UK electors hang their parliament 2017!

The sun was shining this morning. I woke earlier than usual, made a cup of tea and switched on the TV, expecting to be bored by the election results. After all, I fell out with the Labour Party in 1966 and (short of alternatives) have tended to vote Labour holding my nose ever since. Never more so than during the Blair-Brown years from 1997. In fact, I came close to joining the ranks of the non-voters. I know that anarchists say we shouldn’t vote because it only encourages them – which is amusing but not much help. I do much more understand when people condemned to zero-hour contracts, frozen or non-existent social welfare, threadbare pensions feel neglected by the political class (THEY ARE) and don’t vote. But I vote on class lines, always have, because that is the foundation of my life.

But, I wasn’t bored – well, only by the talking head journalists who couldn’t believe that their own prejudices had been utterly confounded. The wooden PM, Theresa May, had been expected to get at least an increased majority, if not a landslide. In the end, we got a hung parliament – she hasn’t got a majority at all. How does that feel when you were promising ‘strong and stable leadership’ entering negotiations with the European Union to be the first ever country to leave? Whoops! Several Tory ministers will now have to defend wafer thin majorities next time round.

Better still was seeing the pundits confounded by the performance of the unelectable Jeremy Corbyn and his re-vitalised Labour Party, re-focused as not for decades on its core messages. He had barnstormed joyously around the country in a somewhat more restrained but bouncy version of Bernie Sanders, attracting huge crowds wherever he turned up. The big thing was that, finally, the younger voters got out to put their crosses on the ballot papers and made their voices heard. Not loud enough, but getting there. Let us hope they are in it for the long haul and don’t immediately return to walking aimlessly along the street with their heads down, earphones in, checking their Twitter feeds and crashing into lamp posts.

Given my politics, I am not going to get overly excited. I wouldn’t have done that even if Labour had won. But I am chuffed that our very personable local Labour MP massively increased his majority – a nice extra wedding present for him. He is a pretty decent guy, and so is Jeremy Corbyn. I am glad they have been vindicated in sticking as close as they possibly could to their personal convictions. It is at least good to feel some passion is back in British politics, and not in the nasty, xenophobic shape that dominated the Brexit referendum. Yes, there is hope back, little though it may be just yet. There is also some sense of relief that things were perhaps not quite as bad as previously thought.

Sadly, it won’t make much difference to the people on the Meadowell estate in North Tyneside. But they are a resilient lot. Having no other means, they have learned to fend for themselves, collectively, through their own organisation in the community, through decent, neighbourly solidarity. Now that really is worth celebrating. That, in the end, is what will change the world for the better and it has to come from the grassroots, not from the political class. Stop moaning, ORGANISE!

Why I am/am not an anarchist

I first encountered anarchism as a political philosophy in 1966-67 at University, courtesy of a lovely guy, a Jewish pacifist with whom I became friends for a while. On a summer job processing peas one year, I met a guy who was in the Syndicalist Workers’ Federation – between us we even organised a go-slow action at the factory. I picked up a couple of publications on an Easter CND Demo in 1967 and witnessed my first ‘anarchist action’ – if that is what you could call it. On the last part of the march, a bunch of people led by a guy in a black beret and waving red and black flags, moved out of the main body of the march and ran shouting up the outside. I have no idea what they were doing or what happened afterwards; they disappeared without trace. It was funny, but nothing more.

I didn’t really bother with anarchist ideas until I had been through the Stalinist-Trotskyist mill and become thoroughly disillusioned. I picked up again some of those early publications and began to make contact again to explore papers like Freedom and groups and journals around Solidarity. In time, I worked out some sort of muddled philosophy based around a mixture of anarchist and syndicalist ideas, modified by my reading of Cornelius Castoriadis (aka Paul Cardan). At the time, the best outlet for this seemed to be the Anarchist Syndicalist Alliance, which published a paper called Black and Red Outlook. While I was, for a short time, its General Secretary (not as grand as the title sounds) and tried to use this base to reach out to other broadly libertarian socialist groups, this was personally not a good time and I suffered one of my periodic burn-outs. I gave up on everything to do with politics for many years and even disposed of my collection of socialist and anarchist literature.

