The role of capitalist crisis in socialist revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 50

Marx notes that commercial crises ‘by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society.’ (Collected Works Vol 6 p 490)

Whether capitalism is then found guilty is a matter of objective conditions and the class struggle, with its own requirements for success.  We know however that it is not the case that crises are each time more threatening.  Like many statements in the Communist Manifesto it is a political declaration, a proclamation of belief and exhortation to action written in broad strokes, not a studied analysis.  In other words, a manifesto.

Capitalist crises nevertheless were considered to play an important role in determining the potential for revolution, even if in themselves they did not answer to the possibility of success.  In a letter to Bernstein in January 1882, Engels wrote:

‘The fact that these crises are one of the most powerful levers in political upheavals has already been stated in the Communist Manifesto and is explained in the review section of the Neue Reinische Zeitung up to and including 1848, but it is also explained that the returning prosperity also breaks revolutions and lays the foundations for the victory of reaction.’

It should be noted that this refers to political revolution, that is those social convulsions causing or attempting to cause more or less important changes to the Government or State, and not to the fundamental class structure that supports them.  That this is under-appreciated is because the former is conflated with the latter since it is assumed that that there is little social transition before capture of state power by the working class and that the new state structure is what will be constitutive of the new social relations of production.

That this is the case is understandable since it is possible to find statements by Marx and Engels about the role of a new workers’ state arising from crisis and revolution that is consistent with this view and we have addressed this before in a number of posts beginning here.

In relation to views on the relation of crises to revolution we can record the view here:

‘The virtual repeal of the act of 1847 will force manufacturers into such a rush of overtrading that revulsions upon revulsions will follow, so that very soon all the expedients and resources of the present system will be exhausted and a revolution, made inevitable, which, uprooting society far deeper than 1793 and 1848 ever did, will speedily lead to the political and social ascendancy of the proletarians . . .’  (The Ten Hours Question, Collected Works Volume 10 p 275-6)

The quotation above, written by Engels in February 1850, betrayed his over-optimistic view at that time, following the 1848 revolutions across much of Europe.  Capitalism proved more dynamic and adaptive than allowed for, and the preconditions for the political and social revolution envisaged were much greater than existed at that point, even in the most advanced society. 

Both Marx and Engels were enthusiasts of revolution and sometimes optimistic about its proximity and success.  But optimism was always tempered by more realistic evaluation when it came to specifying the line of march, and Marx in particular showed remarkable realism in assessing revolutionary opportunities when they appeared to arise. 

He continued after 1848 to analyse economic developments with a view to their potential impact on the potential for revolution, this time from the crisis in 1857:

‘`What the most far- sighted politicians now are sure of is an enlarged edition not only of the crisis of 1847 but also of the revolutions of 1848 … In 1848 the movements which more immediately produced the Revolution were of a merely political character … Now, on the contrary, a social revolution is generally understood, even before the political revolution is proclaimed; and a social revolution brought about by no underground plots of the secret societies among the working classes, but by the public contrivances of the Crédits Mobiliers of the ruling classes.’

Here, Marx not only looks to the potential for political revolution but also argues that the development of capitalism itself is bringing about a social revolution. Of course, much of this speculation was in private correspondence so cannot be presented as considered political statements (to be carried forward as holy writ into the 21st century).

Hal Draper is right when he excoriates those who quote Marx to advance whatever and any purpose they have: ‘I have seen remarks by Marx that were hastily dashed off in a letter to a friend, or a few words jotted down in a note, solemnly quoted (without identification) as if they were long-pondered programmatic statements every syllable of which had been thought out for its exact scientific meaning–indeed, even without regard to other statements on the subject of greater reliability.’

So, in relation to the crisis of 1857 Engels wrote to Marx that ‘this time it is coming properly, now it’s a case of do or die.’  Yet Engels did not want the crisis to develop too quickly, hoping for ‘a period of chronic pressure . . . to get the people’s blood up.’  (Marx to Engels 1857) Yet later Engels noted that ‘there are as yet few signs of revolution . . .’  Marx wrote to Engels drawing comfort from an apparent recovery: `The momentary lull in the crisis is, or so it seems to me, most advantageous to our interests –- party interests, I mean’ (Letter Marx to Engels Jan 1858, CW Vol 40, p243).  You could almost make what you want out of such quotations if you were prepared to be selective.

Reviewing their attitude during this period Simon Clarke (‘Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p119) says 

‘Marx and Engels were certainly excited by the onset of the crisis of 1857, but despite their optimistic rhetoric, they didn’t really seem to have much expectation that anything would come of it, they didn’t throw themselves into political activity, and did not appear surprised when the crisis passed, leaving only minor dislocations in its wake.  Nevertheless, the crisis, and its failure to develop according to the course anticipated by Marx, provided the stimulus for Marx to return to his economic studies . . .’

This alerts us to awareness that Marx didn’t arrive at ‘Marxism’ at one (relatively early) point in his political life and spend the rest of it setting it out.  He learned, as we all do, as we go along; consider, for example, the lessons he learned as a 53 year-old from the Paris Commune in 1871 when he wrote of ‘the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.’

Clarke goes on to recognise that the ‘ identification of the contradictory foundation of capitalist accumulation and crisis is the basis on which the emphasis of Marx’s theoretical attention moves away from crisis, which has very little part to play in his later works, just as politically Marx moved away from the apocalyptic vision of the revolution as a political event precipitated by a crisis, to the vision of the revolution as the culmination of a longer struggle to build a working class movement’. (Marx’s Theory of Crisis’ p 175). Clarke also makes a similar point in relation to war.1

‘We have seen that through the 1850s Marx looked to the onset of the crisis as the precipitant of an upsurge of working class militancy, which would provide the driving force of the coming revolution. This expectation was based on little more than wishful thinking, for nowhere in their works did Marx or Engels spell out precisely how they saw such a development taking place, and they certainly had little faith in the ability of any of the revolutionary groupings with which they were loosely associated to provide a political focus for such a revolutionary upsurge. They hailed the crisis of 1857 as the herald of the revolution, but when it passed without significant political incident they didn’t express any surprise, nor feel any need for a re-evaluation of their position. Although the rapid recovery from crisis prevented the expected revolutionary upsurge from happening, it also swept Proudhon and his followers from the political stage.’ (Clarke p248 print edition)’ 

‘Thus the theory of crises plays a rapidly diminishing role in Marx’s work after 1862, to be replaced by an emphasis on the secular tendencies of capitalist accumulation, just as the conception of revolution as the culmination of struggles unleashed by economic crisis is replaced by a conception of revolution as the outcome of an extended period of class development.’  (Clarke p 245)

Clarke might be said to summarise his reading of the relationship between Marx’s analysis of capital and politics at the end of his book:

‘The focus of orthodox Marxism on general crises, as opposed to the permanently contradictory and crisis ridden character of capital accumulation, has equally proved a distraction. Although Marx and Engels bolstered their revolutionary faith by appealing to the inevitable crisis, in practice they quietly abandoned the illusion that the revolution would be precipitated by a general crisis when that of 1857 turned out to be a damp squib’

‘By the time that Marx wrote the first volume of Capital the emphasis of his analysis of capitalism was on the secular tendencies of capitalist development, the tendency to the concentration and centralisation of capital, to the polarisation of wealth and poverty, the coexistence of overwork and unemployment, and to the increasing instability of social existence which underlay the development of the organised working class. The crisis is no longer a cataclysmic effect, it is a part of the normal pattern of capitalist accumulation, the pattern of overaccumulation and crisis that underlies the permanence of the class struggle as capitalists seek to resolve the crisis tendencies of accumulation at the expense of the working class.’ (Clarke p 285)

  1. ‘Through the 1860s and early 1870s Marx looked to war rather than economic crisis as the precipitant of the political development of the working class. By the middle 1870s, however, Marx and Engels had come to see war, like crises, as events which divided and demoralised the working class.

Engels wrote to Sorge that the old international was now dead, as national rivalries and differences emerged after the fall of the Paris Commune (04.08.74). Marx clearly regarded a further war as a barrier to the progress of the working class. `A new war is inevitable au peu plus tôt, au peu plus tard, and before its conclusion there are hardly likely to be any violent popular movements anywhere.’ (Marx to Kugelman 18.05.74, CW45, 18)

`General European conditions are such as to increasingly wage a general European war. We shall have to pass through it before there can be any thought of decisive overt activity on the part of the European working class.’ (Marx to Sorge, 12-17.09.74, CW45, 30)’

Back to part 49

Breakdown, crises and the door to revolution

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 49

Arguments based on Marx’s 1859 Preface are often considered to be ‘reductionist’ or ‘determinist’, robbing the oppressed of their agency. Productive forces are reduced to technology which drives accumulation, while in reality the order is the reverse – it is accumulation that drives technology and this accumulation is the growth of capital, of relations of production that involve the existence primarily of two classes which are involved in struggle.  

