A discussion I've been having with friends lately is whether opposing liberalism from a class struggle perspective is just another form of political realism, liberalism's main rival in mainstream political theory. This seems to rest on the relationship between ethics and power in both doctrines, so here's a provisional answer. This isn't just an academic question, as it has implications for class struggle anarchist critiques of liberalism and Leninism/social democracy, which aside from anarchism are the principal ideologies of the current anti-cuts movement.
Liberalism is the default ideology of capitalism. Within mainstream ideologies, its only real rival is realism, aka realpolitik, aka power politics. While liberalism seeks to subjugate might to right, realism says that might makes right. So in arguing that “It’s all about the balance of class forces. It’s primarily a power struggle, not a moral argument”, are we simply class struggle realists? I’d argue we’re not, and that class struggle anarchism’s prefigurative relationship between ethics and power is neither liberal nor realist (which incidentally, avoids the LOLsome “hard headed realism” of a one-time libcom poster).
Liberals are currently all over the internet pointing out the “hypocrisy” of bombing Libya whilst turning a blind eye to the Saudi/Bahraini/Yemeni regimes suppressing protests. The problem here is it takes at face value the PR of ‘humanitarian intervention’, i.e. that the military action really is motivated by morality. Then, according to the liberal worldview that you should “act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law”, it is seen as ‘hypocritical’ to bomb one repressive dictatorship whilst collaborating with another.
In terms of international relations, this kind of hapless idealism means that liberalism is often relegated to second-fiddle behind realism. For realists, there’s no hypocrisy in bombing one dictatorship while arming another, since international politics is the domain of “interest, defined in terms of power”. So from a realist perspective it’s completely consistent. Arm one set of dictators to keep the oil flowing, bomb another, who until a few weeks ago was one of the allies, once insurgents seize the oil fields (no-doubt the botched SAS/MI6 insertion into Benghazi was one of several aimed at doing a deal with the new leaders, which the ‘No Fly Zone’ will now protect). So while liberals want power to be subordinated to morality, and stamp their feet at ‘hypocrisy’ when reality refuses to comply, realists see it the other way around: “Morality is the product of power.”
In the domestic sphere, liberalism is far more hegemonic. It is the basis of parliamentary democracy, politics conceived as a debating chamber, “a theatre in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk.” By contrast, libertarian communists argue that “our society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups with competing interests.” Here, the curious similarity with political realism emerges, for instance EH Carr who writes that “the utopian [i.e. liberal idealist], who believes that democracy is not based on force, refuses to look these unwelcome facts in the face.” And does not the classic realist Hobbes’ famous discussion of war perfectly describe the class war? “For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time, wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known.” So are we just ‘class struggle realists’?
No. For some important reasons. An honest Leninist could say that whatever increases the power of the party is good, and whatever decreases the power of the party is bad. This is in line with Trotsky's insistence that the role of the party is to contain the class struggle to propel the party into power: “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam”. So Bolshevism at its ‘best’ (i.e. not the watered down social democratic opportunism of most of today's trots) would be an example of class struggle realism. But like any realism, this takes for granted that the goal is the conquest of political power and not the radical transformation of the social relations of which that political power is a part.
However, class struggle anarchism does not seek to conquer political power but to destroy it and replace it with organs of direct democracy such as federations of neighbourhood and workplace councils etc, and so it can't be considered a form of realism. The relationship between ethics and power is neither liberal (right > might) nor realist (might > right). Rather, the ethic is what Ben Franks calls 'prefigurative'.
The abandonment of any predisposition for either means or ends is also a repudiation of both traditional ethical approaches. It contests the priority given to ends found in Leninist and social democratic approaches, and is a rejection of the approach to sovereign rights that marks the Kantian, deontological influence on free market liberalism. (Franks, p.98)
This means that while insisting society is not a debating chamber in the realist vein, not just any means of power struggle are appropriate. Ethics are not subordinated to power, but continuously informing the methods of struggle in ways which consciously prefigure the world we're seeking to create. But neither is this the liberal illusion of subordinating power to ethics. We expect no quarter from our class enemies, and none will be given. Capital, "can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever" until we overthrow it and replace it with a society based on human needs, libertarian communism.
But in adopting a prefigurative ethics, class struggle anarchism differs from both liberalism and 'class struggle realism', posing the challenge neither as the triumph of reasoned dialogue nor the conquest of power, but an ethically informed power struggle between classes to transform social relations.