I have never really returned to anarchism since those days in the early 1970s, though I kept sporadic contact with Solidarity until it eventually disbanded and still have a collection of pamphlets and books from that stable, as well as other broadly ‘councilist’ theorists. I have even bought again some of the books I threw away: principally Kropotkin and Rudolf Rocker. I guess I would more happily, then and now, describe myself as a libertarian socialist in a fairly general sense. I tried for a couple of years to work inside the Socialist Workers’ Party in the 1980s on that basis: doomed to failure against the demands to respect democratic centralism, toe the party line and not argue too violently with visiting regional officers.

During that period, the anarchist movement tended to succumb to various trends that came and went. There was the Punk Rock scene, which featured a lot of overpaid stars using anarchist symbols and rhetoric, peppered with expletives, in order to fill their pockets and delude disaffected youths. There was the ‘animal liberation’ movement’s adoption of what they called ‘direct action’. Later, there was the emergence of the ‘black bloc’ at anti-globalisation protests also using what they called ‘direct action’. None of this was remotely connected to the principled and well-organised use of direct action by syndicalist unions in the past, nor by non-violent dissident groups like the Committee of 100: both of these were part of wider movements and grounded in well thought out ideas, rather than the life-style behaviour of nihilists and anti-humanists who simply came and went.

Sadly, the ‘black bloc’ style of action is still around, generally parasitic on activities organised by trade unions and other movements. It is a pathetic, brain-dead form of protest, generally bringing discredit on the movements with which it is associated, probably heavily infiltrated by police agents and having more in common with the worst forms of jihadism and fascist street thuggery than with the movements they purport to represent. The only effect is usually to bring heavy police action against those who are engaged in peaceful activity, while the perpetrators of the window-smashing and throwing of Molotov cocktails hightail behind their black balaclava face masks like the cowards they really are.

I remain influenced by the ideas of some anarchist thinkers where these are based on class. But, given the idiots out there who profess to be the live movement, excuse me if I don’t call myself an anarchist.

Democracy – is it’s day done?

It may be a dangerous thing to put on line and attract the wrong sort of attention, but I am becoming increasingly convinced that parliamentary democracy is past its sell-by-date. It has historically been part of the development of burgeoning capitalist societies since the late eighteenth century. On the one hand, it is seen as a healthy means of keeping the lower orders in their place by giving them the illusion of ‘control’ over politics – though it has always been grudgingly conceded and is nowadays heavily managed. On the other hand, it is seen as part of a general dialogue connected with liberty, human rights and other conceptual ideals and therefore ‘a good thing’ in itself. However, this seems to be increasingly no longer true.

Particularly during the twentieth century and today, as capitalism has become more and more centralised on a diminishing number of powerful individuals supported by heavily bureaucratised political unions and state institutions, the emphasis on rights and liberties has tended to take second place to the need for unfettered exercise of centralised power, dependent on a façade provided by heavily managed elections. Numerous supposed democracies, whether in post-Soviet nations, the so-called ‘Communist’ nations (really, state capitalist), or in the supposed economic miracle countries of the global south (or their equivalent basket cases), find issues of even the most basic rights and liberties under constant attack. Most recently has emerged the subtle (or not so subtle) management of democracies using electronic media as tools for the manipulation of elections through a wide range of techniques: hacking, leaking, stealing and manipulating data, using algorithms to target individuals, etc. These might be softer than the use of riot police, closing down news outlets, arresting dissidents and so on, but no less effective and potentially chilling.

Against these distortions of democracy, the individual certainly has no power and that is even true of quite large political organisations and campaigns. The periodic pushing of a button or drawing of an illiterate’s mark on a ballot paper is more often than not becoming futile. However, the issue of freedom has not gone away. The disenchanted have a way of sometimes confounding expectations at the voting booth, even if this is often a response to some crude sloganizing by maverick political innovators.

The socialist movement needs to rediscover and reinvent its foundation in the principles of democracy, liberty, freedom of speech and freedom of organisation. It needs to foreground the issue of ‘power to the people’ by grounding it in the locality and the workplace, by making it a face to face phenomenon. It was there in the 1950s and 1960s at the heart of movements on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but we seem to have lost sight of how important that culture was. Healthy debate gave way to a proliferation of centralised organisations often justified by some kind of theoretical underpinning, but based on no more than the personal fiefdom of a self-appointed theorist. If the movement as a whole was dependent on such groups and individuals, socialism would now be dead in the water. But it keeps being rediscovered and reinvented. The incipient desire for freedom never goes away.

