Author Archives: 4harrisons

Review: The First International and After

The final volume in the set of three covering Marx’s “political” writings published by Verso, this covers the period of the First International. Similar to the first two volumes this shows Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day. Although this means that many of the articles included in the book cover quite specific topics – and therefore might seem somewhat limited in more general interest – in fact they show Marx as anything but the doctrinaire ideologue he is often portrayed to have been. Instead it shows him carefully managing the various sectional interests in order to maintain a coherent programme across the movement.

In particular Marx insists on the need to maintain a revolutionary goal. Whatever tactics are suitable to the situation at hand, the working class movement must not lose sight of the need to overthrow the existing system and replace it with something else in the end.

Marx’s argument with Bakunin during the revolution is an interesting follow on, making it clear that Marx believed that a political programme is a necessary part of a revolutionary movement. It is not sufficient to pursue a purely ‘economic’ agenda looking to improve working conditions. The movement must remain engaged with the political struggle too.

This is complimented by the other section which is particularly interesting which includes “The Civil War in France”, Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune. This covers some of his most specific statements on the subject of the state, what a “dictatorship of the proletariat” might mean in practice, how the working class might go about dismantling the capitalist state, and what might come afterwards in practice.

All this means that it is a volume with a great deal of relevance to the modern left wing and is worth reading for the intersection it presents between the building of an engaged daily working class movement on top of a strong foundation in an economic analysis of capitalism and the state.

Marx and the state

I wrote about some of the tactical points brought out in the articles in the third volume of Marx’s political writing published by Verso in an earlier post. The other important work of Marx’s in this book is “The Civil War in France” where he analyses the Paris Commune, Europe’s most significant revolutionary event since 1848. The seizure of power by the Paris workers prompts Marx to think about the nature of the state, the impact of its seizure by the working class, and the nature of state power after the revolution.

For Marx the structure of the state is inherently connected to the nature of the economic system on which it is based. So in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” he says:

“…the various states… have this in common, they all stand on the ground of modern bourgeois society although the degree of capitalist development varies.”

(Marx 2010, p. 355)

And in “The Civil War in France”:

“[the state’s] political character changed simultaneously with the economic changes of society.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

However Marx’s attitude to this capitalist state seems deeply ambiguous. On the one hand while Marx portrays the make up of the state as being broadly determined by developments in the wider society and economy, he also gives the impression that it is separate from it with an element of independence. It is not simply the tool of the ruling class. Characterising the state of the French late Second Empire he says:

“it was the only form of government possible when the bourgeoisie had already lost, and the working class had not yet acquired, the faculty of ruling the nation.”

(Marx 2010, p. 208)

In other words implying that it is an independent ruling entity dominated by a ruling class perhaps, but not an organic part of that ruling class. It is therefore a mechanism that the working class could perhaps take over and operate for its own purposes.

On the other hand, he is clear that the state is something that must be overcome by the revolution and is not simply a set of mechanical levers that can be taken over and operated by the working class:

“…the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”

(Marx 2010, p. 206)

And of the specific progression of the Second Empire:

“the state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of class despotism.”

(Marx 2010, p. 207)

Marx outlines how the Paris Commune represents a clear break and a separate form to the bourgeois state of the Second Empire. A “working body” where the representatives were revocable and paid workers’ wages and supported by a National Guard of the people rather than a professional army. By constituting a new structure outside the existing state the Commune represented an opportunity for truly revolutionary change.

“It was essentially a working class government, the produce of the struggle of the producing against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour.”

(Marx 2010, p. 212)

“The Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundations upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”


(Marx 2010, p. 212)

Here Marx seems to be saying that the state is not an independent entity to be taken over by the working class movement and used for its own purposes. Instead the existing state is inextricably linked to the domination of the capitalist class, and therefore rather to be wholly overthrown and replaced by a new and separate structure.

This is crucially important for deciding the strategy of a movement aiming at the fundamental transformation of society. Should it work within the existing ‘rules of the game’ or seek to subvert them? In “The Civil War in France” Marx is writing about a specific contemporary event rather than outlining theory and this obviously colours his approach, but well worth studying for all that.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Thoughts on Marx and tactics

The final book in the three volume collection of Marx’s ‘political’ writings “The First International and After” covers the later period from the First International onward. It contains pamphlets and articles written for the International, letters and a range of other short documents and journalistic work. They show Marx grappling with the tactical issues of the day, many of which remain relevant, in particular on the relationship of different ‘progressive’ groupings in the state and politics.

The English Trades Unions formed a significant part of the International, and yet in the “Inaugural Address” Marx is clear that it is not sufficient to simply pursue the short term interest of the working class within the existing system through improvements in working hours and wages. These are ‘economic’ goals which are important, but should be subordinate to the movement’s longer term goals.

To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes.

(Marx 2010, p.80).

In other words revolution – a fundamental change to the system – remains the overarching goal of any genuine movement of the left. Marx makes a similar point from a different angle when discussing the co-operative movement in the “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress”. Co-operative production allows workers to begin developing economic mechanisms which undermine the root of capitalism.

