Liberalism, realism and the class struggle

Class struggle realism?

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.

Comments

NickOLarse
Mar 21 2011 23:58

I agree that there are fundamental differences between anarchism and realpolitik/realism, but I disagree with this: "Bolshevism at its ‘best’ 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." But this is not taken for granted at all - you overlook the fact that in Bolshevik terms the seizure of political power is not an ultimate aim, but rather a necessary step towards the radical transformation of social realtions, from the dicatatorship of the bourgeoisie, to the dictatorship of the proletariat, to the "withering away of the state" and communism. So if anarchism is not a form or realpolitik - neither is Leninism or Trotskyism.
Further - the fundamental reason why marxist (or Leninist/Trotskyist) class analysis differs from "realpolitik" is that in marxism class struggle is not simply a power struggle between opposed groups. Class is seen as a social relationship, based on exploitation, that forms the dynamic of change in society.
I also disagree when you say that "Liberalism is the default ideology of capitalism." Surely we only have to consider Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or modern day Saudi Arabia to see this is not the case. Capitalism is extremely flexible in terms of the political systems and ideologies with which it can co-exist.

Joseph Kay
Mar 22 2011 00:07

Well this isn't principally a critique of Leninism (which would need a longer piece to do it justice), but it certainly aims at the capture of power and adopts consequentialist ethics in pursuit of that (i'm sure i don't need to list the unprincipled antics, my personal fave is being smeared as a fascist for criticising the UAF allying with Labour and the Tories). Ben Franks' book goes into this in a bit more detail too. There's an interesting flirtation between Marxism and political realism that's probably worthy of investigating more (e.g. Gramsci/Machiavelli is another one).

NickOLarse wrote:
I also disagree when you say that "Liberalism is the default ideology of capitalism." Surely we only have to consider Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia or modern day Saudi Arabia to see this is not the case. Capitalism is extremely flexible in terms of the political systems and ideologies with which it can co-exist.

Well i asserted this rather than offering any argument, so fair enough for picking up on it. but i'd say these are fairly widely regarded as abhorrent exceptions to liberal norms as expressed through stuff like the UN Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights etc.

slothjabber
Mar 22 2011 11:31

How close are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights etc expressions of 'capitalism' per se, as opposed to the particular expressions of one doctrine, particularly connected to one of the historic 20th-century power blocs, though? American hegemony has championed a classical-liberal understanding of humanity but that isn't the only one.

'Liberalism' is one doctrine that claims the heritage of the Enlightenment - universality, individual liberty etc - and it is in distinction to other traditions - such as religious obscurantism or corporate nationalist ideologies - that are equally applicable to capitalist social relations.

NickOLarse
Mar 23 2011 17:55

I accept you did not set out here to critque Leninism, and as I said I agree about the fundamental differences between anarchism and "realpolitik". My objection was your argument that Leninism/Trotskyism represents a form of "realpolitik". Certainly the aim is the seizure of power, but not the ultimate aim.
I'm not sure of the relevance of the "unpricipled antics" on the part of Leninists that you mention, but the example you give appears to be anecdotal, and is surely marginal in the wider scheme of things.
I am aware of the influence of Machiavelli on Gramsci's ideas, but this is no straightforward matter. For example I believe that Gramsci took a position against Lenin, and closer to Luxemburg on the issue of "spontaneity" vs. the Party.
I also accept that liberalism (along with nationalism) is the dominant ideological prop for global capitalism today, but capitalism co-existed, for many decades, with slavery, and actually it still does. This is, of course, abhorent to the signatories of the UN Charter.
I confess that I have not read the book you cite - I will check it out.

Joseph Kay
Mar 23 2011 18:31
NickOLarse wrote:
My objection was your argument that Leninism/Trotskyism represents a form of "realpolitik". Certainly the aim is the seizure of power, but not the ultimate aim.

In a sense this was meant as a compliment; the 'best' of Leninism recognises it's the balance of class forces which is determinate (a good thing), but harnesses this to propel the party into power (a bad thing). Whereas much of today's 'Leninists' drop class politics on a whim to pursue whatever opportunist avenue looks most tempting at the time (e.g. the whole Respect debacle).

I agree that in Leninist theory the seizure of state power (whether the capture of the existing state, or construction of a new 'workers' one) isn't an end in itself. But this seems incidental to the argument imho. The goal is state power, and the means permissable are pragmatic and realist. I wouldn't have thought Lenin would disagree, only that once in power he'd argue the point is to represent the interests of the proletariat so that the state withers away. I'd argue this is voluntarist and idealist, but i accept it needs a more substantive argument to make the case (i will be writing something on this at some point, but it may be part of a larger project so no timescales).

Slothjabber wrote:
American hegemony has championed a classical-liberal understanding of humanity but that isn't the only one.

By 'default' i don't mean 'exclusive'. I mean it's an assertion, and arguably one historically and temporally situated (in Britain 1960 social democracy may have been the 'default'). But i'd argue the dominant forces of capital tend towards liberalism, as does the communist critique (Capital is principally a critique of liberal political economy). There's plenty of other capitalist modes of accumulation, but i'd argue liberal ideology is the default, certainly in Britain in the present.

Boris Badenov
Mar 23 2011 21:19

I think JK is perhaps letting his professed hatred of liberalism get in the way of a more nuanced explanation.