People inhabit the forces of production and drive it forward and people inhabit the relations of production and perform the roles appropriate to the classes that are included in them.

The forces and relations of production therefore provide the grounds on which such agency makes sense and can be accounted for.  Of course, they also involve constraints on such agency, but if they didn’t, they wouldn’t provide any sort of explanation at all.

This approach can be contrasted with real determinist arguments based on the idea of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism, which subject it has been said ‘is one which has plagued students of Marx for at least a century . . . veritable rivers of ink have been spent in an effort to fill up this gap in Marx’s theoretical system.” (Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968. P55)

Marx does not hold a breakdown theory of capitalism but since as long as capitalism exists it will continue to develop through its contradictions, these contradictions must develop to certain limits.

First, he notes in Capital Volume III, that: 

`As soon as formation of capital were to fall into the hands of a few established big capitals, for which the mass of profit compensates for the falling rate of profit, the vital flame of production would be altogether extinguished. It would die out.’ 

Elsewhere, in the Grundrisse:

‘To the degree that large-scale industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour-time and on the quantity of labour expended, and more on the power of the instruments which are set in motion during labour-time, and whose powerful effectiveness itself is not related to the labour-time immediately expended in their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and the progress of technology…. ‘

‘As soon as labour in its direct form has ceased to be the great wellspring of wealth, labour- time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and therefore exchange-value the measure of use-value. . . . With that, the system of production based on exchange-value collapses. . . . Capital is its own contradiction- in-process, for its urge is to reduce labour-time to a minimum, while at the same time it maintains that labour-time is the only measure and source of wealth.’

‘Productive forces and social relations—both of which are different sides of the development of the social individual—appear to capital only as means, and only means to produce on its limited basis. In fact, however, these are the material conditions to blow this basis sky-high.’ (Marx, Grundrisse pp 592–94, quoted in Nicolaus pp 58–59)

Marx did not expect capitalism to last long enough to get to this stage of its development and anticipated the contradiction between ‘productive forces and social relations’ to precipitate its replacement long before it. The continued expansion of capitalism and growth of what is conventionally called service industries means that neither lack of competition or an approach to the limit of labour in production has resulted in either of these limits being nearly approached.

In 1850, shortly after the failed revolutions of 1848, Marx wrote:

‘While this general prosperity lasts, enabling the productive forces of bourgeois society to develop to the full extent possible within the bourgeois system, there can be no question of a real revolution.  Such a revolution is only possible when two factors come into conflict: the modern productive forces and bourgeois forms of production . . . A new revolution is only possible as a result of a new crisis; but it will come, just as surely as the crisis itself.’ (The Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850’)

These have not been the constraints that successive generations of Marxists have thought placed unwanted boundaries on their objectives. Instead, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production is viewed as objective conditions already being in place with only purely subjective ones required to come into line through the effects of capitalist crises.  These objective crises express the fetters on the development of the forces of production and the social relations in which they are encased and are assumed to rapidly advance the subjective requirements for revolution.

For Marx however, economic crises are ‘always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions. They are violent eruptions which for a time restore the disturbed equilibrium.’  (Capital Vol III). They are therefore not only ‘the most striking form in which advice is given it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production’, but their ‘violent destruction of capital’ is ‘a condition of its self-preservation.’ (Grundrisse)

Far from signalling stagnation of the forces of production, these forces are most developed just as crises erupt.  And as we have noted before, concomitant with the growth of the forces of production is expansion of the relations of production: of the capitalist and working classes, upon which is dependent the struggle for socialism.

Socialism thus becomes more relevant and feasible as crises worsen but not because they get worse but because of what this says for the development of the forces of production.  There is no final crisis and therefore no final breakdown we can look towards as a resolution to capitalism and advent of socialism; even if nothing lasts forever.  Crises allow capitalism to seek an equilibrium, while also demonstrating its historical redundancy and potential for replacement, but neither is automatic, and while the former has occurred often, the latter has unfortunately not.

Crises may therefore be the occasion for political revolution – conquest of state power by the working class – through stimulation, but the success of political revolution does not fundamentally depend on them or on their severity.  The objective conditions for this we have explained and there is no neat dividing line between these and the subjective conditions constituted out of the class struggle and the capacity, readiness and willingness of the working class to defend and advance its interests through political revolution.

The lack of correspondence between the two has not only involved ripeness of objective conditions and backwardness of the subjective, but also the development of some important subjective conditions in advance of objective constraints on successful revolution.

  1. ‘Only once in his life did he speak with a tone of achievement and a sense of accomplishment about one of his works. Only once did he announce that he had written something which not only encompassed the whole of his views, but also presented them in a scientific manner. That occasion was in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. (1859). Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, New Left Review 1/47 March – April 1968 p42.

Back to part 48

Forward to part 50

Jesus, Mary and Joseph! The President’s wife doesn’t support war?

Dunleer Co Louth

One can only react with a wry smile at the current kerfuffle over a letter by the wife of the President of Ireland regarding the war in Ukraine. After decades of hypocritical and sanctimonious sermons on the evil of violence, the urgent imperative for peace and negotiations to achieve it, the essential requirement now is for war; victory in war for Ukraine.

The President’s wife, Sabina Coyne Higgins, has written to that august publication ‘The Irish Times’ to express dismay and disappointment that an editorial in the newspaper did not “encourage any ceasefire negotiations that might lead to a peace settlement”. 

This led to indignant indignation among politicians that accused her of asserting moral equivalence between Ukraine and Russia and failing to follow the Government line of support for the former.  Ukrainians in Ireland were quoted as not actually understanding what she was trying to say or of accusing her of not understanding what was going on. One Ukrainian who has lived in Ireland for 15 years said that it is “very easy to call for peace when you live in safe and comfortable conditions for a very long time” although the uproar induced would seem to indicate that it is easier to call for war.

Another Ukrainian stated that “If Russia lays down its arms, there will be no war. If Ukraine lays down its arms, there will be no Ukraine. That is why Ukrainians have not wished each other peace for a long time — they wish only victory. And we won’t settle for less . . .”

The newspaper has recently run a long article extolling the nationalist narrative of Ukrainian history and the inevitable conflict between it and Russia and ‘the real explosion of Cossack identity that started with the Russian invasion in 2014.  Whole units, like the Azov battalion, wear similar [Cossack] haircuts, moustaches and earrings.  It’s popular.’  The headline quotes the Ukrainian interviewee as saying that ‘This is a war of destruction. Either we destroy the Russians or they destroy us.’

So, we read justification of a nationalist programme that would be pilloried as bellicose and reactionary were it presented in support of any other country.  The journalist responsible sees no need to interrogate the place of armed fascists in this resurgence of uncompromising nationalism or the meaning of proposed destruction of whole peoples.

She is not however to be singled out for blame.

What has been striking has been the almost universal acceptance of a tale of childlike simplicity: that Ukraine is the force fighting for freedom against an unprovoked invasion by evil Russia.  As the photograph above shows, the smallest Irish towns in Ireland parade their support for the second most corrupt country in Europe against the first.  In a war barely understood their simple truths have been substituted for the complexity of a messy reality.

But they too are not soleley to blame.  Much of the left has decided to incant Lenin’s policy of ‘self-determination of nations’ in order to apply a rusty Occam’s razor to the war so it too can support ‘Ukraine’.  In doing so they demonstrate that they have not got the first clue about what this policy meant never mind whether it is relevant today to the war in Ukraine.  Self-determination thus becomes support for an already independent capitalist state in a war with another so that it can codify its alliance with the world’s biggest imperialist military alliance.  Freedom to join NATO and to land your own people in a destructive war as a result is what it actually means.

This is what is clearly happening, and as Lenin said: ‘one of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as abstract truth, truth is always concrete . . . ‘ This reactionary war on both sides is thus the expression of the reckless policy of seeking NATO membership by Ukraine and Russia’s determination to show that it meant what it said when it warned that this was a red line not to be crossed.

