Thursday 19 September 2019

Additional Note on Corbynism: A Critical Approach

That moment when you're walking to work and remember a point you were supposed to make in last night's piece. And, perhaps, this is the most glaring error in Bolton and Pitts's Corbynism: A Critical Approach.

In their book, they answer previous criticism for their being unconcerned with providing an alternative politics or strategy to Corbynism with a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissive meh. All well and good if you're interested in merely writing things and building careers as soi-disant Marxists with a neat little niche. And yet, their book is explicitly located as an intervention in strategic debates about socialism today. Remember, their argument is two-fold: the left should be in the business of defending its gains and holding the centre against the brutish, populist hordes. It's almost as if their declaration is a rhetorical flourish to try and position their critique of Corbynism from within the left for, well, marketing purposes.

The second point flows from the first. If we were to hurl Bolton and Pitts into a Tardis and take in a whistle stop tour of important historical mobilisations from below, like the ragged wretched throngs of St Petersburg who begged the "Little Father" Tsar for bread and were shot down for their pains, the civil rights movement in the US who drew heavily on Christianity and American constitutionalism as the ideological inspiration for their campaign against segregation and Jim Crow, and any number of strike movements in the 1970s motivated by pay and and working hours, how would our worldly wise Marxists have approached them? One expects a screed of some length pointing out the faults in their politics and attacking their movements for insufficient Marxism. In other words, they would be treated as the finished product and not as movements in development with trajectories that could head in radical and, gasp, perhaps even Marxist directions.

This is how Bolton and Pitts approach Corbynism. If their failure to situate its emergence in the confluence and recomposition of class politics wasn't bad enough, their pen portrait of it as a fully-formed semi-conspiratorial movement is one of the worst takes on Corbynism I've come across. Perhaps they should reflect on their absurd claim Corbynism operates a substantialist theory of value. That is the treatment of money as magic containers of value instead of its mediator. Their criticism certainly missed the mark, but it is suggestive of a projection entirely of their approach to Corbynism. Instead of a mediator of class interests interacting and struggling with other political forces based on opposed interests, Corbynism is a container of essential qualities - two campism, technological determinism, technotopianism, populism - and can never change. A very strange position for Marxists to take. We saw this before in Matt Bolton's essay, widely circulated at the time of the second Labour leadership contest, that made the entirely stupid argument that Corbynism wasn't properly socialist because it didn't measure up to the tight discipline and (doctrinaire) Marxism of the Militant Tendency as was. Alas, the only thing that didn't measure up was Bolton's argument, based as it was on an incredibly crude and zero-nuanced application of Max Weber's ideal typical method.

Lenin isn't the most favoured Marxist round these parts, but he was on to something when he wrote ultra-leftism and opportunism are two sides of the same coin. Bolton and Pitts criticise Corbynism not to advance it, or develop the movement in a more consistently socialist direction, but to justify their own sniffy abstention. How very Marxist of them.

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Anonymous said...

Absolutely agree. Excellent review by the way.

Boffy said...

"One expects a screed of some length pointing out the faults in their politics and attacking their movements for insufficient Marxism. In other words, they would be treated as the finished product and not as movements in development with trajectories that could head in radical and, gasp, perhaps even Marxist directions."

There is a difference between being not standing apart from the working class and its organisations, and abstaining from criticising the inadequate politics of those organisations. As I warned when Corbyn was nominated, there is a difference between the significance of the Corbynite movement, and Corbyn the individual.

Failing to recognise that difference means there is a danger of simply falling into the same kind of cultism that has been seen in the past, when cultists swooned at the feet of Castro, or Chavez, or Morales, or to a lesser degree, Galloway et al.

Marx and Engels emphasised the need to be a part of the workers organisations so as to gain the ear of the workers, but they also emphasised the need to raise their own politics within those organisations. Trotsky spoke of "Stocking with the workers and their mass organisations", but he did so in the context of saying, "With the workers always, with the workers leaders sometimes".

Marx noted the significance of the fusing of the Lassalleans and Eisenachers, as a positive step forward of the movement, but did so whilst writing his Critique of the Gotha programme as a visceral critique of the politics of the Lassalleans, a critique that Engels continued in the years after.

Sectarians and ultraleftists rmeain apart from the mass organisations because they are not yet Marxist, but equally being a part of those organisatins does not remove from Marxists the responsiblity for critiquing their existing inadequate politics. On the contrary, its the basis for more rapidly developing those organisations.

Jim Denham said...

Phil: I'm afraid you've got it badly wrong in your attempt to defend "Corbynism" from what is a pretty sound Marxist critique, that also has clear implications for practical politics (even if the authors don't spell that out in great detail).

In fact, it is Bolton and Pitts’ attempt to rescue Marx and Marxism from what passes for Marxist and Marxiant thinking in and around the camp of Corbynism that provides the basis for their critique of the latter.

