Home > Dave's Favourites, General Politics > Reinterpreting socialist defeats: a reply to Dave Osler

Reinterpreting socialist defeats: a reply to Dave Osler

At his site, and republished at Liberal Conspiracy, Dave Osler recounts how Popper, Hayek and von Mises were the unholy trinity who retooled classical laissez faire economics for its assault on Keynesianism. The article is essentially a lament that ‘the Left’ has no one to do the same for it. Frankly I’m shocked both at Dave’s ignorance of the philosophy of at least one of the three (Popper) and his ignorance of the development of socialist theory since the 1980s. These ignorances result in a lament for precisely the wrong things – this retooling, or “operationalization” of Marxism without dialectics.

Dave is not the only one to indulge in such talk recently.

To begin with Popper, neopositivism is a philosophy that is essentially lost in itself. Unable to disentangle the referrent of their precise language as either a thing or a bundle of sensations, Popper and others were reduced to the doctrine of falsifiability. To borrow from J.D. Bernal, “By labelling everything which had no direct expression in terms of the natural sciences “metaphysical” and subject only to emotional judgments, they cut themselves off” from any relevance to exactly the field which dialectics operates in: the constitution and processes of the social.

Labelled ‘counter-hegemonic’ by Dave, this philosophy is supposedly what geared up neoliberalism for its assault upon Keynesianism. However, without dialectics we have no earthly reason to presume any opposition between Keynesianism and neoliberalism beyond exactly the same barren, academicist managerialism which New Labour (and Francis Fukuyama) have sought to persuade us is all the future holds. Certainly we should have no reason to presume such explosive clashes as were fought between workers clinging to the last vestiges of Keynesian protection and the ruling class fighting for freer markets with cheaper labour.

It is dialectical materialism which instead focuses our study of any given process on its internal contradictions; from this we might postulate the class content of Keynesianism and the class content of neoliberalism and thus in the context of class, we might interpret the struggles of the 1980s. The philosophies of any of the three men mentioned as godfathers of neoliberalism would be worthless unless the underpinning logic to capitalism was exactly the sort of contradiction from whence we can formulate the concepts of dialectical materialism. It is this underpinning logic which fleshed out the “anti-communist” or “anti-historicist” polemics of Hayek, Popper and von Mises, and which their economic writings expressed in a one-sided fashion, just as those of Marx expressed it for the other side.

Too often, dialectics is thought to address the merely metaphysical. In fact it does not; it is not an a priori assumption but a formulation of laws, initially observed within the process of thought and corrected by Marxism, which apply to processes. Class and class conflict is an empirically observable phenomenon; class relations are the social dialectic. We cannot abolish the dialectic without also attempting to abolish the notion that at the root of all social processes are contradictions which govern both the process and its ultimate evolution / negation.

If that is what Dave is trying to do, then his characterisation of the Marxian Left as having ‘retreated back to fundamentalism’ is meaningless. From Laclau and Mouffe to Zizek and Badiou, the years since the 1980s have seen little but the attempt to abolish the primacy of class as the social relation upon which our whole struggle hinges. There have been attempts to roll back the materialist concept of dialectics to an idealist concept and there have been attempts to abolish dialectics altogether.

Far from lending us insights into the road we must traverse to win our struggle, these attempts have resulted exactly in the impasse which Dave cannot abide. The popular alliances advocated by these groups are not isolated to the Academy as at first they might seem: indeed, Eurocommunism was at one point the main opponent of neoliberalism on the continent. The displacement of the dialectic of class relations resulted in all the stages to outright reaction which Labour, the PS, the PDS and the other countries of Europe have marched through.

Ellen Meiksins Wood, in her book “The Retreat from Class: a New True Socialism”, published in 1985, presciently remarks that the tendency on the Left exempliefied by journals such as “Marxism Today” (which once boasted a T. Blair as a contributor) is to seek alliances that will grab power, regardless of whether those alliances have the social weight necessary to carry through the reforms which the Left at least openly professes. And so it has happened, over the years since the Thatcherite period of reaction receded just a little. And it is the retreat from class, and the dialectical materialism which underpins class-based strategies, which secured that.

Perhaps Dave would dispute that he is trying to abolish class and that when abolishing dialectics, one does not have to abolish class. Except that dialectics emerge naturally from the whole concept of class. After all, at the root of it, is Dave’s article not simply an expression of frustration at the weakness of the Left, when measured against the panorama of socialist history? Understandable as such, I do not consider it to be excusable – and visible even a few paragraphs in are some worrying sentiments.

“A further three decades up the road, the wheels have finally come off the neoliberal model. If the left had a blueprint ready to enact, we would now have a once in a generation opportunity to modify the dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism.”

There are gaping holes in this statement, such as the distance between having a programme and attaining power in the context of a society based on private property, or exactly how our having a programme would modify the ‘dominant ideology in a manner conducive to socialism’. Moreover, the statement does not include exactly what measures Dave thinks might modify said ideology. Is it really ideology we want to modify, or is it rather power relations that we wish to modify, thereby appropriating the means of ideological genesis? A modification of ideology serves us not at all, and advocacy for such gravely misunderstands in what relation to our exploiters we stand.

I’d also like to know precisely what Dave means by ‘socialism’. Vagueness here in particular is redolent of the old Labour attitude, “socialism is what Labour does”, and when combined with Dave’s Compass-like misuse of Gramsci smacks of exactly the sort of ‘popular alliance’ strategy that ultimately resulted in New Labour. If our goal is socialism, and socialism is defined as the appropriation of the means of production by the exploited working class, then modifying ‘the dominant ideology’ means little. If our aim is to substitute Keynesianism for neoliberalism once more, it could be done, but we’d be setting ourselves up to re-run the later 20th Century and for no purpose.

