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Hegemonic uncertainties and Hobsbawm’s Unmarxism

One striking thing about the current crisis is the inability even of seasoned economists to surely predict what’s going to happen next. Waking up last Saturday to News Briefing on Radio 4, I was struck by the tone of the commentary. The G20 protests and summit had been ongoing the previous two days and yet no one was willing to say if the agreements of the summit would actually ‘fix’ the global economy. Such a contrast to the constant repetitions of the idea that ‘socialism is dead’!

When I hear this, I always feel moved to ask, “How do you know?” When the finest proponents of capitalism are showing doubt and disagreement as to how we emerge from this simple crisis of capitalism, how is it that so many untutored minds can readily dismiss the idea of socialism? The issue is very much in doubt, I would contend. Moreover, as Goran Therborn drives home to me, state-planning is far from absent from the world economy and national states themselves have far from receded from view, even relative to the income of multi-national enterprises.

Even such limited objectives as the rebuilding and restructuring of welfare initiatives are not, therefore, excluded.

Our side are just as bad, of course. Eric Hobsbawm writes this morning for the Guardian under the title, “Socialism has failed. Now capitalism is bankrupt…” Hyperbole aside, one would have thought that Hobsbawm, considered one of the world’s greatest historians (not by me!), could have come up with something better – though the politically illiterate follow close behind him. The article itself, while better constructed in certain ways than his Age of Extremes, continues to prove that Hobsbawm has long since ceased to be anything resembling a Marxist.

His eminence declares that, “We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan.” A lot of people on the Left have been talking like this, as though somehow, magically, a new consensus will emerge to challenge the old, one that will bring about the end of free-market capitalism in its current form, or as though economic stimulus packages are a return to the heyday of welfarism.

This failure to pay due regard to the processes of capitalism, rather than capitalism ‘the idea’, is unmarxist. There is certainly a clear economic impetus towards change, but what sort of change? Will it be a change forced by a reorganised, re-energised labour movement, or will it be the change determined by world leaders, increasing rather than decreasing the tempo of the free-market capitalist project? I submit that, for now at least, it is going to be the second option and that Hobsbawm is therefore wrong in every particular.

Capitalism, the series of complementary processes, is subject to its own internal dynamics and is subject to human action. That human action takes place within the co-ordinates of an inescapable class struggle. The participants might not choose to recognize it, or may choose to deploy fancy Weberian or Foucauldian terminology to obscure the key fissure, but nevertheless, it will be human action in the form of class struggle (or, by virtue of renewed hegemony, class consensus) which determines the direction of capitalism.

Nor, whatever happens, is the process irreversible. It does not take an expert in Kondratiev wave theory to suggest that periodic ‘collapses’ of capitalism are both necessary and healthy from the point of view of the capitalist economic system as a whole (rather than from the point of view of any single participant). Nor does it take an expert historian of the labour movement to see that we encourage far too much psychological investment in booms and collapses, a factor in post-Depression complacency and post-Soviet despondency.

Hobsbawm completes his article with a passionate exposition of the need for a ‘progressive’ agenda, outlining why affluence can never be an end in itself, when regarded from the perspective of the working class (though Hobsbawm would not be so vulgar, any longer, to invest that term with its proper significance!). I agree completely with his battle-standard raising on education, living conditions, decent jobs and the need for collective action, but I cannot condone the absence of some practical suggestions.

It is irony itself, that a man so dismissive of nationalism should be reduced to appealing to an undifferentiated ‘people’, mystifying that concept in exactly the same way that nationalists mystify the concept of ‘the nation’. Of course, we can expect nothing less from a merchant who peddled theories of the strange death of the working class; denuded of his marxism, Hobsbawm cannot see whereabouts human action can be most decisively aimed to stymie the ruling class agenda, at the present time.

I can’t claim to know either, but I can make a few suggestions. Having faced the stark reality of more than a decade of globalisation, it should be well within the understanding of even the most basic worker that the instruments of socialist representation and organisation can no longer be constrained by national boundaries. When French truckers go on strike, British ports must refuse to handle French imports. When German car manufacturers go on strike, their lower paid brethren in Poland must follow suit.

