on. For it states that:

“The overall picture is that of a world undergoing massive changes in many regions with an increase of the number of wageworkers bringing about significant social upheaval. This is happening at a time when economic development is not occurring alongside nation-states developing structures and services able to ensure better living conditions. Exactly the opposite in most cases; we observe a worsening of daily living conditions in many ways, aggravated in many regions by war and climate change.”

Yet it also states that:

“Quantitatively, the working class is constantly growing. It should be noted that its centres of growth have strongly shifted to Asia, probably tomorrow to Africa. In these areas the development of trade-union forces follows numerical growth, the growing social weight of wage workers, lay the bases for class consciousness but in general they do not have the strong political structures that provided a political backbone to the European labour movement, although the contradiction in that model was to often to delegate ‘political’ questions to political parties.”

“Powerful workers’ struggles are still taking place not only in the old industrial countries, in Latin America, but also in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa, in Turkey, in the Indian Subcontinent, and in Asia.”

“But in the era of globalization the need for trade unions to take up broader issues including racism, all forms of discrimination and housing has become greater and a spur to radicalization.”

From this it proposes a number of tasks for trade unions, including:

“to take into account the reality of precarisation in all its forms and therefore stimulating and creating the structures to organize all those concerned, in particular by the development of structures beyond enterprises, in the zones of industrial activities, neighbourhoods and localities” and “the imperative need to co-ordinate this organizing on an international scale, relying on the actual networks of the production chains in which the workers are competing against each other. “

It also proposes “the pressing need to create, out of the struggle for rights, a class identity providing resistance movements the programmes necessary to challenge the capitalist structures of society and to carry through a project of overthrowing this system.”

It does not however take on board and develop the remark in the first majority document, that it is necessary “to find more permanent forms of action”, seemingly a recognition that the creation of working class identity, class consciousness and organisation is not simply a result of episodic struggle, and not even of the lower level of continual struggle that is inevitably “reformist” in character, and often too summarily dismissed by ‘revolutionaries.’

Here, it must be noted that trade unions are not a “permanent form of action” in the sense of an international movement, although this is an objective to aim for. As representatives of fragments of the working class, and not the whole, engaged in sectional struggles that can only temporarily push back against the competition of workers as they sell their labour power, they are engaged in “guerrilla fights” as Marx put it, and not against the wages system as such, although they can be schools for such a struggle.

Such a criticism may seem premature and inaccurate, because immediately following the identification of the need for struggle and resistance movements there is a section on just such a mode of self-organisation that may be permanent, one with the potential to advance and secure working class consciousness and organisation – workers’ cooperatives.

The document notes the rise of production cooperatives as part of workers’ and peasants’ resistance to economic crises, and it notes correctly that “these experiences, albeit limited, put forth the question of control, of workers taking back the means of production, and also the choice of production linked to social needs.”  In other words, they provide the material foundation for the working class to appreciate the need for, and their capacity to create, the basis of a new society in opposition to capital and its state.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the experience referred to are not developed, so their role in a transition from capitalism and their potential to form a transformational mechanism to socialism is not appreciated. A different document submitted as part of the debate does however directly address the question and we shall discuss this in a later post.

Instead however, we again have a focus on the tasks of the small revolutionary left, its concerns and its potential for growth, rather than an analysis of the development of the working-class movement as a whole and how Marxists can play a part in this development.

Without this development, not at all reducible to the influence of small groups or to Marxism as a set of ideas or political practice, there is no viable perspective for this Marxism or its adherents.

The failure of such an approach is reflected in the acknowledged frustration of the small revolutionary organisations (SWP, SSP, LCR/NPA) and the organisations of the world justice movement (WSF and ATTAC).  It is noted once more that “Struggles for democracy and social justice as such do not automatically lead to a struggle for the overthrow of the systems of oppression.”

So, it is impossible to understand why in the same section it is stated that “we must address new challenges in the construction of an international revolutionary movement, an anti-capitalist movement based on the defence of rights and social justice.”

