Brexit and the Good Friday Agreement 1

The British parliament has voted for a no deal Brexit through the Tory demand that the backstop, that would prevent a hard border inside Ireland, should be removed.  Theresa May has gone to Europe (again) and been told the Withdrawal Agreement will not be re-opened for negotiation.  Her humiliation (again) was partially avoided by attention switching to Donald Tusk’s remark about a special place in hell for those who led Brexit without a plan.

Theresa May continues to kick the can down the road in an attempt to blackmail MPs into supporting her deal as the only way to avoid a no deal exit.  The alternative is an extension of Article 50 to postpone the dreaded decision.

But lo and behold, here then comes Jeremy Corbyn to overturn his demand that the Withdrawal Agreement pass his six tests and instead he demands five tests from the Political Declaration. Since this declaration has no legal force it is purely a political document, which doesn’t make it unimportant but does mean it can contain all sorts of pious wishes and contradictory or impossible elements that could in large part contain what Corbyn has said he wants.  Less charitably it’s not binding and not worth the paper it’s written on.

This may have three effects. It gets May’s deal over the line and we have Brexit.  It makes the Tory deal the basis of this Brexit and it makes them responsible for whatever ensues – as in British business continuing to shift to the rest of Europe that remains part of the EU.  A fourth effect is that Corbyn is seen to be consistent in his demand for a ‘jobs’ Brexit while also sticking to Labour Party policy.

Of course, only one of these is true – the most important one – that Brexit happens.  Corbyn having facilitated Brexit will also own it, and will not be seen to have put into effect what the majority of Labour members thought they were getting from the party’s conference resolution.

In one sense, in supporting the May deal, Corbyn can claim consistency, since both he and May have claimed benefits for Brexit that do not exist; and both have tried to ignore the wishes of the majority of the members of their respective parties.  Left supporters of Brexit claim that such a deal will split the Tories but they ignore the parallel process in the Labour Party.

To hide their complicity in this Tory project the left Brexiteers now regularly claim it doesn’t really matter because Brexit isn’t that important – we shouldn’t get that worked up about it, and really we shouldn’t take sides.  But if there’s one argument that really gets my goat it is this one – having voted for Brexit and a Tory initiative they are trying to cover their tracks.  Their argument is not only bogus but thoroughly dishonest.  Like the right-wing supporters of Brexit the project can only get by on lies, and it doesn’t matter who is telling them, for what purpose or with what motivation.

Corbyn is in the process of betraying the membership in a disregard for their views that equals that of Tony Blair, from whom he was supposed to be so different.  The only hope here is that May does not feel able to get her deal through her party with Labour support and/or the ranks of the Labour Party rise up to prevent the biggest betrayal yet, as they did with the leadership attempt to abstain on Tory immigration plans.

It is not therefore exluded that no deal will happen.

This has provoked the charge that the Tories are effectively tearing up the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). This is sometimes followed by the forecast that this will lead to a vote for a united Ireland on the basis that the majority in the North of Ireland supported and continue to support remaining in the EU.

I don’t believe this to be true.

First, it’s debateable whether a no deal Brexit would amount to tearing up the Good Friday Agreement, either legally or in spirit.

If we take the legal position first, the UK Supreme Court in 2017 stated that the GFA ‘assumed’ but did not ‘require” UK membership of the EU.  Legal academics have claimed that the GFA requires citizens’ rights in the North, and human rights in particular, to be equivalent with the Irish State, but the GFA does not require the UK to be a member of EU’s human rights institutions or signed up to its standards. The GFA contains provisions for establishment of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights but that’s a dead letter as is the provision for a civic forum.  The North does not have women’s reproductive rights and nor is there the right to gay marriage, unlike the South, but no one is saying that the GFA is therefore dead.

The Common Travel Area will be put under strain by a hard Brexit as EU migrants freely entering through Dublin may be able to cross the border, if that border is ‘soft’, and then travel on to Britain with few checks if there is also no ‘border’ between the island of Ireland and Britain.

Since the main rationale for Brexit was control and reduction of immigration, and its introduction will embolden sundry reactionaries on this score, this will put pressure on to put a border somewhere.  The alternative would be a ‘hostile environment’ inside Britain (and also perhaps Northern Ireland) where daily transactions and activities are used in order to check people’s citizenship status, and we know that the Tories do hostile environments very well.

But these options too may not legally breach the GFA.  So what about its spirit?  Well, this very much depends on what you think the spirit of the GFA is and whether Brexit breaches it.  If you think it was a pacification process that is inherently sectarian then Brexit is hardly going to get you to complain that the GFA’s ‘spirit’ is threatened. What its spirit actually is has been demonstrated in practice, which means you have to ignore the unthinking rhetoric of the great and the good and look at how it has actually worked.

The Agreement has already been mangled and its centrepiece, the Stormont Assembly, has been suspended five times and has currently been suspended for over two years. Other parts of the Agreement, such as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, hardly exist. Much of the waffle composed of promises relating to good faith, non-discrimination, equality, propriety and accountability with public funds, transparency etc. are thoroughly discredited by the reality of an incompetent, corrupt and sectarian Stormont administration.

The DUP never supported the GFA, so it can be no surprise it isn’t working.  Sinn Fein clung on to Stormont up to its most recent suspension until it became clear its voters would no longer tolerate the humiliation involved. They then rejected the party’s idea of a new deal.  The GFA isn’t working so it’s debateable that Brexit preventing it working makes any practical difference.

It has been pointed out that the EU had little to do with the creation of the Agreement and that, for example, the US had a more significant input.  The Agreement itself does not rely on it and the EU is not a party to it.

The letter of the Agreement states that the British and Irish Governments wish “to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union.” There is much about cross-border cooperation on a number of fronts, including agriculture, tourism and health etc. that will all be undermined by a no deal Brexit, but there is nothing that legally invalidates it.

The view that this will lead to a return to political violence rests partly on the lie, repeated endlessly, that the GFA led to the end of political violence, when the truth is that it was the other way round – the ceasefires preceded the political deal and the armed forces that ended the political violence, through the use of much more effective violence, are still present.

So the first part of the argument would appear not to hold; although it is not quite that simple.

to be continued

Brexit – stop digging!

Wayne Asher writes in the International Socialism Journal (ISJ) that “the traditional left in Britain has committed a colossal mistake in its approach to Brexit and is making matters worse by an obsolete refusal to correct it.”

The traditional left, as Asher calls it, is once again exhibiting a failure that can be seen running through its history throughout the twentieth century, involving the subordination of socialist movements to the state, in its nation state form, expressed in a capitulation to nationalism.

The subordination of Social Democracy and its incorporation into the State led to it urging the workers of each country to slaughter each other in World War 1.  This in turn massively reinforced nationalism after the war, leading to an even greater catastrophe in World War 2.

The defeat of the Russian Revolution saw the Stalinist counter-revolution base its politics on the Russian State and more and more on Great Russian nationalism.  Thus today we even have Stalinists who defend Russia (as if it were still a separate social system from capitalism), entirely forgetting why they supported the country in the first place.

