Category Archives: Marxism

Class Consciousness and the Party

How and when to form new political parties seems to be very much in the news at the moment. The relationship between the Party and the wider movement has preoccupied Marxist thinking for quite some time too, ranging from the Bolshevik “vanguard” party of committed revolutionaries to the mass membership parties of the Second International.

Underpinning which form of party organisation is considered to be effective are theories of revolutionary class consciousness. The Leninist conception of a vanguard party implies that left to itself a mass membership party will never become radical enough to spontaneously overthrow the status quo in a violent revolution. The solution for Lenin was to create a party at a distance from the working class itself, which could therefore develop a consciousness and commitment to the revolution and provide a lead to the wider working class from “outside” as it were. The vanguard party would be more radical than the working class and when the time came it would provide a lead.

It is this assumption that the party knows better than the workers themselves that forms one basis for the criticism levelled at Lukacs by Kolakowski among others. Lukacs writes about the class consciousness that can be “imputed” to the working class, the consciousness that the workers “ought” to have based on the Marxist analysis of economy and society. To Kolakowski this is an intellectual justification for the repressive Stalinist dictatorship, justifying his chapter title that Lukacs represents “reason in the service of dogma” (Kolakowski 2008 p. 989). Once we accept that the party has access to a a more advanced understanding of the world than the mass of people, then the door is open to repression by a controlling bureaucratic elite.

In the last section of History and Class Consciousness Lukacs tackles in some detail the issue of the relationship of both the party and the Marxist analysis of class consciousness to the wider workers movement. The theory he elaborates is more complex than the simple characterisation above suggests. Lukacs suggests that the relationship between the people and the party should be seen as a dialectic interaction. The party’s development of a Marxist analysis allows it to understand the direction of society but that analysis must always remain connected to the working class as a whole. By inference if the party ceases to maintain this connection, then it is no longer pursuing a Marxist path.

“The Communist Party has no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole, it is distinguished from the rest of the proletariat by the fact that is has a clear understanding of the historical path to be taken by the proletariat as a whole.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.325)

There is a division between the party and the proletariat but the two are and must stay organically connected. Lukacs writes that the class consciousness of the working class is not monolithic, instead ranging across a spectrum based on individual variations in the position within the relations of production (a steelworker in a factory is the not exactly the same as a shop worker, even though they share membership of the working class). What’s more capitalism itself (and specifically reification within capitalism) creates a barrier to the working class becoming self conscious.

“Every worker who is born into capitalist society and grows up under its influence has to acquire by a more or less arduous process a correct understanding of his own class situation.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The existence of a party one step removed from the spontaneous organisations of the working class remains important. Not because it needs to bring leadership to the working class in the way Lenin envisaged, but because it acts at the leading edge of the proletariat, working with the most revolutionary elements and always seeking to advance the thinking of the remainder.

“The Communist Party must exist as an independent organisation so that the proletariat may be able to see its own class consciousness given  historical shape.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.326)

The party must then work to maintain that link between its developed understanding of the aims of the movement and the wider working class movement. The party must make

“a conscious effort to relate the ‘final goal’ to the immediate exigencies of the moment. Thus in the theory of the party the process, the dialectic of class consciousness becomes a dialectic that is consciously deployed.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.328)

Lukacs is absolutely clear that he does not accept the subsequent Stalinist assumption that the Communist Party can itself be a replacement for the working class.

“The Communist Party does not function as a stand-in for the proletariat even in theory.”

(Lukacs 1974 p.327)

So where does the “Independent Group” fit in? Lukacs theorises a party that is organically connected to a class, working at its most radical leading edge while seeking to bring the rest of the class along with it. The Independent Group more closely resembles the party wholly disconnected from a base in society and instead assuming that it knows itself what is best for the people. It seems indeed to assume that it can “function as a stand-in” for the working class while seeking to co-opt them to a fundamentally middle class political agenda (although in truth we don’t as yet really know what they stand for).

My short review of History and Class Consciousness is here, and some thoughts along similar lines based on Fredric Jameson’s rehabilitation of Lukacs in “Valences of the Dialectic” are here.

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, New York, 2008)

Lukacs, Georgy History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, London, 1974)

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Jameson on Lukacs

In his monumental work “Main Currents of Marxism” Leszek Kolakowski is highly critical of Lukacs, titling his chapter on him “Reason in the Service of Dogma”. Kolakowski claims that Lukacs showed how Marx’s philosophy “could be used to justify the self-glorification of Communist bureaucracies” (Kolakowski 2008, p. 1031).