The failure of the perspective of attempting to build revolutionary organisations out of struggles for “democracy and justice” is hardly surprising.  In my series of posts on Marx’s alternative to capitalism (starting here) I have begun to point out the contradictions within capitalism out of which its overthrow and replacement can be built.   Such an alternative understanding of Marx and his approach is not the basis of the perspectives put forward by the FI for building a working-class party.

The third majority document addresses the role the Fourth International sees for itself, the tasks it should set itself and is the subject of the next post.

The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (1) – Capitalist globalisation and imperialism


The next series of posts will review some documents and debates arising from the most recent 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (FI), commonly referred to as the USec (United Secretariat), which is perhaps the largest of the inheritors of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International set up in 1938.  It was held in February and the documents discussed and reviewed are published on the ‘International Viewpoint’ web site here.

I will review the positions of the majority and then the minority documents, including a debate on the experience of Greece and in particular the role of Syriza.  I have attended two such meetings before and was for over 35 years a member of the organisation.  In my experience, it was the most democratic of the small Trotskyist formations although its internal life was by no means unblemished, and some minority opinions expressed in the documents reviewed criticise the democratic functioning of the organisation.  Since I have no way of verifying the claims and counter claims I am not going to make any judgement on the questions raised.

I should mention that my experience is limited and has not included membership of FI organisations in less developed countries, which are important components of the FI and its supporters, including the Philippines, Pakistan and Brazil.

During my membership, you could say and write what you wanted. Organised tendencies and factions were allowed, and the texts reviewed are testament to the continued existence of these democratic rights.  The FI also had the significant benefit that it contained people with critical faculties and different views who wanted to discuss and debate.  In most other formations the lack of debate, of discussion of real differences, lies not just in the lack of democratic functioning but in the lack of any significant divergence in views among members.  In other words, the sect-like internal life of these organisations had penetrated the membership, who in my experience often rejected charges that their organisations were undemocratic because they didn’t really have anything different to say anyway.

If this often unhappy consequence of being a member of one of the small Trotskyist organisations did not and has not infected the FI, the size and position of the organisation means that it nevertheless suffers from other shortcomings.  It is in no position to implement its programme to any real extent, and years of such inability means it has been unable to learn the lessons that such an ability would have facilitated.

This has telescoped its concerns to the one area in which it has some real and direct responsibility, which is building its own organisations. Unfortunately, this has only helped exaggerate its focus on the idea that the decisive problem currently facing Marxists and the working class more generally is building a revolutionary party; as if we were in the 1920s or 1930s with a mass working class movement ideologically under the influence of socialist politics and the various currents of that movement.  If such were the case then trying to create a mass revolutionary party from an already radicalised class would, at least on the face of it, have some plausible rationale, even if it failed in the more propitious circumstances of these years.

Today, it’s as if the question of revolutionary leadership of the working class is currently decisive even when the working class is no longer in its majority committed to the socialist project in any of its forms, whether reformist or revolutionary.  The majority of the working class may favour reforming capitalism but this is not as a result of commitment to a reforming socialism, to which a revolutionary alternative may be posed as the more or less immediate alternative.

The current series of posts are not meant to be anything more than some commentary to the texts discussed and are not comprehensive alternatives.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The majority document on the world situation is more descriptive than analytical and tends to pithy statements and aphorisms that are unhelpful.

We are told that “the state of war is permanent”, although for much of the population in Europe, North America and other countries war is not a directly experienced phenomenon, while for others it is a daily horror.

We are told that “the social fabric is disintegrating”, where again for much of the world it is not.

“Peoples” are paying an “exorbitant price” for the new neoliberal order” but there is no definition of what this neoliberal order is, or whether the rise of populist nationalism across the globe is bringing neoliberalism to an end.  Too often the document counterposes this neolibreral order to ‘government’. i.e. state intervention, or to put it in Marxist terms, counterposes the capitalist system to the capitalist state that defends it.

