Jun 02 2013

Allan Armstrong (RCN) replies to David Jamieson (ISG) – part 2

Since I wrote the first part of my reply (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/03/26/allan-armstrong-rcn-replies-to-david-jamieson-isg/) I have met David for the first time. Face-to-face discussions are a better way of trying to understand the thinking and positions that others hold. They can also help to overcome some preconceived notions. In the pub, after the joint ISG, ISN, RCN and September 15th group meeting on May 11th in Edinburgh, David raised some important questions, and pointed to some of the characteristics of contemporary society, which Socialists do need to address, if we are to move forward.

The RCN has been involved in organised discussions and debate with other Socialists, first in the hope these can lift our mutual understanding to a higher level and then lead to more effective wider political activity.

However, not all debates can be resolved in this way.  Real differences often still remain. These may even prove productive over the course of time, when the practical relevance of previously minority thinking becomes more apparent. Socialist organisations and campaigning coalitions, e.g. the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC), need to give scope for such discussions, because they may have considerable impact as the struggle progresses. Such discussions and debates also need to be real  – a contesting of positions actually held, not attacks on ‘straw men’, which have been so common on the Left.  I think that David would agree with such an approach.

We have often seen people on the Left attempting to avoid such debates. Instead, they emphasise the need for action now around immediate demands. This means that the development of the strategy and tactics necessary for any campaign are left to the ‘thinkers’ (usually a self-appointed celebrity leader and his immediate advisors, or some Central Committee). The rest of us remain mere ‘doers’, implementing the decisions of others or, where we do try to raise important issues of principle, we get dismissed as ‘moaners’ or ‘splitters’.

Even, when top-down led struggles appear to have been successful, they usually lead to new forms of domination or worse still, oppression, either under populist leaders or the Party-state. Such an approach is fundamentally anti-socialist. “The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself”. Our emancipation can come only about through a combination of both thought and action. We all need to be involved in both these activities if we wish to create a new society, which we can collectively control.

After these preliminary comments, I take up some of the other points which David has raised. First this reply provides clarification of possible remaining misunderstandings. Then it addresses the remaining differences, not covered in part 1 of my response to David.

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1.        

“I am a Marxist, a socialist and an internationalist. There is absolutely no ambiguity about this political identity – which is in full evidence in the content of the ISG’s website, in the organisation’s public statements and indeed in the organisation’s name. Rest assured my long view of class struggle in Scotland involves – amongst a great many other things – mass, grassroots, direct workers democracy, the armed seizure of power and even (horror) ‘The Party’.

I believe further, that the moving spirit of the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition, if not its contemporary form, could be called Bolshevism.”

 

At the time David made his contribution, he had not come across the Republican Communist Network (RCN). Therefore, in the first part of my reply, I had to answer David’s assumption that ‘Republican’ in RCN meant that we were some kind of Irish nationalist romantics, and that ‘Communist’ meant we must be a Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist sect, claiming to be ‘The Party’ in embryo, which demanded a Communist-front organisation as a condition of our willingness to participate with others. I hope that both the first part of my reply, and now having seen RCN members at recent joint discussions for renewed socialist unity, we have dispelled David’s initial view.

The RCN’s socialist republican and internationalism-from-below approach stems from an analysis of the role of UK state, and the various class and national democratic movements, which have challenged this. Our commitment to communism lies not in support for any self-proclaimed vanguard Party or Party-state, past or present, but in our desire to create a global commune organised on the basis of ‘From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’, and ‘Where the freedom of each is the condition of the freedom for all’.

We are committed to democratic ‘united fronts’ or, to update the language for today – coalitions, when it comes to organising specific campaigns. However, that vitally important word ‘democratic’ means that participating organisations should have the freedom to persuade others of the relevance and applicability of their politics, as well as an obligation to do this in a non-sectarian and comradely way. This also means that all those involved in such coalitions should also show a willingness to listen to others and to learn. The RCN has certainly learned much through discussions and involvement with other Socialists.

David begins the first part his reply thinking that he is dealing with somebody who is going to question his Marxist credentials. I am sure that he must have come across members of Left organisations, who resort to such point-scoring tactics.  Not knowing the RCN, he feared the worst. Therefore, David begins boldly but defensively with,  “I am a Marxist, a socialist and an internationalist. There is absolutely no ambiguity about this political identity.”