So, parliamentary democracy may have had its day and we should not be afraid to condemn it to death, but in its place we should be shouting loudly for a new democracy to replace what is in effect a disguised plutocracy – the rule by the rich for the rich, paid for by the rest of us and supported by passivity.

 

 

Reading Dunayevskaya – Philosophy and Revolution – 2

  1. ‘Part 2: Alternatives’ is a section with which I have little to disagree with (apart from point 3 above). I long ago accepted the idea of ‘state capitalism’, both as a description of Soviet society and as a description of global capitalism in the 20th century. I also rejected the idea of the leadership of a centralised, hierarchical and bureaucratic party (or union, or any other style of organisation). While I enjoyed (and still do) reading Sartre and the other existentialist coterie, I could never take seriously the idea that existentialism offered anything more than an inspiration for the individual flagging in the face of a stifling society when feeling isolated. I do however disagree with RD’s characterisation of existentialism as ‘petit-bourgeois’. I bridle at this cheap class characterisation of any ideas, since it is so redolent of Stalinism and the economic determinist concept of consciousness.
  2. ‘Part 3: Economic Reality and the Dialectics of Liberation’ is for me the most illuminating section of the book. For the first time in reading RD, I find I can recognize myself in what she is describing and analysing. The section covers the ‘noise’ around my early years of political consciousness, as well as events and movements within which I got my first practical experiences: African liberation, Biafra, the Congo, Cuba, the Civil Rights Movement, the East European Revolts and so on. Most especially, I recognize how I responded with excitement to the youth revolts of 1968, the emergence of Black Power and Women’s Liberation (though I am male and white). It was, for me, all about liberation, the prospect of self-development together with others, breaking down barriers, throwing off the shackles. I remember the slogan, ‘Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible’. This all relates back to Part One of the book and its concentration on alienation.

I warm to statements like these: ‘The reality is stifling. The transformation of reality has a dialectic all its own. It demands a unity of the struggles for freedom with a philosophy of liberation. Only then does the elemental revolt release new sensibilities, new passions and new forces – a whole new dimension.’ (p 292) After all, I have experienced this once in my lifetime and seen it happen elsewhere at other times. I hope it happens again soon and a more widespread and consistent level.

But I remain troubled that this book is not helping me to understand why all that excitement of 1968-1973 ran into the sand. Why, over the last decade or more, has the undeniably existing movement not emerged in a new way? What is holding things back? Why does society seem, if anything, to be regressing? Why is the quest for liberation so apparently helpless? Why does RD keep characterising ‘the other’ as ‘petit-bourgeois’ in this book? Isn’t she part of the same grouping as an intellectual theorist?

Reading Dunayevskaya: Philosophy and Revolution – 1

This is an extremely difficult book to read, especially if you have no prior knowledge about Hegel. It is not helped by the rather dense way in which it is written, assuming that the reader can follow the frequent use of undefined terms from Hegel’s writings. I am struck by how abstract and almost mystical is this hunt for connection between Hegel and Marx. I wonder whether I need such abstruse theorising at all in order to understand the world. Do I even need RD? Possibly in parts she is helpful. Marx in Capital is at least readable. Hegel is gobbledegook.

There are passages, when one gets away from this specialised argument, when the book is less dense, more clearly related to human experience and therefore easier to follow. Of course, this rather defeats the argument that understanding Hegel’s Logic is the key to understanding Marx, and in turn, Dunayevskaya’s conception of Marxist-Humanism. I will therefore stick with what I understand and make no attempt to follow the inscrutable. I will take it on trust that RD is honest when she says in relation to Lenin: ‘Naturally his aphorism about none being able to understand the first chapter of Capital who had not understood the whole of the Logic is not to be taken literally[1].’ I have no desire to go through an endless regressive study of philosophy back to the ancient Greeks in order to understand what is going on in my world today.