It matters not that Russia has no right to determine the policy of Ukraine.  What right has Ukraine to threaten Russia through membership of NATO on its doorstep?  Neither Ukrainian nor Russian workers have any interest in standing behind either ‘right’, never mind dying for it.  But the pro-war left has decided that the right of capitalist powers to defend their prerogatives is justified under some abstract argument about the principle of self-determination that the working class has to pay for.

Their complete inability to have any purchase on reality is repeatedly exposed.  So through their call for arming Ukraine they fail to expose or oppose the role of NATO and its share of responsibility for the war.  They say Ukraine (by which they must mean this country’s capitalist state) must receive arms to fight, so dependence on NATO weapons, i.e. imperialism, becomes the road to self-determination!  But since such arms as can be effective are only available from NATO they cannot, with any seriousness, now oppose the rearmament of the Western capitalist powers.  A strange sort of ‘anti-capitalism’.

They oppose transfer of offensive weapons but the steady ratcheting up of the weapons supplied leaves them as useless spectators awaiting the transfer of whatever they decide as ‘offensive’, at which point are we to believe this capitalist war will change its character?

In this article one spokesman states that ‘we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.’  But it’s as if the European Union has read this and decided to take the piss out of such ‘lack of support’ by having round after round of sanctions (currently seven) that the pro-war left will not demand are lifted?  Are there no sanctions it would straightforwardly oppose in advance as opposed to accept after the fact?

This blog opposed western sanctions from the beginning because they could only hit working class Russians hardest.  Now we see that they are hitting workers in the west as well but is there now opposition to them among those for whom the ability of a capitalist state to determine its military alliance is paramount?

Across all the issues arising from the war, from the progressive content to Ukrainian nationalism to the primary issue being Russian imperialism, the pro-war left has simply parroted the mainstream bourgeois media. Like support for Brexit; support for total economic lockdown to deal with Covid-19, and now support for sanctions, various parts of the left have championed policies that have disarmed the working class when it comes to identifying the causes of the cost-of-living crisis to which these policies have contributed. 

We can expect that none will accept the slightest responsibility.  Just like the Tories who support Brexit and ‘Ukraine’ they want to have their cake and to eat it. To oppose the capitalist EU but ignore the effects of Brexit on freedom of movement and living standards. Demand more extensive and longer economic lockdowns but ignore the social consequences some of which, like economic dislocation and inflation, now hit them in the face.  Support ‘Ukraine’ but ignore the boost it has given to the NATO imperialist alliance and the effect of sanctions on living standards.

For a blog seeking to advance Marxist politics this is important, but not as important as the failings of the imperialist strategy to which some leftists provide a grotesque mirror image.

The bourgeois media asks us to believe that our ‘freedom’ is being protected by one of the most corrupt countries in Europe whose best fighters are fascists.  We are threatened that unless we support it against the evil Russians, which have such a useless army that Ukraine can defeat it, they will steamroller across Europe.  We must accept the possibility of freezing this winter because Russia has ‘weaponised’ gas supplies, even though the West has sent real weapons to kill as many Russians as possible and started the whole gas thing by preventing operation of the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.  We are called upon to blame Russia for potential famine in a range of countries because of its war on Ukraine but ignore the effect of Western sanctions on the supply of Russian food to the world, something that has had to be implicitly admit by its lifting of some of them.

None of this is consistent with the claims of the western bourgeoisie and its yellow media.  In Ireland the homeopathic letter from the Irish President’s wife has opened up a small window for questioning support for the war.

Over the weekend I read the ‘Financial Times’ (FT).  It had a review of the book ‘Nazi Billionaires’ which records the largely hidden history of Germany’s richest capitalist dynasties who escaped punishment after the war for their collaboration with the Nazi regime.  This was the conscious policy of the major western powers for whom strengthening German capitalism was much more important than punishing Nazis for their crimes or imposing justice on behalf of their victims.  This has not stopped regular evocation of the enemies of the Western capitalist powers as the new Nazis with Putin as the new Hitler.  Just like after World War II, these states are not interested in justice but in their own power and that of their capitalist class.

The only consistent position opposed to the war is the socialist argument that workers have no interest in fighting for the system that exploits them, in wars that we pay for in money and blood. To do so we must oppose nationalist flag-waving and a media that on this occasion does not even seek to hide its bias. A certain Mrs Higgins has proved more in tune with such a task than many of the left.

The significance of David Trimble

Trimble and Paisly at Drumcree (Belfastlive.co.uk)

The death of David Trimble will not be marked by the same fawning saturated media coverage of his fellow Nobel peace prize winner John Hume.  When the two winners were announced many nationalists thought he didn’t deserve the prize but was awarded it because it could not be given only to a nationalist.  It was part of the whole ’equality of the two traditions’ motif that characterised the whole process.

It wasn’t so much because of the personality traits that even respectful obituary writers found impossible not to mention of him.  That Peter Mandelson said he had ‘never encountered anyone as rude in my life’; or that he had a ’notorious temper’ passed down from a grandfather who was in the Royal Irish, and then Royal Ulster, Constabulary; or that he was argumentative just like his father.  Neither was it his arrogant angry public persona.

Bertie Ahern in ‘The Irish Times’ couldn’t help noting that he had ‘a short fuse’; the obituary in ‘The Irish News’ labelled him ‘to some extent a cynical politician’, and ‘The Belfast Telegraph’ political commentator stated that ‘he was a hard man to like.’    Much the same could be said about Hume, although he usually hid it better.

For someone who was a unionist politician for decades and then leader, it says something that Arlene Foster, who trod the same path, thought it necessary to state that ‘I never doubted that David fundamentally believed in the Union’, which must sit beside other observations that the Pope is a Catholic.

The much-hyped achievement of peace following historic agreement between the two sectarian tribes appeared as the pinnacle of Hume’s work and long political career.  Trimble, on the other hand, had not been so prominent for so long and when he did appear he did so as the next voice of unionist intransigence and supremacism.

His earliest notoriety came as a member of Bill Craig’s Vanguard movement, which is the closest unionism came in ‘the Troubles’ to becoming a mass fascist movement.  He also played a role in the Ulster Workers Council strike in 1974 that brought down the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement and which succeeded not simply because of extensive unionist opposition, but crucially because of widespread paramilitary intimidation and the complete failure of the British state’s armed forces to challenge it.

He then came to prominence in 1995 when he walked arms aloft with Ian Paisley as they celebrated the disputed march of Orangemen through the Catholic Garvaghy Road in Portadown, in what was seen as another act of sectarian triumphalism. This was widely seen to break the deal brokered previously to avoid residents having their noses rubbed in it, something he denied. But given the prominence of the dispute at Drumcree over a number of years and the loyalist killings associated with it, it was viewed as a victory over the whole Catholic population.

This action however helped him win the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party shortly after, and his reputation for being hard-line was reinforced when he met the loyalist paramilitary killer from the Portadown area, Billy ‘King Rat’ Wright, during the Drumcree dispute the following year.

Thus, while Hume’s actions in giving birth to the Good Friday agreement appeared consistent with his prior political activity, Trimble’s role could only be presented as some sort of conversion, necessary to sell the Belfast Agreement as not some sort of unionist victory.  As we can see from Arlene Foster’s remarks, this proved difficult.

Victory may come in many colours but plenty of unionists believe it can only come with red, white and blue ribbons.  And this was Trimble’s problem, his achievement and his significance.

While it is claimed that the Good Friday Agreement was the creation of Hume and Adams it was built by the British.  The role of Hume and Trimble was to modify it as they were able and sell it to their constituencies.  That it is estimated well over 90 per cent of nationalists voted for it shows that this was not a difficult job for Hume.  Not so for Trimble.  Various numbers are quoted for the level of unionist support in the referendum that approved the deal, but the highest that looks reasonable is 57 per cent. And Trimble’s problems only started there. 

His even more difficult fight was within his own party to defend the deal, with repeated confrontations taking place within the Party’s ruling Council involving those opposed to the Agreement who sought to get rid of him.  At the meeting in May 2000 Trimble won only narrowly by 53 to 47 per cent.  The Party split, a part led by Jeffrey Donaldson joining Paisley’s DUP, which quickly became the main unionist party.  In effect, the majority of unionists now opposed the Good Friday Agreement; something studiously ignored by the media who don’t want to register this fact as the underlying reason for the repeated failure of the new Stormont to work as intended, even when it is sitting and not otherwise in suspension, as it is today.

Supporters of the Agreement, especially nationalists, must therefore acknowledge that they owe more to David Trimble than they might care to acknowledge, for given their enthusiasm for it his personality and previous history is secondary.  The relative failure to celebrate his role is understandable since his sectarian constituency just about voted for the deal at the time and without the enthusiasm of Irish nationalists.  But that is why his role was important in a way Hume’s was not.  Since then, of course, their approval has fallen and the deal has been subject to changes unaccompanied by the initial hype.