I am not going to question David’s Marxist credentials. The RCN does not have the word ‘Marxist’ in our name, nor in our ‘Where We Stand’. We certainly believe that Karl Marx made a major contribution to how we can understand and transform our world. However, I would reject the term ‘Marxist’ for myself, preferring ‘Communist’ (others may prefer the term ‘Socialist’– it is the content not the label that is important).

There is a lot to be gained by trying to understand what such an important thinker and activist as Marx meant in the changing contexts of his time. There are important methodological approaches, historical lessons and principles, which have continued relevance today. However, we can not know what Marx or Engels would have argued in the period since they died. They  changed their positions on quite a number of things during their lifetime, although always remaining committed revolutionaries.

I don’t find the battle of the sects to prove they are the ‘real Marxists’ today is that productive. They often look for a suitable quote look without much consideration for its context; or shoehorn new social developments into preconceived historical precedents. Much of this thinking about what Marx would have thought is necessarily speculative.

Therefore, it is not surprising that this has contributed to the existence of so many Marxist organisations arguing over this legacy. Indeed there are probably thousands of Marxist organisations in the world, many more than the number of gospellers and their followers who claimed to be the providers of Jesus’ true message, in the equivalent period of time after his death.

There have been whole new fields of human enquiry, which neither Marx nor Engels could have known anything about, but which can or could make major contributions to our struggles today to create a new society. I would argue that it is as Communists (or Socialists), rather than as Marxists, that we should try to take on the best of these theories.

I am a supporter of the ‘Theory of Evolution’, but would not call myself a Darwinian. Now Darwin made a massive contribution to this theory, but others also contributed, such as Alfred Russel Wallace; whilst it took another scientist, Gregor Mendel, to show the significance of genetics for evolution.

I would certainly be prepared to defend Darwin against those religious fundamentalist Creationists, and to defend Marx against capitalist fundamentalists trapped in their own alienated categories of thinking. However, I also think that the best arguments against the Creationists are to be found in the ever-expanding new evidence and sub-theories buttressing the theory of evolution; just as I think Communists (or Socialists) will need to add to the evidence and theories presented by Marx and Engels, if we are going to bring about human emancipation, liberation and self-determination (in its widest sense).

I hope this ‘real Marxist’ disclaimer reassures David.

 

2.  

“Having once been a member of the SWP, and in responding to Allan’s call for reflection on this experience, I hope in the near future to elucidate what I believe to be this tradition’s strengths and its (very many) failings. For now it will suffice to say that I view the international ‘Trotskyist’ movement to be an utterly failed experiment.”

 

I very much look forward to David’s future elucidation of the SWP’s “strengths and its (very many) failings”. As a former member of the SWP and its predecessor, the International Socialists (1972-82), I have recently made a small contribution to this debate. However, this very much concentrates on one particular aspect of SWP politics – its lack of a programme and hence strategy, and its concentration on ‘recruit, recruit, recruit’ tactics (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/03/25/the-crisis-in-the-swp-the-failure-of-the-central-committees-recruit-recruit-recruit-tactics/). It needs others, who have been involved in the SWP more recently, to help draw up a much fuller balance sheet. If comrades in the ISG (and hopefully now also in the ISN) provide such assessments this can help all us on the Left.

As a member of the RCN, I have also been through the experience of the SSP. Bob Goupillot, Iain Robertson and myself have written a balance of sheet of the positive and negative aspects of the SSP (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2011/12/23/beyond-the-ssp-and-solidarity-forgive-and-forget-or-listen-learn-and-then-move-on/).

The RCN believes that such political accounting is vital, if the Left is not just going to repeat the old mistakes over and over again. Instead of ‘forgive and forget’ we argue that we should  ‘listen and learn’.

 

3.

“As for that position, there is no reason whatever to assert that “the ISG… appears to regard the market and neo-liberalism as the fundamental problem.” As far as I can tell, this supposition is based upon demands made for state intervention. When do demands for basic needs turn into ‘social democracy’ or ‘Keynesianism’? Is the demand for jobs for the unemployed, housing for the homeless, free school meals or a National Health Service incompatible with a revolutionary perspective?  If so we should probably adopt Glenn Beck’s program today and sit and wait to enact communism in some political hereafter.”

 

There are two parts to David’s reply here. First the criticism that if Socialists were to adopt what David understood, when he wrote this, to be my approach, “We should probably adopt Glenn Beck’s program today and sit and wait to enact communism in some political hereafter.” Glen Beck is a right wing American patriot, advocate of neo-liberalism, and Tea Party supporter.

