An exchange of views on the French Presidential election

The following is a short exchange of views on Facebook on the French Presidential election which is taking place today:

LMcQ – See if you can guess which candidate’s leaflet has three explicitly racist pledges.  I’m struggling with this “they’re as bad as each other in the final analysis” line of argument.

Sráid Marx:  I don’t think that’s the argument being put. What about – how will Macron defend workers against fascism (or however one wants to characterise the FN) by implementing an austerity offensive against them, pushing them even further into the pursuit of bad alternatives (like FN)? And how will you explain to them that when you said they should vote for this offensive you didn’t actually mean you supported this offensive. I seem to remember we have been here before with a Le Pen and some geezer called Chirac and voting for the less worst alternative has just brought us to here. At what point, or how bad, would the lesser alternative have to be before you said – stop! The workers cannot lend support to those who simply prepare the way for the fascists and who you must at all times regard as your enemy. And if this is a frightening prospect to you that is only because your only defence ultimately is your own strength and this you cannot delegate – and certainly not to shits like Macron!

RM: Macron is an immediate short term defence against fascism simply because he is the only possible non-fascist outcome at this point. Everything starts from the present. The Chirac argument here is interesting. Yes, voting Chirac to defeat le Pen brought us to ‘now’ but that is surely a better option than to be looking back after 15 years of fascism in power!

Sráid Marx:  Everything starts from when it starts, which at any point in time is usually not the present. Today the weakness of the workers’ movement arises from its failure to successfully oppose austerity and build its own alternative political position in the past. This weakness is not addressed one iota by voting for Macron, in fact it is set back and will always be set back as long as the Macron’s of this world win and the likes of a Le Pen can be waived in front of us to get everyone to vote for the lesser evil. We know this because, as I said, it has happened before. An immediate defence against fascism? But the present passes into what we view now as the future and we will be weaker because we believed that Macron is some sort of defence. If he is one at the election then by definition his success is also a continuing defence, or do we only oppose and fight him unless there is an election. At what point do we say that workers must create their own alternative and cannot support the politicians and policies that brought us to this horrible choice? That is the political choice that we must take; that it is not on the ballot paper is more than unfortunate but that is the case nevertheless. Having our political choices determined by electoralism is not the way forward but is often a trap.

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SD: In an election which can only have one of two outcomes the alternative to the lesser evil is the greater evil.

Sráid Marx: Of course you are correct, but the question is whether the lesser EVIL is actually too high a price to pay.

F-CL: Well, if you don’t go with the lesser, surely the question is, is the greater evil too high a price to pay?

Sráid Marx:  Yes, a very good answer. But it still leaves you with the option of determining that both evils cannot be endorsed and that the elections leave you with no acceptable choice and to reject the choice given to you. Or do you believe that in all elections one must vote and endeavour to find the lesser evil?

F-CL:  It depends on circumstances … if there is a real, public abstain campaign and a refusal to vote can be seen to have meaning in the election then I think not voting could be the best option. And having “None of the above” on the voting paper – so you can actually show rejection of all – would be good (in fact, I think we should have a policy of including this option in all votes). But in my experience it is very rare for this to be the case, and going for “None of the above” would encourage people to not maximise the opposition to the greater evil, so even if “None” were an option I think I would usually come down in favour of lesser evil

The other alternative justifying not voting is for the candidates to be as close to as awful as each other to make any differentiation pointless. But this awfulness also involves assessment of the perceived consequences of who gets voted in. Even if Macron and Le Pen are close to each other (in fact I don’t think they are), Le Pen getting in would boost the far right far more than Macron would and you have to take that into account as well as the politics of the candidates

SD:  Surely the issue is about which outcome leaves the working class best placed to fight. In almost all circumstances the working class and the oppressed are going to be able to resist a lesser evil better than they could resist a greater evil, otherwise it wouldn’t be a greater evil.

Sráid Marx:  Not if they are disarmed politically by believing their class enemy is in any sense their protector against reaction. Workers must be taught again and again that they share interests as a class and not with liberals or other bourgeois figures.

SD: That’s quite a big if that you have inserted there. You think it is possible to convince people threatened by the rise of the FN to abstain, yet you don’t believe it possible to convince people that voting for a lesser evil still means they need to organise against that lesser evil?