The Trotskyist movement has fought a rather lonely battle against this and such has been its isolation many of its subjective adherents are now no more than pale reflections of these larger forces.  So, we often see the espousal of ‘anti-imperialism’ without any progressive or socialist content, and a programme based on state ownership – ‘nationalisation’ –  instead of workers’ ownership.

Also common is a primitive internationalism.  So, for most social democrats the internationalisation of capitalism is to be supported and the working class subordinated to it.  This is expressed in Britain through the majority of Labour MP’s uncritical support for the EU and its supposed progressive agenda.

On the other hand, for Stalinists and the left social democrats influenced by them, the road to socialism remains national and membership of the EU is rejected on this basis.

As for some of those claiming the mantle of Trotskyism, I was reminded of the corruption of organisations claiming to stand on this legacy by a recent article on Brexit by the Irish Socialist Party, which made explicit its perspective of international socialism as simply being the coming together of already socialist nation states.

This view can see no role, except a purely additive one, for the international struggle of workers. In effect, there is no international struggle, at most a solidarity of separate struggles, perhaps still quoting Marx from more than a 150 years ago that the struggle is national in form. Such an approach is really then the Marxist version of the internationalism of nationalism, in which anti-colonial movements reject accusations of their nationalist limitations by saying that they support other nationalist movements, not just their own.  Brexit is yet another example of this left nationalism.

Asher has no difficulty showing that this policy of the organisation of which he was once a member is wrong.  There are however limitations to his critique and his position could be stronger.

The critique is based mainly on the view that the movement for a left Brexit has had no purchase on reality because the supporters of it were so small. In such circumstances he argues that the Brexit project could only be a reactionary one, and so it has obviously proved.

This sort of analysis is the basis on which another organisation I can think of opposed Brexit.  In effect, they have registered the reactionary nature of Brexit in a purely empirical manner by witnessing the nature of its support and effects.  The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party continue to support it by denying this reality and inventing their own.

Asher shows the reactionary character of the support for Brexit – that it is not a movement of the oppressed against austerity and is not a movement of those ‘left behind’.

Its core vote was Tory, reactionary and racist and his article is worth reading on this account alone if anyone is still in any doubt.

However, this recognition of immediate reality does not provide the right starting point for determining how workers should vote.  It is one thing to recognise the reactionary nature of the campaign for Brexit, but to base our own approach simply on this is to believe that our opposition to Brexit is merely contingent, that we could or should look forward to a ‘good’ left Brexit.  It fails to recognise that the effluvia of reaction that has poured forth from the Brexit campaign was not accidental or contingent but faithful to its nature.

Asher states that “Alex Callinicos’s 2015 article warned “the referendum is about the EU as a whole, not just immigration. Socialists in Britain will have to take a stand on the entire project of European integration”.  Unfortunately Callinicos does not seem to have taken his own advice and frames everything in terms of a disembodied racism that stands above everything else, as we discussed in the previous post.

It is not clear that Asher starts from the place recommended by Callinicos either; he appears simply to argue that the immediate weakness of the left and the reactionary nature of the existing Brexit project was enough to determine the attitude of socialists:

“. . . it is quite possible, as Momentum did—to accept the traditional left analysis of the EU and still argue that the correct decision in the 2016 referendum was to argue for Remain. Whatever the levels of oppression and unpleasantness in today’s Britain, they are not the fault of Brussels but of two decades of New Labour and the Tories, and neither were reliant on Brussels to carry through such policies. Socialists who argued for a Remain vote did so not because of illusions in the EU but because they saw that the main issue in the campaign—given the weakness of the left—would inevitably be reactionary nationalism and outright racism.”

He says of the “formally correct position the left (excluding Momentum)” that “it had a formally correct analysis on the nature of the EU but fell into abstraction because it did not take into account the extreme weakness of left-wing forces and the inevitable nature of the Leave campaign in a downturn that has lasted decades.”

We will not go into what all the features of this “formally correct analysis” of the left might be, except to say that I assume it means that – other things being equal, i.e. a stronger left and weaker right – the correct thing would have been to support Brexit.

In this respect, it should be clear from previous posts that I don’t agree with this, and have argued that the working class should not seek to reverse the progress of capitalism into a more backward and purely national form but should rather build its own alternative on the basis of the international development of capitalism.

In this context, I will simply take up one point made in the article.  Asher absolves the Remain left of a belief ascribed to them by Callinicos “that . . .  the underlying assumption of those on the left supporting a Yes vote is that the EU represents, however imperfectly, the transcendence of nationalism and so internationalists and anti-racists should vote for Britain to remain in the EU”.

It’s not clear to me that Asher agrees with this argument, which might be stated slightly differently as being that one reason to support Brexit is that the EU does not, even in an imperfect way, represent the transcendence of nationalism.

This seems to me to be obviously wrong.

Not because the EU transcends nationalism in the sense of superseding it – given the role of the member states in its operation this would not be possible – but because the EU does represent the development of capitalism beyond the restrictions of national boundaries.  The forces of production of modern capitalism in their most developed forms have transcended the restrictions of the nation state and are international in character.

The Brexit debate has been an education in quite how international capitalist production is.  This includes such a range of industries that the Institute of Directors has said that around 30 per cent of companies, and so not just the large ones, have or will shift some or all of their operations out of the UK.

We only need to consider that the Euro is an international currency, with one Central Bank, that has replaced a number of the most important national currencies, including the Deutsche Mark and Franc

Brexit threatens the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, and was designed to end the freedom of movement that allowed this migration to occur. This movement is but another example of the international development of the forces of production.

In this sense then, the EU does (very imperfectly) represent the transcendence of nationalism.

And this is not just in relation to the economy.  The EU has always been a political project and specifically designed to mitigate certain nationalist antagonisms.  Its supranational political structure is still to a large extent the creature of member states but these states have ceded real political power to supranational bodies.  This is true even of the European Parliament, despite the well-known weakness of its powers.

It should nevertheless not be surprising that the largest nation states carry the biggest clout in the EU and that the easiest nationalisms transcended are the smallest, which doesn’t however include the British.  When some are more powerful than others this transcendence can easily be seen as, and is, subordination, but a perspective of going back to a Europe of purely nation states, the logic of Brexit, is quite clearly not a solution to this but a return to the problem.

The economic and political (imperfect) transcendence of nationalism is reflected in the consciousness of Europe’s population.  Brexit has not prompted a growth of opposition to the EU across Europe and the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll shows increased support for it.  This support is far from uniform or unqualified, but even in the UK Brexit has increased the intensity of support for the European Union.

One opinion poll just before Christmas showed that 30 per cent of Germans supported the proposal by the German politician Martin Schulz for a United States of Europe, which was also supported by 28 per cent of French respondents.  Unsurprisingly the UK was lowest in the poll but even here the proposal was supported by 10 per cent, even though such an eventuality is not even presented for debate, except when it is trashed by Brexiteers.

Asher points out that the supporters of Lexit are in a hole and are still digging.  This is a real problem for the relatively small forces that claim to be Marxist.  As an example of where this might ultimately lead we need only look at Russia where the nationalist depths that Stalinist parties have plumbed has resulted in a programme of extreme national socialism.

