7 Party Lines and Politics

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2010

Political parties are associations aiming at power. Some times parties represent classes, especially when a ruling class is driven to a last-ditch defence and has to close ranks. But other factors also come into play, such as personal quarrels and ambitions, the drive of a new power elite, historical continuity, ideological differences, or a combination of some or all of these factors.

Materialistic considerations often, though not always, dominate over ideological ones, and tend to fashion the latter. The anti-clerical and free-thinking French bourgeoisie, for instance, found its way back to political Catholicism not by reason of any "light on the way to Damascus" or even by conscious decision, but solely because of general alarm at the way in which the working class had picked up its own iconoclastic beliefs. In the same way the slaves of Haiti had embraced the republican ideas of their French masters, who thereupon reacted much as would the old nobility. There has been quite some alarm here too, of recent years, in the way in which disillusion with government has spread among the younger generation.

Tories and Whigs were originally differentiated by the more progressive views of the latter section of the British aristocracy, who naturally came to expect that popular radicalism would rally behind them, even at the period when Whiggish attachment to liberty had long been consigned to the past (it was they who deported the trade union pioneers to Australia). Whigs and Tories became indistinguishable, and the party broke up. At that juncture it was the particular contribution of Disraeli to politics that he saw it was illogical that in the new, Liberal Party that inherited the Whig mantle, the urban working class should follow, not their old aristocratic "protectors", but the very Liberal industrialists who were directly exploiting them. According to him, the natural new "protectors" of the exploited industrial workers were the reactionary landowners, who might well oppress the rural workers but had a common enemy with the factory proletariat in the manufacturing class. Given such an alliance, it seemed to him there was no reason why the Tories could not give up, their reactionary views, and become reformers at the expense of the Liberal industrialists. Universal suffrage could then favour the Conservatives-and would "dish the Whigs". The policy was described by Carlyle as "shooting Niagara" . The sage reacted to it as did Bismarck when Lassalle tried to persuade him of this "natural alliance" too. It is in the nature of conservatism to distrust leaps in the dark, and "a leap in the dark" is exactly how Tories described their leader's programme. Yet it was a successful leap so far as they were concerned. Disraeli associated it with popular support for imperialism. And quick victories and painless patriotism, allied to a regard for working-class votes, meant that the Conservative Party got, and retains to this day, a degree of that vote. The Liberal Party was totally deprived of the only reason for its existence. For as the capitalist prospered under empire-building, he became an integral part of the ruling class. Joseph Chamberlain took the Liberal industrialists into the Conservative camp, but it was part of a general intermarriage of the top classes. After that, the working class could either look to the Conservative and Unionist Party as its "protector", or form its own party. Eventually that came about. The Liberal Party ceased to have relevance except as an association for personal ambitions, historical loyalties and confused ideologies. The Labour Party, however, took on the old role of liberalism, and found the working class a new type of "protector" in the civil service.

There are always reasons, false only to the revolutionary, for supporting one party against another. Victory for Tweedledum means defeat for Tweedledee. In Austria, the social-democrats and liberals supported the fascism of Dollfuss against the nazism of Hitler. Many who had sworn never to vote Labour again because it had agreed to the H-bomb that could have ended the world, supported it after the Tories brought in a Rent Act that exacerbated the housing problem. Reasons for voting are magnified out of proportion, and made into political issues. It still remains true that parties are reflections of power interests, even though it may not always immediately be possible to identify one party with one class interest.

Some people find it understandably difficult to grasp the complexity of so many parties, once they have graduated from the discovery that there are more than two or three main ones. Understanding is not made easy by the hackneyed image of the parties or ideas standing from right or left like a row of ninepins waiting for the ball to hit them. The seating arrangements of the French Chamber of Deputies, on which the terms "Right" and "Left" are based, were no doubt a convenient way of spreading the crowd around that august body, but leave much to be desired in the way of explaining what political differences are all about, so long after the French Revolution.

Just as the British public has been persuaded by the advertising world that everyone is middle-class and should live up to that standard, so the French Deputies, after the Second World War discredited the Right Wing because of its collaboration with nazism, all wanted to sit on the left, leaving empty benches on the right. Only the resumed confidence of the Right, when the bourgeoisie felt secure from social revolution (thanks to the Communist Party), saved the Fourth Republic the expense of building a differently shaped chamber.

In many countries "right" and "left" have been used in a senseless fashion, merely to indicate an attitude to Moscow. For Moscow itself, to be more "left" than they was to be suffering, in Lenin's phrase, from "an infantile disorder". Yet the anarchists, for instance, whatever the newspaper reader might think, are not "more extreme" than the communists; they are at quite a different extreme. Half the defeats encountered by the anarchists as an organised entity have been the result of being persuaded that they are part of a natural "left wing" progression. The Communist Party is not nearer to the Labour Party than it is to the Liberals, nor are the latter necessarily farther away from fascism than the Tories (Lloyd George, for instance).