Sráid Marx:  First I think that the threat that they will most likely face is Macron and his reactionary agenda and a vote for him is a statement that ‘it could be worse’! If such a view is justified in the election – why not afterwards? Fighting the FN is not the only issue in this election. In fact the rise of the FN is due to the policies now being pursued by Macron, policies that the FN say they have an alternative and a left that simply wants to fight the FN and votes for Macron and his policies makes their pretence all the stronger. The message for an active abstention is that you cannot rely on a simple vote to stop the FN, that the FN will get stronger if everyone else rows behind Macron and his reactionary policies and only the FN is seen to stand against them all the way. It’s a message that if you hate or fear the FN there is no solution but your own activity and a workers’ alternative to the policies that Macron will pursue, which the FN will feed off and attempt to continue to grow from.

SD: But “active abstentions” don’t actually exist, except in the heads of ultra lefts who try to comfort themselves that doing nothing out of sectarianism is a political act. Voting or not voting won’t make an iota of difference as to whether people fight back after the election. It just might be slightly harder to do so with an FN president.

Sráid Marx:  Let’s assume for one moment you are right – this would still not justify support for Macron, nor would it invalidate the objections to such support. But while living in Belfast I have seen a number of active abstention campaigns where leafleting, postering and canvassing were all carried out to encourage abstention. It is not even a merely ‘ultra-left’ notion – the greatest number of posters I ever saw in an election in West Belfast was when the Provos wanted an abstention when Bernadette McAliskey stood for the European parliament and the republicans still opposed participation in Brit elections. As to whether voting will affect how people will behave after the election, it must be clear that a working class vote for Macron will strengthen him. It would really be a sort of ultra-leftism to believe workers will vote for a bourgeois candidate but mobilise against him the day after, on the understanding that he is the lesser evil. Of course I have seen a similar view that they would immediately mobilise against a Le Pen victory dismissed, although you only claim it might be slightly harder.

 

 

Thoughts on the class struggle in Greece (part 2) – Towards a Revolution?

As I remarked in the first post, the views of both sides in the debate over the way forward for socialists in Greece share the view that there exists in the country the potential for a workers’ revolution.  This is not one that I share and the Greek Marxists provide the evidence that this is so.

First, Andreas Kloke notes the temporary defeat of the movement resisting austerity.  The slogan “Elections Now” by the two biggest left parties Syriza and the KKE “represents a strategic failure.” No big change took place in these elections between the right and the left and the electoral majority for austerity “reflects the real balance of power between the main classes in Greek society.”  Austerity continues to intensify and the fascists of Golden Dawn have grown to represent a real force.  The Greek Marxists are keen to emphasise that no one voting for the fascists can be under any illusion any more about what they represent.  On the other hand the vote for the coalition of which these writers are a part collapsed.  In presenting the fascists and revolutionary socialists as being in a race, he says “the fascists clearly have a considerable head start.”

Syriza does not represent a growth in the collective strength of the working class movement but rather “a collective mood” of opposition to the two traditional parties.  The memorandum imposing austerity is opposed by two thirds of society but only about one third support the left.  There is thus plainly a crisis of a left alternative.  This is a simple reflection of the low level of class consciousness and weak organisation of the working class in no respect fundamentally different from that in many other countries including Ireland.

Manos Skoufoglou notes that the organisations of the Greek working class are not prepared for a radical alternative to the various options that the Greek capitalist class and the EU may choose from.  In the most significant observation he says that “the working class is not questioning directly its (capital’s) economic power.  Workers don’t yet see the left as the political branch of their own class struggle, but as a body on which they “invest” their hopes.”  The fundamental problem is therefore the consciousness of the working class but this also exposes the utter bankruptcy of those on the left who argue that the basic problem is one of working class “representation” and needing to build an electoral vehicle to solve this problem. In the later view the problem is creating a means to represent working class consciousness not in recognising the weakness of this consciousness in the first place.

The real problem is that we are not facing a possible Greek workers’ revolution because, as the Greek Marxists say, “the working class is not questioning directly capital’s economic power”.  Until it does this all talk of revolution is empty rhetoric, not to mention the basis for seriously wrong perspectives.  This is illustrated by a big majority not actually wanting new elections.  So while many wanted to vote for Syriza many didn’t want the only means to achieve this.   A class breaking its chains to achieve political power would never row in behind such anti-political conceptions.

Yet other commentators on the revolutionary left in the Fourth International make the mistake of believing that the basic problem is the need for the left to take the lead in the struggles of the working class with a political programme of breaking with capitalism, one that becomes credible in the eyes of the working class.  But as I pointed out in two earlier posts here and here, political struggles against austerity including general strikes have not led in the past to revolutions.  In fact the Greeks have a record of such strikes that dwarfs the experience of others.  In this post I reported on an academic study that looked at 16 countries including Ireland, which recorded 72 general strikes of which 33 occurred in Greece alone!  Clearly this is not enough to build the material foundations for a revolutionary working class.