The failure of his achievement in the Agreement to bring the stability anticipated could not be ignored in the obituaries but we have been told that while ‘it has many flaws’, compared to the alternative ‘it is infinitely preferable’ (John Manley, ‘The Irish News’).  For ‘The Irish Times’ obituary writer ‘it is better than the alternative: another failed powersharing experiment and a possible return to violence . . .’

It is a moot point whether instability due to lack of a deal in 1998 is worse than instability as a result of its existence now: whether instability resulting from continued search for a deal is worse than that arising from the achievement of a deal that continually breaks down.  From the start the absence of widespread political violence has been identified with the Good Friday Agreement by politicians and the media but the origins of the deal and the experience of its (non) operation show the two are not the same.  That such identity is required is explained by the lack of any other merit to the sectarian arrangements put in place that repeatedly fail and fall over.

Trimble was a reactionary and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement he fought tenaciously for was no exception.  Latterly he was a keen exponent of Brexit and opponent of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  So much for the politics of stability.

‘The Irish Times’ obituary records that the standout line in his Nobel peace prize acceptance speech in Oslo included the remark that Northern Ireland had been ‘a cold house for Catholics’.  This, however, is a euphemism for decades of discrimination and repression.  The Agreement he fought for was designed only to make modest changes to what was considered a modest injustice.  Turning the heating up was not a solution to a house that should be condemned. 

Social forms of emancipation 

Photo: https://www.positive.news/uk/the-uk-workers-co-op-filling-in-fast-fashions-gaps/

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 48

In the previous post I noted that Marx states that solving the problems thrown up by social revolution will be possible when the conditions are present or “in the course of formation” with the implication that if they are not present or insufficiently in formation they cannot be accomplished.

These tasks include the development of the forces of production and of the working class and its movement so that it takes into its own hands these forces.  Only through the massive socialisation of production carried out by capitalism is it possible to make these forces the collective power of the working class.  Individual production such as peasant holdings, guild production, or petty commodity production in general, cannot support collective ownership.  In the terminology of the Preface of 1859, the new relations of production would not be appropriate to the forces of production.

The massive development of today’s socialised production could only come about through the huge accumulation of means of production and transport etc, which cannot now function without equal development of massive amounts of data and information.  These have developed through accumulation of these means as capital by the capitalist class.  This in turn is simply invested surplus value that could not have been accumulated without the massive growth in the exploitation of the working class.

All this entails certain characteristics that are important to understanding the prerequisites for socialist revolution, understood both in terms of the development of the productive forces, before and after the occurrence of working class political revolution, and for the political revolution itself. 

The advance of the forces of production has involved the prodigious increase in the international division of labour with implications for their continuing development, and how they must develop further under working class control and direction.  It also makes clearer than was the case in Marx’s time that political revolution by the working class cannot succeed on a purely national basis, something that would already be universally accepted had the working class movement succeeded in developing international organisation, which therefore remains a crucial task.

The existing forms of socialisation also inevitably involve enormous increases in the concentration and centralisation of capital, which assists the possibility and potential for collective ownership by the working class.  This has necessarily involved an enormous increase in planning both within and between individual productive forces.  Engels recognised this in his critique of the Erfurt Programme, when referring to paragraph 4 of that programme’s criticism of “the planlessness rooted in the nature of capitalist private production”

Engels suggested that this “needs considerable improvement. I am familiar with capitalist production as a social form, or an economic phase; capitalist private production being a phenomenon which in one form or another is encountered in that phase. What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception.”

‘Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.”

The opposition between capitalism and socialism is not therefore about a simple counter-position of market and plan, since development of the latter within capitalism also helps lay the ground for the new relations of production that define the new working class society. It is the class that rules, that carries out the planning and that determines its scope and character that makes the difference, not the existence of plans themselves.

This also means that whatever role market relations initially have in the transition to cooperative production – before and after political revolution – will arise from the existing planning within capitalism, its degree of development beforehand and the capacity to expand and advance it thereafter.

The material relations of production that herald socialism also therefore refer to the forms of ownership that exist before political revolution, that will serve to help bring it about as well as help progress its success thereafter:

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.  They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.”

As Engels said in a letter to Bebel: 

“Marx and I never doubted that in the transition to the full communist economy we will have to use the cooperative system as an intermediate stage on a large scale.”

It is not therefore simply a question of some quantitative development of the forces of production, which is the limited way that it is often considered, but the necessary characteristics of that development – including the social forms that it takes – that affect the sufficiency of the material preconditions for socialism and the associated requirements for successful political revolution.

So, Marx does not say that just because the forces of production have developed – to whatever level – the new society will emerge out of it. If it does not then it (the old society) may well continue to develop its forces of production.  The creation of the new is a conscious act.

This is because it is the working class itself, as it is organised in production, that is the prime productive force, which comes into conflict within the prevailing relations of production, i.e. the class relations of subordination and exploitation, and which means the contradiction between the forces and relations is not a simple resolution in favour of the forces, as some bourgeois analysis might seek to contend.  An early formulation by Marx appeared in the Poverty of Philosophy:

“For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organisation of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society.” 

In Value, Price and Profit Marx explains to workers that ‘They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society.’

Thus, the way the social forms of production have developed under capitalism are also part of the material circumstances that face the working class in its task of overthrowing and transforming it.  This includes the international nature of the division of labour and of the classes necessarily based on it; the increased removal of the capitalist class directly from the greatest means of production with the substitution of professional and technical staff that shade into the working class; and the forms of socialised ownership arising, including development of its cooperative forms, which can all act as more direct preparation of the working class for its new role as master of society.

Marx presented no systematic view on how all these elements might come together just as he did not provide a blueprint about how the new society would be planned, as the latter grows out of the former and not from some prior schema.  It has however been stated repeatedly that this would arise directly out of existing society and not from some invented first principles, whether that be a certain plan or state structure; especially as the latter must become subordinated to general society and not its master.

Back to part 47

Forward to part 49

Žižek and Ukraine

With 50 books in multiple languages, innumerable magazine articles, presence on ‘Foreign Policy’ Top 100 Global Thinkers list; dubbed the “Elvis of cultural theory” and “the most dangerous philosopher in the West”, the Slovenian ‘public intellectual’ Slavoj Žižek has often appeared to be all over the place. In his recent article on the war in Ukraine for The Guardian newspaper he really is.  To follow his arguments, such as they are, is to oneself get dizzy, but here we go.

His hook is John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ in which ‘the world can live as one’, which, according to Žižek, is ‘the best way to end in hell’.  Such pacifism ignores ‘brutal reality’ from which ‘it’s the time to awaken’.  Unfortunately Žižek’s own message to the Left beguiled by such pacifism is instead to imagine something even more incredible, including that it ‘need[s] a stronger Nato – but not as a prolongation of the US politics.’ 

It needs to support Ukraine with NATO weapons in a war that he says it cannot win, although he doesn’t linger to consider the wasted lives this would involve. Politically, this does not mean ‘that the Left should simply take the side of the west, inclusive of the rightist fundamentalists who also support Ukraine’, although since one ‘cannot be a leftist’ without ‘unequivocally’ standing behind Ukraine one struggles to understand why not. 

Like every other commentator he gets inside Vladimir Putin’s head to warn that we must stop him exploiting global warming to hijack the world’s food supply by routing it through an ice-free Artic Circle so that ‘Russia will dominate so much food production that it will be able to blackmail the whole world.’ This, he imagines, is the ‘reality beneath Putin’s imperial dream’.

How we are to believe that Putin is implementing his imperial dream to divide Europe with an invading army too small to occupy all of Ukraine is unexplained.

Through quotations from one speech he declares Putin’s intention to carry out a ‘brutal attempt to change our entire geopolitical situation. The true target of the war is the dismantlement of the European unity.’  But since he states that this is also the intention of US conservatives, and the war is a ‘proxy war between US and Russia’, why are we to support NATO?  

His concern over this unity of Europe rests on Putin’s belief that countries are either sovereign or subordinated colonies, when it is rather the case ‘that in today’s global world in which we are all haunted by the same catastrophes we are all in-between, in an intermediate state, neither a sovereign country nor a conquered one: to insist on full sovereignty in the face of global warming is sheer madness since our very survival hinges on tight global cooperation’. Again, what NATO has to offer as a model for the cooperation necessary to avoid catastrophes rather than create one is unexplained.