This is good knock-about stuff, and probably reflects David’s first attempt to slot an RCN, he was not acquainted with, into a political category he could recognise. David seems to be suggesting that I wanted to confine the Left’s activities to propaganda for Communism/Socialism – a bit like the Socialist Party of Great Britain. This would mean not getting directly involved in struggles to defend those economic and social reforms gained when Social Democratic politics (Butskellism) dominated (1945-76/9). This would then give the neo-liberals a clear run to impose their will.

However, my criticism was not directed against Socialists defending reforms, but was raised to question the manner in which many Socialists try to go about this. Now that mainstream Social Democrats/Labourists (and most former official Communists) have abandoned much of their support for the welfare state and nationalisation, many Socialists seem to be trying to step into their shoes. They offer neo-Keynesian, Social Democratic, or other statist ‘solutions’.

My original critical point, in what I hope is seen as a fraternal and constructive review, addresses James Foley’s support for “state-led green industrialisation” in his pamphlet. Since then ISG members have also argued for nationalisation of the banks and for the defence of the welfare state at Edinburgh RIC meetings. However, such apparently uncritical thinking about the nature of the welfare state and nationalisation is far from being unique to the ISG (see chapter 6c of http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/03/30/riding-two-horses-at-once-the-swp-and-scottish-independence/)

That ‘welfare state’ comes in two parts – the ‘welfare’, or that component of our income made up by our social wage  – education, health, housing (benefits), pensions, unemployment, sickness and disability benefits. This we certainly want to defend. However, the other part – the ‘state’ – comes along with a top-heavy bureaucratic apparatus, with its priority of jumping to the beck and call of their political bosses, and maintaining their own privileges, e.g. nowadays, often massive management pay-offs followed by a return to employment by the state or local council, but in well-paid consultancies.

One of the reasons support for Tory neo-liberal measures  (e.g. council house sales) was able to make some headway amongst workers, in the first place, was because of the petty bureaucratic restrictions, which often accompanied state or local council provision. When I lived in a council house on Tyneside, the local council dictated the paint colour of your front door for you!

Furthermore, when unelected senior managers are in control of service provision, whether at the UK, Scottish or local state level, they know who they are accountable to, and it is not their workforces or service users.  They act as conduits for the demands of their ‘national’ state and local council political bosses. Occasionally, in the past, some elected Left Social Democrats did try to push them further. In response, these managers often used their bureaucratic positions, or found support from other parts of the state machine, e.g. the courts, to undermine such initiatives.

Nowadays, these managers don’t face any such Leftist pressures, just the demands of all the neo-liberal parties (Tories, Lib-Dems, Labour and SNP) to work to ‘best-value’ (i.e. cost-cutting) market criteria. That means imposing managerial directives, which prioritise profit making and business methods of control.

Furthermore, when services are privatised, local council managers are sometimes given first call when it comes to taking over and running these services. When Borders Council first planned to privatise its housing stock in the 1980’s, tenants made complaints that they were hardly able to get any of their housing problems addressed. For six months prior to privatisation, council housing managers spent most of their time, at public expense, working out how best to profit in their new soon-to-be privatised roles.

So, unless you also challenge the bureaucratic set-up, which accompanies such reforms, you always give power to a managerial Trojan horse. This will undermine any gains that are made, whenever it comes to a choice between protecting their privileges and meeting our needs.

Similarly, we find many on the Left making uncritical calls for nationalisation – especially the banks. Nationalisation means control by the existing state. At the moment, the largest banks in the UK are already effectively nationalised. In the UK, this occurred under social neo-liberal, New Labour, and has been continued by the right neo-liberal Con-Dems. In the USA, it was the right, neo-liberal Bush government that brought about the biggest single nationalisation that has ever occurred, with the $700B bailout of nine US banks.

These nationalisations have been solely for the benefit of finance capital, with the public taking on their debts, in preparation for them being sold back to the bankers at knock-down prices, ready once more to resume private profit-taking.  In the meantime, we have state nationalisation, but under the bankers’ control – a strong indication of whose interests the current UK state is actually run.

No post-war social democrat government ever went as far as nationalising the car industry. But Obama’s social neo-liberal, Democrat government has nationalised Chrysler and General Motors. Workers’ pay and conditions have been pared back, until these nationalised companies can make big enough profits to be returned to the private sector.