Only by building networks towards this goal will we begin to reassert the social weight of the labour movement. It’s also easy to start small; Ireland and the north of France are pretty close by. French railway workers, especially in the heavy industrial branch, go on strike not irregularly – and our own RMT are currently involved both in actual strikes and in further ballots. It is time to work together, seeing past the white cliffs of Dover and beyond the straits of Holyhead.

We get so many speakers from Venezuela and other more exotic locations, and yet solidarity action at such a distance has a very limited record. Meanwhile, the speakers who come over from France or Germany, whilst given equal billing and accorded every hearing, are preaching to merely choirs of true-believer Trotskyist sects, because that’s the only type to turn up at public meetings organised by the (former) Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and their British comrades, instead of liaising with the unions to actually pull together a real meeting.

With, like, dissenters and everything. This is the beginning of the path we need to tread. The G20 protests were a success, in that they categorically and once again exposed the police as little more than the armed barbarians of the State. Whether individually they’d prefer to spend time with their family or over a cold beer, while behind those masks they are the prison guards of a free people. It’s time, for once, to actually capitalise upon success, while the social issues of capitalism are still hot-button topics.

The alternative is that, like the anti-war movement, the fact of the march itself is seen as a success to be emulated and repeated constantly, until finally bereft of all but the most hardcore and the least in need of convincing by pamphlet or argument.

  1. April 10, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    I was going to blog on this! But seeing as you’ve done such a thorough job I’ll have to find another topic instead, grrr!

    Good post. Like so many left wing intellectuals (by that I mean academics and policy wonks) Hobsbawm completely disassembles when it comes to the issue of ‘what is to be done’. It might be old fashioned, but the labour movement remains a mass political force – any ‘left’ solution to the crisis without this at its heart is doomed to irrelevance.

  2. robert
    April 11, 2009 at 9:04 am

    People are socialist not parties, as we can see with New labour. I have wor

  3. April 11, 2009 at 9:16 am

    Dave, an excellent piece, up there with your very best for range but concision (or is that conciseness?), and coherence of flow from detailed assessment to reasoned exhortation.

    In relation to Phil’s point, I happened upon Ralph Miliband, 1985 version:

    ‘The primacy of organized labour in struggle arises from the fact that no other group, movement or force in capitalist society is remotely capably of mounting an effective and formidable challenge to the existing structures of power and privilege as it is in the power of organized labour to mount. In no way is this to say that movements of women’s, blacks, peace activists, ecologists gays, and others are not important, or cannot have effect, or that they ought to surrender their separate identity. Not at all. It is only to say that the principal (not the only) ‘grave-digger’of capitalism remains the organized working class. Here is the necessary, indispensable ‘agency of historical change’. and if, as one is constantly told is the case, the organised working class will refuse to do the job, the the job will not be done; and capitalist society will continue, generation after generation, as a conflict-ridden, growingly authoritarian and brutalized social system, poisoned by its inability to make humane and rational use of the immmense resources capitalism itself has brought into being – unless of course the world is pushed into nuclear war.’
    (New Left Review, 1985)

    A good summary I thought.

    Your thoughts on ‘starting small’ are interesting from a Labour party perspective, given th all but total divorce between anything remotely connected with trade unionism and local Labour parties at the moment.

    In my local Council, where 70 jobs are going (by ‘wastage’ for the most part, but still jobs), the branch secretary doing her best around the retention of terms and conditions seemed genuinely surprised when – a couple of years ago when I became a councillor – I tried to get them engaged with the Labour group of councillors to see what support might be offered etc.. She simply no longer saw any connection, no point in engaging with the Labour party (in fact I’d argue the more relevant point of engagement should be the CLP, then instructing the Labour group how to act in solidarity, but this is even less likely just now).

    No answers here, no conclusions even….

  4. April 11, 2009 at 9:59 am

    As I think has been argued a number of times on this blog – with LRC members mostly – I’m not entirely sure the Labour Party retains either the credibility as a whole (not a terminal issue) or a critical mass of activists (definitely terminal) necessary to hook up with the trades unions even on a small scale.