“Lukacs is perhaps the most striking example in the twentieth century of what may be called the betrayal of reason by those whose profession is to use and defend it.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p. 1032)

Simply put, Kolakowski holds that Lukacs is interesting for the way he brings forward the Hegelian background to Marx’s thought, in particular with his thinking on reification and totality. However by treating the Communist Party, as the sole arbiter of what the working class ‘ought’ to believe, with those who refuse to believe labelled as subject to false or “imputed” consciousness, Lukacs lends philosophical credence to the Stalinist dictatorship.

In “Valences of the Dialectic” Fredric Jameson seeks a rehabilitation of Lukacs. Jameson acknowledges that Lukacs argues for the priority of the category of social class over other analytical categories, for example in modern politics the categories of ‘identify politics’ such as gender and race. For Lukacs social class is the driver of history, and the working class have a particular role under capitalism as a progressive force. This indeed implies (as highlighted by Kolakowski) that the working class ‘ought’ to be revolutionary, and that if they aren’t we are left struggling to understand why not. What then can Lukacs mean in his analysis of working class consciousness and the role of the party?

Jameson takes a different approach, drawing a connection to “feminist standpoint theory“, a subsequent theory which builds on Lukacs, Hegel, and Marx. The social location of an agent “plays a role in forming what we know and limiting what we are able to know” (Bowell). The social relations that underpin capitalism condition how people in different classes understand reality, and open up the possibility of revolutionary consciousness.

In other words, the idea of a single collective proletarian world view guarded by the revolutionary vanguard party is a myth, but the daily working practice of people does inflect how they see the world. How an industrial factory worker perceives the world will be different from how a peasant or shopkeeper perceives it (Jameson 2009, p. 217 referencing Sartre). From this starting point we can see that the viewpoint of the structural situation of the working class

“makes it unavoidable for that group to see and to know, features of the world that remain obscure, invisible, or merely occasional and secondary for other groups.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 215)

Reification – the turning of social relations between people into ‘objective’ relations between things – is then the key barrier which stands in the way of this revolutionary consciousness being realised. It imposes patterns of thought founded in the commodity relation onto knowledge, and the goal of theory is to allow us to see through the reified structures to the reality underneath.

Jameson relates this to the work of Thomas S Kuhn  who in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” describes the mechanisms of scientific progress in very similar terms. The practice of individual scientists operates within a socially conditioned epistemological framework which is only broken in traumatic ruptures following an accumulation of anomalies which the old framework can no longer account for. When this happens the outcome is a ‘paradigm shift’ that dramatically changes how we see the world.

Jameson’s short chapter on Lukacs makes sense of his writing on class consciousness and fits it into a wider framework of socially conditioned knowledge which extends beyond the Marxist tradition. Kolakowski’s criticism retains it’s insight in light of the Soviet experience, and Lukacs well known subsequent self criticism and support for Stalinism supports this. But for me he remains a thinker worth engaging with.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (Norton, New York, 2008)

Kuhn, Thomas S The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012)

Bowell, T Feminist Standpoint Theory (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Modern Capitalism, Sublation, and Corbyn

I have found the Hegelian side of Marxism fascinating for some time now, since coming across Lukacs at university. I don’t think you can truly get to grips with Marx’s analysis without some understanding of dialectics.

One of the things I find powerful about dialectics is how it approaches change, the processes by which things develop. “Sublation” is one of the key concepts which underpins this analysis of change. As things (concepts, theories) change they are gradually negated, turn into their ‘antithesis’, until at the point of change a new ‘synthesis’ appears. Crucially, this new synthesis does not simply replace its predecessor, it subsumes it. The new wholly contains the old, grows from it, can only be understood by looking both back at what came before, and by extension forward to what it will become (something I’ve written about before).

Marx also uses this idea of sublation, particularly when describing the conflict that grows between the developing relations of production and a society built on top of economic mechanisms that are being superseded. The concept runs throughout the Communist Manifesto and is stated in the simplest fashion in the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

(Marx 1971 p.21)

Fredric Jameson makes a similar point in a number of the essays included in “Valences of the Dialectic“. Counter-intuitively he uses Walmart as an example of a company which, paradoxically, has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and the market, providing the necessities of life to an increasingly impoverished public which is incapable of exercising political control (Jameson 2009 p. 422). Jameson makes a connection to Marx’s admiration for the progressive power of capitalism, evident in section 1 of the Communist Manifesto.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part… wherever it has got the upper hand [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

(Marx 2010 p.23)

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of the instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.”