Keynesianism had a popular element, being “more conducive to socialism” as Dave might put it, but it was still an ideology of exploitation. Nevertheless, its restriction of the free movement of Capital grew to threaten the global post-war economic mechanisms. Bretton-Woods collapsed and the only thing standing between organised Capital and further exploitation was organised Labour. We lost the fight then, but had we won it, we would either have had to deprive Capital of its own ability to reproduce its own conditions or we’d have fought the battle again, and again, and again, until resolution.

This contradiction exemplifies the usefulness of dialectics as an analytical tool – and it can at least tell us where we are going wrong. That is something that Dave Osler’s article manifestly fails to do, instead preferring isolated jabs at different groups on the Left and a retreat to cynicism.

  1. April 30, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    In up the wall mode. will comment at weekend on aspects of this that I understand ie. the creeping defeatism)

  2. April 30, 2009 at 9:12 pm

    I apologize for the nature of this article actually. I’ve been meaning to write a much longer defence of dialectics, but I never seem to have the time and a blog is not the most conducive format in any case. I think I simply bridled at Dave and Splintered Sunrise’s easy dismissal of a concept so central to Marxist politics that even Habermas didn’t ditch it completely.

  3. April 30, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    No, it wasn’t you at your most fluent, I’ll admit – but there are nuggety questions in there perhaps unwittingly, about how problematic it can be to engage with the ideal of the overthrow of capitalism while also trying to engage with the mitigation of its effects, because one argument is that to mitigate is to condone, while the other is that to mitigate is to build solidarity. i simply don’t know….though I often have to pull myself away from the feeling that I should feel personally guilty about theoretical compromise in the shorter term, because I know that guilt does no good.

  4. May 1, 2009 at 5:49 am

    I don’t think those are problematic; I’m in favour of reform, even while working for overthrow. I’ll have a Canterbury specific example of that later.

    If there’s any lack of fluency, I think it’s rather because I’m challenging an article that is itself all over the place.

  5. May 1, 2009 at 7:10 am

    On the broad coalition business. Hobsbawm rightly pointed out in the 80s that the numbers of industrial workers was in decline, but was arguing for labour to make a deal with the liberals to form a coalition against thatcherism.

    These sentiments were eventually used to justify the abandonment of the language of working class struggle, and of those “labour heartlands” ravaged by deindustrialisation. (Note that Compass are making the reverse of this argument, saying that for labour to win a fourth term they have to re-engage with people who’ve stopped voting labour but see themselves as labour.)

    Hobsbawm always argued that class alliances didn’t have to be class collaboration – and there’s some truth in this. For example, both unions and the Federation of Small Businesses campaigned against post office closures (the further away the post office, the greater costs to small business)

    In electoral terms, under our current voting system, I can’t see anything wrong with Labour not standing and calling on it’s voters to support a liberal where it’s a straight Liberal-Tory fight (something Kinnockio refused to do).

    Larry Eliot and Dan whatsisname in their most recent book refer to “the new super rich” (the capitalist class, to you and I) as the New Olympians and the counterveiling forces as the New Populists. They point out that professions that were largely closed to market forces – law, medicine – are being opened up, proletarianising affluent workers; that rural communities inclined to return tory MPs are being crippled by effect of big supermarkets driving shopkeepers out of business, etc.

    So, they argue, there is the potential for an alliance of organised labour with other social strata being hammered by neoliberal policies. Theirs is a reformist model of change but it amounts to the same thing as the “anti-monopoly alliance” only it differs on how far we go.

  6. May 2, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Absolutely, the importance to reach across standard class based discussions and actions is incredibly important.

    Class is still vitally, the world remains incredibly polarised but Britain is not seen in that way by the people living here. People identify with the class of their parents very strongly. Working class youngsters can live in very middle class regions because they still live with their parents, people with degrees working in call centerst etc. These people are not going to respond in the same way as more traditionally working class groups.

  7. May 2, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    I reject the premise that it there’s any such thing as “standard class based discussions and actions”. At the height of the industrial labour movement, a majority didn’t identify with class in the sense of endorsing every last comma in Marx.

    Nevertheless, the forces which those ideas seek to describe have determined the course and shape of our world for a hundred and fifty years. I wish it were the case that we had a standard and coherent public discussion about class and praxis – but we don’t. This is one of the problems.

    We have a class of itself; we need to build a class for itself – and it is rather shooting ourselves in the foot to believe that the first prerequisite is an abandonment of the very terminology which helps us to pierce the surface of politics and grasp the very real power structures at work underneath.

  8. July 2, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    “is to seek alliances that will grab power, regardless of whether those alliances have the social weight necessary to carry through the reforms which the Left at least openly professes.”

    Yes, but it’s false to posit the two approaches as mutually antagonistic, so I hope that’s not what you were trying to do. ‘popular alliances’ can include class blocs, and may even be predominantly composed of them.

    In practices, this is not what ‘Compass’ type arrangements are doing, but it should be.

  9. July 2, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t posit the two approaches as mutually antagonistic. What I do suggest is that the sort of alliances open to us are limited if our choice is to pursue a democratic, grassroots-based, mass movement with the ability to act independently of its self-declared leaders. In such circumstances, with such social weight behind us, a few liberal or Tory MPs jumping ship (unlikely) wouldn’t matter as we’d have changed the whole parameters of the debate.

    Thus the key questions of tactics and strategy wouldn’t come down to who is speaking at what conference, or who is prepared for form a coalition government with whom, and how that does or does not dilute the content of our programme.

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