    I’m much more hopeful about the potential of small groups under the banner of the Convention of the Left, or even allied to/part of the Socialist Party. We can’t continue to build links towards specific goals, whilst continually having to apologize for our leadership. Mass consciousness can be built – but it can’t sustain the contradiction of the Labour Party any longer, I think.

    The contradiction has become too acute.

  5. April 11, 2009 at 11:16 am

    I know that you don’t just think you have argued the credibility of the Labour party, but that you know you have, and that you are just saying you think you have because you think I have not paid enough attention what you think.

    Well I think I have paid pretty full attention to what you think, especially in relation to the debates between Ms Press and Duncan and others and yourself, so don’t think you can go patronising me with your ‘I think this’ and ‘I think that; my anticipation that you might think it would be good to respond as you have is precisely the reason for the ending my own contribution in the way I sought fit to, by implicitly and indeed elliptically acknowledging what you think, and I think you have paid insufficient attention to the way I think.

    When you have apologised to me in grovelling knee-bent form for thinking I don’t know at least a little of what youu think, and not thinking about the way I think, I will think about giving you some of my thinking on the relationship between what’s left of the left in Labour and the wider left.

    At least I think so, as I have become rather confused as to what I think.

  6. April 11, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Well, quite. I do apologise for thinking.

  7. April 12, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Well that’s ok, then. Apology accepted.

    Anyway, on the less serious issue of the whether the Labour party can ever connect with labour again, yes, I fear you may be right, but the key issue is the most obvious one – we just don’t know. For myself, while I’m happy to do what I can in support of the CoL or whatever, I prefer for the moment at least to stay within the party as long as there is any hope of a move towards engagement with the interests of organised labour.

    Assuming the Conservatives do come into power next year, there will be some scope for general move leftwards in the party, though I’ll acknowledge that this is unlikely to be anything other than a move towards an acceptance of wishy-washy Compassdom in the short term. It’s easy to forget (though I’m sure you don’t)that the last time Labour was dumped out of government, Benn very nearly did become deputy leader, and while I’m not suggesting for one moment that a similar leadership battle, this time won by Cruddas of whoever, would of itself move the Labour left closer to a goal of reuniting with organised Labour, it might be part of a broader and more welcome swing/change of mood in the Labour party at large. While there’s any hope of that, it’s worth some of as least hanging in there, because it would be a shame to toss away 100 years of party infrastructure and (often very local) traditions and institutions.

    Of course, this waiting game can only go on so long, and I respect the people who have decided that enough is enough already’ as I’ve said, they (you) may well be right. I’ll have to trust myself to know when the right time for me to go is if that time does come, though of course there is the risk that as time goes on I’ll start to be part of the force for institutional sclerosis rather than change. But at local level, there are conversations I’m having with tired old activists/ex-activists that I simply wouldn’t have been able to have even five years ago when they would have been much more ‘pragmatic’ about Labour in power (and so was I, to an extent), and that does give me some hope.

  8. April 13, 2009 at 1:06 am

    Aargh – I’ve got sucked in again, damn you!

    I agree with your thoughts on the Hobsbawm article, actually. It was very un-Marxist and not very good.

    I despair when I get to points like ‘I’m much more hopeful about the potential of small groups under the banner of the Convention of the Left, or even allied to/part of the Socialist Party. We can’t continue to build links towards specific goals, whilst continually having to apologize for our leadership. Mass consciousness can be built – but it can’t sustain the contradiction of the Labour Party any longer, I think.’

    I’m sympathetic of course. But ‘mass consciousness’ and ‘small groups’ do not go hand in hand. Of course we can make comparisons with other countries – were I Swedish I am sure I would vote for the Vansterpartiet and not the Social Democrats. But I consider us fortunate in Britain, in this small way, that our left is still in our mass party of labour. That that party is in a mess, is sadly too true. But the anti-socialist victory in Labour is pyrrhic. New Labour has eaten itself. The Labour Party is never going to be a revolutionary vanguard party: but that isn’t the role of a mass labour movement. To imagine it might be is as un-Marxist as our friend Hobsbawm. It isn’t going to remain an anti-socialist, pro-capital party either.

