Thursday 2 April 2015

The Socialist Party's Erratic Marxism

I'm not a Marxist for the same reasons Marx wasn't one, but that's not stopped some from acting as arbiters of what is and isn't authentically Marxist. The latest to indulge the 'why so and so isn't a proper Marxist because reasons' is Peter Taaffe, the eternal secretary of the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Before we begin and in the interests of transparency and honesty, it's worth noting the Socialist Party and I have a bit of history. Right, onto the main. The object of his polemic is Greece's celebrity finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis and his recent declaration for 'erratic Marxism''. Here then we shall have a look at the basis of Taaffe's critique, before moving onto what I think can justifiably be regarded as the SP's own erratic Marxism.

There are a number of correct, if banal points Taaffe makes. That Marxism is an open method of inquiry and analysis, not a closed system. That it is the theory and practice of proletarian revolution and is basically inseparable from the experience of a class. That it's as nonsensical to blame Marx for Stalin as holding Jesus responsible for the Lord's Resistance Army. And, um, that's about it. Varoufakis for his part is somewhat less conventional. Rather than challenging European capitalism head on with a list of programmatic demands as per the received Trotskyist playbook, he argues instead for saving it from itself. He recounts sitting down with German finance ministers explaining to them the illogicality of their own positions and notes, with no surprise, how hostile they are to the medicine that could breath new life into their system. Small wonder Taaffe is less than impressed. Greece after all is in an "economically objectively pre-revolutionary situation". The job of Marxists, erratic or otherwise, is to surely bury capitalism, not save it. As far as Taaffe is concerned, this shows Varoufakis's distance from the labour movement and caricatures his position as pleading with the powers that be - a variation of 'if only the Tories knew the facts they wouldn't be so nasty'. Taaffe has got it completely wrong.

Gramsci made a celebrated distinction between the war of position and the war of maneouevre. Evoking the memories of the Alpine battlefields on which Italian peasants and proletarians died in horrifying numbers, he argued that revolutionary strategy in the West has to be cautious, tread carefully, and engage in hundreds of unknown and uncommented upon battles with the enemy to secure this section of trench, this firing position, this foxhole. It's about struggling to improve one's position against an opponent with greater resources and heavier artillery. The battlefield here isn't just politics. It's culture, it's workplaces, it's institutions, it's everyday life. The war of maneouevre is different. Think more of warfare up until the late 19th century: two armies would marshal their forces on a designated battlefield and face each other head on. This was the situation, Gramsci argued, that faced Lenin and the Bolsheviks in its stand off with Tsarism. The February Revolution swept away the autocracy, and the party disposed of the remaining bourgeois state come October. The complex prop of civil society wasn't there, which made a frontal assault all the more possible and likely. British Trotskyism, including Taaffe and friends and with a few qualifications, belong in the latter tradition. It's not that Trotskyists goes round shouting "One Solution, Revolution!" (well, some do, though the SP pointedly does not), but that they have a simplistic understanding of the political conjuncture facing organised labour. For them the blockage in each and every campaign or struggle they engage with is a) the media and b) the official leadership of trade unions/parties/campaigning groups. If it wasn't for these things, if only the revolutionary party could have unmediated contact with the class it seeks to lead, then let the bourgeoisie take fright. There is no reverse gear, it's a politics of constant offensive and one, as we have seen, has led to devastating consequences at the trade union it effectively leads.

Varoufakis has a more Gramscian approach to leftist politics. Syriza's election was the easy part, the difficulty now lies in reversing Europe-wide austerity, disseminating its politics abroad, and bedding the party down as the dominant political force in Greek society. Taking Varoufakis's 'save capitalism' pronouncements in isolation, as Taaffe does, renders them confusing and politically useless. But as part of a counter-hegemonic strategy, they make perfect sense. Here we have the representative of a radical and insurgent proletarian party offering a general direction of travel - for the entire world to see - that accepts the parameters and rhetoric of capitalist realism and offering proposals that will see Greece remain within the Eurozone, see the country's debts paid back, and will put its economy on a surer footing. The capitalism Varoufakis has set out time and again in negotiations and articles is a vision of capitalism as if it was run on a rational basis. If the austerity imposed on Greece, for instance, ceased the economy would bounce back quicker and its capacity to pay down the monies owed to Germany and other creditors enhanced. Here, Varoufakis is showing that the far left understand capitalism and have a plan for it better than the traditional representatives of capital themselves. This effectively calls into question the stewardship of the latter and exposes them not as disinterested captains of industry, but money grubbers obsessed by petty, narrow class interests.

