Monday, October 28, 2013

Socialism in an age of waiting III: What is to be done?

"Meaningful action, for revolutionaries, is whatever increases the confidence, the autonomy, the initiative, the participation, the solidarity, the equalitarian tendencies and the self -activity of the masses and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, their cynicism, their differentiation through hierarchy, their alienation, their reliance on others to do things for them and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others - even by those allegedly acting on their behalf." - Solidarity As We See It
“‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons’, and, to your horror, it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!…" - Rosa Luxemburg's last testament
Young Marx
This is Part III of a three-part series, celebrating the late blog Socialism in An Age of Waiting. Part I is here; Part II is here.

What kind of socialism?

SIAW did not just articulate more or less exactly my position on the Middle Eastern focused geopolitics that defined the political cleavages of the mid-noughties. They also set out a very cogent critique of the actually-existing-left and its conception of socialism and how to get there, for which they were fiercely attacked by trad (or "pseudo", as they put it) leftists.

Here, from June 2004, is what SIAW said about the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), in a post which clarifies their view of Marxism in the age of waiting, and is very similar to my own view:
"The SPGB is a party of authentically Marxist, internationalist, democratic socialists, and we have a lot of respect for it - only ... Well, we could go on at length about our differences with the SPGB and still not say anything that hasn't already been said, many times, by many other friendly critics (as well as many unfriendly ones) ever since 1904. We'll try to be relatively brief, then. Like the SPGB, and as indicated in the very name of this blog, we're waiting for the majority of workers to come to the conclusion that socialism is worth building and worth fighting for (and only then actually get on with the task). However, unlike the SPGB, we don't think that there is nothing worthwhile that anyone can do in the meantime to shorten the age of waiting. The obvious fact that the world is - on the whole, and even taking into account all its enduring horrors and injustices and inequalities - a better place, for many more people, than it was in 1904 seems to us to show that some progress is possible even within (some forms of) capitalism. We'd even argue that such progress - albeit it is limited, distorted, corrupt and, often, made for the wrong reasons by the wrong people - itself contributes to the eventual building of socialism, by educating and galvanising those who will build it (yes, comrades, Kautsky is worth re-reading). To be even briefer: we accept the doctrine of the lesser evil, and the definition of politics as the art of the possible; the SPGB don't. Then again, they're the genuine article, a Marxist party that has not changed its stance or diluted its principles over the years - and that has to make the[m] a whole lot better than all the pseudo-left sects put together."
SPGB blogger Darren (Inveresk Street Ingrate) wrote:
"Quoting Rosa Luxemburg in their byline: “It is not true that Marx no longer suffices for our needs. On the contrary, our needs are not yet adequate for the utilisation of Marx's ideas . . .”, it perhaps explains why [SIAW] seem to have a soft spot for Socialist Party impossiblism and our majoritarian view of Socialist Revolution."
Not so with the larger left sect, the SWP. October 2004, and Richard "lenin" Seymour, then the SWP's star blogger, is still hitting out at them. Lenny, in a typically small-minded post entitled "Socialism in an age of stockbroking" (ha ha):
"Socialism in an Age of Waiting . The very words alone are enough to inspire dread among the pseudo-Left, to which I proudly adhere. It isn't because of the eloquence and didactic beauty of their posts, and it isn't even that they sling mud. No. They're much more like monkeys in a zoo, throwing shit at bemused audiences."
The post, however, does contain a quote from SIAW:
"Like Serge, some of us happen to be a lot more interested in the majority of human beings, and what they want, need, believe, etc., than in the cognitive dissonance of the majority/plurality of the left, which in the 1930s favoured, or failed to oppose, Stalinism..."
December 2005, the first anniversary of the blog, featured a post by Hak Mao on what socialism means in the proverbial age of waiting.
"Attempts at revolution without sufficient support and preparation are play-acting, and place people in unnecessary danger. When the international working class is ready and sufficiently organised, revolution, in whatever form, will take care of itself. Until then the totalitarian impulses apparent in so many so-called leftist groups must be challenged, and the commitment to the principles of universal, indivisible human rights and freedom of thought proclaimed. To fail to do this is to prolong the Age of Waiting.
Lenin once again, at the third Congress of the Comintern: The Party must go to the masses! Yes, the masses! And not turn into a sect!"
Socialism in an age of waiting, then, means some kind of critical engagement with liberal democracy.
"our position is in favour of democracy - even in the limited and corrupted form of liberal or bourgeois democracy - and against dictatorship, for the simple reason that the former at least offers openings for further progress (along with all the crap it also offers), while the latter offers only (as a certain far too frequently quoted British socialist once said) the prospect of a jackboot stamping on a human face forever....
We just cannot be bothered to waste any more time on the claims of those who imagine that dictatorships can be on the side of progress, or that denigrating the small but vital gains made by liberal democracy - while offering no feasible alternative whatsoever - serves any useful purpose."
July 2005, in an argument with Phil Edwards, SIAW put the case for critical support for a Labour government:
"One can and should oppose Blair and Blairism on most issues, while supporting the government, critically and from an independent perspective, on a few issues of overriding importance – and one should be able to do so without being defamed as some kind of renegade by those who suffer from a certain well-known infantile disorder, as well as from a conveniently selective form of illiteracy."
However, as with their support for the Iraq war, their endorsement of voting Labour was highly qualified:
"provided that:
  • you have no objection in principle to taking part in the liberal-democratic electoral process (and we have a lot more respect for those who enact such objections, peacefully and respectfully, than for those who hypocritically take part while aiming to replace liberal democracy with something even worse);
  • you are serious about taking part in the choice of a government for Britain, in the awareness that an election is not a referendum (just as a referendum is not an election);
  • you would rather vote for a party that has demonstrated a minimal commitment to social reform than for a party that opposes social reform, or one that is utterly confused about what social reform might involve and nowhere near gaining the power to effect it;
  • you live in a marginal seat where your vote might make a difference; and
  • your voting Labour carries no risk of letting a Tory, a Liberal Democrat or a nationalist into the Commons -
vote Labour. If not, not. 
Now how's that for a ringing endorsement?
Michael Totten wrote a blogpost in early 2005, in which he argued that the divide between left and right is now less important than the divide between "them that gets it" and "them that don't". He listed SIAW among them that do, quoting this extract:
"People who live in countries where liberal democracy is far too easily taken for granted - and even, appallingly, sneered at by the converging elitists of the right and the pseudo-left, who imagine that they could do much better if only the masses would turn to them - are in no position to carp at the courage and determination of those who voted in Iraq on Sunday, a day that will be right up there in the history of political progress with Christmas Day 1989, when Romanians risked their lives to get rid of their own Stalinist dictatorship. It’s one more nail in the coffin of dictatorship, and, for the deranged apologists of fascism and terrorism, who have read too little Marx and not understood even what they have read, one more kick up the backside (where their brains appear to be located)."
However, unlike others who had similar problems with the actually existing left, SIAW never went down the road of saying that left and right no longer matter; they never embraced centrism or called for a reconfiguration beyond left and right. They did not endorse Norman Geras' Euston Manifesto, for example, arguing that
"Either the Euston Group is "drawing a line between those forces of the Left that remain true to its authentic values, and such currents as have lately shown themselves rather too flexible in relation to these values" - which surely implies that the group itself is in and of the left - or it's taking part in "a realignment of progressive, democratic opinion", "making common cause with genuine democrats, whether socialist or not" and "reaching beyond the socialist Left to include egalitarian liberals and others of unambiguous democratic commitment". It can't coherently and effectively do both."
Reconfiguring Marxism