  9. April 13, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Duncan, the milieu that created the Labour Party was once upon a time a small group. So I disagree with your proposition that ‘small parties’ and ‘mass consciousness’ don’t go hand in hand. Moreover, small parties don’t have to create mass consciousness, they just have to knit it into a coherent movement.

    Incidentally, why is the idea of a mass labour movement acting as a revolutionary vanguard unmarxist?

  10. April 13, 2009 at 9:50 am

    The milieu that created the Labour Party was a number of small groups and a mass trade union movement (over 10% of all workers in 1900).

    While some – with little reference to the real history – suggest that small groups won the trade union movement away from Liberalism and therefore the same could be done today but by small leftist groups, away from Labourism – the truth is much more fascinating: the Trade Union movement went from having no coherent political identity to being the bedrock of the labour movement, based on the concept of working-class representation in parliament, rather than the concept of socialism – in the first istance. There was no mass defection, because there was no mass identification.

    As for the revolutionary vanguard – of course the idea itself is Leninist/Trotskyist and we could have a big debate about whether it is, itself un-Marxist (but I don’t really want that debate!) – but as far as I recall from my ‘What is to be done?’ from years ago, the whole point of a revolutionary vanguard is to be small, united, centralist and protect the revolutionary ideology (as well as to disseminate it). The role of a mass party of labour is very different.

    So while there might be a Marxist argument that there is a role for a revolutionary vanguard party to struggle for hegemony within the mass party of labour, the idea that the mass party of labour could have the features of a revolutionary vanguard party is illogical (and therefore un-Marxist). The idea that there could be a millions-strong, disciplined Marxist party in Britain requires many things, one of which is the abandonment of historical materialism.

  11. April 13, 2009 at 10:39 am

    I don’t even know where to begin dealing with such unmitigated bollocks.

    I’ll start with the most flippant and most inaccurate part. No, the idea that there could be a millions-strong Marxist party does not require the abandonment of historical materialism.

    In fact historical materialism simply argues that, from the bedrock processes of our society, there will grow an oppositional movement to those processes, since they are inherently exploitative.

    Marx himself discussed the transition of a “class-in-itself” to a “class-for-itself” (what Gramsci might have called the creation of socialist hegemony) but Marx simply assumed that the “class-for-itself” would be revolutionary, as a direct result of the forms opposition from the capitalist class would take, and as a consequence of his analysis of the State.

    I find it hard to pay your argument much respect if you can’t at least support such ridiculously vague assertions with some argumentation.

    Moving to the subject of what is and isn’t unmarxist: Lenin’s struggle within the RSDLP about what form membership should take was not an attempt to argue that the revolutionary party should be small, united or centralist or that it should protect the revolutionary ideology. Indeed, the very process of Lenin’s dispute over that issue showed that the Party could tolerate different factions and that it would decide democratically what ‘the revolutionary ideology’ should be. Said ideology was never considered to be a received truth.

    The history of the Russian Revolution also demonstrated that the Bolsheviks were to become a mass party.

    By this, I do not intend to argue that a mass party of labour (in a Western context) is the same as the Bolshevik Party / a revolutionary vanguard. I don’t have to, however, since your argument is simply predicated upon a misreading of Leninism as advocating a small sect – which it doesn’t.

    Nor was my earlier argument an attempt to assert that the Labour Party won the working class away from Liberalism, so your entire second paragraph is essentially irrelevant to our discussion.

    The “entire trade union movement” was not involved with the creation of the Labour Party. First of all, the original LRC involved barely a third of the TUC. Secondly, it’s as ridiculous to say that the people represented by the 129 delegates at the founding conference were motivated by the need for working class representation in parliament as to say they were motivated by socialism.

