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.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 28 – Base and Superstructure

Marx wrote in the Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’ in 1859 that “changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

In this Marx argues the importance in understanding the transformation of society of the relationship between its base and its superstructure, which, like the rest of the Preface, has been the subject of no end of controversy since.

The analogy, metaphor, or whatever you want to call it – let’s call it conceptual analysis corresponding to real features of a whole social formation – is important to a Marxist understanding of the alternative to capitalism because, at its simplest, changing the superstructure, or rather attempting to do so, without changing its economic base – the forces and relations of production – will effect no fundamental change, effect no fundamental reordering and will effect no fundamental transformation of that social formation.

Without development of the productive forces inequality and destructive competition will continue, while without the abolition of classes exploitation and oppression will also continue.  Social and political programmes that fail to promise the revolutionary transformation of the current economic structure will therefore fail to remove inequality or abolish oppression and exploitation.

Let’s see how such an understanding informs the approach of Marxists to concrete political developments.

In Britain Jeremy Corbyn has captured the imagination of millions of people with his appeal to counter poverty and inequality with a more humane and caring politics.  In relating to him and his polices many people are attracted by his honesty and integrity, that he says what he believes and does not try to triangulate policies to be all things to all people, in the process strangling anything that might be progressive within them.

The Marxist approach however will question just how successful his policies might be, based as they are on the actions of a capitalist state – routinely called the ‘public sector’ –  and not on any revolutionary change in the class relations of society.  Corbyn, lest anyone be under any misapprehension, is not proposing to overthrow capitalism.  The exploitation of labour and the continued domination of the means of production by capital through exclusion of the working class from its ownership, will continue to form the irreducible bedrock of inequality in society, in terms of both economic resources and political power.

In fairness, it should be noted that there have been criticisms of the previous models of state ownership coming from the Corbyn leadership, models based on bureaucratic nationalisation and ownership by the state. This has led to references to other approaches, such as workers’ cooperatives, which offer a much more positive and potentially revolutionary alternative based on the actions of workers themselves.  Whether this will have any real currency in Corbyn’s programme remains to be seen.  Cooperatives based wholly on state sponsorship and support will struggle to attain the autonomy and freedom required to be genuine expressions of workers’ self-activity.

At a lower level of abstraction, we can see the same weakness in Corbyn’s claim that he can have a ‘jobs Brexit’, as if the relative isolation and restriction on British capitalism through exiting the EU would afford similar scope for reforms in a poorer British capitalism.  The alternative available is an international effort to make reforms at an international level, to the EU as a whole, reflecting as it does an increasingly globalised capitalist system.

Claims can be made to Corbyn’s sincerity and honesty, and these have shown themselves on many occasions to be admirable qualities, which they are for all socialists.  But what reforms Corbyn can make to reduce inequality, or take some edges off the oppression and exploitation of British capitalism, will depend not simply and not mainly on his subjective intentions, honest or otherwise.

They will depend on the power and cogency of the changes he can assist in effecting to the fundamentals of the economic system and the class power built upon it.  Failure in relation to the latter will brook no reprieve due to his integrity and sincerest intentions.  Instead this integrity and sincerity will be employed to explain and mitigate his failure, and will be all the more powerful in excusing such failure due to their previous undoubted verification.

This is what Marx meant by the importance of the relation between the base and superstructure of society, but this is not all he meant.

Some Marxists will deduce from this analysis that the duty of Marxists is to warn of Corbyn’s inevitable failure, or his betrayal and the disappointment it will create.  But if this were all that was required, or even mainly required, then life would be a lot simpler.

But it would also have proved Marx’s view of the relation between base and superstructure wrong.  For if denunciations by relatively small political groups could direct the class struggle, win the working class from left social democrats like Corbyn to Marxism, and in the process overthrow capitalism, then just how true would Marx’s claim be that “consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.”

Ideas can become powerful forces in society, and the current ideas about capitalism which have fed working class passivity are just such an example, but these ideas can themselves only become powerful if they find a material force in which and through which they are enacted; and they can only do this when they become consistent with, and express, powerful forces within the forces and relations of production.

Future posts i this series will look at the class struggle, the political programme of Marxism and what are the many ways in which socialism can be embodied in working class practice.  But all these must take account of the consciousness that inevitably arises when workers do not own the means of production, are mere hired labour and must compete with each other both for jobs and the terms and conditions of their employment.  All these are a given in society; are a given when you grow up and have to seek a living; and are a given in almost everything you are taught in school, through the media and before, during and after your working life.

So, as I have argued repeatedly – there must be some development of the forces and relations of production that forms the basis for the development of a socialist consciousness among the mass of the working class, and not just from episodic and voluntarist political struggle led by some vanguard organisation (that must, in order to be a vanguard, be in advance of the mass of workers, who are nevertheless claimed to be the subject and object of revolutionary transformation).