We recommend to the working men to embark in cooperative production rather than in cooperative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(Marx 2010, p.90)

In other words overturning the system is the key aim of the working class movement, and that requires both economic and political action with a focus on the long term.

This isn’t the whole story though. Later in the same “Instructions for Delegates to the Geneva Congress” Marx proposes a specific programme starting with a demand for limitations on the working day. So Marx is maintaining both a general overall strategy (the importance of political revolution as the ultimate goal) along with a specific tactical programme for immediate action (improving the lives of workers through ‘economic’ measures).

The “Prussian Military Question” similarly focuses on the tactical position of the German workers, whether to support the bourgeois parties in opposition to the aristocratic and feudal state over the issue of changes to military service.

It is in the interests of the workers, therefore, to support the bourgeoisie in its struggle against all reactionary elements, on condition that it remain true to itself.

(Marx 2010, p.144)

The workers can form tactical alliances to pursue short term goals, but must retain a focus on its long term interest – the overthrow of capitalism itself.

Marx indicates a similar dual role for Trades Unions as part of the movement. Rather than viewing Trades Unions as focused primarily on the economic or ‘tactical’ and working within the existing system, Marx points out that they fight both the immediate struggle and have a role in preparing the ground for fundamental change.

If the trades unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wage labour and capital rule.

(Marx 2010, p.91)

However at present, the unions are “too exclusively bent upon the local and immediate struggles with capital” (Marx 2010, p.91).

It is interesting for thinking about this combination of short term and long term goals for the movement that Marx characterises England as being ready economically for revolution, but needing a truly revolutionary movement to take advantage of it (something it hasn’t managed to do in the years since either).

The English have all that is needed materially for social revolution. What they lack is the sense of generalization and revolutionary passion.

(Marx 2010, p.116)

This implies that Marx certainly did not believe that the revolution would happen ‘naturally’ as working class consciousness developed. In other words there is no historically determined inevitability to the revolution, ‘reformism’ is a blind alley. In pursuing short term goals, the left must keep the long term vision in mind, still something that it seems to struggle with (in Britain at least) where working within the system too often seems to have led to a failure to pursue substantive change.

Marx, Karl The First International and After (Verso, London, 2010)

Review: The Philosophy of Marx

The Philosophy of Marx
The Philosophy of Marx by Étienne Balibar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a useful discussion of some aspects of Marx as a philosopher from a leading French academic on the subject. It isn’t I think however a comprehensive dissection of Marx’s philosophy. Nor is it an elementary introduction for someone who has no background in Marx’s thinking. It is a book which is probably best suited to someone who already has an understanding of the basics and is looking for a more in depth analysis of the philosophical elements of Marx, including how they impact his approach to politics, history, and economics.

There are some very insightful sections. In particular that on Time and Progress. This covers Marx’s use of dialectics and how a sense of motion pervades his thinking. Materialism for Marx is not something based on independent static material objects interacting with each through external links. Rather it is a question of dynamic processes organically linked together as an inherent part of their make up. There is a sense of progress in history, but rather than towards on ontological end point it is driven by the conflict of opposing forces. Nothing is predetermined.

Balibar proposes that there isn’t truly either a single consistent “philosophy of Marx” nor a “Marxist philosophy” which forms a unified whole with it. His analysis takes an approach similar to Althusser in reviewing the Marx’s writings themselves and showing the development in his thought. Balibar is less determined than Althusser to identify a single “epistemological break”, focusing rather on the process of growth and change.

The language is detailed and often unfortunately opaque. The need for a basic introduction to Marx’s thinking is probably better served by the first volume of Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism”, while Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” is a good introduction to key concepts such as abstraction and contradiction.

Nevertheless this is a useful and interesting book from a key figure in the development of the structuralist study of Marx.

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Corbyn and the crowd

In “Crowds and Party” Jodi Dean unpicks the nature of individualism and the impact of crowds in modern ‘communicative’ capitalism. I’ve written briefly about individualism in an earlier post and here I want to make a brief additional note about what Dean writes about crowds, and in particular draw a link from that to the recent British general election campaign.

Dean takes a psychoanalytical approach to understanding crowds using the work of Freud and Lacan among others. The key point here is that a crowd can create a rupture in the status quo. A point through which it is possible to see that things might be different than how they are now. Crowds are able to force a gap which can be held open and form a focus for politics – and a radical party of the left can keep that gap open and use the energy of the crowd to drive for systemic change.

The Labour Party campaign during the recent general election was certainly based on large rallies which brought together crowds of supporters. This was in marked contrast to Conservative Party events held in anonymous hangars to prevent anyone not invited from gaining access. These Labour events were visibly full of energy and passion. Corbyn is a strong speaker to a crowd, and the result was a sense of momentum and enthusiasm not seen in British politics for a while.