This neoliberal order is supposed to lead to structural instability and “to a state of permanent crisis.”  This is repeated in terms of capitalist globalisation accommodating itself to “crisis as a permanent state of affairs”.  But, as Marx said, there is no such thing as a permanent crisis; and if the statement is meant to refer to a permanent political crisis, then unfortunately the word “crisis’ becomes so unfocused as to be rendered unhelpfully imprecise.

Reading the documents of the majority brought that old feeling back when I read these sorts of texts in the past and wondered – what is being said here?  As if aware of the problem of their view of ‘crisis’, the authors say that “if this is really the case, we must profoundly change our view of crisis as a particular moment between long periods of ‘normality’”, although this helps explain nothing.  We are left wondering what is meant by suggesting we live in a period of permanent crisis and what it implies for the working class and socialist politics?

The lack of clarity continues when the document discusses “the global justice movement’, which with “the consequences of climate change . . . also offer a new field of potentially anti-capitalist convergences. However, the lasting effects of the defeats of the workers’ movement and of neoliberal ideological hegemony, the loss of credibility of the socialist alternative, counteract these positive trends. It is difficult to situate within a longer-term perspective the sometimes considerable – success of protest movements.”

The search for ‘resistance and ‘struggles’ (partly a product of the usually marginal character of Trotskyist organisations) means they don’t have a clear perspective on the nature of protest movements or what sort of perspective they could possibly have without a class-conscious workers’ movement.

So the document starts not from the latter in order to assess the former, and thus gets the focus the wrong way round, like looking through a telescope from the wrong end.  No amount of success for protest movements will achieve socialism and the key question facing Marxists is the reason for, and what can be done about, the defeats of the working class and its current low level of socialist consciousness.

Later we are told that “we have well and truly entered a world of permanent wars (plural)” and stands for internationalism, but situates the difficulties for it within a general “humanitarian crisis”. Internationalism is posited as the task of “militant left currents and social movements in particular”.

We are told that “After a period when the very concept of internationalism was often disparaged, the global justice wave, then the multiplication of “occupations” of public squares or districts, have restored it to its full importance. Now it is necessary for this revived internationalism to find more permanent forms of action.”

It leaves largely ignored that it is the internationalisation of production and the political forms which grow upon it that forms the material basis for the working class to develop its organisation and class consciousness, the only class that can present itself as the bearer of these international relations in a progressive form and that can form the basis of “more permanent forms of action.”  No protest movement can do this, and running after the next one that comes along without situating it within a perspective of working class organisation is the perpetual short cut that small organisations excel in, and which are a short cut to ever diminishing circles.

As a framework of analysis that would allow Marxists to understand the world capitalist system, in all its variety and complexity, the document fails.  Good points within it are simply only that.  Its lack of clarity is exhibited in many ways including the questions it poses at the end, which include – “are we in a period of long stagnation?”

The first majority document ends by informing readers that “the analysis of the dynamics of popular resistance is the subject of the second text presented for discussion at the next World Congress; and the conditions of construction of militant parties that of the third.”

In its content the first document partially anticipates both of these because it has so little to say on how the capitalist system is working today and what this means for the working class, in its composition, organisation and potential class consciousness.  The second and third majority documents will be the subject of the next posts.

YES – Repeal the Eighth 66.4%!

It’s the numbers that make the Repeal the Eighth Amendment referendum such a brilliant result.  And a result not just for Ireland but one awaited in many other countries.

In the last week or so of the campaign it was widely believed that the result would be close, and I was preparing to write a post that the narrow win would only be another beginning, that the fight to introduce real abortion rights would face the opposition of a ‘pro-life’ movement that would not accept the result.

We would be faced with an opposition prepared to oppose the limited legalisation proposed by the Government and a movement claiming, as it had already done, that the referendum was in some sense rigged, that they had been ‘silenced’, that the result was not fair and not therefore accepted.

None of that now has any credibility.  Not just in Dublin; not just in urban Ireland; not just among the young; not just among the middle classes and not just among women. The majority in all areas, except in one constituency, and among all age groups, except the eldest, not just women but also men, voted YES to repeal.