The forces of the working class movement must themselves be solidly based on the relations and forces of production and their actions must reflect not only their own consciousness of the transformation pregnant in society but must correspond to the actual changes that proceed even without their conscious intervention.  While the working class must bridge this disjuncture between what it must seek and what exists, we start from their separation.

As Marx says – “Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness . . .“  I might think I’m God’s gift to the opposite sex when I strut my stuff in the disco (and I don’t even do that anymore) but the opposite sex will be quick to disabuse me of such fanciful notions.  Marxist groups might think they advance the cause of the working class through condemnation of their mis-leaders but these workers have time and time again passed them by in their pursuit of ‘false Gods’.

At least part of the answer is to be part of this working class movement and to fight its battles with and beside them – its battles, not the ones that Marxists would choose that they fight.  For Marxists, this is the ABC of their politics, but too often many retreat into a view that ideas, their ideas, will trump the contradictions of material reality that Marx says determines consciousness.

To give but one example of this that has been mentioned many times on this blog – the supporters of Lexit want British workers to fight racism and xenophobia and overthrow membership of the European Union and its ‘fortress Europe’ immigration policy.  They want to oppose austerity by opposing the organisation that has stood behind it in member state after member state.  Yet this is a colossal failure because their myopic comprehension of Marxism fails to register the material reality of the international centralisation and concentration of capitalism and the political forms that have accompanied it and which are the real material contradictions that Marx says we must stand upon – not seek to run away from.

We cannot oppose international capitalism by seeking to exit its political structures when the only concrete alternative is a less advanced economic and political formation based on a national economy and a single national state.  If this were so then the advance of capitalism, contrary to the expectations of Marx, is an advance away from the possibility of socialism.  Such reactionary socialisms were severely criticised by Marx early in his political development in ‘The Communist Manifesto’.

Terry Eagleton in his book ‘Ideology: An Introduction’ states that:

“The base-superstructure doctrine has been widely attacked for being static, hierarchical, dualistic and mechanistic, even in those more sophisticated accounts of it in which the superstructure reacts back dialectically to condition the material base. It might therefore be timely and suitably unfashionable to enter a word or two in its defence. Let us be clear first what it is not asserting. It is not out to argue that prisons and parliamentary democracy, school rooms and sexual fantasies, are any less real than steel mills or sterling. Churches and cinemas are quite as material as coal mines; it is just that, on this argument, they cannot be the ultimate catalysts of revolutionary social change. The point of the base-superstructure doctrine lies in the question of determinations— of what ‘level’ of social life most powerfully and crucially conditions the others, and therefore of what arena of activity would be most relevant to effecting a thoroughgoing social transformation.”

In the next post we will look some more at the nature of the base-superstructure distinction.

Back to part 27

Labour Party strategy and the Brexit deal

Opportunism is by definition to seek short term gain while sacrificing long term principle.  The short term gain often doesn’t arise and the long term loss is long term.  I thought of this when I read an article in ‘The Guardian’ about Labour Party views on how to approach the Brexit deal just agreed with the EU by Theresa May.  I know you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers but unfortunately it is consistent with what we have seen, so I decided to write.

Small points are instructive.  Apparently those opposing Brexit are jokingly referred to as ‘Remonia’, which would include the majority of Labour voters and the vast majority of its members.  We are obviously still some way off from a membership led party.

Aside from this dismissal of its support, this reference has to ignore the damaging impact Brexit will have to working class interests and the potential undermining of the whole Corbyn social-democratic project. In the world of electoralism however the most loyal support is often taken for granted in a chase for the floating voter.

The article says that “Labour strategists believe they cannot get to the 45% or so of the vote they would need to win the next election if they are seen to represent only what they jokingly refer to as “Remoania”.

Whatever happened to convincing people of the truth of your politics, of changing their minds, of anticipating the effect of future events on their consciousness so that longer-term they can begin to see that what you are saying is correct?  There wouldn’t be a Labour Party in the first place if this approach hadn’t been taken!

Of Labour strategists, the article says that “some hold out the hope that Labour could pick up many of the leave-backing voters who feel sold out by the prime minister’s deal.  They’re available to us provided we don’t sound like remainers.”

Unfortunately, such an approach comes easily to the devotees of the idea of progressive politics in one country, which now cripples the Labour Party’s approach to Brexit, as it has crippled socialist politics for decades.

And what are Remain voters supposed to think when the Party sounds like Brexiteers instead?  Or are all these working class Labour voters and members assumed to be terminally stupid?  Are they to be treated the same way as the Scottish Labour support was, assumed away until Scottish nationalism bit into them and reduced the party to third place?

Another small point.  The article say that “In Corbyn’s inner circle, the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, has told friends she is on a “vigil” against any move that could alienate Labour supporters in staunchly remain seats such as her constituency of Hackney North and Stoke Newington.”