Add to this the decline in the influence of the traditional print and television media dependent on the party press office machinery, and the increasing influence of social media and the ‘peer to peer’ spread of news, and the ‘crowd’ seems to have had a profound effect. It created an opening for the prevailing view on the necessity of ‘austerity’ to be challenged. Unforeseen by most media commentators, the Labour Party was able to use this moment to secure a better election result than expected. More importantly they have changed the terms of debate. The Conservatives may have won formally, but they are now having to bend their government to the issues mobilised during the campaign.

In other words, what we are seeing now with Jeremy Corbyn is something which might be thought of as approaching an Event in the sense used by Alain Badiou – a concept also touched on by Dean briefly. The question now would seem to be whether beyond the confines of the election campaign Corbyn and Labour can keep the gap opened by the intrusion of the crowd open in the way described by Dean, and drive home the progressive shift it has started.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London, 2016)

Review: Crowds and Party

Crowds and Party
Crowds and Party by Jodi Dean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A philosophical analysis of the state of modern left politics after the demise of strong parties of the left following the fall of the Soviet Union. This is a superb critique of the long term impact of the capitulation of the left during the early nineties, and should be essential reading for the Occupy generation.

Dean’s analysis is superb, grounded in Zizek, Badiou, and Lacan she unpicks the dissolution of progressive movements into decentralised individualism under the pressure of neoliberals – or what she calls “communicative” capitalism, a capitalism built on individuals connected by powerful and pervasive communication networks. Dean starts with the nature of individualism, it’s importance to modern capitalism. She analyses how the values of personalisation and decentralisation have also been taken on by the modern left with it’s focus on identity.

Dean moves on to the dynamics of crowds, how the crowd creates a rupture in society, the possibility of dramatic and systemic change. However this energy is impermanent, with a tendency to dissipate. It needs the organisation and discipline of a left party to hold that rupture open and take the opportunity available to deliver anything other than transient anger. She also discusses how “the people” and the party interact, using psycho-analytical principles to bring out the influence of leaders and the possibility of a tendency to bureaucratisation.

If there is a weakness it is that in the final section she does not offer a convincing programme for rebuilding or recreating strong parties of the left. If she has made the analytical and philosophical case demonstrating the need for such parties – and I believe she has – she does not then move on to explain how the existing “horizontal” movements can be turned into more comprehensive parties which do not then turn into the bureaucratic monoliths detached from “the people” that was the fate of the Soviet Union and other communist states in the twentieth century.

The book is also sometimes difficult reading, Dean is obviously influence by Zizek in style (without his cultural eclecticism). It is though well worth the effort, and a great philosophical companion to “Inventing the Future” on the need for an organised modern progressive left.

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Individualism and the left

“Aggregation… is decentralisation’s paradoxical partner.”

The quote comes from page 11 of Jodi Dean‘s “Crowds and Party” (Dean 2016) paraphrasing the writer James Surowiecki, as part of a discussion of the nature of individualism under modern capitalism.

What Dean  demonstrates is that modern consumer capitalism has a dialectical relationship with ‘the people’ . On the one hand Dean’s analysis makes clear that neoliberalism has done everything it can to separate us from each other, to ensure we remain individuals. Some of this effort is well known such as the assault on unionisation that has taken place since the 1970s, epitomised by the miner’s strike in the mid-80s and leading to a long term decline in unionisation. Just as important though is the progressive ‘individualisation’ of culture and society which has colonised the space vacated by these broken collective structures. We need to be kept separated to ensure the security of the system from collective action.

Capitalism relies on our separation from one another so it does its best to separate and individuate us at every turn.

(Dean 2016, p. 188)

And yet aggregated data collected from large numbers of people is increasingly important to the efficient working of the consumer economy. From Tesco to Amazon understanding how people act in mass is the key to how business operates. The drive to individualise also forms an important component of demand.

Individuality is communicative capitalism’s primary value. We are told that each of us is unique, and enjoined to amplify, advertise, and accelerate this uniqueness. Our media is personalized, and we are encouraged to personalize it even more, for example, with apps and mobile phone cases that meet our singular needs and express our singular brands. Those looking for work are advised to make themselves stand out from the crowd, to distinguish themselves from others by offering that special something that will catch an employer’s eye. Capital accumulation depends on cultivating and monetizing the new and different.

(Dean 2016, p. 140)

The modern world requires us to be both entirely separated individuals acting wholly alone, but also needs to understand how we act together to ensure that the market can operate efficiently. The logical conclusion is that the modern left needs to regain the ability to pursue collective action, to challenge the neoliberal disaggregation of us all into merely an assembly of individuals. To become what Dean calls – in a presumably conscious echo of Zizek’s Less Than Nothing – “more than many” (Dean 2016 p. 166).

What is striking about the rise of Jeremy Corbyn during the 2017 general election campaign is that he seems able to do almost exactly that. To make us feel like a crowd again, rather than merely a collection of individuals.

Dean, Jodi Crowds and Party (Verso, London 2016).