And, if you go to the former USSR, you will find that many of the once nationalised industries, now privatised, are in the hands of former state officials, including one-time Communist Party members (especially if they had links with the old security services). This is because these officials always enjoyed a privileged position, compared to those workers employed in these state-owned industries. As in that much more lowly case of the Borders Council housing officials, they also arranged cut-price buy-outs (or sometimes straight appropriation) for themselves. The last thing they ever thought about was moving beyond state nationalisation to democratic workers’ control. It is not in the nature of bureaucracies to give up their power. However, they might opt for different ways of maintaining that control if they have to.

In the past, Socialists raised the demand for ‘nationalisation under workers control’. However, you can not have any significant part of the capitalist state under workers’ control. That is not how a capitalist state, designed above all to maintain the conditions of capitalist profitability, operates. This meant that, in practice, many Socialists usually said, “OK we can’t have workers control just now, but nationalisation is a step forward.” Thus, they usually ended up helping to reinforce the existing state machine and the privileges of Social Democrat or official Communist bureaucrats. These people have always seen worker challenges from below as more threatening to their power than any accommodations with private capital. We now know that Social Democratic or official Communist nationalisations do not lead to Socialism, but back to a renewed role for private capital, ready to go on the offensive.

As we have seen, from Western European Social Democracy to East European official Communism, such nationalisation has proved relatively easy to roll back. This has happened because of the privileged position of state officials, and the decidedly ambiguous nature of much nationalisation when it came to meeting workers’ or wider consumer needs. Today, those nationalisations, which still remain, are there for the shorter or medium-term benefit of private capital, particularly finance capital – something mainstream Social Democracy from Brown and Miliband in the UK, to Sigurdardottir in Iceland all accept.

Now, when there were well-supported, traditional, Social Democratic and official Communist Parties and trade unions (from 1945 to the 1980’s), these did exercise some influence to protect workers’ jobs, pay and conditions in nationalised industries and the delivery of services to meet needs in the welfare state. However, the economic conditions for this were created by the long post-war capitalist boom, which  occurred because of the massive destruction of capital in the Second World War. With the re-emergence of a crisis of profitability in the 1970’s these conditions ended, and the capitalist class mounted their neo-liberal counter-offensive.  Since Social Democratic and official Communist party  and  trade unions officials were wedded to their own privileges and bureaucratic control, it is not surprising that they adjusted to this regime of neo-liberalism, and abandoned effective support for many ameliorative measures for their members, or for the provision of services on the basis of need. To do otherwise would have meant challenging the very capitalism that brought them their privileges and gave them a mediating role between the employers and workers.

Thus, in the UK, those Blatcherite neo-liberal years did not bring the same hardships for these officials, as they did for the workers they claimed to represent. Indeed senior trade union officials’ pay and perks have increased mightily, whilst New Labour MPs, MSPs and MEPs enjoy much higher pay and perks than their older antecedents – not something, which has stopped many of them also being in the pay of big business, or being up to their necks in corruption. These people are not going to risk their privileges by committing their organisations to fighting effectively on behalf of workers. Today, the cosy relationship between the bosses, the Labour Party and trade union officials takes the form of ‘social partnerships’. The effect of these is to reduce trade unions to a cheap personnel management services for the employers.

Therefore, if Socialists are going to raise the demand for nationalisation, then we have to challenge bureaucratic control, by insisting on new forms of more democratic accountability and maximum pay limits for officials. Furthermore, we need to have independent workers’ organisations to ensure that more effective control or influence can be exerted. Indeed, for Socialists this struggle for independent class organisation is the most important one today. Workers have no chance of exerting democratic control over wider society, if we can not exert control over our own organisations.

We are only just seeing the possible new seeds of such Rank and File organisation in the trade unions. The electricians’ successfully defended their BESNA contract against the construction bosses by taking independent action, and there is also a widening struggle against the Blacklist. We have recently seen Jerry Hicks’ impressively large vote in his Rank and File challenge for UNITE General Secretary.

In this David and Goliath contest, Jerry was up against the incumbent highly paid, Broad Left bureaucrat, Len McCluskey. McCluskey is a Left-talking, Right-walking, supporter of Miliband and Labour. He also had the full support of the union’s Right wing officials and mounted a Red-baiting campaign (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2013/03/25/red-baiting-and-slurs/) against Jerry (for more on McCluskey and the Broad Left see the Unite Broad Left, the Labour Party and the UK state in  http://redflag.org.uk/wp/?p=426).

It is here that the difference between a Social Democratic and Broad Left approach and a Socialist and Rank and File approach can be seen most clearly. It is not a case of Social Democracy today, Socialism tomorrow. The dividing issue today is that of class independence. McCluskey’s support for high pay and perks for himself and other senior officials, and for his right to appoint officials, is but a continuation of that Social Democratic view, where the privileged officials of the paternalistic state decide what’s best for us, including when we (not they) have to make certain sacrifices.