There was some concern that those most committed were those zealots inspired by the Catholic Church, all the more determined, as they witness the credibility of their church rotting in front of their eyes.

But it was the YES voters who made sure the turnout was so large, and it was those who witnessed the experience of Savita Halappanaver and were appalled; who appreciated the experience of the thousands of women forced to travel for an abortion – it was they who turned out and determined the result.

It was the YES voters, the young Irish women travelling from Britain, Europe, Australia, Japan and Brazil just to vote, who demonstrated the passion that impressed most.

I was in Leitrim, Sligo and Mayo at the start of the week and the majority of posters were calling for No.  Yet in all the areas I visited the majority voted Yes.

The TV pundits are saying the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ voters, who were expected to be NO voters, would make the result closer, but it was the ‘quiet’ and ‘shy’ YES voters who won it, and they won’t be so shy and quite in future.  It’s those who had the courage to speak out who will have given many of these voters the confidence to vote YES.

Thirty-five years ago, the electorate voted two to one to put a constitutional ban on already-illegal abortion into the State’s constitution. But that was before the exposure of the Church’s litany of abuse of women and children and before the X case and that of Savita Halappanaver, and before many women gained the confidence to tell the truth that abortion was already a choice of many Irish women and weren’t prepared to accept any stigma for that choice.

In 2018 a majority of two-to-one voted to repeal the amendment put in place in 1983 and it is being said that a revolution has taken place in the views of many Irish people – a revolution that has developed over the past years, not weeks or months.

Exit polls record that the majority had decided how to vote before the campaign and that the question of choice was what made up their mind.  This, along with the stronger support among the young, means this victory is not going to be reversed.

But this does not mean that I was wholly mistaken in saying that a new fight would just be beginning.

The reactionaries will not be able to prevent the Government’s legislation passing, although we must be ever-vigilant.  The real fight will be to make access to abortion a reality and not just a legal right and practical difficulty.

This will require not just opposition to ‘pro-life’ intimidation, but also a strenuous fight to make the medical profession responsive to women’s needs and a political campaign to make the state provide the health services women need to turn their often-fine words into reality.

Leo Varadkar basked in the reflected glory of a YES victory and went off on a Fine Gael party political broadcast for a moment in his speech after the result, but the record of the Irish state in providing health services for its people is not one to be particularly proud of.

We are still a long way from a society where women can decide whether to have children based on a free choice in which they are neither compelled by economic and social circumstance nor the diktats of misogynist religion and its state helpers.  Such a society requires an altogether more wide-ranging struggle, but the YES vote has brought that society closer and the real obstacles to it more clearly into view.



Repeal the Eighth!

It is one of the ironies that afflicts the Irish State when it comes to its treatment of women that the last couple of weeks has seen its health services in the dock for its disregard for their health at the same time as the climax to the referendum on whether to repeal the amendment to the constitution that criminalises abortion.

The Health Services Executive (HSE) decided that it would not inform women that the cervical smear test that showed a negative result was wrong, and that they did in fact have cancer.  At least 162 were not informed about their findings.  Of those who could have had earlier intervention if the tests had not been false 18 have died.

Politicians are now declaring their shock, and sympathy with the women and their families, while they sit on top of a state with a long, long history of such secrecy and disregard for women’s rights.  In fact, many are now defending this denial of rights through their support to retain the eighth amendment, which has led to women dying because of its elevation of the foetus over the woman who carries it.

The issue in both is about control.  Do women have control over their own bodies?

In the case of the cervical smear scandal, it was the state and its medical professionals who decided that women would not know about the potential threat to their life.  In the case of women who seek to control their own bodies through control of their womb, it is the state and its medical professionals who are held up as arbiters of the extent of this control, with some seeking to limit it altogether.

If tragedies alone led to change then fundamental change would have happened a long time ago, but it has taken the struggle of women and the revelation of the scandalous behaviour of the Catholic Church to bring about change.