And this is the problem.  It is not the weakness of the Marxist Left that is the issue, for this itself can only be explained by the political weakness of the working class but the commentators from the Fourth International have nothing to say about this.  The transformation of capitalism into a new society becomes a question of political struggle only and becomes narrowly focused on one event which acts as a magic wand.  This magic wand is called revolution.  The comrades have no real understanding of revolution as the culmination of a long struggle by the working class to build itself up as a countervailing force in society, in utter opposition to its current class rulers and their state, in which revolution is the final decisive act of rupture inexisting society and birth of the new.  Everything involved in this extended process becomes invested in a single event that is expected to achieve what only decades of struggle, organisation and advances in consciousness can achieve.

Thus for these organisations revolutionary politics becomes believing in the immediacy of revolution, even when it is not immediately on the cards.  Everything else is reformism, to be supported of course, but only in so far as it quickly can become exhausted.  Because socialist revolutions are only possible given a prior development of the working class, and the political situation more widely, their politics become sterile and redundant.  They either collapse into pitiful reformism while talking revolution to their new recruits or they become dogmatists insisting on the necessity of revolution, which isn’t untrue, but which in the form expressed only confirms that it must be 12 midnight before we can move into the new day.  Not much use the rest of the time.

This is the choice presented in this debate and as we saw in the first part it leads to the raising of political demands which are predicated on their being a revolutionary situation when there isn’t.  The demands raised, such as who shall form a government, are thereby either wrong ,by claiming certain political forces like Syriza are more politically advanced than they really are, or are too abstract because they reflect an unacknowledged recognition that the perspectives offered have little traction in reality.

Many on the Marxist left put forward demands such as general strikes as if these on their own will raise workers consciousness and lay the basis for revolution, but they fail in Greece to learn a very obvious lessons that these strikes teach us.   For example Marxists see general strikes as posing the question of who rules society, the workers or the capitalists.  Through stopping society by laying down their tools they challenge the power of the bosses and question their right to decide what happens. Since general strikes cannot stop everything from working they involve workers in deciding just what is allowed to continue to work and what doesn’t and on what terms things like hospitals, power, water, emergency and other services continue to operate.

Yet Greece has seen dozens of general strikes.  If these posed the question of power the question has been answered repeatedly in favour of the capitalists.  The strikes therefore on their own teach this lesson and become very large protests, and protests are not an alternative but merely an objection to what already exists.  The idea that a frontal assault on capitalism today in Greece could be successful seems to fly in the face of this experience but that does not mean revolutionary politics have no role to play.

The alternative perspective of building up the independent economic, social and political power of the working class while recognising that this power does not yet exists is today what revolutionary politics is about because it relies solely on the workers themselves and does not lapse into the short cuts demanded by the perspective of those who see revolution as the only immediate answer to everything.  This need for immediate global answers leads many who call themselves Marxists to demand that the capitalist state do what these Marxists know in their bones the workers are not yet ready to do.  So we have calls for nationalisation as if this were socialist instead of workers ownership and control because the former is seen as more practical and realistic.

This failure to build a real workers’ alternative bursts open when capitalist crises erupt and it is clear that the Marxist movement has no real material, as opposed to theoretical, alternative.  This is why we get incredible admissions of political and general programmatic nakedness such as the following from one of the Greek contributors to the debate.

“The transitional program we describe is a quite sufficient counterweight to reformist projects of the virtually and possibly actually “governing” parliamentary left. However, it is not yet concrete enough. In order to convince against “realistic” arguments, which SYRIZA seems already to succumb to, if not actively spreading itself – that a unilateral termination of the memorandum would lead to international isolation, that expropriation of banks would provoke partners in the government to withdraw their support – we have to prove that a revolutionary counterproposal could also be applicable in practice. We have to study further examples and historical experiences of revolutionary struggles of the oppressed and the exploited: revolutionary measures in Russia, Cuba or China, autogestion in Algeria and in Latin America etc, even progressive measures applied by Chavez.  If anything, so as to depict in our own conscience the real potential of utopia. How can international solidarity practically eliminate pressures inflicted by the international vindictiveness of bourgeois classes? How can we achieve expropriations with no compensation without the universe to collapse? What exactly is workers control and how does it work? Particularly this last question is a key in order to conceive which is the essential difference between a radical left government and a revolutionary workers’ government.”