Jerry’s support for officials being paid no more than the average pay of the members they represent, and all officials’ positions being elected on term limits by the membership, reflects a Socialist view. This prefigures a state, or better still semi-state, in which control is taken out of the hands of bureaucrats and is thus democratised, and one where there are no privileged groups when it comes to the allocation of goods or services.

There are some who argue that we can only raise such Socialist demands once we have won Social Democratic measures first, because the vast majority of workers still think in these terms. However Social Democratic reforms come along with bureaucrats, whether in the the local or UK state, and often from the Labour Party or the trade unions. Indeed, officials from these last two organisations provide the Social Democratic arguments to justify bureaucratic control. They get their training in this by denying rank and file Labour Party and trade union members an effective, democratic voice in these organisations.

History has shown that Social Democrats  (and even their more radical statist counter-parts in the old official Communist Parties) become a formidable block to any subsequent Socialist advance. Furthermore, a good deal of the hostility of many workers to ‘Socialism’ is because they think it means more Social Democracy or old style official Communism – something imposed on them from above.

David criticises one part of this Social Democratic/Communist spectrum – those dissident Communists who make up Trotskyism (with its own dizzying array of official and dissident groups). David states that “the international ‘Trotskyist’ movement to be an utterly failed experiment.” I am looking forward to David’s further development of this point. However, I would argue that one of Trotskyism’s failures has been its insistence that you do not need to raise the issue of Socialism/Communism now. Trotskyists have often argued that workers’ appreciation of the need for Socialism will arrive by stealth, as the result of confining ourselves to certain transitional demands, which are often of a Keynesian, Social Democratic nature, which reinforce the existing state against the market.

When, before 1989, it came to the old official Communist world, Trotskyists opposed the idea of a social revolution in the old USSR and Warsaw Pact countries. They argued instead for a political revolution to further develop the gains of nationalisation made under these bureaucratic, official Communist Party-states. In their view, ‘Socialism’ would be completed when the existing ‘socialist’, i.e. nationalised property relations were complemented by new ‘socialist’ political relations, after the overthrow of the existing bureaucratic state. As the USSR state began to weaken, in the late 1980’s, many Trotskyists thought the time for their political revolution had arrived. But, because those state nationalisations had been brought about by state bureaucrats to increase their personal power and privileges, these people used the political power they still enjoyed, on the basis of their effective control of the existing nationalised property relations, to protect their privileges by transferring existing nationalised property into their own personal property.

Workers had always felt alienated under the dictates of these pre-1989 Party-state bureaucracies. In the confusion following their collapse, they confined their actions to immediate demands, e.g. the payment of unpaid wages. They did not take up the defence of state property, which they had never controlled. Indeed it had often been used against them, e.g. through the draconian laws imposed on those who damaged state property. Post-1989 Trotskyism still remains much weaker than the remnants of the old discredited official Communist Parties in these states.

Another problem with pushing for neo-Keynesian or old-style Social Democratic reforms (e.g. increased state regulation, increasing consumer demand through state spending, nationalisations), without much thought for their wider implications, is that, in today’s economic climate, they will contribute to the further stalling of the engine of profit which propels capitalism. Indeed, states pursuing this path for any prolonged period will incur higher labour costs, and hence be less able to sell their products abroad. This adds to the economic and hence political crisis.

If we have not been arguing for a Socialist alternative beforehand, then the capitalist class, and their apologists in the media and academia, will just say “Look, we told you that all these demands would only make matters worse. Now help us get rid of these people and be prepared for the nasty medicine which they unfortunately have made necessary”.

The confidence our class needs to move towards a Socialist alternative comes from our ability to extend our control, beginning with the defence or creation of our own independent class organisations.  That places us against Social Democrat and Broad Left officialdom now.

Many workers do still adhere to Social Democratic ideas. These can indeed propel them into defensive struggle, when earlier gains are being snatched away. However, such workers do not benefit from the privileges enjoyed by the officials. This is why they are far more open to the idea that our class’s organisations should be under our own democratic control and retain their class independence. This is an important part of the political terrain upon which Socialists need to mount our offensive.

 

4.  