But even a glimpse of the ‘brutal reality’ he claims to perceive shows we do not need these confused and wild imaginings.

The world’s food supply is already being manipulated, endangering many of the world’s poorest people, through rising prices and blockade caused not only by the Russian invasion but by Western sanctions affecting Russian food supplies to the world and refusal to lift these sanctions in order to release the supplies from Ukraine.  We don’t need to wait for global warming to melt in ice cap.

We are invited to oppose the division of Europe and its conversion into a colony, but through subordination of the continent to a United States’ controlled NATO that will commit every country to follow the US lead in war under a protective umbrella that more resembles a protection racket.  The illusion is given that every country will, with Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, be supported by a commitment to war in their defence if any member is attacked, but the Article makes no such commitment.  What NATO does is make Europe the playground of US expansionism and the potential theatre of war, as the threat of Ukrainian membership has vividly demonstrated. The United States will enter only such wars as will satisfy its own imperial interest and will provoke the same with the intention of leveraging NATO membership to gain support for its wars of choice.

The US, supported by the lap dog, has pushed for Europe to sanction Russian energy imports in what can only be seen as invitation to an enormous act of self-harm; perhaps the ultimate definition of US hegemony in which the interests of the most powerful become identified as those of the subordinated.

For Žižek the point of his article is that, ‘Today, one cannot be a leftist if one does not unequivocally stand behind Ukraine . . . If the left will fail here, the game is over for it . . . from the leftist standpoint, Ukraine fights for global freedom, inclusive of the freedom of Russians themselves. That’s why the heart of every true Russian patriot beats for Ukraine.’

What type of Russian is to hold to their heart a Ukraine wedded to NATO is another philosophical mystery–to a regime that celebrates fascist heroes and incorporates fascist forces within its armed forces?

To envisage all this is to consider that John Lennon is almost positively grounded in his call for pacifism.  By calling on us to imagine an alternative John Lennon at least could see the reality that required it.  Žižek fails to properly to identify this reality and his imagined alternative is only a grotesque reactionary response to it.  His article adds a name to the declamation of the valiant role of the Ukrainian state in its heroic fight against the uniquely evil Russian dictator but it’s all been said before and his name doesn’t make the Ukrainian state any less repugnant or reactionary.

However unrealistic John Lennon’s imagined alternative is, its other advantage is that it is at least an agreeable one.  Žižek implies the possible existence of one of his own, through a separate working class interests when he says that:

‘When a country is occupied, it is the ruling class which is usually bribed to collaborate with the occupiers to maintain its privileged position, so that the struggle against the occupiers becomes a priority. The same can go for the struggle against racism; in a state of racial tension and exploitation, the only way to effectively struggle for the working class is to focus on fighting racism (this is why any appeal to the white working class, as in today’s alt-right populism, betrays class struggle).’

The collaboration of foreign occupiers with the ruling class of the conquered country demonstrates a fundamental identity of interests and thus their equally fundamental antagonism to the working class.  The fitting response is not to fight for this country and its state, which purports to represent the interests of all its people including its working class, but to recognise within it the ideology and mechanism that enforces ruling class authority and power. The equally fundamental identity of the interests of the working class across nations, in this case Ukrainian and  Russian, is demonstrated by the barbaric effects of the war and the willingness of the various states involved to sacrifice working people recruited to fight in it.  This cannot be done by supporting one or other side but only through class struggle.

But while Žižek appears to endorse such struggle when it is necessary to fight racism it evaporates when it comes to capitalist war.  Perhaps because even his recipe for struggle against racism is also misjudged.  While leftists should not pander to alt-right populism the struggle against racism will fail if it does not ‘appeal to the white working class’. Žižek thinks ‘any appeal’ is ‘a betrayal’ but who then is he hoping to unite?

Chomsky has apparently said that Žižek’s views are often too obscure to be communicated usefully to common people.  In this case, while they are frequently confused and confusing, they are also bald statements in support of ‘Ukraine’ and NATO so are very easy to understand.  In this he adds nothing.  For someone with so much to say he ends up saying nothing that hasn’t been said a thousand times before.

Being ready for socialism

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 47

In Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, which we have so far used to signpost the nature of Marx’s alternative to capitalism, he writes that on “the economic structure of society, the real foundation . . . arises a legal and political superstructure . . . to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness . . .” When “the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production . . .” there “begins an era of social revolution.  The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

It is therefore the changes in the economic foundation within capitalism that lead “sooner or later” to the transformation of the “legal and political superstructure.”  It is not that this superstructure, including the state, leads to the era of social revolution.  What is involved are social changes, which in relation to the creation of socialism; the end of class division and disappearance of the state, cannot be the result of the ‘superstructure’ i.e., the state itself, but of the development of the productive forces and appropriately corresponding relations of production.  This might seem obvious when stated after quoting Marx, but this has not prevented a century of claims that a socialist state introduces socialism, the eradication of class division and the withering away of the state itself.

The “superior relations of production” under which this is achieved replace the old when the “material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

Marx then states that “mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.”

He has already stated that “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.”

We should therefore know whether and to what extent material conditions are present, “or at least in the course of formation”, for the commencement of the transformation of capitalism.  In a previous post I argued that maturation of these material conditions should not be understood as requiring some absolute value but is a function of historical development.  

When first clarifying their ideas Marx and Engels noted this in general terms; rejecting the idea that the ‘degree of freedom’ to be achieved was a product simply of people’s views of its necessity:

“In reality, of course, what happened was that people won freedom for themselves each time to the extent that was dictated and permitted not by their ideal of man, but by the existing productive forces. All emancipation carried through hitherto has been based, however, on unrestricted productive forces. The production which these productive forces could provide was insufficient for the whole of society and made development possible only if some persons satisfied their needs at the expense of others, and therefore some — the minority — obtained the monopoly of development, while others — the majority — owing to the constant struggle to satisfy their most essential needs, were for the time being (i.e., until the creation of new revolutionary productive forces) excluded from any development.” (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology)

Given what Marx says in the 1859 Preface about the conditions required for solving the transformation of capitalism, it was open that there may be premature attempts to move to a new society.  Engels notes, in his Peasant War in Germany that the leader of the peasants, Thomas Müntzer, lived in an age which was “not ripe” for his ideas:

“Not only the movement of his time, but the whole century, was not ripe for the realisation of the ideas for which he himself had only begun to grope. The class which he represented not only was not developed enough and incapable of subduing and transforming the whole of society, but it was just beginning to come into existence. The social transformation that he pictured in his fantasy was so little grounded in the then existing economic conditions that the latter were a preparation for a social system diametrically opposed to that of which he dreamt. (page 78-79)

If this was obvious of the 16th century, in the Communist Manifesto Marx summarised the later experience of the young working class:

“the first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”

The material conditions necessary for a new society include a level of productive forces that are “appropriate” for the creation of new relations of production; but since this requires a “social revolution” the transformation involved also requires that this becomes a conscious struggle that is ‘fought out’.  We have been told in the 1859 Preface that how we understand this transformation, our consciousness of it, must itself be explained:

“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.” (Preface 1859)

In the Manifesto Marx notes that: 

“The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social levelling in its crudest form.”

“The Socialist and Communist systems, properly so called, those of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and others, spring into existence in the early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie . . .”

“The founders of these systems see, indeed, the class antagonisms, as well as the action of the decomposing elements in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”

“Since the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry, the economic situation, as they find it, does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat.”

Instead, their consciousness reflects their material reality:

“Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.”

“In the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.” 

As this quotation makes clear, given the requirement of maturation of the conditions that will permit new superior relations of production, it is not possible to leap over the development of these conditions; by attempting to disregard the absence of sufficient productive forces or attempting to replace existing relations of production with new ones when the productive forces will not support them, when the existing exploited class is insufficiently developed to abolish its own exploitation and that of exploitation more generally.

Twentieth-century history, in the shape of the Soviet Union and China (the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution for example), is testament to the accuracy of these claims. These experiences threw up struggles, organisations, programmes and slogans that reflected their precocity but which unfortunately have been unthinkingly repeated without adequate consideration of their original circumstances and therefore their limitations.

Marx makes clear that solving the problems thrown up by such transformation will be possible when the conditions are present or “in the course of formation” with the implication that if they are not present or insufficiently in formation then the requisite tasks necessary for transformation cannot be accomplished.

In such circumstances the tasks revolve around existing development of the forces of production and class relations such that the working class is prepared and made ready to take into its own hands these forces.  As we have noted, Marx believed that the material conditions “could be produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone.”