This is possible, if only because the left supporters of Brexit are as delusional as its supporters on the right.  In fact, their delusions are greater.  Both live in a world in which Britain can become either the standard bearer of a free market world or a beacon of socialism – if only it were freed from the rest of Europe.

How delusional this can be was revealed to me this week when I attended a meeting on the Irish trade union view of Brexit.  Two speakers from the floor ridiculed the prospect of 27 EU countries electing left or anti-austerity Governments, thereby committing the crime of holding back the UK and Ireland from moving forward.

Aside from the admission that the unity of Europe’s workers was therefore considered to be effectively dead; so, it would have to follow, would any prospect of socialism, which is international or it will not exist.

But what was really delusional was that this claim – that we were being held back – was made in Belfast of all places.  Yes, that city renowned throughout Europe as a trail blazer of working class unity!

Where do you start with such nonsense?

In the hands of such people what we have is not Marxism but a dogmatic Marxism which, because Marxism is not a dogma, is no Marxism at all.

If the contribution of Asher has gone even some way to making the left supporters of Brexit stop digging it will have performed a service.  In this light, we might even see the article by Callinicos as an attempt to stop digging.

It would appear however that some people have yet to show signs of stopping.

Lexit – You were never really there

According to the polls not many people have changed their minds since the referendum, although there may be a few signs that this is beginning to change.  Instead a shift to a Remain majority appears to be from the death of mainly older ‘Leave’ voters and entry to voting age of mainly ‘Remain’ young people.

It might be thought that the reactionary mess of Brexit would cause those supporting Lexit to reconsider but the obstacle to this is obviously the politics that got them to this position in the first place.  I tried to get one supporter of Lexit to address this mess by asking him if he was happy with the way Brexit was going, but he refused to answer.

However, a sign that at least some are debating the question is shown in the latest issue of the International Socialism Journal (ISJ), which contains an article that calls for just such a reconsideration.  In fact, it calls on the Socialist Workers Party to recognise that it made a mistake and to correct that mistake.  It refers to the organisation’s earlier position on the European Economic Community as a way of helping it do so, and I have covered this history in a previous post.

The ISJ also contains an article continuing to defend Lexit from one of the leaders of the SWP, Alex Callinicos.  A fair summary of this article would be ‘we were right, and anyway it doesn’t matter that much.’  In my experience this appears to be a common view among Lexit supporters and has the convenient effect of divorcing themselves from the real world consequences of Brexit and their support for it.

We can continue to refer to Brexit (and not Lexit) because this is what was on the ballot paper; this is what the campaigns to leave proposed in the referendum; this is what all the debate about implementation has been about since, and most obviously this is what SWP members voted for when they put their pencil on the ballot paper.

Any claims that they were actually voting for something other than what we are getting could only be true if the world were as SWP members wished it to be, and of course it isn’t. Examples of this denial of the world as it actually is is illustrated by Callinicos’ denial that the Brexit vote was racist while still having to admit that the result ‘partially’ encouraged racism.

Since racism is for him the over-riding issue this in itself should be enough to make him reconsider, but to actually do so would require acknowledgement that his reading of the result is nonsense.  The article by Wayne Asher opposing Brexit in the same issue of the journal demonstrates this and contains enough material from the now widely publicised opinion poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft to show that the Leave vote was thoroughly reactionary.

The core Brexit vote was nationalistic, xenophobic and racist, which is why it encouraged racism afterwards.  It was centred on small capitalists, middle class reactionaries and demoralised workers, many of whom don’t normally vote or habitually vote Tory or UKIP.  Whatever their disaffection with the status quo, their response to this status quo was to blame other victims and ally with those whose policy is to make things worse.  Asher very effectively demolishes any argument that socialists should orient to these people, through what amounts to critical support for their reactionary project on spurious grounds that they are the basis of some anti-austerity protest.

The major argument of Callinicos however is that the issue of Brexit is not really that important – “which is the more important issue – the EU or racism?”  Aside from artificially dividing them into wholly separate issues when even he admits Brexit has encouraged racism, both should be considered together, understanding that Brexit is the key assault on the working class at the moment and raises very important issues for workers and particularly socialists.

He acknowledges that the referendum result has been interpreted as a rejection of free movement for European citizens but draws no conclusions that maybe the result was therefore not for the best.  If Brexit was something progressive why so many reactionary consequences?

To put a veil over all this we are told that despite “this deep political and constitutional crisis . . . the plight of British capitalism is unlikely fundamentally to change in or out of the EU.”  He feigns agnosticism over whether the country will be worse off while acknowledging that supply chains will be disrupted, and states that Brexit has “simply highlighted the limits of the reconstruction of British capitalism under Thatcher.”  A bit like cutting your right hand off to highlight the need to use your left just as well.

Callinicos refuses to acknowledge that the Brexit project will involve increased attacks on workers and that for the ultra-right this is one of its main objectives; he complacently claims that “the dynamics of global crisis will continue to work whatever happens on 29 March, and working people will still face attacks and need to fight back in or out of the EU.”  If or when such attacks come will he be saying that these are simply run-of-the-mill attacks on workers’ living standards – nothing special?  No particular cause?

By counterposing opposition to Brexit to opposition to racism he makes the claim that some Remainers are putting support for the EU ahead of fighting racism and fascism. Aside from his sleight of hand – that opposition to Brexit means support for the EU – it is he who has, to put it in his terms, put support for Brexit ahead of fighting racism and fascism.

He wishes to further divorce himself from responsibility for the project that he has supported by claiming that the rise of racism was happening anyway and that there is a tide of such reaction everywhere – so why blame Brexit?  He ignores, or simply denies, that Brexit has made such racism worse and that Brexit is the project in Britain in which this reactionary movement involving Trump etc. has coalesced.

The idea that you can support Brexit while opposing racism and the racists is absurd – imagine a Lexit contingent on a Brexit demonstration consisting of the English Defence League, Football Lads Alliance and UKIP!

But ‘never mind’ seems to be the message – “where you stand on the EU is a secondary question”.  “There is no reason why we can’t stand together against the main enemy – the bosses and the far right that the crisis of their system is strengthening.”

Yes, the millions of EU citizens working in Britain will see no issue with standing shoulder to shoulder with those who voted for Brexit and placed their right to live and work in Britain in danger.  They shall ignore that it was not just some “crisis of the system” that has strengthened the far right but also Brexit.

In the real world, it is not for these millions of workers, or for the millions of working class Remain voters, to explain to the SWP why they will not join their anti-racist campaigns but for the SWP to explain how they could be their effective allies in fighting racism while still supporting Brexit.

Callinicos claims that in supporting it he is demonstrating that it is not impossible to campaign against the EU on a socialist basis, and that “the arguments for leaving the European Union were substantial and debate-worthy.”

However despite this, and his claim that Brexit was mainly motivated by progressive impulses, he nowhere presents the relevance of Brexit to any progressive struggle that is going on.  Nor does not say how his and other left organisations supporting Brexit are helping to push it in a socialist direction.  In fact he is not able to point to any initiative that is putting a left Brexit on the agenda.  The only attempt at this is the ‘soft’ Brexit so far championed by Jeremy Corbyn, and this would still result in lower living standards and is in any case unworkable.