“As an alternative to what he perceives (perhaps, or at least in some instances, fairly) to be a vagueness on what it understands as capitalism; Allan supplies two very different definitions. The first can be found in his review of James Foley’s ‘Britain Must Break’. Here the beating heart of capitalism is presented as what Marx termed the ‘Organic Composition of Capital’ – the conflicting relationship between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ labour and its proclivity to generate economic expansion and crisis. I would argue that such a definition threatens economic determinism, but that’s perhaps an argument for another time. The second definition asserts “Genuine socialism/communism… is based on an understanding of capitalism as being a system of wage slavery necessitating an oppressive state.”

 

There appears to be some confusion here. I may have contributed to this in my original contributions by not making some points clearly enough. After making some initial clarifications, David and I may still need to return to this issue after  we both fully understand each other’s positions.

First, David appears to think that I have two “very different” and perhaps, contradictory definitions of capitalism:- i) it is underpinned by the conflicting relationship of ‘living’ and ‘dead’ labour and ii) capitalism is system based on “wage slavery necessitating an oppressive state.” However, if you go back to my original you will see these two aspects of capitalism are not separated but joined.

“Capitalism is a system under which the capitalist state takes responsibility for setting the political and social conditions that allow continuous capitalist accumulation through the extraction of surplus value (profits) in a society where wage slavery is dominant.  At the heart of capitalism is the life and death struggle between ‘living’ labour and the ‘dead’ labour’. Dead labour is that part of our labour appropriated by the bosses as surplus value to create their capital, which they then use to dominate our lives. Under this process, the bosses constantly strive to lower their costs in the face of our struggles to meet our needs.”

However, neither of these definitions, in themselves, provides a full explanation of capitalism. They only highlight two central features, which are of particular concern to workers. They will certainly have to be uprooted if Socialism is to be achieved.

If we were to compare a car with capitalism, we could say that having a fuel injection system (an input of ‘living’ labour) and a drive shaft (using  ‘dead’ labour to create new capital) are key features of this particular vehicle. However, these features don’t constitute the whole of a car. Amongst other things, a car requires a chassis (the ‘hard’ state) and bodywork (the ‘soft’ state). Therefore, by highlighting two key features, I am not claiming to have defined all its features. I am arguing  that if you do not tackle these two central features of capitalism, you can not create a Socialist society.

David then makes a leap that I don’t make. He links ‘living’ and ‘dead’ labour with the ‘Organic Composition of Capital’ to arrive at a theory of expansion and crisis. Having made this link himself, David then warns us, I think justifiably, that such a narrow definition “threatens economic determination.” (I am assuming by ‘determination’, David means what others call determinism.)

But, when I pointed to the struggle between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ labour, this was not to outline a theory of capitalist crisis. It was to highlight the struggles, which occur in every workplace between workers and managers. This is because “the bosses constantly strive to lower their costs in the face of our struggles to meet our needs.”  Thus, we are involved in daily struggles, not only over how much we are paid, and the conditions we work under, but also over how they try to manage and control us. This happens whether or not capitalism is facing a particular crisis.

There are many other aspects of today’s global capitalist order, including the largely unrecognised role of domestic labour (largely performed by women), the still remaining sectors of petty commodity production (peasant) and distribution (small shopkeepers), and even of subsistence or semi-subsistence production. However, all of these are increasingly moulded or affected by the dominant, profit-seeking forms of capital. This is why I emphasised the importance of tackling the central mechanisms of capitalism.

The daily struggle at work was very much part of my own pre-retirement experience. It has been central in the formation of my politics. It still forms the experience for the majority of people in the central capitalist economies. Even many of those who are currently excluded from capitalist workplaces and their daily struggles, especially a  rising number of youths, are termed ‘unemployed’. This is a category that relates the ‘unemployed’ to the ‘employed’. Being employed by capital, whether by ‘private’ businesses or the state, is seen to be the ‘normal’ condition for making a living for the majority of people in these countries.

When David raises the issue of capitalist crisis, he worries about the effects of an over-economistic understanding. In this he is very much in agreement with the RCN. For, despite the current importance of an economic crisis, the RCN has pointed to the multi-faceted nature of the capitalist crisis we are confronting.

Certainly the 2008 Credit Crash highlighted the propensity for economic crises under capitalism. Arguments rage amongst Socialists about the nature of this economic crisis. Has it been caused by the imposition of neo-liberal policies? The implication of such a view is that if neo-Keynesian or other statist policies were to be pursued instead, the economic crisis would be overcome.