This is superior to what Taaffe has to offer for two reasons. Firstly, it lifts eyes to the way the system is organised and how prevailing power relations are threatened even by the consistent application of the capitalist rules of the game. The SP, and by extension all orthodox Trotskyists, rely on the magical powers of making theoretically achievable demands whose logic points beyond capitalism. Not only in the SP's hands is this overly economistic, i.e. that the struggle for higher wages and against cuts is in and of itself radical, but also it is inappropriate to a situation where labour movements are weak and the composition of proletarians is variegated and dispersed. Secondly, the Varoufakis approach has had some success. German finance still wants its pound of Greek flesh, but by putting forward utterly reasonable demands it has exposed neoliberal dogmatism before a global audience, severely dented the credibility of the creditors, strengthened the head of steam building against austerity and, crucially in Greece itself, advanced Syriza's political hegemony. As Taaffe himself acknowledges, the party's approval ratings at home have gone through the roof. It's not just because Greece has forced a confrontation with the privatisers and neoliberalisers that nearly half of Greek voters are giving the far left the thumbs up, but also because they've made an entirely reasonable case that chimes with people far beyond the tiny numbers for whom a traditional Trotskyist message appeals.

The difference between the two positions ultimately comes down to a contemporary understanding of class and class relationships. The SP argues that Britain's workers suffered a series of key defeats in the 1980s that forced class consciousness back and allowed for the subsequent (temporary) triumph of capital, an era (or period, as Taaffe is fond of calling them) underlined by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the embrace by Mao's heirs of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. There is nothing to suggest that Varoufakis would not accept this position. However, Trotsky's argument that crisis can be reduced to the crisis of proletarian leadership - a position formulated in 1938's Transitional Programme was preserved in aspic and, if you'll forgive the pun, been trotted out regularly ever since by his self-identified followers. And so it is here. Spend time surveying SP literature and it's always about leadership and the treachery of the misleaders, strongly implying that all that is needed is the correct leadership and the rest will take care of itself. Unfortunately for this perspective, the correct leadership(s) have been around in the shape of dozens of central committees since the second world war and the working class generally have proven resistant to their spotless banners and fighting socialist alternatives.

The crisis, however, is much deeper than a matter of leadership. Capitalism has changed a great deal over the last 30-odd years. There are more proletarians than ever before, but in the metropolitan heartlands they've not been as divided and dispersed since capitalism transitioned from an agricultural to industrialised societies. The growth and spread of casualisation, the shrinking of many workplaces, the increasing complexity of the division of labour, the individuation and surveillance of employees, the shift from physical commodities to economies heavily reliant on the production of services and 'immaterial' goods, the increasing importance of networks and information, the take off of popular consumer cultures, the privatisation of personal space, all of these shifts and processes are interlinked, mutually conditioning and reinforcing, and absolutely work against the emergence of a class conscious proletariat according to the old schemas. The main political task for socialists is to get to grips with these processes, analyse and learn the opportunities this new composition of class affords, and try to work out how this composition can grow over into a new mass politics of socialism. Cohering this composition is what Syriza is doing, perhaps sometimes unknowingly, and it has done so on the basis of trying out new strategies appropriate to a Greek proletariat that, despite suffering appallingly under the cosh of austerity, have not risen up and made a revolution.