He admits that “the referendum wasn’t something that the left had campaigned for”, but given the argument that the EU is unreformable and is such an obstacle to progressive change you could be forgiven for seeking an explanation why not?  The campaign however, and its result, has demonstrated that Lexit has been an irrelevance, if not those who consider it in relation to the integrity of socialism and Marxism.

Callinicos admits that the referendum result has threatened to “stoke populists anxieties with unpredictable consequences’ . . . “amid political and perhaps economic turmoil’ but again sees no reason to reconsider his support for what got us here.

Like the Tory Brexiteers who proclaimed the benefits of Brexit but buggered off when it came to implementing it, the supporters of Lexit have turned round to claim that their Platonic love child isn’t really that important.

The final act of abandonment is put forward in the final sentence of the article:  “The radical and revolutionary left too should avoid getting trapped on one side or other of the debate within the ruling class and instead stand ready to promote and help shape “fundamental revolts”.

Having supported “one side”, as he puts it, by supporting Brexit, he now wants to claim that, actually, socialists should now not take sides. Of course if they followed his advice it would conveniently make implementation of Brexit that bit easier.

If only he and the other supporters of Lexit had decided to dump it earlier.  It would have saved themselves, even if it would not have made much difference to the result.

The importance of fighting Brexit

It was entirely appropriate that it was the votes of the DUP that saved Theresa May’s Government in the vote of no confidence. A reactionary Government was saved by the most reactionary and bigoted collection of MPs in parliament.  It is clear that whatever the DUP’s differences over May’s Brexit deal, it did not want to risk a Corbyn alternative.

This illustrates a question for the left in the Labour Party – does it too place Corbyn before taking a position on Brexit?  In the previous few hours before setting to write this post I came across two examples of this question being posed.

The first was a Facebook post which noted that in a Labour party branch, which I think was in London, the Corbyn supporters were moving to drop, or at least lessen, their opposition to Brexit since they considered it was weakening Corbyn’s position.

The second was in another Facebook exchange in which an old comrade of mine from Glasgow argued that “For me ending austerity by removing the Tories is the most important thing. I oppose Brexit within that context. I don’t support remain if austerity is to continue. I oppose Brexit as part of a working-class fightback so don’t have common cause with remain Tories or the labour right or the SNP.”

A third exchange posts an article which makes the claim that the argument over Lexit is irrelevant and that the only possible Brexit now is a reactionary one.  The first two Facebook exchanges shows that this is not the case.

The first – to support Corbyn by accepting his policy of a Labour “jobs Brexit” – is to support Corbyn by ditching ‘Corbynism”,  or rather to support Corbyn by ditching what is best in Corbynism; accepting the worst of his national reformist politics that will destroy the potential of his better policies.

Outside the EU large numbers of businesses will close, re-locate to mainland Europe and reduce their presence in Britain.  Those that remain will find the costs of trading with their biggest trading partner increase and their competitiveness reduce.  The value of the currency will fall, living standards will decline and the potential for the state to deliver redistributive policies and provide a satisfactory welfare state will be reduced.  The British economy will be set back and then probably stagnate or grow more slowly. At the very least it will decline relatively to its European neighbours.

All this of course will be a thousand times worse if there is no deal at all.

This leaves out the reactionary political effects of withdrawal, which is predicated on foreigners being responsible for British problems.  This is the common analysis of both left and right opposition to membership of the EU.

The left blames a supposedly unreformable neoliberal EU, with its laws against state aid etc. and the right blames immigration and Brussels for undermining British freedom. In effect they both stand up for the independence and sovereignty of the British State and its parliament against a supposed Brussels bureaucracy.  In the shape of Stalinism the language is often identical.  It gets ludicrous when there are claims that Lexit means self-determination for Britain, as if it were an oppressed nation, which of course is precisely the logic of the Lexit case.

It would therefore appear that the only way to save Corbynism is to save the man from himself, and since such a thing is very rarely possible it means facing the question of saving ourselves from his Brexit policy.

Confused political events are often accompanied by confused ideas and nothing illustrates this more than Corbyn standing by the principle that any Brexit deal must involve a permanent customs union with the EU.

Unfortunately this makes no sense.  The current trading arrangements that exist in the EU, and which Corbyn says must be maintained, owe a lot more to the existence of the Single Market than to the customs union. Corbyn says he wants Britain to be part of a Single Market but there is only one Single Market and leaving the EU, as Corbyn wants, will mean leaving it and leaving the free trading arrangements the benefits of which he wants to maintain.

Remaining in a customs union with the EU will not remove the need to negotiate trade agreements with the EU or with all the other countries with which Britain now trades through deals negotiated with the EU.

No doubt Corbyn would want these deals to continue to apply to Britain, just as he wants the benefits of the Single Market and just as he wants Britain to have a say in how the EU negotiates its trade arrangements; but this simply shows the have-cake-and-eat-it delusional character of the proposed Labour Brexit.

The attempt to strike such a deal would be an ignominious failure and be just as humiliating as the repeated embarrassing episodes of Theresa May’s European adventures.  My friend in Glasgow is therefore wrong when he says that “a Corbyn renegotiation could be useful if he highlighted anti-working class aspects of the present set up.”  If Corbyn highlighted them he would only put the spotlight on his own failure to remove them.

More importantly, it is wrong because reforming the EU will not come from the British State getting the rules changed, but from British workers – with the help of a Corbyn Government – uniting with other EU workers and their political parties in getting the rules changed for the whole EU, not pursuing exemptions for one member state.

To be fair to my Glasgow comrade, he knows that such an attempt to negotiate a Labour Brexit will fail, but he does not factor in the consequences of such a failure, which is to weaken any Corbyn administration that attempted it.  Here we will leave to one side what he might then decide to do when he did fail.

And this brings us to the second way in which a correct policy of utmost opposition to Brexit is the only correct socialist policy, for the comrade says that “for me ending austerity by removing the Tories is the most important thing. I oppose Brexit within that context. I don’t support remain if austerity is to continue. I oppose Brexit as part of a working-class fightback so don’t’ have common cause with remain Tories or the labour right or the SNP.”

Opposing Brexit as a principle does not entail automatic common cause with remain Tories or the labour right or the SNP.  As an opponent of Scottish independence the comrade will know that it was possible to take this position without joining with the Tories in the ’Better Together’ campaign. Similarly, it is possible also to support a second EU referendum without forming an alliance with the Peoples Vote movement.  In fact a Labour Party socialist campaign for such a vote and a campaign to Remain would transform this demand, making it a potential rallying point for millions of Labour supporters and voters opposed to Brexit and austerity.

Saying that “I don’t support remain if austerity is to continue” is pointless since if Remain does not win the current austerity can only increase.

In this respect it is vital to understand that Brexit can only damage the interests of the working class.

Consider this.  The hard-right of the Tory party want to leave the EU in order to impose a low wage, low tax, deregulated sweat shop off the coast of mainland Europe and the EU is afraid of this competition.  The Withdrawal Agreement repeatedly sets out the steps that the EU wants in place to prevent this from happening.  As socialists we want to prevent it as well, so we agree with the EU on preventing such a project – one very concrete illustration of why Remain is the correct policy for socialists.