Or, are we living in a neo-liberal phase of capitalism, which has arisen in the context of an underlying crisis of profitability of production that first came to a head in the 1970’s? Then capitalists are seen to have countered this initial crisis through the further globalisation of production, its location in new cheap labour locations, the internationalisation of finance to escape state controls and to impose some form of discipline on the global economy, and the creation of massive debts. If this is the case, it provides a strong argument about the need to argue publicly for a Socialist replacement to the whole capitalist system.

Yet, there are also several other types of crisis under capitalism, some of which are directly effected by the rhythms of economic crisis, others less so. Certainly, a good many of the wars, which occur today, have arisen because of the major imperialist powers attempts to command resources in the face of increased competition. Yet, many of these wars trigger other underlying conflicts, e.g. demands for more effective self-determination or their diversion into ethnic or ethno-religious strife, which can take on their own dynamic.

The economic crisis is also impacting massively on personal relations. Women are bearing the brunt of austerity, particularly with the cut back in services. However, the increased  strains placed upon personal relations, connect to a deeper and longer term crisis in social relations involving the growing questioning of patriarchy and gender restrictive roles. These have also been the focus of a religious fundamentalist backlash that goes back, at least  to the 1970’s.

The ever-growing pressure on resources has also led to spiralling environmental degradation. Many of the planet’s vital life-providing natural circuits follow their own course, and their conservation or breakdown is not tied to particular economic crises.

There are also particular political crises, including the worldwide one of decreased ‘lower order’ representation at a political level. There are also specific political crises where particular states find it hard to maintain themselves in the face of increased economic, social and political pressures, e.g. the slow-running but continuous political crisis that has been undermining the UK state, particularly since the late 1960’s.

Once you appreciate the multi-faceted nature of the current crisis, then it becomes even more urgent that Socialists actually begin to act as Socialists and argue for a Socialist alternative. This is why, unlike David, the RCN does see the struggle for Scottish self-determination as part of a wider Socialist struggle. The political crisis facing the UK state is linked to the other aspects of the capitalist crisis. This is made abundantly clear by the other side. That is why they have placed the ‘necessity’ for continued control of the economy by finance capital along with its austerity measures, ownership and command over North Sea Oil (with massive energy and environmental implications), and remaining in NATO and retaining Trident (a commitment to continuous wars), at the centre of their Unionist campaign.

 

5.

“Yet it is precisely labour’s character as a commodity which distinguishes capitalist class relations from all previous epochs. If wage slavery were the norm under capitalism then the state’s role would have to be far more coercive than it presently is.”

 

Perhaps, it is here that David unwittingly provides the rationale for his disconnecting of current struggles from the struggle for Socialism. For David challenges my categorisation of capitalism as being a system of wage slavery. David counterposes workers as ‘commodities’ to workers as ‘wage slaves’. Here, David is making a distinction between chattel slaves (the personal property of slave owners) and waged workers (who voluntarily sell their labour power as a commodity to capitalists for delimited periods of time).

Now, I am going to invoke Marx here, not to be orthodox, but because I think he appreciates the real essence of waged labour under capitalism. At the time that Marx was writing, liberal apologists liked to emphasise the freedoms enjoyed under capitalism – free trade (free of mercantile protectionist restrictions), free land (free of feudal restrictions on its sale and use) and ‘free’ labour (the ‘freedom’ to voluntarily sell labour to a buyer of choice), or as David might put it, the ‘freedom’ to become a commodity.

Many liberal capitalists became involved in the campaign to abolish chattel slavery abroad, the better to provide a moralistic cover for their imposition of wage slavery at home. Wage slaves worked in their masters’ ‘dark satanic mills’, or undertook seasonal farm labour, to be dispensed with when no longer required, even if this meant inevitable starvation for hundreds of thousands in the Irish ‘Famine’ or ‘Great Hunger’. Marx argued, when opposing capitalism’s liberal apologists, that workers remain slaves, although the form of that slavery had changed.

“Modern Industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants. Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, in the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is” (Communist Manifesto, 1848).

Now, perhaps David would agree that workers in the UK were treated pretty badly in those old “dark, satanic mills”, or waiting for seasonal work in their Irish turf cabins. Similar conditions are widespread in the  ‘Third World’ today. However, since then, he could argue that not only have workers’ pay and conditions improved in the advanced capitalist counties, but so has the nature of much capitalist employment, often now located in much more pleasant offices.

But, much later in his life, Marx was still insisting on the use of the words “wage slavery”, despite also recognising the improvements in production and improved wages, which capitalism had brought about.

“The system of wage labour is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labour develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment” (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875).