The failures of the outsourced cervical screening service and the HSE were exposed not through any change of heart by the state, but by the bravery of one woman suffering from terminal cancer, who took a court case against the US testing company.  In the case of the fight for abortion rights, it was not the X case or the death of Savita Halappanaver or any of the others that has made repeal of the eighth a possibility.  These would have shocked and appalled and led to nothing but the next tragedy, were it not for the movement to demand the rights of women, led by women themselves.

A vital factor nevertheless has undoubtedly been the crushing of the reputation of the Catholic Church, whose moral authority has been fatally undermined for many because of the child abuse carried out by its priests and ‘holy’ orders; its actions to protect the abusers by moving them around the country so they could abuse again, and their failure to pay the minimal compensation to their victims that they campaigned shamelessly to reduce or avoid.

Yet still, despite this litany of infamy, they control the vast majority of primary schools and have massive influence over health service provision.  They continue to do so because of a continuing alliance with the state.

On 25th there is a chance to continue the campaign to reverse this, and repeal the eighth amendment.  Opinion polls show a reduced but still substantial lead in favour of repeal, with support for repeal highest among the young and urban population, especially in Dublin.  Views on both sides appears to have strengthened, hardly surprising given the age-old tactics of the reactionary ‘pro-life’ campaign.

If repealed the Government has promised to legislate for limited abortion rights up to 12 weeks and the anti-abortion rights campaigners have claimed this will open up Ireland to UK-type abortion provision, including abortion of the disabled.  Nothing they can do however will prevent UK abortions, including those of the thousands who travel from Ireland to have the procedure carried out.  Not that it hasn’t been tried, but imprisoning 14 year old rape victims who become pregnant was not a popular policy.

The growth in support for women’s rights among the young and urban population testifies to a transition and transformation in views, also reflected in opinion polls.  While 54% of respondents in the latest agreed with the statement that they have reservations about provision of abortion but feel the 12 weeks in  proposed legislation is “reasonable compromise’; 62% also agreed that “the law in Ireland needs to recognise a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.”

This movement for, and of, women to take control is reflected not just in the possibility of repeal but in the potential for a continuing movement to advance women’s rights and in the courage of some to express their support for abortion rights and opposition to the insults of its reactionary opponents.

Working class women will not gain control over their lives without a veritable social revolution that they can only achieve in unity with working class men, but such unity is impossible if women are unable to control their own bodies and own lives in the most basic of ways.  For a socialist, these are aspects of a single struggle against oppression and for a new fee society in which everyone can flourish.

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 2

The previous post raised a host of issues and it would take a great deal of time to address all of them adequately. Instead I’ll limit myself to only four, which I will still only touch upon.

1.In Marx’s time the main form of the petty bourgeoisie was the peasantry.   This class has declined dramatically across Europe, North America and Japan and is declining relatively in the rest of the world.  By contrast the working class, those that live by their wage labour, has grown enormously, and continues to do so, most recently in East Asian countries including China.  An ILO report from 2013 reported that in 2011 the world-wide labour force employed in agriculture was 1.208 billion, while that working in industry and services totaled 2.057 billion.  There may be more recent figures and more detailed analysis but the basic point would only be reinforced.

These trends are important because they reveal not just class numbers loosely defined but property relationships and class relationships as understood by Marxists. They reveal the growth of the class that Marx held was the grave-digger of capitalism and reduction in that class which owns, or is otherwise tied to, the means of production as land.  It also reveals the increasing role of capital and the class that personifies it. After all, the growth of wage labour and the working class implies the growth of capital that employs and exploits this wage labour.

2. It is argued that there is an emergence of a petty bourgeoisie and the example of Britain is referred to, where “the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million.” Given that the population of the UK is 65.6m the petty bourgeoisie would be over 17% of this population.

But who are these petty bourgeoisie?  Well 76% of these small firms don’t employ anyone.  In Marxist parlance, they don’t exploit labour power. Of the remaining small businesses 96% employ an average of 1.6 workers.

On the other hand, seven thousand large businesses employ 40% of the labour force and account for 49% of total turnover of business.  The rest of the labour force, and just over half of the turnover, is accounted for 5,687,000 businesses. We therefore have a position in which 96% of businesses have fewer than 10 employees.

