John Tummon of the Republican Socialist Alliance makes a plea for a new international republican politics. For an Internationalist Republican politics that adapts to 21st century terrains of struggle.
FOR AN INTERNATIONALIST REPUBLICAN POLITICS THAT ADAPTS TO 21st CENTURY TERRAINS OF STRUGGLE
The Dalmeny Declaration of 15 October 2016 argued the need for a “new federal, social and secular European republic, with a written constitution and a Bill of Rights based on the democratic principle that economic and political power shall be in the hands of the sovereign people of Europe. The constitution will include the democratic “right of nations to self-determination” including the right to leave”.
This paper argues that this call for an internationalist Republican politics is a sign that revolutionaries, or at least some of us, in the west are finally getting to terms with adapting our politics to long-term changes in the configuration of capitalism and capitalist society, but that this is a process that must deepen and consolidate if it is to produce the kind of broad political, philosophical and cultural transformation that will make it more meaningful than past iterations of the Left in post – WW11 northern Europe and North America.
The central argument put forward is that early 21st century capitalism on the European continent is structurally, culturally and politically, fundamentally different from the post-war capitalism within which Left economism emerged and dominated the extra-parliamentary Left, that this economism was, even at the time of its greatest impact, a misreading of strategical necessity, but has perversely outlived the conditions which gave rise to it, to the point of becoming dysfunctional within the new, neoliberal era, in which political issues are posed far more directly than in the preceding decades. Republican Socialism in its pan-European form is the most rational response on the Left to this era and needs to replace economism as the guiding approach of the Left to theoretical and practical politics.
In the post-war decades, there was an overriding consensus about politics and economistic struggles emerged as the dominant form of popular challenge to power; under mature neoliberalism, there is an overriding consensus around economics and political struggles have emerged as the dominant form of popular challenge to power.
The rise and fall of economism
In the 19th century, Marx saw waged workers as participants in an inevitable class struggle against their capitalist employers and who had ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ in this struggle. Today, however, most British workers employed in productive or distributive industry are non-unionised, insecure, badly paid and scared of showing anything but tacit obedience and acceptance of their lot, lest they are replaced by recruits from an impoverished reserve army of zero-hours labour at a moment’s notice.
Unlike Marx’s workers of the mid-19th century, 21st century waged workers do not have an uninterrupted tradition of increasing combination and activity stretching between the working class activity of the 1790s, inspired by the republican revolution in France, Peterloo, Owenism and the Chartists, the revolutions of 1848 and early unionism. By contrast, modern private sector workers are isolated, cowed and atomised, whereas, even compared to the 1970s, today’s public sector workers do not see themselves as being ‘in and against the state’ but in the vanguard of defending public sector provision against privatisation and budget cuts. Who owns services supplied to the public is purely an economistic issue today, which is why the economistic Left find it one of a declining number of uncomplicated arenas to engage in.
In between Marx and today, financial capitalism defeated manufacturing capitalism, at the level of the state and state policies. Today, after three decades of neoliberalism, the CBI is a minor player in lobbying circles and political influence compared to JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the rest of the Masters of the Universe. These latter are the people who own the world and their workers are mostly highly paid and highly unlikely to see themselves as engaged in class conflict. The financial industries produce no real wealth whatsoever, yet they produce the largest profits, which manifest in the profiteers increasing their ownership of real wealth assets. This real wealth is not produced in western service industries, but in the manufacturing and extractive industries which disfigure the land and people of countries outside Europe and North America.
Leaving aside the question of workers in China, Mexico, India, Brazil and all the other places where low wage manufacturing production takes place nowadays, how exactly does it make sense to see any groups of workers in the west, whether they are low-waged private sector workers or public sector workers, as ‘the gravediggers of capitalism’ by virtue of their relationship to the means of producing wealth? This is important, because the entire political practice of economism relies on this assumption.
This economism has a longer history than just the western post-war boom; the ability of earlier generations of workers to win demands for better wages and conditions of work while supporting the early social democratic parties or Communist Party meant that much of the Left’s propaganda in the late 19th and early 20th centuries focused on trying to link these struggles to the need to take the ownership of the production of wealth from capitalists. This almost always lost out to the Reformists’ ability to pass laws upholding workers’ rights and protections, health and safety and, more recently, on minimum wages. The ‘transitional demands’ and other devices used by revolutionaries to try to show connections between struggles over wages and conditions lacked credibility compared to the real ability of reformism to bring steady improvement.
Capitalism changes and re-structures capitalist society and revolutionaries need to adapt.