  1. I responded best to the passages on alienation (e.g. pages 87-88). The point about labour power being a commodity is crucial to understanding the inequalities of capitalist society, legally, culturally and socially, and therefore what is meant by ‘alienation’. This is not a simply economic issue about being separated from the product of our labour. We in the working class are first and foremost human beings, but we can only live if we sell our labour power. Hence, we trade our labour power as a commodity in the same way that we purchase consumer goods as commodities with the money we get from selling our labour power. [Note that some of this purchase is collective via taxation and creates another veil of obscurity.]

Capitalist society says that we are all free and equal – but the need to sell our labour power is absolute and in turn absolutely denies us our freedom as human beings with creative potential. As human beings in free association with others, we would naturally incline to find social and personal ways to secure our well-being and to express our creativity and self-development. We still attempt to do that in capitalist society, but we are constantly thwarted, corralled and thrown back. In capitalism, this desire is channelled into the need to get a job, and therefore to become educated, to develop skills both practical and social to improve our labour power (and increasingly we are also forced to fund this, most notably by higher education students having to take out crippling loans to fund their qualification chase). If there is money to spare after meeting the basic necessities of life, we may also use that to expand our self-development. We may try to become artists or writers, but we are forced to sell this as well, because that is the inexorable logic of capitalism. We purchase our leisure, relaxation, health and free expression as commodities.

Yet, we still retain our basic humanity, because we are still human beings, not labour automatons – hence the sense of alienation that affects us and sometimes drives us mad. It is impossible to be a true human being in capitalist society, even for the capitalists. At all times, at all levels, social relations are reduced to the sale and purchase of commodities. It does not matter if this is bread to survive or our third luxury yacht.

  1. RD asserts the issue of national self-determination as the critical point of disagreement between Lenin on the one hand and Stalin and Trotsky on the other (she doesn’t mention Luxemburg here, who also had distinct views, but that appears in her next book). How is this squared with the Red Army’s invasion of Poland or the role of the Red Army in the Ukraine against Makhno and other regional nationalist groups (1919-1921)? Was this an attempt to substitute war for revolution?
  2. She also goes on to the subject of leadership again, correctly criticising Stalin and Trotsky, but absolving Lenin whose theoretical writings seemed to advocate turning to the masses all the time, implying that the leaderships were always lagging behind. Once again – this does not square with the treatment of the WO, who specifically advocated this approach but were bureaucratically silenced by Lenin! I can accept the idea from experience. The major theoreticians of the New Left in the UK devised their left-reformist May Day Manifesto exactly 50 years ago. The movement that actually emerged the following year blew it away. I witnessed the change on the streets: in 1967 at Easter I attended the annual CND March from Aldermaston to London, which passed off in a good-natured cheerful fashion, keeping to the left-hand side of the road. The following March, we assembled in Trafalgar Square against the Vietnam War and the place was a sea of red flags. As the marchers set off, they immediately occupied both sides of the road and, when we arrived at Grosvenor Square in front of the US Embassy, it was bedlam and our contingent was just in time to witness a hopeless Cossack-style charge by mounted police against the crowds who had taken over the Square. Something other than reformism was in the air (which, of course had fizzled out by the following year).

[1] P&R p 105

Spectres of Revolt

Spectres of Revolt

Just finished reading this book by Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Associate Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Illinois. I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone trying to make sense of what is happening in the world today on a global scale, both the revolts and the reactions, and looking for a way through to a better world. There is one caveat – he doesn’t provide and answer and doesn’t pretend to. You will not find any formula, but he will encourage you to take notice of what is going on in a different way and help you orientate yourself more critically and skilfully, especially if you are more than a little disturbed by the shape that many of the revolts take.

What I have found most refreshing in the book is that he gives an unusually full and broad survey of radical thought from Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, through post-modernist thinkers like Jacques Derrida (Spectres of Marx), providing a whole gamut of sources from which you can go further to make your own critical excursions. He draws attention to often neglected thinkers, from Anton Pannekoek, through Raya Dunayevskaya and Cornelius Castoriadis to Julia Kristeva and George Katsiaficas. The first three were known to me and have each had their influences on me at different times; Kristeva I knew about but had not come across her work on revolt, to which I will now pay attention; Katsiaficas is completely new to me.

As a taster, I include below a ten-point examination of why seemingly pointless revolt speaks clearly, expressing its own philosophy from below. I have abbreviated it, but hopefully not rendered it incomprehensible in the process, but retained its essence. The original comes from pages 245-247. My apologies to the author if I have misrepresented him in any way.