In The German Ideology Marx and Engels state that the abolition of exploitation “presuppose(s) a great increase in productive power, a high degree of its development. And, on the other hand, this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historical, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.”

“. . . Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”

There is no blueprint, there is no ideal state of affairs to be aimed at, and there is no master plan.  The movement begins where it is and involves the working class emancipating itself through changing its conditions, and changing itself, based on circumstances that already exist but are constantly developed, along the lines analysed and presented by Marx in Capital, and which we have extensively discussed in previous posts.

This movement does not stop after political revolution, and Marx states that “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to . . . increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Communist Manifesto). Only in this way can humanity move from the want and inequality continually and necessarily reproduced under capitalism to society being able to “inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Critique of the Gotha Programme)

Back to part 46

Forward to part 48

The Assembly elections and Brexit

The Assembly elections a month ago saw Sinn Fein become the largest party and entitled to nominate the First Minister of Northern Ireland.  The election was heralded as historic with an Irish nationalist taking the post for the first time.  Nationalists celebrated, although without much celebration, pointing to the irony of the ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ being headed by a (Catholic) nationalist.  Whether this was doubly ironic was not considered – what is the imperative to dismantle the Northern state if it is no longer able to guarantee its original purpose of sectarian supremacy?

Very symbolic, everyone agreed.  But beyond this obvious reversal, symbolic of what?

Perhaps the heralding of border polls North and South that would deliver a united Ireland?

This blog has argued that such unity is some way off and there does not yet exist a majority for a united Ireland in the North. Sinn Fein’s victory confirms this.

Despite declaring the election ‘historic’, turnout was slightly down from 64.78% in 2017 to 63.61% last month.  Sinn Fein appears to have cannibalised the nationalist vote rather than extended it, as its share increased by 1% and that of the nationalist SDLP fell by 2.9%.  As a share of the total vote the nationalist total amounted to 40.93% (353,069 votes), when including votes for People before Profit and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, (on the grounds that their position on the national question involves support for a united Ireland).

A point made here before however is that the national question will not be confined to purely national questions whenever it comes to be posed as a realistic possibility.  The ‘conversation’ campaigned for by Sinn Fein about such possibility does not make it probable.

The combined vote of unionist parties was only just under 4,000 less than the nationalist total at 40.47%.  Its composition changed however, as some DUP voters found something even more reactionary to vote for – the Traditional Unionist Voice vote increased from 2.55% to 7.63%, increasing more than three times absolutely.  Sinn Fein became the largest Party only because of Unionist division. Its prominence is therefore symbolic of what caused this division and weakening of unionism.

Since it might reasonably be expected that voting in a border poll will entail different considerations and additional incentives to participation it is necessary to consider what the election results imply for the outcome of a border poll.  If we consider the Sinn Fein result not just in terms of those who voted (29%) but as a share of the electorate as a whole (18.5%) we can see the scope of the potential impact of any increased turnout.

It is assumed that the 2021 census results that will come out relatively soon will record an increase in the Catholic share of the population and decrease in the Protestant. The last Census in 2011 found 45.1% of the Northern Ireland population were Catholic, with 48.4% from a Protestant background.  More importantly, religious background does not map directly onto political allegiance – the 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey reported that 32% of respondents identified as unionist, 26% as nationalist and 38% as other.  An examination of support for the Alliance Party illustrates the complexity.

It was held up as the real winner of the election, heralding not the victory of Irish nationalism but of ‘the centre ground’ in which the ‘constitutional question’ is not primary.  The party’s vote increased to 13.53% (116,681 votes) from 9.05% (72,717 votes), or an absolute increase in votes of 60%.

The Party originates as a straightforward Unionist Party with a clear position on the border but has moved away from presenting as a non-sectarian unionist party to a party variously described as neither unionist nor nationalist, as ‘other’, agnostic on the border or simply seeking to relegate it to the future. Beyond this, the Alliance Party has never shown that it is any real opposition to most of the reactionary policies pursued by either Irish nationalism or Irish unionism.

The weakness of this is obvious.  The national question is not one that can forever be avoided and the context and terms in which it is presented will go a long way in determining responses.  It will not simply be a question of recording existing opinions but a political struggle to change them, which will be heavily impacted by economic and social developments that will be driven by outside forces, as we have already seen through Brexit.

Most people already have a view, even Alliance voters.  The NILT survey is reported as showing that over half of all Alliance voters supported membership of the UK while only 35% of it from a Catholic background supported a united Ireland. When we consider that some (minority) of nationalists, in the SDLP for example, may not vote for a united Ireland and that the majority of those who do not vote will be from a Protestant background, the odds on a vote for a united Ireland are fairly long, as is the timescale in which it might become otherwise.

What has heightened speculation has been Brexit and the economic and political effects of unionist support for it, including through some unionists finding themselves voting against it.  While the DUP strongly supported it, and the hardest version of it they could get, the Ulster Unionist Party opposed Brexit, although it left it to its members whether they could support it or not.

The reverberations from the inconsistency between the anti-Brexit view of a minority of unionist voters and its most prominent leaders is not something that is going to go away. Brexit is not a one-off move, as many of its supporters believe.  Far from being the achievement of ‘freedom’ it involves increasing separation from Europe with all the negative consequences that it will continue to bring, for as long as it is implemented as it is currently.  What is really symbolic in the circumstances is the large number of unionists getting Irish (EU) passports (even some who voted for Brexit).

Trade between North and South has increased dramatically while trade between the Irish State and Britain has reduced as some of this is re-routed from the direct crossing via Dublin port to Northern Ireland and then into the Irish State.  This in itself matters because the Irish State is no longer significantly underdeveloped compared to Britain.  It is no longer clearly the case that people in the North would be significantly worse off if they lived in a united Ireland, on top of which the sectarian aspects of the Irish State have diminished, although far from disappeared.  What were once absolutes have been, and are still, in transition.  It is the North that now looks backward and parochial to increasing numbers of people across the island.

What is of more immediate importance is that despite claims to having got Brexit done, the Tory Government has demonstrated that it hasn’t got anywhere near it.  This is most obvious with the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol but is also shown through more delays to the introduction of controls on EU goods imported into Britain; plus the failure to gear up its own regulatory bodies to perform the functions previously carried out at EU level, and continued complaints of exclusion from European initiatives such as the Horizon scientific research programme.

The DUP is now refusing to join the Executive of the devolved administration and to allow the newly elected Assembly to operate.  It claims that the Protocol has impacted on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, even though Jeffrey Donaldson has previously specifically dismissed such a claim, and the Party’s previous leader attempted to argue its positive impact on the local economy.

The DUP’s problem is not that Brexit has failed but that it has succeeded in demonstrating that it was a mistake.  The Protocol that was necessitated by the hardest Brexit the DUP could support is held up as being to blame for weakening political links to Britain. It dishonestly claims that it fundamentally impairs Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as part of the UK while nationalists equally dishonestly claim it has no significance at all.

While the DUP opposes the Protocol and nationalists support it both want it changed, and both want to pretend and ensure that Brexit can and will have little or no impact on trade. While both claimed before the vote that Brexit would have big consequences they now want to pretend it can have next to none.  It is claimed that the frictions and additional costs to trade can be more or less ameliorated and risks to the integrity of the EU’s Single Market minimised if not ignored.  

All are in reality, or so it is claimed, united on a ‘landing zone’ for a deal in which goods from Britain destined for the Northern Ireland market go through a radically different procedure than those being forwarded to the Irish State.  In this the business lobby is widely quoted as the experts without any particular agenda.

Already the EU has signaled that there can be dramatic reductions in checks but that this requires access to information, data flows and means of assurance that the British have so far refused to give, contrary to the Protocol they agreed and signed. Despite claims to the contrary the risk to the Single Market is not zero, and the British Foreign Secretary has already boasted of the future ability of Britain to import into Northern Ireland agricultural products from the rest of the world that would not be allowed into the European market.  This is not to mention other British objections around state aid and governance etc. that the EU will not accept.

The DUP hitched itself to Boris Johnson’s Brexit and was betrayed through his agreement to the Protocol, an agreement the Brexit Tories had no intention of keeping.  For the Tories, the Protocol gives them the advantage of continuing to rally their support around a Brexit struggle they claimed to have already won, while offering some hope that they can leverage any EU concessions into the wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

For the DUP, reversal of previous claims that the Protocol is no threat and had positive economic impacts, provides an avenue for them to regroup from their mistakes and attempt to regain their position as the biggest party and therefore entitlement to the post of First Minister.  It was their idea to change the rules so that the largest party could claim this post, which had previously enabled it to demand support from unionists in order to prevent Sinn Fein capturing it.  If they can get sufficient concessions on the Protocol it can wait for another election, claim the credit and then get back to displacing Sinn Fein as the biggest party.