Over the 15 years from 2001 to 2016, in each year, 10% to 12% of businesses die while 10 to15% of businesses are born. Over ten years the odds aren’t good on surviving, although obviously, many do.  Not so far the makings of a powerful social class.

So over three quarters of the “petty bourgeoisie” don’t employ labour power.  They are self-employed.  So who are these self-employed?

It is first necessary to note that this group has grown in the UK over the last number of years from 3.3 million people in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017, or from 12% of the labour force to 15%.  However, this growth has been driven by those self-employed who employ no one but themselves, accounting for 2.4 million in 2001 and 4 million in 2016.

The level of earnings among the self-employed is lower than those in employment.  The most common level is £400 per week for employees but only £240 per week for the self-employed, and the difference in the median earnings between the two groups has grown during these fifteen years.

Earnings of part time self-employed male workers were only just over half of their total income while almost 34% came from pension and retirement income, which was also the second most important source of income for female part-time self-employed workers, who also relied on benefits and tax credits for over 17% of their total income. Many of the self-employed are therefore at an age to collect their pension, or rely on welfare benefits and tax credits.

In terms of wealth just over 25% of the self-employed do not own property, while a slightly greater proportion (26.9%) of employees own no property.  The proportion owning less than £125,000 is less than 30% but around 35% for employees.  At the highest end about 10% of self-employed have property wealth of £500, 000 and over, while the share is only just over 5% for employees.

Just over 45% of the self-employed have no private pension wealth and the self-employed lag behind employees in all the income ranges of such wealth, from those with private pensions worth less than £25,000 to those that have pensions worth more than £500,000. If we look at financial wealth there is little difference between the two groups in the 35 to 54 age group, although 19.4% of the self-employed fall into the £100,000 and over range while only 12.2% of employees do so.

So even if we took, as a crude estimate, the top 20% of the self-employed as owning significant wealth, wealth that is however not enough to save them from working – as we have seen many still do so after retirement, we are talking about roughly 20% of 4.8m, which is nearly 1 million.

If we repeat the exercise of adding one additional family member, which may be on the low side, we get 2 million people.  If we add the number of small and medium businesses that actually employ people, and also add one family member to each, we get 2.7 million people.  In other words, this method of estimating the petty bourgeoisie gives us a total of 4.7 million, not 11.4.  If we round this figure up to 5 million (this is hardly a scientific exercise anyway) we get a percentage of 7.6% of the UK population. Even if we made a crude estimate to work out this group as a proportion of the adult population, the percentage would be something like 10% of the total population. By no means insignificant but less impressive when we consider the tiny fraction of the population that can be considered as consisting of the capitalist class and the vast majority who can be considered as the working class.

The point of this exercise is only to show that this approach to trying to show the power of a new petty bourgeoisie is faulty.  For example, many of the self-employed are construction workers enticed into such status through tax incentives, while many are described as ‘dependent self-employed’, who have none of the advantages of workers’ rights such as employment protection, holiday and sickness entitlements.  In these ways they are exploited more than many employed workers.

Of course, there are self-employed finance consultants, some making do after redundancy from the City; and others are IT consultants, journalists, engineers, accountants etc.  We have seen that many earn less than ordinary employees and could be more accurately classified as such.  The self-employed include in their ranks taxi drivers, plumbers, hairdressers, lorry drivers, musicians and other artists, as well as a host of others.  Legal definition should not get in the way of class analysis.

3. Belfast Plebian makes reference to the idea that the petty bourgeoisie “lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat.”  So far as Marx was concerned the distribution of surplus value involved the payment of state employees out of the surplus created by workers in the productive sector of the economy through taxation.  By productive sector we mean productive of surplus value.  In this case cleaners in the NHS, civil servants in offices and teachers in schools are all paid from surplus value created by other workers.

Most people would understand these people as part of the working class, and they would be right. Irrespective of legal definition, this is also true of many self-employed workers.