The Logic of Revolt

  1. Revolt is communicative action by means other than words, by means other than text. Revolt articulates questions, criticisms, visions and expresses disaffections.
  2. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the existing state of affairs.
  3. Revolt calls for some other state of affairs that can be imagined. Revolt imagines a state of affairs that does not exist, yet seems both possible and desirable to insurgents.
  4. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against conventional politics and established channels of reform. Revolt emerges in the face of frustrated and failed reform. Or, revolt addresses reformist failure.
  5. Revolt speaks for positions that are marginal or invisible without it. Revolt seeks to eliminate the invisibility and oblivion of its own reasonable context.
  6. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the boredom and acceptance of everyday life by way of their opposites, excitement and rejection. Revolt is an ecstatic refutation of acceptance.
  7. Revolt calls for and enacts the direct experience of autonomy and spontaneity (this acknowledges the prefigurative aspects of the rupture with everyday life.
  8. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks against the separation of theory from praxis… revolt rejects the notion that what makes sense in theory is impractical.
  9. Revolt calls for resolutions of anguish and hope. Revolt is not, in-and-of-itself, a solution to a problem, and yet it conceives of and presents itself as part of resolutions.
  10. Revolt thinks, acts, writes and speaks more desperately and dangerously than in conventional communicative formats, such as textual writing and political speech. Even where revolt wants to be non-violent, it self-consciously risks various forms of violence, and in confronting a quotidian violence, is incapable of promising the absence of violence.

[Abbreviated from, and with apologies to: Richard Gilman-Opalsky, Specters of Revolt: On the Intellect of Insurrection and Philosophy from Below, Repeater Books, London 2016, paperback edition]

 

 

Red Ellen Wilkinson

Just finished reading ‘Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist’, by Laura Beers (Harvard University Press, 2016). Whatever your specific political persuasion, I urge you to read it and to persevere with its 450 pages of extensive detail. This year will be the centenary of her death from an accidental overdose of pills on 6 February 1947, at which time she was the Minister for Education in the Attlee Government and one of the architects of the experiment in social engineering from 1945. She helped create the foundations of the world in which I grew up.

Ellen was born in Manchester on 8 October 1891, not far from the area described by Engels in his ‘Condition of the Working Classes in England’, though in a slightly more upmarket neighbourhood. She became one of a generation of working-class intellectuals imbued with the ideals of socialism, feminism and internationalism. She campaigned for votes for women from an early age, was a dedicated trade union organiser all her life, helped found the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), became a long-serving Labour MP for Middlesbrough East and Jarrow, organised the Jarrow Crusade, campaigned against fascism in the 1930s and on behalf of Republican Spain and helped in the foundation of the UN and UNESCO. She worked tirelessly and this book shows in great detail just how hard that was and how, in the end, it broke her physically. She gave her life for the working classes. If there is to be a statue to her, as has been suggested, it is long overdue and may it replace one of those bronze men on horseback.

I won’t pretend to agree with everything that Ellen stood for, but I salute her intentions and her bravery and the way she fought. Most of us mortals fall well short. What this book illustrates, step by step, and decision by decision, is the way in which the desire for ‘something better now’ can distort the longer aims and divert the most militant among us. Time and time again, Ellen allowed her principles to be set aside in order to get some small measure of vital improvement for working class lives in the immediate present. Her story is an object lesson and an archetype of how staunch and genuine socialists in the Labour Party in the UK gradually triangulate their way to becoming divorced from the working class while purporting to be representing their best interests. For every reform she won, large or small, there was an equal and opposite compromise where she turned against her own principles and blocked the tide.

This is the road that has led via Blair to Brexit, via Clinton and Obama to Trump, via the integration of neo-liberal principles in EU institutions to the rise of a new fascist menace in Europe. It is matched by similar tendencies across the globe. It is to be hoped that this process quickly produces its opposite and superior reaction: a world-wide movement for the liberation of working people from the fetters of globalised Capital. This time: let the working class be its own force for liberation.

Saying that, let me take nothing away from ‘Red Ellen’ – she did what she believed was right in the circumstances of her times. Would that the present-day Labour Party had more MPs and members like her, whatever the limitations of that organisation.