(Marx 2010 p.26)

Walmart then, for all its exploitative nature within capitalism, is a phenomenon we must ‘sublate’ and overcome rather than trying to pretend that it (and all the other features of ‘postmodern’ capitalism) never happened. Socialism can only be something that develops out of the existing state of capitalism, that subsumes and exceeds where we are now. The ‘postmodern’ age of capitalism with its global reach and advanced communication systems provides the foundation on which the future needs to be built.

“The challenge remains… to try to think a beyond of late capitalism which does not imply a regression to earlier, simpler stages of social development but which posits a future already latent in the present, as Marx did for the capitalism of his day.”

(Jameson 2009 p.408)

This is an analysis which is quite close in principle to the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” promoted by some on the modern left.

As Jameson points out, what this also implies is that Marxism is not a static solution to which we can endlessly “return”. It is a method and means of analysis based on capitalism itself. As capitalism changes, the analysis of its contradictions and instabilities needs to develop, developing and building on the foundational analysis by Marx.

“Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalism’s historical originality… a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself.”

(Jameson 2009 p.409)

So what is the link to Corbyn? One common criticism of Corbyn is that his agenda is based on the Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Much of this is commentary is plainly scaremongering with a liberal or status quo standpoint. That said I do worry that one strand of the Corbyn ‘project’ is about protecting and defending past victories (or reversing past defeats) rather than seeking to ‘sublate’ capitalism and replace it with something truly radical. Corbyn might be seen as the last social democrat, not the dangerous subversive he is often made out to be.

To put it another way I think that rather than being a dangerous radical, I believe Corbyn isn’t being radical enough.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage Books, London, 2010)

Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Reforming Capitalism

Coming back to reading Slavoj Zizek after a break is always an interesting experience. I picked up “The Year of Dreaming Dangerously” in the Verso end of year sale and it is the usual eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary.

In this book he picks up themes developed from an analysis of a range of protest movements in 2010 and 2011 from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. One thing he specifically challenges is the desire sometimes heard in response to these protests to ‘democratise’ capitalism, to bring it under the control of the rational liberal state.

“There is no lack of anti-capitalist sentiment today… What as a rule goes unquestioned… is the democratic-liberal framework as a means of fighting against these excesses.”

(Zizek 2012, p.86)

A common assumption is that what is missing from the Occupy movement is a political programme. Something that can be fitted into the democratic system and voted for. That somehow the system can be made better if we all just want it to change a little more. That the unfocused nature of the protest is part of the problem.

But we are now at the end of the last attempt to make capitalism ‘nicer’. Under pressure from the collective effort required to defeat fascism and from a seemingly triumphant Soviet communism a number of concessions were made to the working class. Britain saw the creation of the National Health Service and the construction of a welfare state to provide support “from cradle to grave”. These concessions have been under sustained assault since the late 1970s, gradually dismantled in the name of ensuring that the economy remains ‘competitive’.

Perhaps the search for ways to mitigate the worst impacts of capitalism on the “99%” or “ordinary working people” is doomed to failure from the start.

“we should read the ongoing dismantling of the Welfare State not as the betrayal of a noble idea, but as a failure that retroactively enables us to discern a fatal flaw of the very notion of the Welfare State.”

(Zizek 2012, p.15)

In other words that creating a welfare state and leaving capitalist relations in place is at best a short term solution. Capitalist economics will only tolerate its creation when under pressure, will perceive it as a barrier to profit making throughout, and will move quickly to its destruction when it can.

In fact, the liberal state cannot respond to anti-capitalist protest in a way which addresses the root causes of the problem. Democracy has proved to be “impotent in the face of the destructive consequences of economic life.” (Zizek 2012, p.88). We must look outside the existing system for a solution. Occupy Wall Street’s role according to this view is to open up a space for the existing system to be challenged, and as such it does not need to present a programme. But there remains work to be done to transform the energy of protest into transformative change.

“what is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist response to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

(Zizek 2012, p.133)

What this implies then is that the Corbyn project is misguided. We cannot realistically defend past victories or rebuild a mythical golden age of social democratic capitalism. We need to be much more radical than that.

“It is the ‘democratic illusion’, the acceptance of democratic procedures as the sole framework for any possible change, that blocks any radical transformation of capitalist relations.”

(Zizek 2012, p.87)

What is at risk is that all Corbyn will achieve is to harness a youthful and energetic protest movement to the next failed attempt to make capitalism nicer.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Overdetermination

Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.

My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.

In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:

“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)

My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.

Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are

“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)

This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:

“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)

This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.

Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.

To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.

After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (W W Norton & Company, London, 2008)