If the Marxist left cannot prove that its revolutionary politics can be concrete and will work in practice then no wonder it does not have the confidence of the working class.  For the latter to exist the working class would have to prove it in practice to itself through successful example of workers ownership and workers control in the here and now, not promises of utopias tomorrow after the revolution.  Yet the idea of workers ownership and control prior to the revolution is routinely dismissed by many of the Marxist groups.

Manos Skoufoglou states that “The maturation of objective and, what’s more, subjective preconditions for a revolution is not accumulative.”  While the class struggle can rise and fall in favour of the working class which may have to retreat or advance as changing circumstances dictate this statement is surely wrong.  Marx believed that social systems are born, grow, mature and decline.  That this is accumulative proves that the germs of the alternative society must develop and mature within capitalism and appear more and more in its life.

The increasing socialisation of production within capitalism, the increasing specialisation of production forcing greater planning within and cooperation between enterprises, comes into contradiction with the private appropriation of this production.  This is an accumulative process pointing in the direction of the end of capitalism.  The increasing division of labour and the increasing need and actuality of its coordination is constantly upset and destroyed by the pursuit of private profit which leads to periodic economic crises.  The new society of planned production appears more and more in the life of the old capitalism.

But planning is not the essence of the new society but merely a description of the mechanism by which it must work.  The essence of the new society is its rule by the majority of that society and not by a minority ownership class.  In the new society the working class as the vast majority becomes the owners of the means of production and becomes the rulers of the new society.  Socialism is not a state of affairs defined by complete planning but is the movement of the vast majority of society in determining how the society works and achieves its collective goals.  For the new society to grow out of the old and not just be a utopian project this aspect of the new must be increasingly found in the old.  This is the importance of the growth of workers ownership and control in existing capitalism.

If this really were more and more the reality of capitalism then questions above, like how workers control would operate, whether Marxists had a real concrete alternative etc would not exist.  Instead revolution would be sought by the working class itself as the only means of securing and developing across the whole of society the advances in workers ownership and control already achieved.

It is clear therefore that the key to revolutionary politics today is building up this independent power of the workers and not in millennial pursuit of revolution for which the objective and subjective prerequisites are not present.  How this is done in Greece is primarily but not exclusively for Greek workers and Marxists to determine.

Visiting Dachau

Some years ago I read a book ‘Against all Hope’, by Hermann Langbein, an Austrian who had fought in the Spanish civil war against the fascists.  It was the story of resistance in the Nazi concentration camps by one who had been prisoner, including in Dachau and Auschwitz.  I had anticipated being inspired by stories of this resistance but was instead humbled by the most common of all resistance activities – the struggle to survive.  So when I went on holiday to Germany I wanted to visit a concentration camp and did so by going on a guided tour to Dachau, just a short trip outside Munich.

There it was driven home that such was the indescribable oppression, for some survival was not the form of resistance taken.  Instead a number of prisoners ran onto the grass at the perimeter of the camp and were literally cut to pieces by heavy machine guns from the guard towers.  As our guide explained, this was not so much suicide as the one and only act of self-affirmation some prisoners felt they could take.  In every other respect they were crushed; ripped of dignity and of control of every aspect of their lives.  Every part of existence conspired against all hope.  For survivors this choice of their fellow captives was not an act of cowardice but an assertion of the only freedom they felt that they had left.

Our guide was a young Irishman who was serious and perceptive and through the numerous answers to our questions demonstrated a deep knowledge of not only the Dachau camp but the associated history, including that after liberation.  His intelligence was demonstrated not only in the questions he answered but those he did not.

He pointed out that the pictures on display were taken by the SS guards.  In these the viewer looks down on the prisoners who are in regular rows with adequate clothing.  We cannot see their eyes which are in shadow.  We see shaven heads.  As he later explained; when prisoners first arrived they took their clothes off, were doused in  often searing pesticide, had their hair cut by blunt shears so ineffective the prisoners doing the cutting often simply ripped the hair off.  Then they were shaved.  If they did not work quickly enough their hands would be tied behind their back and they would be hung from beams in the shower room. Only the location of the beams’ insertion into the wall is now still visible.  In this position their shoulders, elbows, wrists and arms would often break.  In a camp dedicated to work or death this, I imagine, could only have one outcome.

