The widest possible movements and hegemonic strategy
Is ‘nationalism’ ever a good thing? To this basic question, I’ve always answered no – and in so doing, I choose to deploy various Marxist theories to justify my answer. First of all, there’s no single nationalism – different parts of society articulate different ideas of what it is to be nationalist. The only way these discourses can be understood as part of the social totality, simultaneously constitutive of it and constituting it, is through the Marxist theory of hegemony, outlined initially by Antonio Gramsci and expanded upon by Raymond Williams.
Transcending earlier theories of Marxism, that formal systems of belief – ideology – were the pure inferences of class interest, hegemony theory does not reduce consciousness to ideology. This is important, since parts of the Left often looks upon certain aspects of nationalism with favour. National traditions, as they exist in popular consciousness, are susceptible to appropriation by the Left since the practices of the past can include oppositional practices as well as those practices related to the dominant class.
Where consciousness is not reduced to ideology, an additional layer of complexity is added to socialist strategy – and it was the contention of people such as Laclau and Mouffe that this additional layer of strategy voided the idea of the proletariat as the universal class. Indeed, ‘post-Marxism’ has aimed to interpret the new ‘subject positions’ as irreducible groups which must be courted as part of a broad electoral strategy – but this steps far outside the notion of hegemony as conceived by Gramsci himself.
The concept of hegemony becomes reduced to electoral strategy. Where we should be thinking about how to overturn the institutions, practices and ideas which sustain these ‘subject positions’, too many socialists of the ‘soft Left’ (as it has traditionally been known) want to think instead how we can ameliorate our own programme to better subsume these subject positions on their own terms. It is from this perspective that I’ve always viewed Compass, and its repudiation of the notion of the working class.
Indeed, in a certain light, the project of the Labour Right from the days of Kinnock to Blair and Brown strongly resemble this description. From Marxism Today to Melanie Phillips, the capitulation of many Leftist theoreticians before capitalism can be explained by this underlying dynamic – a dynamic which is ultimately hostile to the interests of the working class. I am, of course, defining the interests of the working class as being the ultimate overthrow of capitalism – to do anything else would be a repudiation of Marxism.
In so saying, I’m not claiming that the fall of capitalism is inevitable. Nor am I being ‘idealistic’ about the potential of a class conscious working class to finally overcome all opposition and seize power. I am, however, openly stating that these goals are not helped by the Marxist Left seeking coalition and alliance with groups such as Compass. The route of Compass is either that of Melanie Phillips or that of the young Tony Blair; the emasculation of labour’s shock battalions behind a veneer of radicalism.
Supporters of Compass might point to Compass’ support for the CWU over the Royal Mail issue and say that this proves me wrong. I accept that argument, but I’m ever conscious of the positions held by the New Labour clique prior to their accession: support for the FBU, for example. My view on this is reinforced by the opinions repeatedly demonstrated by those who are de facto regarded as the Compass leadership – Cruddas, Trickett and Lawson. Not all of those are merely ‘de facto’ either.
With all this said, then, what attitude should Marxists take towards Compass and the ‘soft’ Left generally? My answer is perhaps coloured by the fact that the ‘soft’ Left, including the large penumbra based around the Socialist Campaign Group at its height, were imbued with radical socialism only in the wild dreams of many activists who just needed to believe. This penumbra would go on to betray socialist members of the Labour Party through witch hunts, and by producing people like Hazel Blears.
Leaving my personal opinion and my tendency towards ad hominem attacks to one side however, the task of properly using hegemonic theory ultimately devolves upon Marxists. If we don’t point out the theoretical weaknesses of Compass, the backsliding, the concessions to capitalism before we’ve even fired a metaphorical shot, then no one will. Insofar as people are the direct representatives of these tendencies, people will bear some criticism, perhaps excusing me some ad hominems, but it is the tactics and theory which are really at fault.
There is room for co-operation, considering that with Compass, the socialist Left has a better chance of being permitted some basic protections of Party democracy. Yet, Marxists – both within and outwith Labour – should first be facing the working class, recruiting new layers and educating them in the course of struggle. This struggle itself overrides the ‘subject positions’ on which the facile argument about electoral strategy depends – arguments which Compassites share with such unlikely groups as the SWP.
The nature of Left factions as member-driven groups means that a face-the-class-first policy will not eradicate an often acrimonious dispute, where Compassites denounce socialist manifestations within Labour as ‘purist’ and those socialists return fire with the label ‘sell-out’. The soft Left will continue to ‘sell out’ and it will continue to see different emphases on tactics and theory as purist opposition to what is ‘achievable’ on the basis of buying into the status-quo, as New Labour did, rather than achieving things in the teeth of the status-quo.
What I want to stress here is that tactics and theory are inextricably linked towards the respective ends of Compass and Marxists – especially since the day to day experience of tactics conditions each of us to adjust our theory and aims. These are different for Compass and Marxists and even while co-operating, it is my view that Marxists must ceaselessly point this out.