Capitalism, the authors stress, is an organic whole. Capital is a social relation which, by its very nature, defines and structures the totality of society: “The capital relation is not something imposed from the outside but runs through the whole of society itself.” Capital and labour are certainly locked in an antagonistic conflict — the class struggle. But at the same time: “Labour and capital are two sides of the same coin. They are not two separate ‘worlds’ brought together through force or trickery.” Capitalist and worker are subject to “a bond of mutual but coerced interdependence.” Value is not “the property of a given thing in a given space or time.” It is not “a thing which is somehow injected into an object during the labour process.” And it is not something “’captured’ by capital as a pre-existing form of value.” Rather, value is “a relationship existing between things, constituted across time and space.” It is “a particular social relation between objects which comes into being at the moment of their successful mediation.” Labour “relates to value only in and through its social mediation.”

The “site” of that mediation is global: Value does not exist outside of “the totality of labour in society as a whole, on a scale that is not national but global. … Labour (is) the universal form of mediation.” Consequently, capitalism is irreformable: “Without a foundational transformation of the system of socially mediated labour itself, all strategies must eventually convene on the continued validation of value.”

The authors provide a means to understand, and critique, the “semi-coherent set of ideas” which Corbynism constitutes. In the Corbynist world view capitalism is not a universal system of socially mediated labour. It is a small number of bad people who ill-treat a large number of good people. This is summed up in the vacuous slogan “For the Many, Not the Few”, inherited from the Occupy movement’s division of the world into the 1% and the 99%. The slogan is also quintessentially Blairite. It was Blair’s new version of Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution which promised “a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few.”

Overlapping with this personalised critique of capitalism are the equally populist slogans of a “rigged system” and “greedy bankers”. For Corbyn and Corbynism, the wealth and power of the elite 1% are to be explained by their cheating and their “rigging” of the system. And it is the greed of this 1% which causes economic crises: “Speculators and gamblers crashed our economy in 2008 … (their) greed plunged the world into crisis.” Greed At one level, the ruling classes can indeed be accused of greed and of cheating and rigging the system. They are not moral paragons. But at a more basic level, they have no need of either. It is capitalism itself which, because of what it is, creates and reproduces social and economic inequalities, and which bears within itself the germs of its own crises.

The political strategy which flows out of Corbyn’s moralising personalisation of capitalism is not one which seeks to challenge the workings of capitalism but one which seeks to remove the pernicious influence of the 1%. Thus, a Corbynist Labour government will “tear down the vested interests that hold this country back.” It will “take on the cosy cartels that are hoarding this county’s wealth for themselves.” It will “call time on this rigged system, because power is in the wrong hands.”

Ironically, all this amounts to a defence of capitalism.

Boffy said...

"Capital and labour are certainly locked in an antagonistic conflict — the class struggle."

This is actually no longer true in the sense conveyed here. In Capital III, Chapter 27, Marx describes the process he first referred to in Capital I, whereby the process of capital accumulation, of concentration and centralisation brings about the "expropriation of he expropriators" as the means by which the fetter on capital accumulation represented by the monopoly of private capital is burst asunder.

It leads as Marx says, to the end of capital as private property within capitalism itself, and its replacement by socialised capital in the form of the cooperative and joint stock company. In these companies, Marx points out,

"the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour."

This is what makes them the transitional form of property. Marx points out that, in fact, the division is between the industrial capital and its representative, the functioning capitalist, and interest-bearing capital, particularly in the form of shareholders. This division and class antagonism is what leads the shareholders to demand the right to exercise control in the joint stock companies of capital they do not own, by appointing Boards of Directors who sit above the functioning capitalists, and whose job is thereby to look after the interests of shareholders as against the interest of the company, i.e. its industrial capital.

Part of he problem with the Corbynite economic policy is that it fails to understand that all of this capital in these corporations is already socialised capital owned by workers collectively, and so does not need to be nationalised, i.e. bought from shareholders who do not own it. It only requires that they introduce industrial democracy to remove the unjustified rights of shareholders to exercise control over property that does not belong to them, and instead to make Boards elected 100% by workers.

In part, that' because they do not understand the underlying capital relations, in part because they are still in a statist reformist mindset, and partly due to the fact that they realise that such a transformation to industrial democracy would require an all out political revolution, which means mobilising the self-activity of workers, rather than simply some legislative act to bring it about, and like all reformists they fear unleashing that power.

I would disagree with much of the details in relation to value, which confuses value with exchange-value, but there is not room here to deal with that.

Boffy said...

"The political strategy which flows out of Corbyn’s moralising personalisation of capitalism is not one which seeks to challenge the workings of capitalism but one which seeks to remove the pernicious influence of the 1%."

Except for the reasons I set out above, and described by Marx, the problem really does come down to the power and influence of the 1%, or actually the global 0.01%, who own the majority of shares, bonds and derivatives (fictitious capital) which now forms the main objective antagonistic relation to industrial capital.