The new prisoners would then have to rush to grab clothing and clogs before leaving this area.  Our guide gave the example of one young prisoner who grabbed a jacket so small only one button could be closed, trousers too short by a distance and two clogs, one which was half the size of the correctly fitting one.  This prisoner described his clothing as continued torture throughout his captivity.  Worse, such circumstances increased the danger.  Anyone that stood out in any way; who attracted the notice of an SS man for any reason – an unfastened button or a new high number – risked the danger of deadly attention. This could, for example, mean an SS guard throwing a prisoner’s cap onto the grass and being ordered to retrieve it.  Stepping onto the grass meant machine-gunning from the guard tower while refusal to follow an order meant death.

He explained that we could not go into the guard towers because the survivors of the camp, responsible for its existence today, require that visitors cannot go anywhere prisoners could not go.  It would not be possible to view the camp from the viewpoint of the guards, not because the experience of prisoners in some way was to be recreated, but because no facility that would allow neo-Nazis to seek some sick thrill would be provided.

He told the story of the three hundred Luxembourg policemen who refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and who were sent to Dachau as punishment.  When they arrived they were ordered to do so again in the main square.  When they again refused seventeen were selected at random and executed.  The same ritual was held every year.

He told the story of Hans Beimler, the Communist Party member, who became a special prisoner held in the ‘Bunker’, one of the few remaining original buildings in the camp.  He escaped by killing his SA guard, putting on his uniform and walking out of the camp.  A few years later he died in the battle for Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

He told the story Johann Georg Elser, a religious worker who was a keen defender of workers’ rights who had voted for the Communist Party until 1933. In 1939 he planted a bomb in a Munich beer hall where Hitler was due to speak.  Hitler was due to fly back to Berlin that night but because of fog it was thought he should take the train so he left earlier than planned.  The bomb missed Hitler by 13 minutes.  Elser was caught, severely tortured by the Gestapo, and incarcerated in Dachau.  Hitler planned that when the war was won he would be put in front of a show trial and executed.  Just a few short weeks before the end of the war Hitler ordered the killing of Elser and he was shot in the bunker at Dachau.

Our guide did not sentimentalise the camp or its prisoners. He pointed out the hierarchy within the camp and the persistent policy of dividing the prisoners.  What was most new, to me at least, was the history of the camp since the end of the war.

This was symbolised by an art work in the camp showing the different symbols – pink , red or green triangles or two different coloured triangles overlapping each other so that they looked like the star of David, used to identify and mark the different categories of prisoner.  Our guide cautioned us not to regard the prisoners in this way or to take the view that this was in many ways an accurate categorisation, even in its own degenerate terms.  Unfortunately this art work has some missing coloured triangles because of current objections to their inclusion in the memorial.  I can’t claim to have a confident recollection of what these were but they may have included the black and green triangles of ‘asocial’ and criminal prisoners.

Our guide pointed out that the concentration camp was only a relatively small part of the whole and the much larger part was the SS training camp.  Today it is a training camp for the German police.  In 1972, for the Munich Olympic Games and because of the widespread media attention this would bring, the authorities knocked down parts of the site and built a mound between this training camp and the concentration camp.  In this way it would not be possible to view the training camp and it would perhaps not arouse questions.  This is now covered in grass and trees today.  A campaign involving survivors succeeded in getting part of this removed so that today you can see, but not enter, this camp, and see one of the original but otherwise unremarkable buildings still in existence.

At the far end of the concentration camp lie three churches as memorials to the victims.  Due to cold war politics the thousands of Soviet Union soldiers possibly murdered at the camp are represented by a Russian Orthodox church outside the perimeter.  The Jewish religious site is smallest and situated in the farthest corner from the entrance.  The Protestant one is in the other corner to the left, larger but low level and of a similar grey concrete colour as the foundations of the barracks in their two rows, which are all that is left of the original buildings.  The Catholic church is by far the largest, siting in the middle of the other two in a grass site with trees.  Our guide pointed out that plans were afoot at one time to cover the rest of the site with grass and trees but again campaigners stopped this.  While not explicitly expressing this, the contempt for this attempted simultaneous appropriation and erasure was clear.

The final part of the visit was to the new crematorium which contained a gas chamber.  Our guide stated that historians disagreed whether this chamber was actually used but that survivors affirm that is was used on a number of prisoners.  What is not in doubt is that so many were murdered in Dachau that the original policy of carrying many of the dead in trucks into Munich for burning could not be continued and new crematoria needed to be built to destroy the thousands killed.

Beside the gas chamber and crematoria was a memorial in three languages vowing never again.  As our guide thanked everyone for coming to visit Dachau he noted that in Bosnia it happened again.  For me the danger of it happening again is an inescapable potential within capitalism.

Holidays are a time to recharge the batteries.  There is more than one way of renewing the energy to continue the struggle for socialism and forever making never again a reality.