As capitalism re-structures in response to its crises, it changes the circumstances within which people go about obtaining our livelihoods and, therefore, the way we think: our perspectives on society, on our place within it and on political ethics. The changed circumstances within which people fight back within capitalism affect the characteristics and significance of those struggles.
It is the strategic task of revolutionaries to be aware of such changes and to adapt our political perspectives and practice to them, so that these chime with the changed circumstances and perspectives of people, rather than grating with them. This is not at all the same as opportunism, but how we must constantly sharpen and re-shape our politics, as well as how we put this politics across and plan political interventions.
The Modern Left and economism
For the period from about 1960 to 1982, during which the modern western Left was formed, capitalism in the west was coasting along with a mixed economy that just about everyone signed up to; this political consensus meant that most struggles were purely economic. Trade union militancy became the characteristic form of struggle at this time and it was almost always taken forward in ways that did not raise wider issues of political power or produce organic discussion of political ideas; the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, Lucas Aerospace and the two big Miners’ strikes of 1973 and 1984, were notable exceptions to this.
The modern Left, made up back then mostly of people with a younger average age than those in these trade union struggles, launched various rank & file initiatives, got stuck into trade union work and produced papers, pamphlets and campaigning activity that tried to link these trade union struggles to the need to move beyond capitalism to a socialist society in the same manner as had the Russian working class in 1917.
Unfortunately, this attempt ran parallel with the Cold War and Cold War propaganda, so most of those in struggle were taught by the public debate of the time to be suspicious about socialism, unlike the pre-war generation, when bourgeois democracy was one of three competing systems of society in the western world and widely regarded, after the Wall St crash, as the one which appeared to be falling behind.
The high points of trade union militancy in this post-war period therefore did not translate into more than a few thousand workers joining the revolutionary Left; most members were ex-students, even within the IS at its pre-SWP height. Trade unionists, by and large, continued to support and look to a reformist Labour Party, for the reasons set out above.
In short, because so very few struggles raised issues of political power organically, attempts by the revolutionary Left to insert these into those struggles often appeared to be contrived and lacking in sufficient credibility; crucially, those attempts to politicise struggles hardly ever broke with the economism of those they reached out to. The crucial dynamic at play during this time was that the more difficult it was to link trade union militancy to questions of political power, the more socialism was painted by the Left in ways which accommodated to this by emphasising just the ownership of production rather than human emancipation, internationalism and socialist democracy. The internal political education curricula of the IS and 4th International was largely focused in this unbalanced way, and the Left’s newspapers even more so. The rest of how Marxist thinkers had defined socialism and the nature of what it offered humankind was left on the shelf.
With the birth of neoliberal capitalism, the underpinnings of this configuration – the mixed economy, mass-producing manufacturing and extractive industries, high trade union membership, Cold War propaganda, low unemployment and a broad political consensus around all of these – were dismantled. In their place, by the time neoliberalism was in full stride, came the privatisation of significant parts of the public sector, the terminal decline of manufacturing and extractive industries with mass workforces, much lower trade union membership, a unipolar world order, high unemployment, lower wages, high private debt levels, the final chapter in the rise of Finance Capitalists to the position of ‘Masters of the Universe’ and the exclusion from public and media debate of all points of view outside of the neoliberal world-view. The Labour Party adapted to this by becoming New Labour: a part of the centre ground rather than the Left.
The 2008 Credit Crunch ended the neoliberal accumulation cycle with a sharp bump from which it shows no sign of full recovery, but the key factors setting the terrain of struggle did not, at least not in the short term. Neither did the revolutionaries of the western world adapt, or see a reason to do so. The Left had struggled, in any case, to maintain its minimal influence within the working class during the post-war boom after the defeat of the miners strike of 1984 and the building of neoliberal capitalism, chiefly because, as trade union militancy declined, so did the relevance of economist propaganda; the constituency for economism died away with the dismantling of its economic base and the Left went through a prolonged crisis, with split after split, the rise and fall of a number of political organisations and a sharp decline in its overall membership.
Oddly, though, very little of its economistic thinking was dispensed with, despite the world changing around it in a way that made this largely relevant. If economistic ideas had a resonance anywhere, it would have been in the Pearl River basin in China, where 60 million largely female workers laboured at the heart of global production; the people of the west were directed instead to service industries, with a much more tenuous link to the production of wealth.
Among those people who were already politically radical, single-issue politics, much of which focused around identity politics, replaced working within umbrella socialist groups. The largest new Left group in the UK during the pre-2008 period – Respect – struggled to get beyond its own version of anti-racism to a wider politics and was effectively little more than a single issue organisation. The level of fight back in society, of extra-parliamentary political activity, declined to levels not seen since the quiescent 1950s.