As Marx an Engels describe, large-scale socialised industrial capital does become planned and regulated, as a means of trying to overcome the internal contradictions it faces that erupt in crises of overproduction. It creates a social-democratic state to extend that planning and regulation at a national level and at Bretton Woods, extended that to a global level.

As Simon Clarke put it even 30 years ago.

"“Indeed it would be fair to say that the sphere of planning in capitalism is much more extensive than it is in the command economies of the soviet bloc. The scope and scale of planning in giant corporations like Ford, Toyota, GEC or ICI dwarfs that of most, if not all, of the Soviet Ministries. The extent of co-ordination through cartels, trade associations, national governments and international organisations makes Gosplan look like an amateur in the planning game. The scale of the information flows which underpin the stock control and ordering of a single Western retail chain are probably greater than those which support the entire Soviet planning system.”

(Capital and Class, Winter 1990)

The real class struggle today is not between labour and productive capitalists, other than in relation to the survival of private capital in the plethora of small businesses, but it between that industrial capital, now owned by workers, and fictitious capital, owned by the 0.01%, who exert unjustified control over it.

BCFG said...

Boffy aggressively and forcefully makes endless dogmatic assertions, to which we are meant to simply nod in approval, and just accept without question. He is an intellectual rapist.

Boffy seems to think that his every word is just a revelation of the truth. Well pardon me but I don’t think the class struggle today is between fictitious capital and industrial capital, nor do I believe that workers own industrial capital. In fact both these propositions are simply ridiculous. From Dhaka to Doncaster workers have absolutely no ownership over the means of production by any sensible definition of the word. It is also problematical to make a distinction between fictitious and industrial capital, given they are often one in the same.Boffy talks about the battle between fictitious and industrial capital yet at the same time argues that in the last 25 to 30 years there have been more new products that at any time in human history. On Boffy’s calculation the only logical conclusion that can be drawn is that fictitious capital has greatly enabled production! Which then begs the question, what class struggle Boffy and why aren’t those owner workers toasting fictitious capital!

Now onto Denham

“Value is not “the property of a given thing in a given space or time.” It is not “a thing which is somehow injected into an object during the labour process..”

Forget value, what about surplus value? Surplus value is that portion of the social product which the owners of capital (the capitalist class) rob from the working class, this is NOT something mystical that no one can analyse or quantify, this is someone working their arse off for nothing in return! This is a capital calculation not an exercise in philosophising.
What Bolton and Pitts have done is to summarise Marxist value at a very abstract level. But if you are going to summarise the whole of capital in this way you might as well summarise Marxist value theory as capitalists live off the unpaid labour of the working class.

“Consequently, capitalism is irreformable”

The history of capitalism is the history of reforms. There has never been a more reformable system than capitalism. Reform is part of its fundamental dynamics. Any system that is prone to crises and contradictions needs reform to go along with it. Without reform crises and contradictions do not get resolved..

“In the Corbynist world view capitalism a small number of bad people who ill-treat a large number of good people.”

Corbynism cannot be reduced to this childish level.
The class struggle is a large number of people that come together based on shared grievances, interests, identity to overthrow a small number of people whose wealth and power is derived through the exploitation of the large group of people.

Marx and Engels were constantly pointing out how the proletarian character was different and better than that of the Bourgeois.
Capitalism by its nature rewards greed and avarice, it promotes sociopathic behaviour.

“populist slogans of a “rigged system” and “greedy bankers””

Greedy bankers and rigged system are not populist slogans. You literally only hear about greedy bankers when they have actually been caught to be greedy, for example when they rigged the LIBOR rates! You just don’t hear people discussing bankers and rigged systems in daily life. On the other hand not a day goes when I don’t hear someone talking about Muslims.

“Ironically, all this amounts to a defence of capitalism.”
It is really ironic given support for the EU amounts to a defence of capitalism as does pro imperialism!

Jim Denham said...

You have really demeaned yourself: not only have you fundamentally misunderstood Marx and Marxism, but now you resort to scurrilous nonsense like: "It is really ironic given support for the EU amounts to a defence of capitalism as does pro imperialism!"

Try reading (or even re-reading) the Communist Manifesto, Phil.

Phil said...

BCFG ain't me.

BCFG said...

Nope you would never ever get me even thinking of supporting Yvette Cooper and don't get me started on Tom Watson.

So glad that is straightened out!

Denham just labelling himself a leftist is something that demeans all leftists.

Forgive me but wasn't it Denham who first brought up nonsense about it all amounting to a defence of capitalism?! And when pointing out that support for the neo liberal bourgeois institution that is the EU might amount to a defence of capitalism he calls this scurrilous nonsense!!

Yet he thinks he can happily throw those accusations around! Unreal.

Someone really must point out the dotted line between Marxism and the John Bolton pro imperialist politics of Denham!

On and BTW, it is Denham who has misunderstood Marxism, which is why the views he espouses are so despised by most on the left. I think of all the leftist sects the AWL's arch social chauvinism and imperialism was the most repugnant for many leftists.