    They were motivated by all different kinds of notions – and the ‘end result’ of working class parliamentarians was but one. Not to mention that ‘socialism’ back then meant all different kinds of things from guild socialism to fabian socialism to various Marxian strands. This is the sort of over-prescriptive history which maintains that in Germany, the overriding motivation for the SDP was Marxism.

    As it turned out, in the course of decades of struggle, the Labour Party was ‘won’ to the cause of socialism by parliamentary means – but the struggle was far linear and far from inevitable. It may have been the case that from the outset this strand had the advantage of numbers, but to say that it was inevitable that this strand would win through is unmarxist, has nothing in common with historical materialism and, through your little narrative about how a mass defection from liberalism is a fiction, is exactly what you are suggesting.

  12. April 13, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Umm… What? I don’t actually see how much of that has anything to do with what I wrote, but let’s try and analyse it anyway.

    Yes the conditions of capitalism could lead to the working class becoming a class-for-itself; it could indeed form a class-conscious, socialist party. That is what we’re working for after all. We both missed out a word, I note – I meant to write ‘today’, you chose not to write ‘disciplined’. As such, it may be that we are both arguing quite different points. If we are arguing the same point, then I don’t really see much point engaging with you because you are not combining your theory with praxis, or even making a show of it. If we are talking at cross purposes, fair enough. I suspect you may feel flattered; you can be like Lenin, upbraided by internal critics as a ‘bookish’ ‘armchair’ revolutionary…

    I don’t think a discussion about the process of the Bolsheviks becoming a mass party (post-revolution) is particularly instructive to the debate at issue. While I concede by mentioning ‘What is to be done?’ I began this diversion, to compare what we are discussing with the actual circumstances of pre-revolutionary Russia does not get us very far, therefore, when discussing the concept of the vanguard party, I am looking at it as developed through the 20th century by Marxist-Leninist/Trotskyist organisation, rather than in terms of organising strictly secret democratic centralism predating an iminent putsch. I am reading it in Fourth International terms as assuming the leadership of working-class upsurges – which, of course, some argue is quite contrary to the essentail tenets of Leninism, but that’s a seperate point again (and a thing does not assume the leadership of itself).

    The point about Liberalism was relevant insofar as your suggestion was that the Labour movement was formed by small socialist organisations; it was not – small socialist organisations played a part in a key development in the longer history of the British labour movement – the formation of a mass party of labour. Although socialism was not the unifying aspect of its original inception (I’m not going to bother discussing your supplementary points about that because we would just be engaging in Labour history trainspotting and – while I would defeat you terribly – it would be entirely pointless and self-indulgent) it became a self-consciously socialist party remarkably quickly (indeed, one could argue that it was only really a self-consciously socialist party up until about 1926, with a few other socialistic moments, though socialism always played a part and still does, even if often an oppositional part). Although you claim to quote the ‘entire trade union movement’ I never said it, so it is quite irrelevant. Socialism did indeed mean different things to different people then (I’m not sure what on earth you read in my comment that might imply otherwise) – it still does. As such, again, it would be absurd to paint the SDF and ILP (even the Fabians?) as some sort of vanguard – a model that the Socialist Party and the Convention of the Left might today copy. It ignores the enormous elephant in the room: the Labour Party. The only excuse for ignoring said elephant – that I could imagine – was the assumption that the Liberal Party represented a similar elephant in 1900. So I was merely pointing out that it did not.

    We have a mass party of Labour today. A terribly imperfect one. And I’m quite happy for so-called ‘entryist’ groups to try and assume its leadership at moments of crisis and upsurge – at times I wish they’d make a better job of it – but all the theories surrounding a ‘new workers party’ had better take some account of the old one.

  13. April 13, 2009 at 3:40 pm

    Is it rude of me to mention the influence of the Greens at this point? Good on workers’ rights, support for public services and utilities – it’s far more likely that funding or affiliation from smaller unions would go to the Green Party. As a rival to Labour, it’s sure to keep the mass party of Labour sticking with some “progressive” rhetoric…

  1. April 10, 2009 at 1:58 pm
  2. April 20, 2009 at 2:40 pm
  3. January 25, 2010 at 10:46 pm

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