Marx had already provided one reason for his continued resort to the term ‘slavery’ to describe waged work under capitalism.  He explained the shortcomings of seeing labour just as a commodity, or ‘free’ labour.

“On leaving this sphere of {the} exchange of commodities… he, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding” (Capital, Volume 1).

And, one of the features of the current capitalist austerity offensive has been for bosses to step up that ‘hiding’ – with zero hours contracts, reduced and delayed payment of wages, enforced unpaid overtime, cutting back on or non-payment of occupational pensions, intensification of labour, curtailment of health and safety regulations, etc., etc., etc..

Furthermore, when leaving the office or factory today to enter that realm of capitalist ‘freedom’ – with its  rights to determine how you spend your free time, or freely choose which commodities you can buy – this ‘freedom’ turns out to be a lot more restricted than was once thought, now we are under the conditions of capitalist austerity.

Therefore, although chattel slavery and wage slavery differ, they both place their workforces in positions of subordination and dependency upon others. And, as I pointed out in section 1iv of my original report on the founding conference of the Radical Independence Conference (see http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2012/12/20/radisson-blu-or-post-radisson-red/), it is possible to attain ‘house slave’ status both under chattel and wage slavery. But house slaves still remain slaves subjected to the ultimate control of others.  Yes, some of capitalism’s ‘house slaves’ do escape capitalism’s chains by themselves becoming capitalists. But even in the old Muslim empires, some state-owned slaves also rose to positions of generals and even rulers.

Marx argued against those liberal trade unionists, who only sought better conditions for the selling of the one commodity we possess which the capitalists want – our labour power. He criticised those who only sought, “A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”, and called instead for the “Abolition of the wages system”, i.e. wage slavery.

David’s more limited understanding of workers as a commodity, very much reinforces a Social Democratic view of struggle. From such a view the struggle is confined to getting the best price for that commodity, i.e. the highest wage, whether individual or social. David also seems to hold to a more benign view of the state, which could “be far more coercive than it is”. Now, if slaves accept their slave status, then that is a big gain for the class in control, and they can then indeed cut back on open oppression. Money spent on persuading workers we are ‘free’, through ‘education’ and the media – free to sell our labour, just as capitalists and landowners are free to sell their capital and land –  saves on more costly forms of repression.

However, the weapons of unemployment, enforced insecurity (e.g. precarious work contacts, cut backs in the occupational pension provision), can be just as devastating in their effect on workers’ lives, as the direct role of the state. Furthermore, whenever workers mount any serious resistance, those repressive aspects of the capitalist state, normally less visible than under chattel slavery or serfdom, are always there in reserve – whether in the form of the police, army, or the prisons. Indeed, they are more effective today.

If the Social Democratic view of labour understands workers to be a commodity, this usually goes along with a more benign view of the state. The existing state is seen to be in the wrong hands, and if we elect the right (usually meaning the Left!) people to local councils and to parliament, then we can extend our social wage and improve our lives.  As the state gradually takes over from the market, Social Democrats (or Left Social Democrats today) try to persuade us that we can eventually arrive at ‘Socialism’ – a Socialism where we will be looked after by the state and its enlightened officials ‘from the cradle to the grave’.

Sadly, not only Social Democrats, but many Socialists end up mirroring the capitalist view of the working class – we are only interested in ‘bread and butter’ issues. As long as we accept their view of us, we will remain wage slaves – most of us as capitalism’s ‘field’ slaves, some as its ‘house slaves’, whilst a few may get to join the capitalist masters. A precondition for getting beyond our slave status is to recognise that we are wage slaves. This means challenging Social Democracy, and appreciating that there is no Social Democratic road to Socialism.

This also means Socialists making a serious attempt to address the deeply felt alienation workers feel, precisely because we have so little control over most aspects of our lives under wage slavery. Not offering a Socialist alternative means leaving these often confused feelings of alienation for others to mobilise around – the racists, xenophobes, religious bigots, misogynists and homophobes. Socialists need to champion the ending of wage slavery (along with other forms of exploitation and oppression capitalism still sustains) to allow us to overcome this alienation through bringing about self-determination in its political, social and individual forms. Compared to Socials Democrats, Socialists have a much wider understanding of what it means to be human, both now and potentially in the future.

____________

I hope that David, other ISG members, and indeed other Socialists will respond to this reply. I am sure that there are points of clarification that David would like to make before developing his own ideas further. I have certainly found David’s challenges helpful in making me think more deeply about the differences between Social Democracy and Socialism.

 

Allan Armstrong 2.6.13

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