Productive workers (productive of surplus value) are not by that account exploited by these workers, since the latter are paid a wage, not out of capital but out of taxation of surplus value.  Their labour is not exploited but the productive labour from which their wages originate is exploited by capital, which is taxed.  They are paid a wage that generally represents a value equal to their labour power, which may be less than the value that their labour time worked might otherwise produce in the productive sector.

Those self-employed, or highly paid state employees, or even more highly paid managers of capitalist enterprises, may be paid a salary that is so high it would not involve any exploitation, where they productive workers.  That is, their salary would cover not only the value of their labour power, the assumed value created by their necessary labour that corresponds to a normal wage, but also any potential surplus value that they could create, that normally would be appropriated by the capitalist as profit.

It should be recognised that many workers described as middle managers or even senior managers are not in any real sense allied to capital in the suppression of their fellow workers, in their assurance of the social reproduction of the capitalist system.  In the state sector in the NHS for example, you can be a ‘senior manager’ but have little control over the organisation you work for, and such control as you have is simply supervision of more junior staff, and if you’re lucky, some minor control over your own work.

Many professions are being proletarianised, with accountants and lawyers more and more divided between those training and earning a pittance; those qualified and hoping for a decent wage; and those earing smaller or larger fortunes at the top of the profession.

That a worker therefore lives off the surplus value created by another worker, either in the state or private sector, does not therefore make them part of the petty bourgeoisie; just as in the contrary case, someone earning a salary could be paid so much that they are amassing capital through savings. The latter might move from well-paid worker creating surplus value, to a petty bourgeois that isn’t exploited, to a manager aspiring to becoming a capitalist. As we have seen, most self-employed are not in the last camp, not in the second camp either, but are in the first – they are effectively working class.

4. Belfast Plebian states that ‘the division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge, Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism?”

Belfast plebian is right that what he calls the petty bourgeoisie are often skilled workers, as I have argued above.  In contrast to many socialists today, who equate socialism with the interests of simply the poor, it has often been reactionary conservatives who have appealed to skilled workers as a means of dividing the working class.

But Marx makes clear that capitalism makes the working class fit to become the ruling class of society and it has done so by increasingly destroying any basis for the monopolization of knowledge.  As this post makes clear, capitalism has created and is still creating an educated working class, and without it no socialism is possible.  Only a view that socialism arises solely from crisis and oppression can fail to recognise and welcome this development as, far from postponing or calling into question the potential to create a new society, the increasing education of working people makes it more likely.

And what sort of socialism does this make workers receptive to? Well, one in which they can develop to the full their existing freedom, knowledge and capacities, that capitalism has promised and given potential to, but which it frustrates and limits.  That is, not the experience of the Russian revolution, where workers found themselves reliant on ‘bourgeois’ experts, but rather the situation more prevalent now, in which they increasingly find the experts from within their own ranks.

Lenin never made the mistake of thinking socialism relied on the most oppressed, otherwise he would have stood on the ground of the peasantry.  Marxists believe the working class is the potential creator of a single class i.e. a classless society, because it is much more than an oppressed class but has the interests and capacity to liberate the whole of society.

Back to part 1

An exchange of views on Marx’s relations of production 1

In response to an earlier post on Marx’s views on the contradiction between the forces and relations of production, which gives rise to the potential transition to socialism, a comment questioned the relevance of Marx’s views on the relations of production for understanding current society.  This comment is reproduced below and will be followed by a reply in a further post.

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The historical scheme that Marx was familiar with is barely credible for us today. He argued that in the pre-capitalist era there existed two primary social classes the landed nobility and the peasant serfs. Then a third class emerged that developed the productive forces to a higher degree than was normal for feudalism, this class he called the bourgeoisie. The economic activity of the bourgeoisie really quite quickly brought into play a new class of wage labourers called the proletariat. So we had a transition out of feudalism requiring three classes, being superseded by a capitalist society involving only two primary social classes. The argument then goes the further development of the productive forces within capitalism requires another transition into a society consisting of only one social class, the ‘associated producers’. So we start with three social classes and end up with only one social class, this is not of conscious choice but due mainly to the economic rationality implicit in the act of developing the productive forces. 