If socialism in an age of waiting means some kind of reckoning with liberal democracy, it also means cleaving to the core of Marxist thought - that is, of Marx's own thought, rather than the debased version of it that has become currency among the left. What that means is fidelity to the materialist principle in philosophy and analysis (for which class remains central) and to the values of humanism. 

Jonathan Derbyshire, in early 2004, recommended a post at SIAW "about the fallacy that atheists and materialists lack a sense of wonder or awe. The bloggers there write: a sense of wonder grounded in awareness of the material bases of human lives can go deeper and do more good than a sense of wonder diverted to things unseen, unproved and unattainable."

But this commitment to humanism does not mean falling into the vulgar secularism that has caught up many ex-leftists.
"why not leave religion to the religious (and the kind of blinkered liberals who get more upset about symbol than substance), and focus once again on the sources and forms of social division that can’t be chosen, from "race", gender and sexual orientation to what used to be the chief concern of the left: class?"
And this commitment to class meant a rejection of identity politics:
"As the “left” has succumbed to collective amnesia about class, various forms of “identity politics” have been invented to fill the vaccuum. In yet another of those ironies that history keeps dumping on us all, those who once complained that class was a narrow, limiting, distorting category, incapable of capturing the richness and variety of human experience (or, at any rate, of their experience) now seek to impose fixed categories - gender, “race”, ethnicity, sexuality and the rest - that have already become just as narrow, limiting and distorting as class identities ever were. At least the notion of class allowed for changes to take place, as individuals shifted from one class, or one “class fraction”, to another. Now we are assured that anatomy, or skin colour, or cultural conditioning equals destiny - and that such “postmodern” stereotyping is necessarily more advanced and more sophisticated than the stereotyping it replaces, yet, strikingly, closely resembles."
I still think now that SIAW basically got it right about all these things: secularism, identity politics, voting Labour, liberal democracy. I wish there were more people out there who saw things their way. 

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