This requires reliance on the Johnson Government continuing to dispute with the EU but also ultimately coming to an agreement. Despite a continuation of the dispute being a reminder that Johnson did not ‘get Brexit done’ it is the only route he has to protecting his position inside the Conservative Party and providing some sort of cover for Brexit’s negative consequences.   The introduction of the legislative route to overturning the Protocol builds some delay to actually having to break from it or swallow defeat. This is obviously not sustainable in the longer term and is less and less convincing in distracting from Brexit’s failures. In these circumstances The EU has little reason to accept British demands.

The DUP will find it difficult to retreat while Johnson pretends he can face down the EU, and Johnson has become such a liability his policy of asking the punters why he did Brexit in the first place, and sticking a crown on pint glasses, will not cover for his mess.

The victory of Sinn Fein might be symbolic, but it arises within circumstances more important than such symbolism. It might herald a position in government office North and South of the border but the border will still be there and, as usual with its successes, it will illustrate that what is good for it has only remote connection to what is good for the Irish working class.

5 Self-determination subordinated

UN Security Council

In The Right of Nations to Self-Determination Lenin stated that

‘The categorical requirement of Marxist theory in investigating any social question is that it be examined within definite historical limits, and, if it refers to a particular country (e. g., the national programme for a given country), that account be taken of the specific features distinguishing that country from others in the same historical epoch.’

In The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up he says that

‘What is the lesson to be drawn from this concrete example which must he analysed concretely if there is any desire to be true to Marxism? Only this: (1) that the interests of the liberation of a number of big and very big nations in Europe rate higher than the interests of the movement for liberation of small nations; (2) that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’

The globalisation of the war in Ukraine is evident not just from the antagonism between Russia and US (plus other NATO countries) but the determination of the latter to get every other country to impose its sanctions on Russia.  In other words, the demand that every other country join the war on its side.  This is echoed on the left where some make the smallness of a nation, contra Lenin, a reason to support its demands!

Evaluation of the war obviously requires Lenin’s recommendation – ‘that the demand for democracy must not be considered in isolation but on a European—today we should say a world—scale.’

Lenin gives an example of what this might mean:

‘When the Dutch and Polish Social-Democrats reason against self-determination, using general arguments, i.e., those that concern imperialism in general, socialism in general, democracy in general, national oppression in general, we may truly say that they wallow in mistakes. But one has only to discard this obviously erroneous shell of general arguments and examine the essence of the question from the standpoint of the specific conditions obtaining in Holland and Poland for their particular position to become comprehensible and quite legitimate . . .’

After addressing the Dutch example, he turns to the case of Poland:

‘Karl Radek, a Polish Social-Democrat, who has done particularly great service by his determined struggle for internationalism in German Social-Democracy since the outbreak of war, made a furious attack on self-determination in an article entitled “The Right of Nations to Self-Determination” . . . and propounds, amongst others, the argument that self-determination fosters the idea that “it is allegedly the duty of Social-Democrats to support any struggle for independence.”

Lenin’s response is that ‘From the standpoint of general theory this argument is outrageous, because it is clearly illogical . . .’  He then notes that ‘I recall Rosa Luxemburg saying in an article written in 1908, that the formula: “against national oppression” was quite adequate. But any Polish nationalist would say—and quite justly—that annexation is one of the forms of national oppression, consequently, etc.’

In other words, if you say you are ‘against national oppression,’ and Poland is nationally oppressed, then you should support Poland’s struggle for independence.  But Lenin doesn’t agree to this, and examines the specific conditions applying from the viewpoint of the interests of the struggles of the working class:

‘However, bake Poland’s specific conditions in place of these general arguments: her independence today is “impracticable” without wars or revolutions. To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.  . . . . To raise the question of Poland’s independence today, with the existing alignment of the neighbouring imperialist powers, is really to run after a will-o’-the-wisp, plunge into narrow-minded nationalism and forget the necessary premise of an all-European or at least a Russian and a German revolution.’

‘A third and, perhaps, the most important example. We read in the Polish theses (III, end of 82) that the idea of an independent Polish buffer state is opposed on the grounds that it is an “inane utopia of small impotent groups. Put into effect, it would mean the creation of a tiny fragment of a Polish state that would be a military colony of one or another group of Great Powers, a plaything of their military or economic interests, an area exploited by foreign capital, and a battlefield in future war”.’

‘This is all very true when used as an argument against the slogan of Polish independence today, because even a revolution in Poland alone would change nothing and would only divert the attention of the masses in Poland from the main thing—the connection between their struggle and that of the Russian and German proletariat. It is not a paradox but a fact that today the Polish proletariat as such can help the cause of socialism and freedom, including the freedom of Poland, only by joint struggle with the proletariat of the neighbouring countries, against the narrow Polish nationalists. Tile great historical service rendered by the Polish Social-Democrats in the struggle against the nationalists cannot possibly be denied.’

The parallel with Ukraine is obvious, but this is not even the point.  The point is that the specific conditions of each national struggle should be considered from the viewpoint of the working class and its class struggle and this can lead us very far from support for bourgeois nationalism, even in the case of a country dismembered by empires. Often this nationalism is painted red although generally this has not been attempted on behalf of the nationalism of Ukraine notwithstanding attempts on the left to now soften its far-right complexion.

Does this mean there is nothing left of the policy of self-determination of nations? Lenin goes on:

‘But these same arguments, which are true from the standpoint of Poland’s specific conditions in the present epoch, are manifestly untrue in the general form in which they are presented. So long as there are wars, Poland will always remain a battlefield in wars between Germany and Russia, but this is no argument against greater political liberty (and, therefore, against political independence) in the periods between wars. The same applies to the arguments about exploitation by foreign capital and Poland’s role as a plaything of foreign interests.’

‘The Polish Social-Democrats cannot, at the moment, raise the slogan of Poland’s independence, for the Poles, as proletarian internationalists, can do nothing about it without stooping, like the “Fracy” [Polish Socialist Party], to humble servitude to one of the imperialist monarchies. But it is not indifferent to the Russian and German workers whether Poland is independent, they take part in annexing her (and that would mean educating the Russian and German workers and peasants in the basest turpitude and their consent to play the part of executioner of other peoples).’

‘The situation is, indeed, bewildering, but there is a way out in which all participants would remain internationalists: the Russian and German Social-Democrats by demanding for Poland unconditional “freedom to secede”; the Polish Social-Democrats by working for the unity of the proletarian struggle in both small and big countries without putting forward the slogan of Polish independence for the given epoch or the given period.’

Such are the considerations that must be taken into account when seeking to apply the demand for self-determination for any particular nationality.  Only in extremis has this been done in the case of the war in Ukraine – when it comes to opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine by NATO, which risks a direct war with Russia and nuclear oblivion.  In this the pro-war left has had cause to pause, a pragmatic concession without theoretical support, their whole policy being otherwise based on bourgeois morality. As we have seen, expressed by Lenin:

‘To be in favour of an all-European war merely for the sake of restoring Poland is to be a nationalist of the worst sort, and to place the interests of a small number of Poles above those of the hundreds of millions of people who suffer from war.’ (The Discussion On Self-Determination Summed Up)

But apart from this glaringly obvious acceptance of limits to its defence of the Ukrainian capitalist state the pro-war left has demonstrated itself content with the effects of its policy.

These effects include the proposed massive militarisation of Germany and the incorporation of Sweden and Finland into NATO, not to mention the enrichment of the US military industrial complex and its consequent increased political influence. They also involve the effects of supporting imperialist sanctions and their contribution to the reduction in living standards for workers and the poor across the globe.  The working class is thereby enrolled on the side of their own ruling class in the conflict with Russia, on behalf of another corrupt capitalist state that resembles no country so much as the one uniquely damned by ‘the international community.’ 

The pro-war left demands supply of all the weapons required to achieve Ukraine’s war objectives, which requires that Ukraine be able to finance the war; imperialism does not come free.  So, for example, the requirement to address the ‘food catastrophe’ caused by the war, as headlined by ‘The Economist’, which notes that Ukraine’s food exports alone provide the calories to feed 400m people.  In true fashion the newspaper raises the prospect of NATO convoys in the Black sea to remedy this, although this too risks direct conflict between the armed forces of NATO and Russia.