This is where we get to the Socialist Party's erratic Marxism. As Taaffe notes, Marxism is a fundamentally open research programme and guide to action. However, in the SP's case that's where their Marxism starts getting erratic. Take their understanding of class and the Labour Party between 1992ish and the present day. The labour movement entered this time frame bruised by strategic defeats and hence, diminishing influence. It would therefore follow that the Labour Party, as the organised political wing of that movement, would be similarly damaged, that leftist ideas with wide currency the decade previously be on the retreat and that a cadre of activists would drop out of activity. That is what happened, yet instead of linking the two, looking at the tendencies, opportunities, and counterveiling tendencies working through, opening and closing, and simultaneously binding and distancing the relationship between party and movement, which is what a Marxist analysis should be doing, instead we have the abandonment of Karl Marx for the German sociologist, Max Weber. It's an unconscious shift, but one all the more glaring for it. So rather than analysing Labour in all its contradictions and trajectories, we have two decades worth of articles arguing that the expulsion of several hundred Militant supporters, the diminution of member-led policy-making, Blair's tetchy relationship with the unions, and more latterly Labour councils' failure to live up to the example of Liverpool City Council 1983-1987 as proof positive that Labour has moved from working class party to outright bourgeois outfit. In so doing, Marxist analysis has been substituted for ideal-typical box ticking. Because a social democratic party is supposed to have a certain number of features, such as a programme of nationalisation, an opposition to all cuts, being for the extension of social security, and a socialist rhetoric, Labour is written off. What it is now and hasn't been since, coincidentally, the expulsion of many Militant Tendency comrades, differs because it deviates from a theoretical construct of what Labour should look like. The fact the organisational relationships and myriad cross overs of trade unionists and community campaigners with Labour Party membership and support counts for nothing.

And it's this Weberianism that Taaffe ultimately brings to bear in his analysis of Varoufakis's comments. He has a model of what proletarian struggle should be like, and that model is how the SP and its international co-thinkers go about their political business. Because Syriza do not conform to it, they're failing and, even worse, giving capital succour by the back door. Unfortunately for Taaffe and co, the only failure here is an inability to apply the theoretical methods they profess.


George Hallam said...

"Gramsci made a celebrated distinction between the war of position and the war of maneouevre"

The problem with Gramsci was that he didn't understand anything about military affairs - bit like the lefties who love to quote him.

Phil said...

A bit like those who don't understand that metaphors are merely a stylistic device ;)

George Hallam said...

Stylistic devices are fine so long as they ar'nt used to conceal that what you are saying is nonsence.

Phil said...

Not everyone is an expert on military matters like you. However, as a metaphor it has proven perfectly understandable for generations of Gramsci's readers.

Igor Belanov said...

All this emphasis on Varoufakis knowing capitalism better than the capitalists is essentially evidence that he is a postmodern thinker, and I think he is putting on something of a public performance rather than exhibiting some kind of Gramsci 'war of manoeuvre'. Plus, just because he can play games with the German bourgeoisie and its representatives means relatively little, since capitalism as a system has more than just an economic hold over society. Gramsci is by no means definitive, and his ideas have been used to defend many strategies of moderation and capitulation, so would need to be used with great caution.

George Hallam said...

"as a metaphor it has proven perfectly understandable for generations of Gramsci's readers"

The metaphor has confused lefties for generations.

Gramsci links the war of manoeuvre with frontal assaults.

In military terms, a frontal assault is a movement against the forward face of an enemy force i.e. where its defensive power is greatest. This is in contrast to attacks on enemy’s flanks or rear. Such attacks are likely to be costly and are only used to save time or if no other options are available.

A 'war of manoeuvre' implies a situation where frontal assaults can be avoided.

In a 'war of position', on the other hand, flanking moves are not possible and frontal assaults are the only option.

Boffy said...

All successful wars as opposed to individual battles require the victorious side to have taken ground and held it, before they can make sustainable progress. Even guerrilla bands, such as comprised the American revolutionaries against Britain, had to do so.

The insurgents need bulwarks and bridgeheads. They need defensible ground to build up their resources, to obtain respite, to plan, to provide an example to potential supporters, and to give their supporters a vision of what it is they are fighting to defend, and to gain.

The problem with the way the class struggle has been conducted, is that it has been waged as one of the biggest guerrilla only wars in history. Whenever workers have managed to actually take ground from capital, by taking over factories and son on, or the establishment of worker owned and controlled social insurance schemes they have been misled into abandoning them!

Marx and Engels warned workers not to give up their Friendly Societies in favour of a Welfare State, for exactly that reason. In places like UCS, or in May '68 in France, where workers had taken over capitalist property, they were encouraged by their social-democratic leaders to simply hand it back to the organised representative of capital, i.e. the capitalist state.

BCFG said...

"where workers had taken over capitalist property, they were encouraged by their social-democratic leaders to simply hand it back to the organised representative of capital, i.e. the capitalist state."

This has surely been the historical function of social democratic parties? E.g. New Labour. They ensure that workers see political salvation in the capitalist state. So let us add Boffy to the list of Marxists who encourage workers to put their faith in the institutions of capitalism, to which New Labour are a prime example.