But then we are told that “Abbott is among those shadow cabinet members who have publicly expressed concern about the risks of a second referendum. She told the BBC’s Nick Robinson last week: “People should be careful what they wish for, because my view is that if we had a second referendum tomorrow leave would win again and not only would leave win again but leave voters would say what didn’t you understand about leave winning the first time?”

When you think about this, it is really a rather big point.  The article quotes an opinion poll which says “that Internal research is telling the party that 42% of voters think the deal negotiated by the prime minister will be worse than staying in the EU; against only 21% who believe it will be better. Voters have also told Labour’s pollsters – by a two to one margin – that they support MPs’ right to vote it down if they think it is damaging for the country.”

So why does a strong ‘Remainer’ think a second vote would be lost?

Of course the Labour Party position is to get a general election rather than a second referendum.  But this doesn’t answer the question so much as ask it.

The article approaches this problem, but only in so far as it touches on the fortunes of the party itself.  Like all Brexit coverage from the mainstream media, everything is seen through the lens of UK domestic politics and the fortunes of individual prominent politicians. The issue of Brexit itself is often dismissed, as is the view of the EU itself, and the population told by those paid to inform them that they are fed up hearing about it.  As the article in the Guardian puts it – “the majority of the public . . . say they want Brexit to be over and done with.”

If all I had to go on was this mass media I would be fed up with it as well.  But such views are from people who haven’t really thought about it enough and want other people to make their decisions for them, so that when they suffer from them they can then have someone to blame.  Exactly the opposite of what socialism requires, which is a population eager to take the reins away from the bumbling ruling class that has shown itself incompetent at the political level and complacent at the economic.

The article reports that Jeremy Corbyn has said that “this is a bad deal for the country . . . It is the result of a miserable failure of negotiation that leaves us with the worst of all worlds. It gives us less say over our future, and puts jobs and living standards at risk. “That is why Labour will oppose this deal in parliament. We will work with others to block a no-deal outcome, and ensure that Labour’s alternative plan for a sensible deal to bring the country together is on the table.”

And this is the problem.

May’s deal is a capitulation that appears to postpone its application, even though this is only partially true.  It is essentially a recognition that no deal would be a disaster and admission that all her ‘red lines’ were so much hot air. Her ‘people’s letter’ is either a letter to Santa or simply one lie after another.  The EU has strengthened its position through the transitional period and will impose its view on the new trading arrangements once this period ends.

The EU has also had enough warnings on the danger of a Britain outside the EU seeking to undermine it and its further development. The only perspective for Britain outside the EU is to act as a rival in such a way, most likely to the benefit of other powers.

This explains the re-emergence of the EEA/ EFTA as an option to be pursued during and after the transition.  But the ‘Norway’ option is woefully inadequate to Britain’s needs as it still leaves it with a lack of decision making powers in its arrangements with the EU and requires numerous individual agreements to complete these arrangements.  A temporary membership of EFTA, as put forward by some, might smooth the exit but would leave the essential future relationships unresolved, with Britain still alone at the end and exposed to the influence of stronger powers, including the EU.

Norway would be foolish to accept such membership. It would be akin to some desperate sleaze-ball coming up to you on the dance floor at the end of the night, asking for a shag, but saying he’s only asking you out because he fancies your mate.

In other words the options open to May are those open to Corbyn and May is right that the EU has no reason to give the Labour Party a better deal.  It has been remarked upon by many people beside myself that Corbyn’s idea of a good Brexit is even more delusional than Theresa May’s, or that of the other Tory ultra-Brexiteers.

Having made herself look stupid and pathetic so that, to quote the Guardian article again, only 21% of the population believe her deal will be better than staying in the EU, Corbyn’s strategy appears to be to repeat the failure.  If anything would open the door to a potential recapture of the Labour Party by its right wing, this is it.

The Guardian states that “a general election would risk exposing the bitter tensions within the party about Brexit. The leadership is clear it would want to go into an election promising to press ahead with leaving the EU, but strike a less economically damaging deal.”

So the Labour Party would go into an election on a platform that would alienate the mass of its membership and the majority of its voters; damage the economy and weaken the basis for its policies of growth and redistribution; and repeat the same failed strategy of the opposition while hoping for a different result – the clichéd definition of insanity.

And all this is based on the hope that Brexit voters will seek to punish Theresa May for her failure to deliver on her promises of a hard Brexit, while preventing them from going to UKIP.

Rather than expose the increasingly apparent illusions justifying Brexit and those who support it, and point out its complete failure, demonstrated again and again through the Brexiteers themselves avoiding responsibility for implementation of the referendum result, but ready to blame anyone who tries and fails; the Labour Party may now seek to present itself as the next bunch of suckers seeking to do the impossible on behalf of the delusional to the benefit of the totally deranged.