Facing escalating war or threat of famine the pro-war left finds that their ‘practical’­, ‘something must be done’, approach of supporting imperialism supporting Ukraine leaves them with an unenviable ‘practical’ choice.

In this regard there is nothing new, Lenin excoriated it – ‘The bourgeoisie, which naturally assumes the leadership at the start of every national movement, says that support for all national aspirations is practical . . . The whole task of the proletarians in the national question is “unpractical” from the standpoint of the nationalist bourgeoisie of every nation . . . This call for practicality is in fact merely a call for uncritical acceptance of bourgeois aspirations.’ 

How far all this support for imperialism is from the policy of Lenin is obvious, but then equally obvious is that this left is not really interested in this policy.

concluded

back to part 4

4 Supporting the democratic content of nationalism

In ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ Lenin stated that 

‘The bourgeois nationalism of any oppressed nation has a general democratic content that is directed against oppression, and it is this content that we unconditionally support, At the same time we strictly distinguish it from the tendency towards national exclusiveness; we fight against the tendency of the Polish bourgeois to oppress the Jews, etc., etc.’

We have already explained in the previous posts the limits to such support but there are others that we have not addressed and that have further relevance when considering the situation in Ukraine today.  We should obviously be wary of claims of a democratic content to a nationalism that has already shown its reactionary character.

The recent history of Ukraine has demonstrated that the growth of nationalism in that country has been the product of the cynical strategy and policies of certain oligarchic factions in struggle with rivals.  It has been advanced not as the flag under which democratisation of Ukrainian society has advanced but as a cover for austerity and repression, and as a substitute for the failure of a number of bourgeois leaderships to carry out promises to rid Ukraine of corruption and systematic abuses of democracy.

As this nationalism has advanced it has not broadened the scope of democracy through inclusion of different ethic, linguistic and cultural groups but acted as a weapon to restrict the rights of minorities and impose a single ethno-nationalism.  This has included restrictions on freedom of speech through crack-downs on rival media organisations; the banning of political parties and silencing of particular political views; promotion of an ideology of anti-communism, and attacks on workers’ rights.

This nationalism has celebrated and legitimised fascist figures from its history (see above picture) and current political slogans from far-right organisations, going so far as to integrate their armed organisations into the state, and at times place significant figures in positions of power within the Government.  The significance of the far right has advanced under the banner of, and in lock-step with, wider Ukrainian nationalism.  It is not that mainstream Ukrainian nationalism and the state that promotes it have become fascist but that the mainstream has seen no need or want to separate itself from the far-right movement, which it has celebrated as its ‘best fighters’.

The Ukrainian state has faced a number of secessionist movements but the policy advocated by Lenin in dealing with such movements by offering the right of secession in order to forge democratic unity, as the best grounds for uniting its working class, has been rejected. When Ukrainian nationalism has demanded self-determination it has ignored its own responsibility to defend consistent democracy within the territory it claims.  Instead, it has moved further and further into alliance with the world’s greatest enemy of equality between nations – US imperialism and its NATO alliance.

In sum, there is no democratic content to Ukrainian nationalism and it cannot be defended.  If it currently wields hegemony, this is not only the responsibility of the far-right in the country, or the oligarchic and political factions who solidify their position with its support, but also due to the reactionary policy of the Russian state. This state can offer no democratic alternative because it too is headed by a corrupt and reactionary nationalist regime.  Between two such regimes the ‘instinctive and automatic rush to reach for the policy of self-determination of nations in order to justify the decision to support one side’, as explained in a previous post, is a betrayal of the working class of both nations.

The liberation of the Ukrainian working class will not be achieved in alliance with US imperialism, which is forging the strongest chains for this class through its superior economic and military power.  The utter dependency of Ukraine and its nationalists on US policy has now been firmly entrenched by the massive armed and associated financial support of the US.  Through this war Ukrainian nationalism has definitively made its country a client of the United States; so much for the promise of nationalism. 

Only by a struggle against this can the freedom of the Ukrainian working class be achieved, including in the East and South of the country, and only in conjunction with neighbouring countries including Russia.  This cannot be achieved by the US and NATO which seeks the permanent submission of Ukraine through radical diminution and debasement of Russia.

*                                  *                                  *

Unfortunately, some on the Ukrainian left acknowledge the reactionary character of US imperialism – ‘In this conflict, Russia can in no way be considered a different project than the US and the rest of the capitalist powers’ – but go on to frame the war as a purely anti-colonial struggle, with Russia as the imperial power.  ‘Ukraine needs to decolonize and de-Russify’, which neglects to explain how unity of the Ukrainian working class, including ethnic Russian workers with divided political loyalties, can be advanced.

Lip service is paid to ‘the centrality of Ukraine’s fight for independence from both Russian and Western Imperial domination’, and the war is presented as an ‘existential’ one for Ukrainians’ ‘very existence’, with war aims including the incorporation of Crimea and the Russian controlled Donbas republics under Kyiv rule.  Lenin’s policy of seeking unity through the right to secession isn’t on the table and the Ukrainian right to self-determination has simply become an example of the ‘refined nationalism’ that he warned against.

The article is therefore full of references to historic Russian oppression while defending Ukrainian ‘agency’ and ‘subjectivity’, all the while forgetting that it is now an independent state with its own capitalist structure and dynamics.  The war is framed as a national struggle, just as it is presented in the West; the war aims supported are those of the most rabid US neocon, and the current means of struggle by its capitalist state are endorsed.  How the war is understood, the appropriate war aims and means of struggle supported by Yuliya Yurchenko are the same as that of Western imperialism. 

What we have then is not a policy that will combat the most rabid forms of Ukrainian nationalism, which Yurchenko accepts is a real problem, even admitting the ‘risk [of] confirming Putin’s obscene lie that we are a nation of bigots and fascists.’  What it proposes is an idea that Ukrainian nationalism can be made progressive.  The problem with this is threefold.

First, Ukrainian nationalism is already presented as progressive in a very objective sense, although by no means only that, through the ‘spirit of collective solidarity’ that the war has inspired.  This is despite her acknowledgement that previous democratic protests and mobilisations have only led to the strengthening of different oligarchic factions and the far-right. She claims that ‘Russia’s invasion has stirred up a healthy degree of Ukrainian nationalism.’

Second, the view that a healthy nationalism can arise from the war understood in existential national terms is simply beyond any credible belief.  This is especially the case since Yurchenko’s war policy, being the same as the most reactionary nationalist, promises a ‘long fight’, one that can therefore be guaranteed to build up massive bitterness and resentment. The policy of reliance on imperialism and domestic austerity necessary to finance it, coupled with opposition to the right of minorities to secede, means that nothing progressive could emerge from such a war, unless it provoked a revolt against it and the policy behind it.  But Yurchenko is not proposing that.

Lastly, the idea that any sort of nationalism, however ‘healthy’, could be the cause that would carry the Ukrainian working class forward is simply absurd for the reasons enumerated in the previous paragraph.  Nothing in the answers given in Yurchenko’s interview indicates any strategy to expose the role of US imperialism or that of domestic capitalist and bourgeois political forces in bringing this war to the Ukrainian working class.  The war, she says, was ‘a completely unprovoked attack.’ Nothing about the moves towards joining NATO or the repeated attacks on the break-away regions in the Donbas. Nothing to indicate that the Ukrainian working class has separate interests in the war from its rulers.

‘Compromise’ is rejected and the Minsk peace process merely ‘so-called’ and also rejected.  There is no acknowledgement of any Ukrainian state responsibility for the failure.  Instead ‘we will not settle for anything less than the reunification and independence of Ukraine.’  How this can happen through subordination to the US and NATO is something she is no more able to explain that the rest of the Ukrainian nationalist spectrum.

Capitulation to nationalism means avoiding assignment of any responsibility, and hence any opposition, to domestic capitalism and its rotten state.

Ukrainian nationalism does not find any democratic content that justifies any defence of it just because some on the left support it, portray it as democratic, or think they can make it so.

Yurchenko declares that ‘the international left must put its decolonial hat on in thinking about Ukraine’; in other words, put on its blinkers and accept the progressiveness of a war backed by US imperialism, the corrupt Ukrainian capitalist state, and the ‘best fighters’ of the ‘Ukrainian resistance’–the fascists of the Azov regiment.

Whoever thinks there is any democratic content in this nationalist melange is irretrievably lost to the struggle for socialism.

Back to part 3

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