The next question is whether such a deregulated Brexit policy is the only one possible.  Apart from the obvious fact that it is the only one on offer, and no collaboration between the Labour Party and Theresa May will change this, the answer lies in considering what could be the potential alternatives to such a Brexit.

The reason why Corbyn wants to leave, but wants nothing related to trade to change, is because all trade related changes that must inevitably result from Brexit will weaken the British economy and weaken any potential for a social-democratic Britain.  Outside the EU a Britain with a similar regulatory framework as the EU will find it harder to compete, not just because of trade barriers that would have to rise up, but because production restricted within the UK, within one country (as necessarily must be the case to a greater extent when outside the EU) will be less efficient than the continental scale production within the EU.

Outside the EU Britain will more and more become a competitor to the EU if it is not to become simply a satellite of it.  This will be the inevitable result of a reactively small Britain seeking trade deals with more powerful nations such as the US and China.  Such competition will not drive regulatory standards up; it must be obvious that it will be quite the opposite.

The view of the Stalinist supporters of Brexit that the British state can take over production to create a state-led economic development that will compete with the EU, US and China etc. simply ignores the failure of such a project in the Soviet Union.  How many times does it need to be proved that there can be no socialism in one country, and no social democracy in one country either? Only on an international basis would it be possible to lift corporate taxes, or taxes on the richest billionaires, to raise the cost of welfare services through extended provision or significantly raise the terms and conditions of workers.  Only on an international basis is it possible to have the most efficient production upon which a new economy can be developed.  The looming collapse of the car industry in Britain is negative proof of this.

In a further comment the comrade says that “In effect, Corbyn is using the threat of no deal to win a GE (General Election). Quite right too. That is what I am saying. If faced with the certainty of a no deal Brexit remain Tories will vote for a GE.”

The problem with this of course is that the Tory Remainers have been exposed as spineless.  More importantly, the threat of no deal comes from the Tory Government.  Both it and Labour pursuing a similar bluff could end up with both delivering a busted flush.

In less than a day we have seen May’s call for all-party talks to be a sham.  Her spokespeople have said that she will make no significant changes to her Withdrawal Agreement.

As we have noted above, accommodating Corbyn’s demand for membership of a customs union will not even achieve the objectives of its sponsor. Only Single Market membership will do that and neither the EU nor Tory Brexiteers will swallow this and the latter will not accept a customs union.  On its own a customs union will not do away with the need for an Irish back-stop so neither the DUP or Tory Brexit ultras will accept it.  Were Theresa May to attempt a deal with the Labour Party on this basis the Tories would most likely split.

Pivoting to the ultra-Brexiteers in her own Party by ditching the backstop would fall foul of the EU and expose May’s promise as an outrageous lie.  This sort of Brexit would also fail in Westminster.  It would not be enough for the Brexiteers as the transitional deal involving all-UK customs union membership would still remain and still be unacceptable to the ultras.  This too would have to go but this, even where the EU to agree, would raise problems of implementation similar to no deal.

Since the issues haven’t changed the favoured solution of Theresa May cannot be expected to change much either.  And neither can her strategy of threatening no deal in order to get her own agreement accepted.

But this is really a threat to blow one’s own brains out.  It hasn’t been credible, which is why May lost the vote on her deal so heavily, but now that more people are beginning to think that it may be, the Tory Chancellor has been telling business not to worry, it’s not going to happen.

Just as Theresa May previously threatened Brexiteers with no-Brexit and Remainers with no deal, now she is in effect threatening parliament with no deal while promising the capitalists that it won’t happen. She needs to do this because if the latter start to believe that no deal is a real possibility they will take direct action to stop it.  The pound will fall and major announcements of disinvestment will follow.

In such a situation, in which no successful move seems possible for any of the parties, the strains between them will cause something to break.

The EU has no reason to strike a new deal with any British party when none can guarantee to deliver.  There is no reason for them to offer any compromise to anyone.  A collection of MPs from all the parties would not have the capacity or authority (in any sense of that term) to offer an alternative deal to the EU.

Any significant shift by May from her existing deal in any direction would destabilise the Tory Party and lead to the defection of the ultras or even some Remainers. It is unlikely enough MPs will be scared enough to pass her deal.

In these circumstances no deal or no Brexit is most likely, although not inevitable.  Extending the timescale of Article 50 simply extends the problem and would in itself intensify the crisis.  In such circumstances it is necessary to oppose no deal and fight for no Brexit.  And that is why it matters that socialists prioritise the battle against it.

For socialists inside the Labour Party the fight starts within the Party so that the views of the vast majority of the membership are imposed on the leadership.  In these circumstances the membership cannot allow Corbyn to place himself in the way. They must reject any potential blackmail in the same way that they have rejected the blackmail threat of no deal.  In my younger days certain political questions were called ‘the acid test’. Brexit is that test for socialists today.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 30 – base and superstructure 3

In the last post I noted the view that change in the material base of society, its forces and relations of production, cannot be viewed as a result simply of superstructural change, i.e. a change in the nature of the state.

There is an additional reason why this is the case.  This is because the state is not simply a superstructural phenomenon.

At first sight this might seem to invalidate the first criticism – that the state cannot be the agent of changing the material base of the forces and relations of production because it is purely a superstructural phenomenon.

The state is central to constituting and reproducing capitalism both in its economic role of direct state production and also in the many roles that involve supporting private capital accumulation. It is for example, vital to the reproduction of labour power through the provision of health, education and social services in addition to direct involvement in industries typically carried out by private capital, such as energy.

More generally it is also necessary for the reproduction of the legal framework within which capitalism operates – property law, contract law and the employment of an apparatus that enforces these through courts, police, regulatory bodies and inspectors etc.

The state encompasses economic and social tasks as well as the tasks of defending the existing relations of production through its laws, courts, judiciary, executive and legislative bodies, police and armed organisations.  Marxists propose the destruction of these but not the services the state otherwise provides such as health, education and social services.

But are these to continue to operate in the same way after a genuine socialist revolution, with only the purely political aspects of the state democratised?  The traditional Marxist view is that these political aspects – parliament, local government, quangos etc. are not to be democratised but replaced – by workers councils or other workers’ delegate or representative structures.  So what about direct state industry and services?

Marx’s answer would be to ask why these should be provided by the state at all?

As I have argued before, state ownership is not socialism and many of the tasks currently carried out by the state today would not be carried out by the state in a society arising from working class emancipation.  The provision of education, health and social services would not be carried out by the state but by the workers involved in delivering these services alongside those in receipt of them.

So not only is state ownership not a model of socialism within capitalism today; state ownership would not be a model of socialism so tomorrow.  It would not constitute socialism – the direct rule of the working class.  In such a worker-governed society these services would not be under the direction of the state’s bureaucracy and its executive.

By definition the state is a body standing separate and above society, at least partially insulated from its demands and requirements. None of these services should be in such a position, legally or organisationally.  They are part of the structure of society, of its forces and relations of production, as much a part of society’s productive powers as any other, consisting of production and services that should be provided by and for the working class itself.

It is only the incapacity of capitalism to socialise them through anything other than state direction, or then damage them through outsourcing aspects to private capital, that leads many to believe that only the state can represent society as a whole and provide such services on behalf of all within it.