The capitalist crisis which began in 2008 came after the first wave of Occupy and after the high point of mass mobilisation against the Iraq War, so it should by then have become apparent that it was political and international issues, not issues of wages or conditions, that were mobilising larger numbers of people than had been active at any time since the Miners’ strike. So why did the Left still not dump economism?
Economism weakens political struggles
Despite millions on the streets, the politics of the opposition to the Iraq war rarely moved beyond liberal, humanitarian anti – war sentiment, mostly because the revolutionary Left, partly due to its overriding focus on worker militancy at the national level, lacked an informed, updated internationalist politics, and had a particular blind spot for the wider Middle East beyond Palestine. Incapable of separating its internationalism from that of social liberals, the Left had failed to critique the emergence of embedded journalism in the early 1980s or the concept of humanitarian war when it was first launched in the Balkans in the 1990s and was utterly absent from the public political scene as the War on Terror became a kind of new Cold War in terms of its hegemony over the international narrative. This blew back into domestic politics in the form of a resurgence of racism, with Muslims and refugees the particular targets with the Left rendered incapable of defending these groups.
As a result, the British anti-war mobilisations of the Pre-Credit Crunch period were not sustained in relation to the 2011 Arab Spring and its bloody aftermath. The reactionary interventions of western powers and their proxies in these bloody aftermaths could not be critiqued inside the logic of the War on Terror and the Left did not know how to place itself outside, so it had nothing to say which a social liberal could not share, just that aerial warfare kills civilians, that the USA supports dictators and that oil security and control is the west’s strategic aim in the Middle East.
The failure of the Left to develop a credible international critique was part of a wider failure to escape its historic economism, which rendered it incapable of coping politically with the rise of Islamaphobic racism, anti-migrant hostility, Scottish nationalism or the declining legitimacy of parliamentary democracy amid its various corruption scandals and low electoral turnouts. All these 21st century challenges and opportunities have gone begging, especially in England, because of the limitations of the political outlook, the narrow economism, of most of the Left and its consequent lack of politics.
Socialist theory and the supposed centrality of ownership of the means of production to socialism
Even though much of the legislative protection built by European reformist social democratic parties has been and continues to be unraveled, this has not led to Left economism having any greater resonance among waged workers. Defending past gains has proven way beyond both workers and those who support them against capitalism. In fact, most Left wing activity on austerity is purely defensive in nature and in perspective, trying to instigate and support fight backs against government policy with little thought of linking these to the issue of ownership of the means of production. It has very few victories to point to, none of them fundamental and none of them involving anything close to Trotsky’s ‘transitional politics’.
Despite all this, people heavily influenced by the Trotskyist tradition feel that the issue of who owns the means of production remains the very essence, in fact, in many cases, the only essence, of what socialism and revolutionary change is all about; to those, like me, who come from a more libertarian socialist background, it has never been more than a pre-requisite which sits alongside the revolution in political participation which ensures accountable democracy, an informed internationalism which is empathetic and outgoing and an emancipatory revolution in how we live our lives at the level of human interaction.
Under modern Capitalism, the overwhelming majority of people are waged or salaried workers, even though their work is nowadays disconnected from the production of wealth in the sense Marx used the term. The people are workers are people! All those who cannot significantly supplement their income by investments are forced into selling our labour power, whether what we do is productive or not. We are all Capitalism’s potential gravediggers, employed or unemployed, waged or salaried; it is, for each of us, our political choice whether or not we become gravediggers, not a function of our militancy in pursuing our own group interests for a bigger share of an imaginary cake, and raising and answering political issues is the direct way in which revolutionaries should seek to make this potential real.
Conceiving of taking power over the means of production as THE necessary stage which brings society to socialism and leaving the emancipatory changes to the later, indefinite stage of communism seems to me a recipe for dealing with the inevitable threats and challenges to this socialism by instituting a centralised state which effectively closes off any further emancipation. The USSR under Lenin, let alone Stalin, showed this clearly.
There is so little which links economism to emancipatory political change or to radical political vision; when Left Unity was set up, its model of the exercise of political power under socialism was based on what eventually became Ken Loach’s “The Spirit of ‘45” – the Atlee government that took Britain into NATO and the Cold War, stewarded the creation of Israel and the bloody break-up of the Indian Raj, fought revolutionaries in Greece and independence fighters in Malaysia, and gave consultants a priestly status within the NHS and made managers the controllers of the top-down nationalised industries, one of which – the National Coal Board – dipped into the fund set up for the victims of the Aberfan disaster in order to pay for its mountain of slurry to be carted away. This pathetic vision of political socialism is because, to economistic Lefties, politics is an annex, an afterthought, something that, in most theoretical texts, ‘inevitably’ gets ‘sorted out’ by workers once ownership of the means of production has been taken by them from capitalists.