The problem is that the schema leaves out the emergence of another social class that we like to dismiss all too readily, called the petty bourgeoisie. It has been a fixed point or Marxism to refer to this social class as a declining or disappearing social class, it is often referred to in the language of harsh politics as the reactionary or conservative social class, Trotsky even spoke about fascism in terms of the petty bourgeoisie having gone wild. The empirical evidence for the gradual disappearance of the petty bourgeoisie is based on economic criteria and not actual sociological numbers, what one could call a political criteria. In Britain for example the number of small firms paying taxes to the State as documented by government statistics is 5.7 million. a small firm in the statistics is defined as employing 250 people or less. Many of the 5.7 million we can presume to have families of at least one other person, so the number of people belonging to the petty bourgeoisie could be said to be about 11. 4 million. This is close to the 12 million who for about one hundred years have been voting for the Conservative Party.

One economic argument that is deployed to downgrade the social importance of the petty bourgeoisie is that the numerically large small business class is in the last instance dependent and subordinate to the real bourgeoisie that in numerical terms is very small, the so called 1 percent. So despite the large numbers, the petty bourgeoisie is responsible for a falling portion of the GDP. The assumption is that small businesses are by definition less efficient than large businesses, small farms and small shops etc. are sure to be eliminated by the larger efficient firms. 

The historical argument is that the petty bourgeoisie is bound to decline and disappear because they stand as an obstacle in the way of the further development of the productive forces. This was taken as basic to Marxist analysis until Nicos Poulantzas in his book Classes in Contemporary Capitalism proposed an account for an emergent class standing between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat that was qualitatively different from the historic property owning petty bourgeoisie, he called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’. He used three criteria to differentiate the new petty bourgeoisie, the most important being their supervisory and management position role within the monopoly firms. They were the numerous senior and junior managers, work supervisors, scientists, engineers, accountants, technical and legal staff advisers that the absentee bourgeoisie needed to maintain their portfolio owned firms :

‘The division of mental and manual labour is directly bound up with the monopolisation of knowledge,the capitalist form of appropriation of scientific discoveries and the reproduction of ideological relations of domination/subornation, by the permanent exclusion on the subordinated side of those who are deemed not to know how’

One revolutionary characteristic of this new petty bourgeoisie was their interest in developing the productive forces to the highest degree possible, maybe this might make them a potential resource for a transition to socialism but experience suggested otherwise. This looks like the very same class of ‘knowing people’ that Lenin had to call on to maintain and modernise the factories, and the same class that Stalin had to offer special economic privileges to keep them loyal, and the same knowledge class that eventually overthrew ‘socialism’ in the Soviet Union.

In short a third social class emerged between the two classes of bourgeois and proletarian, Poulantzas called them the ‘new petty bourgeoisie’, and this class does have an interest in the further development of the of the productive forces. It is because of the obvious presence of this social class that bourgeois commentary assures itself of the long term stability of capitalism, bourgeois commentary in academia and journalism operates under the assumption that we inhabit a class divided yet solid bourgeois society. The working class is an integral part of bourgeois society but it is not the only the real stakeholder, the big bourgeois in the form of the bankers and the global bond holders can be hated and despised without fear of social instability because they also are not the solid part, it is the the political solidarity of the old and the new petty bourgeois that really preserves the private property basis of capitalism.

Those ‘Marxists’ who do acknowledge the mediating role of the petty bourgeoisie try to save the two class schema of Marx by classifying the new petty bourgeoisie in terms more akin to high skilled workers and therefore still make them receptive to a future socialism, but what sort of socialism? Could it be the socialism of a new class society that became the Soviet Union? The class that came to organise the Soviet Union seems to fit with the three criteria Poulantzas used to define the new petty bourgeoisie that emerged out of monopoly capitalism:

1 They lived off a surplus extracted from the manual proletariat. 2 They conducted supervisory activity over other workers. 3 They performed mental labour and possessed specialised knowledge of a scientific kind.

Forward to part 2