Marx’s analysis was that the state does not represent society as a whole.  In fact, its role in suppressing subordinate classes can be seen in how it provides all of its services, from health, education and welfare to policing and application of the law.

It is consciousness of the necessity for these services to be carried out by the workers themselves directly that requires the material development of workers’ cooperatives that anticipate and point the way forward to workers replacing the current relations of production, including state owned production.

The power of the state cannot be the means of changing the material base, the relations of production, because it is not the objective of this transformation to increase state power.  In other words, the state cannot change the relations of capitalist production to one upon which socialism can be constructed because state ownership itself is not socialism and workers direct management and control cannot be carried out through a separate body but only directly by workers themselves. That is the experience of the Soviet Union and all other experiences of state-led ‘socialism’, and in any case was Marx’s vision of socialism.

The view that smashing the repressive arms of the capitalist state while maintaining its control of the services it provides is therefore mistaken.  The view that it can leads to two further mistakes.

One is the emphasis often put on the new cooperative economy being a centrally planned one.  The second is the underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism, what is involved in its operation and therefore required of any alternative.

Marx has been criticised many times for not leaving a blueprint of the new society and how it would work.  If he had thought that a state would be the basis of introducing and constituting a new socialist society, or its transitional proletarian dictatorship, then this would be a valid criticism.  But he didn’t, so it isn’t.

He did not envisage a state planning all production and did not consider this to be the foundation of human emancipation.  This is clear from his earliest writings, which makes identification of Marxism with state control wrong from the start.

For him the new workers’ society was not an ideal and therefore static state (in any sense of that word) but a movement which starts from workers’ cooperative production, with a state body to defend that production, and the increasing role of cooperation in allowing humanity to control its own material circumstances and thereby its own development.

This involves planning in the sense that conscious decision making takes the place of exploitation and alienation, with alienation arising from commodity production in which the success of commodities determines the lives of those who created them.

The role the market plays in this is one that will more and more come under such conscious direction, but on its own such markets do not constitute the continuation of capitalism, nor does their increased marginalisation necessarily constitute socialism.

The emphasis on smashing the state and its replacement as the vehicle for determining the new society, including its planned economy, also leads to a chronic underestimation of the complexity of modern capitalism and the idea that it can be controlled by a central mechanism.

This was true in Russia in 1917, including Lenin’s expectations, and is even more true now.  In fact, the complexity of society is one very important reason why those that construct and reproduce it, the working class, its highest paid members as well as its lowest – including what is often considered the middle class – are required directly and consciously to ensure that its reproduction provides for the welfare of the majority of its people rather than the gross and excessive consumption of a tiny elite.

Marx’s view of the state should be well known but the influence of the massive growth of the capitalist state on socialist thought (a real example of the power of the material base to determine the consciousness even of its enemies!) has been lost on many of his followers.

In his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme” Marx said that:

“First of all, according to II, the German Workers’ party strives for “the free state”. Free state — what is this?”

“It is by no means the aim of the workers, who have got rid of the narrow mentality of humble subjects, to set the state free. In the German Empire, the “state” is almost as “free” as in Russia. Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it; and today, too, the forms of state are more free or less free to the extent that they restrict the “freedom of the state”. “

“The German Workers’ party — at least if it adopts the program — shows that its socialist ideas are not even skin-deep; in that, instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.”

Back to part 29

How bad is the Labour Party’s Brexit policy?

Britain’s main opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech on the final day of the Labour Party Conference in Brighton on September 27, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS (Photo credit should read DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP/Getty Images)

When I read in a blog that the Labour Party may support Brexit in any second referendum I could scarcely believe it. Could anyone be that misguided?  Such a course of action would be an act of political suicide – a betrayal of its previous Remain position and the vast majority of its members, voters and millions of other potential supporters who opposed Brexit and have looked to Labour as an alternative to the Tories.

When I looked at the interview, the gormless Labour spokesman obviously said more than he wanted, but the interpretation of what he had said wasn’t denied, and the unfortunate fact is that it is as consistent with the party’s actions since the referendum as any other.

Even to think of such an eventuality for a second brings to mind so many ways in which it makes no sense at all, so much so that it is difficult to credit that it would even be considered – unless you were an unreconstructed Blairite hoping to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, and looking for one popular policy to champion opposition to the leadership.

Were such a position to be taken, the majority of Labour voters would vote against its party while the majority of Labour activists would either not campaign or more likely campaign against it. The Labour Party would find itself scrambling for the votes of Leavers who were committed Tories, UKIPers or backward workers who don’t normally vote or have voted Labour but are still wedded to the most reactionary prejudices despite their tribal loyalty.

It would be the culmination of a Brexit policy of non-opposition to the most inept Tory Government for decades, from what on paper is the most radical leadership of the Party for decades, if not ever.

But how else can we describe the quick reversal of opposition to Brexit after the referendum, or the policy that looks very like the one May has been forced into, or the moaning that if only she had worked with Labour a consensus approach to implementing Brexit could have been achieved?  All capped off in the past few weeks by a section of the Tories themselves raising a vote of no confidence in their leader – before the official opposition – and doing more to weaken the leadership and the Government than any of the secret and bizarre parliamentary manoeuvres promised by Labour.

So what on earth could be used to justify such an approach?  Luckily (?) I have just read an apologia for Labour’s strategy that attempts to provide some justification for it.

The attempt is trapped within what Marxists have called parliamentary cretinism and consists of a number of diversions that take us away from the main issue, including the claim that before anything else can be done the absolute priority is defeating Theresa May’s deal and no deal.  While it correctly characterises Brexit as harmful to working class interests it gracelessly slides into arguing that a hard Brexit is the real problem.

It claims that continuing to oppose Brexit after the referendum would be “seriously damaging electorally’, straight after acknowledging the overwhelming support of Labour members and voters for Remain.  Like every apology for capitulation to Leave’s essentially reactionary constituency not a thought is given to the dangers involved in betraying Remain supporters – they are just congratulated on their discipline.

Instead we are informed we must wait until some Leavers change their minds, forced by the course of events and the failure of the Tories, before Labour can show leadership by openly opposing Brexit as well.  That Labour itself might help to change minds or have their predictions of inevitable Brexit failure confirmed, so gaining support and confidence from voters, is not proposed.

Not surprisingly, since the Labour policy of a good Brexit, like that of the Tories, also claims Brexit can be delivered with all the benefits, including frictionless trade, even though this claim has now been comprehensively debunked.  Nothing that has happened since the referendum can be seen to support any of the promises made for Brexit.  Yet rather than run with the tide of events, the Party has followed incoherently behind, having all its claims rubbished through the repeated humiliation of the Tories.

The argument in defence of the Labour leadership approach points to polls showing the unpopularity of Theresa May’s deal as validation of its strategy.  The sacrifice of principle involved in failing to oppose the attack on workers’ interests, which the article says is the great guiding principle of Corbyn’s approach to Brexit, is forgotten, while there is no recognition of the effect of Tory failure on voters’ confidence that Labour’s Brexit deal would be any more likely to succeed.