Joseph Kay wrote:
So while liberals want power to be subordinated to morality, and stamp their feet at ‘hypocrisy’ when reality refuses to comply

First of all, there is no one transhistorical liberalism that is and was invariably idealistic. Such an explanation would be idealistic itself. Liberalism is many things; it is 'revolutionary' bourgeois politics (French Revolution, 1848, etc.), aggressively pro-market (classical liberalism), social democracy lite (new liberalism), idealist (Garibaldi), realpolitikist (British LibDems), Hegelian (Benedetto Croce), materialist and so forth.
Second of all, surely liberals are not the only ones guilty of wanting reality to conform to their political ideas. Reality seldomly, if ever, conforms to any specific set of ideas (and nothing but). Every time an anarchist denounces nationalism and argues for proletarian internationlism, they are arguing against reality. The bolshevik on the other hand, in classic "realist" fashion, welcomes the "[perceived] enemy of my enemy" as a friend. So isn't the anarchist a bit like the liberal in this instance? I think so, only the motivation differs drastically (liberal internationalism is obviously not pro-working class).

Unlike NickOLarse, I think JK does a reasonable job explaining Bolshevik realism, because he is dealing with a specific political philosophy. Not so with this vague all-encompassing "liberalism." As someone pointed out above, the official ideology of capitalism needn't be liberalism. Capitalism as a material process can create "its" own ideology out of any ideas.
Still, a useful piece in light of what's currently happening in Libya.

NickOLarse
Mar 29 2011 10:57

There are many points I would like to make about the role of 'the party' but I will wait until I have seen your future writing on the subject rather than attempt to guess what you might say.
I will comment on this, however: "...much of today's 'Leninists' drop class politics on a whim to pursue whatever opportunist avenue looks most tempting at the time (e.g. the whole Respect debacle)." I agree that this kind of opportunism has proved disastrous, and that the Respect project largely failed. Far more significant examples could be cited - the whole Stalinist 'Popular Front' movement, the strategy of forming 'alliances' with 'progressive elements of the bourgeoise' has led in many cases to disastrous and bloody defeats for the working class. I am sure you are familiar with the history of the Allende government in Chile.
But there is also the opposite danger, that of ultra-leftism and sectarianism, by which I mean marxists isolating themselves and becoming cut off from the wider movement, basically by failing to adopt anything like a 'united front' strategy to defeat the forces of reaction. Probably the most significant example here would be the refusal by the German communists in the KPD to form a united front with the socialist SPD to defeat the Nazis. By contrast, even reactionary historians of the Russian Revolution will admit, grudgingly, that without the united resistance of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, the Kornilov coup may have succeded.
Finding effective political strategies that avoid the opposite pitfalls of opportunism and ultra-leftism is no simple matter, but certainly an urgent one both globally and in the context of the U.K. Forming an effective united front does not involve abandonding the principle of class struggle, but disunity on the left will always be ruthlessly encouraged and exploited by the right.

bastarx
Mar 29 2011 15:02

I have no desire to defend the Stalinist KPD but the idea, originally advanced by Trotsky IIRC, that their refusal to work with the SPD led to the Nazi takeover is frequently repeated bullshit. After the SPD controlled police killed 30 workers in clashes on Mayday in Berlin in 1929 there was an unbridgeable chasm between the two organizations. See section 13 of Sergio Bologna's excellent "Nazism and the working-class" which is on libcom. No link sorry cos I can't figure out how to paste on my phone.

slothjabber
Mar 29 2011 17:16

If not an 'unbridgeable chasm' created between 1914-1923, when the SPD supported WWI, then murderously suppresed the German revolution.

bastarx
Mar 29 2011 17:51

That too of course, Bologna goes into more detail so rather than me badly paraphrase him I'd just suggest reading the article.

NickOLarse
Mar 30 2011 11:03

@Peter
I have just read the article you have cited, and I have no disagreement with the account of the events of the bloody repression of the Mayday demonstration in Berlin 1929, or with the fact that this was the SPD leadership was culpable. What I do not accept is that this created an 'unbridgeable chasm' between the rank-and-file of the SPD and KPD. Between the respective leaderships, maybe, but not the working class rank-and-file memberships. A chasm, yes, and a very difficult one to bridge - but unbridgeable? No. United working class action could have defeated the Nazis.
Blair and the leadership of the Labour Party bear a large responsibility for the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, and they engineered a catalogue of repression of the U.K. working class of which the Tories would have been proud. But was it wrong for marxists and others to march, along with Labour Party members, against the war? I think not. Consider the historically reactionary role of The Menshevik leaders in revolutionary Russia. Were the Bolsheviks wrong to unite with Mensheviks to defeat Kornilov? No.
In the current political climate in the U.K. the working class is dominated by a hotch-potch of reactionary ideas - liberalism, nationalism, racism etc, and many bleong to organisations with reactionary leaderships - the Labour Party, trade unions etc. But those seeking progressive social change cannot afford to write them off on this basis. To do so is to be blind to the possibility of both ideological shift and united mass action, and runs the risk, for radicals, of remaining isolated.

armillaria
Jun 21 2011 05:29

Hi Nick, I have a question:
"What I do not accept is that this created an 'unbridgeable chasm' between the rank-and-file of the SPD and KPD. Between the respective leaderships, maybe, but not the working class rank-and-file memberships."
How do you reach out to build unity with the rank-and-file of an organization without accepting the messed-up/oppressive programs of the leadership? Other than trying to recruit them to yr own organization?

JK:
"class struggle anarchism does not seek to conquer political power but to destroy it and replace it with organs of direct democracy."
Destroying political power and replacing it with direct democracy seems like the right goal. I feel like you're maybe using a too-narrow definition of "conquering power," though- maybe conquering power *is the process* through which a grassroots social movement replaces ruling-class politics with direct democratic control?
Thanks for writing this. I really appreciate the emphasis on prefigurative ethics. smile