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).

Thoughts from the election morning after

The 2017 election campaign is now over, after a campaign where the approach taken by the two main parties could not have been more different. It does seem to me that the surprise loss of the Conservative majority shows that the basic alignment of British politics has shifted. Here are the points that came to mind when I began to reflect on the result afterwards.

First it suggests that the hegemony of  neoliberalism may be coming to an end. For the last forty years the economic policies of both main parties have been broadly similar. In 2017 however Labour ran with a manifesto which did not stick to the neoliberal economic script we have come to expect. Instead they promised to tax the affluent, nationalise key industries, and invest in public services even at the cost of higher borrowing. And what’s more it caught the mood of a significant number of voters whose living standards have been eroded by austerity and for whom the Conservative manifesto offered only more of the same. While there are also both ‘tactical’ and ‘process’ reasons for the result, this shouldn’t disguise the fact that the Labour manifesto was both left wing and popular. In future politics will have to accept that it is possible to be popular whilst supporting an alternative economic strategy.

Second, the style of stage managed campaigning which has dominated British politics in recent years was visibly defeated by a Labour campaign based less on repeated soundbites and more on large public rallies. There was a genuine attempt to energise voters around a positive vision of the future, rather than make a limited and technocratic retail offer. The contrast between a Conservative campaign style based on minimising exposure and Labour could not have been more clear. That’s not to suggest that the Labour campaign wasn’t stage managed, but the Lynton Crosby fear-and-soundbite campaign based on speeches in large hangars to small crowds  and minimal risk was soundly beaten. Future election campaigns will undoubtedly be very wary of being portrayed in the negative and risk averse manner of the Conservative campaign of 2017.

Third, the Labour campaign deliberately targeted young voters and appears (admittedly on currently incomplete evidence) to have succeeded in getting them to vote. The challenge for Labour now is to maintain that level of engagement when the reality is that we continue to have a Conservative government, albeit it a weakened one, and that there will not be an immediate and dramatic change. Political parties can no longer assume that elections can be won purely by tending to the needs of older voters. There is at least the possibility that this will bring some significant changes in policy.

I’m sure there are plenty of other points to be made. It was though very noticeable that the Conservatives interviewed on the weekend television politics shows were keen to load all the blame onto May and her campaign, and ignore the possible wider implications for the conventions of politics in Britain. Time will tell.

A short note on Marx as a scientist

Marx’s claim that his work amounted to scientific theory are the one aspect of his thought that has been comprehensively debunked in the time since he wrote. There is no doubt that the idea that Marx uncovered “iron laws” of history akin to the law of gravity is utterly implausible.

And yet.

I’ve been reading “Linked” by Albert-Lazlo Barabasi and reflecting on my reading of “Dance of the Dialectic” by Bertell Ollman about Marx’s method. I can’t help but think that there are similarities between the thought process used by Barabasi in his exploration of networks and the processes used by Marx.

Take for example these excerpts from Barabasi’s book on the science of networks:

By distancing ourselves from the particulars, we glimpsed the universal organising principles behind these complex systems.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 89)

it was clear from the beginning that the topology of real networks was shaped by many effects that we had ignored for the purpose of simplicity and transparency.

(Barabasi 2014, p. 225)

These are very similar to Marx’s method of using abstraction as described by Ollman. Specifically in the first quote Barabasi is describing his use of a ‘level of generality’ type abstraction that enabled him to see the outlines of the overall system that colours the individual parts.

In the second quote Barabasi is describing how using an ‘abstraction of extension’ allowed him to exclude factors which were not directly required in the analysis in question, and therefore see more clearly.

Both these approaches can be seen at work in Marx, most obviously at the beginning of Capital Volume 1 in the chapters on the commodity and money.

I’m also reminded of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” which expresses many of the mechanisms of contradiction and the links between quantity and quality in the process of change which Marx uses in his work on both history and political economy, as well as the impact of vantage point on the development of scientific theory.

Is Marxism a science in the Newtonian sense of a set of laws which rigidly determine outcomes? Definitely not. But perhaps it might be said that Marx is approaching political economy in a scientific way, or at least in a way that has similarities to modern scientific method. And that’s an interesting thought.

Linked, Albert-Lazlo Barabasi, Basic Books New York, 2014.

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

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn, University of Chicago Press London, 2012.