Despite reference to the recognition by Corbyn himself that Brexit is the most important issue facing the House of Commons in the 35 years he has been in it, the argument is put that the most important issue is the formation of a Corbyn led Government itself, with “a Jeremy Corbyn led government after a Brexit . . . better for the working class than no Brexit but with a non-Corbyn led Labour Party.”

This is presented as the issue “in the clearest terms” when in fact the alternatives are put in order to cloud the essential choice facing the Party.  It is an argument that says that what makes a Corbyn Government important is not what it does but simply that it exists.

But Brexit will undermine the grounds for a Corbyn Government through weakening the economy and reducing the scope for reversing austerity.  The article recognises the harmful effects of Brexit but this is more or less ignored when it comes to supporting the policy of a ‘good’ Labour Brexit.

These criticisms are even before we take into account more fundamental issues – such as why Corbyn thinks the British state is so uniquely capable of progressive reform that it must separate from the rest of the EU, while the other states that form the rest of it are condemned to languish under austerity. What does this say for any professed belief in workers’ unity.  Or are British workers also uniquely incapable of uniting with those in other countries to advance common interests?

Apart from capitulation to the Leave position following the referendum (are the rest of us supposed to do this too?), the most obvious problem with Labour’s position is its idea that any Brexit deal could be good for British workers.  If this was true why did it not support Brexit in the first place?  If not, why support it now?

The problem of course is the same as that facing Theresa May’s proposed deal – that hoping to retain all the benefits of EU membership while incurring no costs is simply unobtainable, and robs anyone saying it of credibility.  The idea peddled by nostalgic-for-the-Empire Leavers that the EU would bow down to the demands of Great Britain have been quashed and it doesn’t really matter who asks. In fact, if the EU is governed solely be neoliberal bureaucrats there is more reason assume they would be kinder to Theresa May than to Jeremy Corbyn.

The article states that:

“It is not crucial at all whether Britain is inside or outside the political structures of the EU – that is whether Britain is formally a member of the EU. What is important is that the British economy has the best access to the EU market (as without that it cannot find a large enough market for efficient production), that it has the best access to imported inputs for its own industries (as in a modern economy supply chains are international in scope) etc. Without these, in present conditions, whole industries, such as cars, would be devastated, with huge loss of jobs, while the plunge in the exchange rate of the pound that would follow would be highly inflationary and reduce real wages. All these economic effects would be seriously damaging to working class living standards. Therefore, what is important is access to the economic structures of the EU – the Customs Union, the Single Market etc. That is why Labour’s six tests for any deal with the EU all focus on the economy.”

We are invited to accept that political membership of the EU doesn’t matter. Yet we are also told to accept that the Labour deal will have the “exact same benefits” as membership; that it will pass its six tests, which include defending rights and protections and preventing a race to the bottom, while protecting national security and ensuring “fair management of migration”.

The Party policy therefore has its own variety of have cake and eat it, so that it wants to exit the political arrangements but still have “a British say in future trade deals’ (according to Jeremy Corbyn).  It seems innocent of any idea that the EU will take further economic and political steps that will seek to strengthen its project and affect Britain, which will have no say in the shape of this development.  Because this “is not crucial at all”.

John McDonnell has said of the EU that ‘They’ve seen this deal isn’t going to work, so therefore other opportunities will have to be explored. And they want the best optimum solution that will protect the European economy overall, just as we wish to protect the UK economy.”

But, as has been explained again and again, the EU is prepared to suffer some economic losses due to Brexit because it would potentially face much greater losses if other nationalist parties sought similar loss-free exits from the Union.  Of course the losses suffered by Britain will be much greater, that is why the EU can accept a no deal in a way that Britain cannot, but then this is true, and an inevitable consequence, of Brexit in any shape or form.  Clever parliamentary games by the Labour Party can change nothing fundamental about this.

The article excuses its sacrifice of principle and its acknowledgement of the harmful effects of Brexit by stating that:

“There are some issues on which a position must be taken regardless of the state of public opinion – war, the death penalty, sexism, racism. But Brexit is not one of these issues – Labour is rightly taking into account not only the objective impact of Brexit but public opinion and cannot vote, and no one proposes, to implement Remain if it is clear public opinion supports Leave.”

But no one has ever said, just as this author does, that they are sacrificing all their principles, just the ones – like opposing Brexit – that aren’t really supposed to be principles at all.  “Seriously damaging to working class living standards” is not apparently a principle that the new leadership of the Labour Party should fight for “regardless of public opinion”.  And the thought that public opinion could be won to what is becoming more and more obvious is apparently not worth thinking about either.

This stumbling and incoherent policy on Brexit does not bode well for those investing hope in the new Labour leadership, but it is good that the rank and file are now pushing for a stronger anti-Brexit policy.  They should continue with this and consider why it has been necessary. Why has the leadership itself not led on this?  What is it about the leadership’s perspective on how a society of equals could be created that it excludes committing to a European resistance to austerity and an international unity of workers?

Labour Party members should recognise this need to push and continue to push, until it has a leadership that not only follows the views of the membership, but also leads members in the struggle.

It is sincerely to be hoped that the views expressed on the Andrew Marr show do not become policy. If they do, the Labour Party will be cutting its own throat.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 29 – base and superstructure 2

The distinction Marx made between base and superstructure may seem tangential to elaboration of his views on the alternative to capitalism but this is not the case.

Most people calling themselves socialist think that the state, which is part of the superstructure (as explained in earlier posts), will make progressive changes to the base – the economy.  This is either through taxation and increased state expenditure or through more radical measures such as nationalisation, or even sponsorship of workers’ cooperatives.

Reformist socialists see this coming about through elections and a new governing party, using the existing state machinery to effect the required changes.  Many Marxists see it coming about through destruction of the existing (capitalist) state and creation of a new one.  It is argued that this superstructural change will then effect revolutionary transformation of the economy.

Accusations that this is simply the failed model of the Russian Revolution are rebutted by statements that the new workers’ state will be more democratic than the existing one, and certainly more than the Russian one, with workers’ councils rather than a parliament – with rights to recall delegates, regular replacement of these delegates and their payment at the average workers’ wage.

Of course, the latter has a lot more going for it than the former; Marx believed you could not simply take over the existing state machinery to create a new society that is based on the working majority.  He believed that the state was:

“the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests and in which the whole of the civil society of an epoch is epitomised.”  The modern state is thus the “form of organisation which the bourgeoisie are compelled to adopt, both for internal and external purposes, for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.”

The Marxist view of the state will be the subject of later posts in this series.  For now, it is important to establish something fundamental about Marx’s understanding of the state and what this means for his alternative, for it is not the case that Marx foresaw any sort of state carrying out the transformation of capitalism into a new workers’ society.

The Russian Revolution has given us an experience in which the working class was so small and weak that the state became not only the main actor in that revolution, but became the main reference point in deciding whether this was indeed a socialist revolution and should be defended as such; whether it was considered healthy, and the home of genuine socialism, or unhealthy – product of a process of deformity or degeneration – but which should be defended nonetheless.