This is the Achilles heel of socialism and quite possibly the single biggest reason why almost all the centralised states that have claimed to be socialist have struggled for authentic popularity among their citizens.
Crucially, Leninist-Trotskyist theorising about insurrection treats the overthrow of capitalist states as an undifferentiated undertaking: whether they are republican or monarchist is neither here nor there. In the Arab Spring, the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen fell and substantial ground had to be given to opposition demands, whereas, apart from Bahrain, not a single Arab Monarchy faced a substantial challenge & the monarchies of Morocco and Jordan got away with very slight changes, so the 21st century record, let alone the 20th century one, is not in line with this theory.
A new, political era has begun
Since the Credit Crunch, the economistic Left have pursued two broad types of activity – supporting trade union actions to defend public services where possible and working in local anti-austerity campaigns. Single issues campaigns still exist in parallel to this and none of them has had a significant success.
Post-Credit Crunch struggles that have caught fire have been political, not about wages or conditions – the Student campaign against Tuition fees, Occupy in the City of London, anti-Fracking campaigning and the Junior Doctors dispute have all taken on government and extractive and financial capitalism. Even during the post-war boom, the attempted revolution in Paris in 1968 and opposition to the Vietnam War arguably brought more people to join socialist organisations than any economistic struggle, but the organisations they joined lacked a broad enough political imagination to build on this, largely because of their economism.
Which brings me to my main point – that, despite the Credit Crunch, we have not returned to circumstances within which people go about obtaining our livelihoods and conceptualising our world and place within it which support an economistic practice based on the idea that the employment nexus is the key to getting the gravediggers on our side. The conditions that produced and seemed to justify economistic political practice started to disappear 30 years ago and are long gone.
The key struggles nowadays and in what it would be nice to call ‘late neoliberalism’ are political, in the sense that they directly confront questions of who holds political power, how they exercise it, on whose behalf and to whose actual exclusion. Those who engage in these struggles, from students to junior doctors to Scottish voter registration drives on housing estates to Irish campaigners against water charges, do not think of themselves as workers pursuing group gains within an expanding economy; they do not need to be introduced to non-organic issues of political power; they are already engaged in confronting political power and asking fundamental political questions about it.
So are the upsurges of political activity in southern Europe: Podemos, Syriza and others are engaged in straightforward, fundamental political issues around what kind of society people want; this is not just a British change but one affecting the whole of Europe. It is part of a longer tradition in Eastern than in Western Europe, due to the wave of political revolutions in 1989-91 and the follow-up wave of ‘colour revolutions’ a few years later.
The time, chiefly in northwestern Europe, when these political issues were subsumed by a consensus based around a mixed economy, the Cold War and fullish employment is long since gone, just as the militant trade union activity that was based on it. Political struggles and political issues have come to the fore precisely because of the changed capitalism we now live within.
Marx never spoke of economics, but of political economy; his own political activity was focused on internationalist and political issues – the US civil war, Ireland, Poland, Bonapartism and India. These were the great political issues of his day and he did not spend his time instead on ‘bread and butter issues’ around wages and conditions unless they had a political dimension to them, such as the Lancashire cotton workers’ support for anti-slavery, even at the cost of their own pockets.
Republicanism is the only tendency within the radical, progressive left that properly recognises the primacy of the political over the economic; international, federalist Republicanism is the only tendency within Republicanism that gives full weight to the primacy of human emancipation and can break fully with xenophobic nationalism.
The politics of this era within which we live has to be campaigning for a federal, social and secular European republic, with a written constitution and a Bill of Rights based on the democratic principle that economic and political power shall be in the hands of the sovereign people of Europe. This is the politics that is most likely to chime with the thinking of the hundreds of thousands who have re-joined the Labour Party, of ‘generation rent’, of the millions trapped in poverty or in debt, of all those who increasingly cannot conceive of finding solutions to their oppression and exploitation by taking on the impossible – organising at their workplace – but only at the level of political power, of all those who became enthused with political debate during the Scottish Referendum campaign, of the two million who took to the streets against the Iraq war and the hundreds of thousands of students, junior doctors and others who have taken on government policies. Only an internationalist republicanism can offer solace to the millions of migrants and refugees in Europe.
Neoliberalism is a worldview that exists within political economy; it cannot be defeated by economistic struggles or politics, but only by an internationalist republican politics.
also see Redefining Republicanism by John Tummon at:-