The character of the state became key to the debate, but shifted focus away from the basic truth of Marx’s alternative, which was that socialist revolution is not simply a political revolution but a social revolution. This social revolution could not depend on any state, except in so far as it was a mechanism to defend what made the transformation a social one, which is a reordering of the relations of production. It was this changed relations of production – changes to the material base – that would make a revolution socialist and make the superstructure, including a workers’ state that defended them, also ‘socialist’.

It is not the democratic content of the state that is the fundamental determinant of the healthy nature of any society issuing from socialist revolution but the relations of production.  In Russia in 1917-18 the workers very quickly became dependent on the state to reorganise production after early experiences of workers’ control, and the state very quickly became dependent on capitalist and managerial middle class expertise to run it – a very clear demonstration of the fundamental importance of the base over the superstructure.  No amount of democracy in the organisation of the state will compensate for a productive base lacking the necessary level of development.

Anarchists are therefore only partly right to blame the Bolsheviks for their policy of limiting direct workers’ control of industry after the revolution.  A fundamental mistake was to make the necessity of adopting state ownership and bourgeois experts a virtue,so that state ownership became socialism and the problem just one of the use of experts and lack of democracy in the state.

Marx believed that the state should be as small as possible and wither away, as Lenin so famously put it.  Unfortunately, no one has been able to explain how a revolution whose aim is widespread state ownership and control would lead to the state withering away. How could it, if the state becomes the means by which the economy is managed and developed?

Transformation of the productive forces and relations of production, the base, requires the transformation of the relations of production in which the capital relation is replaced by workers’ ownership of production and the removal of capitalist monopoly ownership of production, whether this is in the form of individual capitalist ownership or of shareholder capitalism in terms of trusts, monopolies etc.

The role of the state in these circumstances is reduced to legal title over the physical means of production, which could not, within limits, be bought and sold by individual workplaces or cooperatives; and general coordinating or regulatory activities.  It would also assist in society’s deliberation over its overall priorities in terms of material production and alternatives to it such as reduced working time.

The effective coordination of society’s production and its development would be less and less the role of the state and more and more the outcome of the growth of cooperative production, i.e. by the workers involved in production themselves.  That it should be thought to be the role of a workers’ state is only a legacy of social-democracy in capitalist countries and the dead hand of Stalinism.

This mistaken view of socialist revolution – that it primarily involves state ownership and a workers’ state, and its reflection in terms of the base-superstructure distinction – can be seen in an interesting article by Chris Harman on this subject.

He says, for example, that:

“Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces. How? Because of the activity of the ‘superstructure’ in trying to stop new forms of production and exploitation that challenge the monopoly of wealth and power of the old ruling class. Its laws declare the new ways to be ille­gal. Its religious institutions denounce them as immoral. Its police use torture against them. Its armies sack towns where they are practiced.”

Of course, this is true, as far as it goes, but as the answer to the question posed it is not true, or rather the actions of the superstructure are not the main reason that the “Old relations of production act as fetters, impeding the growth of new productive forces.”  It is obviously the relations of production themselves – the capitalist monopoly of ownership of the means of production and the working class’s ownership only of its own labour power – that is the greatest impediment to the growth of cooperative ownership by the workers and a new cooperative economy.

This mistake of isolating the role of the superstructure in the role of defending the relations of production is carried further through believing that the superstructure is the only or primary means of transforming the base of society, the forces and relations of production. It leads to the following statement:

“The massive political and ideological struggles that arise as a result, decide, for Marx, whether a rising class, based on new forces of production, displaces an old ruling class. And so it is an absolute travesty of his views to claim that he ‘neglects’ the polit­ical or ideological element.”

In saying this however, it is rather that Harman neglects the transformation at the ‘base’ which is required to effect socialist revolution.

So, in speaking (correctly) of the increasing parasitical role of a growing state, evident in previous modes of production before capitalism, but also true of it, which led to the collapse of previous societies he states:

“But none of these developments take place without massive political and ideological struggles. It is these which determine whether one set of social activities (those of the superstructure) cramp a different set of social activities (those involved in main­taining and developing the material base). It is these which decide, for Marx, whether the existing ruling class maintains its power until it ruins society, or whether a rising class, based on new forms of production, displaces it.”

He goes on – “‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’, wrote Marx and Engels at the beginning of The Communist Manifesto. But the class struggle is precisely the struggle between those who use the political and ideological institutions of the superstructure to maintain their power over the productive ‘base’ and exploitation, and those who put up resistance to them.”

“The superstructure exists to defend exploitation and its fruits. Any real fight against the existing structures of exploitation becomes a fight against the superstructure, a political fight. As Lenin put it, ‘Politics is concentrated economics.’”1

It is as if the superstructure can define the base, which is the opposite of what Marx intended but which informs the conceptions of small Marxist groups, who conceive of revolution essentially as involving smashing the capitalist state by a vanguard revolutionary party.  What is missing is the actions of a whole class transforming the relations of production through its own activity by directly transforming these relations themselves.

This is not to reject the need to destroy the capitalist state, or need to create a workers’ state, or the various mechanisms identified by Marx to ensure its democratic functioning, or the need to create a working-class party to fight for such things.  It is just that all these must rest on a conception of revolution which places these things into their proper context and perspective.  Otherwise relatively superficial – ‘superstructural’ phenomena- become misinterpreted as prefiguring socialist revolution when the material basis for such a revolution – at the level of the relations of production and the consciousness to which they give rise – are not in place.

This is reflected in repeated misinterpretation of purely political revolutions as either involving or immediately heralding socialist ones, or misguided optimism that social struggles involve proximate socialist revolution – think Venezuela and Chavismo, Castroism, May 1968 or events in France today etc. etc.  Not only does this lead to unnecessary disappointment but it also mis-educates everyone, including those who argue it, how exactly socialism can be expected to come about and even what it is.

At this point it is necessary to recall, using the base-superstructure distinction, just what gives rise to workers’ consciousness.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx says:

“Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life?”

It is often assumed that the realm of ideas belongs to the superstructure, which may be correct when we think of schools, media etc., but it is not true that people get their ideas about how society works, what the constraints on changing it are, and what an alternative might be, only or even mainly from these superstructural institutions.  In fact, the most basic ideas about society come from the forces and relations of production, the base, including ideas about what capitalism is and how it might be changed.

As Marx says above, a change in material conditions changes people’s consciousness and these material conditions are also economic and social as well as political and cultural.  According to Marx the most fundamental are the economic and social and it is changes to these that will have the most effect on people’s consciousness.

Among many Marxists however, as I have noted above, it often appears that it is only political struggle that matters or is decisive, and it is argued that changing the relations of production can only be achieved, or even only begun, after seizure of political power.

This conflicts with Marx’s support for workers cooperatives, which can and do precede political revolution, but which will ultimately require the latter to defend them and confirm them as the starting point of a new socialist mode of production.  Otherwise what is missed is that their prior growth under capitalism can both materially and politically strengthen the working class in its future conquest of political power.

 

1 It is ironic that Harman employs this quote from Lenin, who used this phrase in the debate on the role of Trade Unions inside the Bolshevik Party after the Russian revolution. In this debate Lenin was referring to the need to evaluate the way forward in political terms, but the context also showed the determining role of the level of economic development, which handicapped the revolution and ultimately led to its thorough degeneration.  Lenin’s aphorism isn’t very helpful in our context.