Once again we have recourse to a diagram. This supposes that there are two social considerations: individualistic and totalitarian. In the way in which we live, the basic determining factor is either the individual or the State. And there are two economic considerations: competitive and collective. The way in which we work is either capitalistic or socialistic. Ideologies relevant to the present time, not just theoretical adventures of which the inventive political mind is prolific but which fail to relate to current issues, can normally be understood in the relation of their social outlook to their economic. In this sense, the diagram is a rough-and-ready guide to political theory, and one can at least say for it that it makes far more sense than the drawing of a line from right to left, which up to now has been accepted as a suitable illustration.

Anarchists are at one extreme of individualism and they are also at an extreme of the labour movement, or of non-competitive ideology. At the other extreme of individualism is the free-enterprise capitalist, whose views have long been advocated in this country by Sir Ernest Benn and the Individualists, and now by Mr Enoch Powell -- whose defence of capitalism has become over-shadowed by his use of race for creating division. In the United States it is thought of as conservatism proper, and has been advocated as the only possible alternative to "socialism". This type of capitalist thinking is at another extreme from fascism, if one thinks of the latter in terms of Hitler's national-socialism. But because it sometimes employs the same type of thuggery in defence of its interests, or favours a similar set of people, or falls back on anti-race attitudes to make a popular appeal, it is sometimes confused with fascism. "Fascism" has in any case become an emotive word since the war and is often used merely to connote personal violence. It is not a coincidence that movements concerned with the preservation of a privileged minority or of the State have had to employ violence to keep down the workers. But it has never been individual violence -- always organised thuggery of an official or unofficial police variety.

The same confusion has existed between fascism and communism, only because of the degree of violence used by both. The liberal used to say that they were the same thing because they used similar tactics. The term "red fascism" was a good slogan, but false. It was the only term to use, perhaps, if one were to make the straight line intelligible, but it was completely misleading. State communism is a collectivist creed, at the other extreme from anarchism so far as working-class ideology is concerned, though it is also a totalitarian creed, at the other extreme from fascism. When state communism becomes economically "liberated", as is the case in Russia now, it is not moving nearer to the concepts of mutual aid, but towards fascism. It loses its socialistic character and finally becomes, as Hitler's national-socialism would in time have become, a state capitalist amalgam of the two.

In the same way, also, if one dilutes anarchism sufficiently to become "philosophic" or "individualistic" anarchism, it moves in the direction of capitalist-individualism. It is already as individualistic as one can go in one direction. To insist upon its individualism to the point of hyphenation is to take it in the other direction. Hence the belief of some American philosophers that it is a "doctrine of the Right", and they confuse the "anarchism" of Thoreau, diluted still more, with revolutionary anarchism. So misleading are the academics that a man can write a book called Anarchist Thought in India which is about Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave!

It is equally true that one can dilute anarchism in the opposite direction until it becomes indistinguishable from trade unionism and may ultimately sell out to state socialism, and of course anarcho-syndicalist movements have disappeared from sight because of this trend. The Mexican syndicalist movement is a case in point.

From looking at the diagram one can see what everyone knows to be the case, but which cannot be expressed by a straight line from right to left, that anarchism and fascism are opposites in one sense, and state communism and "Goldwaterism" in another. But at the same time anarchism and state communism are different in another aspect, just as are the ideas of social-democracy and political conservatism. Naturally, all ideologies are not at the extremes, though it is a typical Fleet Street contribution to politics, in part arising from "straight-line" thinking, that what is extreme must by definition be wrong.

Political opinion can normally be placed somewhere along the sides of the square, if not at the extreme corners. Fabianism, for instance, comes somewhere between state communism and fascism and has (as Bernard Shaw perceived) affinities with both. It is the doctrine of state capitalism. State communism and fascism differ on the fact of class structure within society. Fascism preserved class distinctions, with a bureaucracy. State communism has no classes under the bureaucracy. Fabianism tries to identify the bureaucracy with the ruling class.

If important parties cannot be placed neatly in the square, it is usually because they are coalitions of differing ideas and interests -- Democrats and Republicans in the United States , for instance. In Britain, the division between parties seemed more clear-cut at one time. But the Labour Party today is a coalition, too. It is not a working-class party as such though its rockbottom votes come as a result of people thinking it is. It cannot be equated with theoretical social-democracy, though some of its protagonists are democratic socialists. It has the duty, often neglected, of defending trade union and co-operative interests, but it has links with management, too. Its middle-class Fabian thinking dominated parliamentary tactics, though again, some of its MPs have been toned-down state communists, their idea of socialism late Lenin or early Stalin, adapted to democratic ideas and rejecting the violence associated with Bolshevism rather than the general theory.

Many more Labour MPs, brilliantly educated and with degrees in sociology and political views fashioned in debate at the Oxford Union, have naturally no conception of socialism at all, and think it has something to do with the nationalisation of industry pioneered by Bismarck or the degree of reform passed in a single session. Others are parliamentary liberals who have left the sinking ship. More still have no differences at all with the Conservatives other than the clear necessity of getting a seat, and among these are the hired lawyers used to pleading any cause for which they get paid. There are not a few, graduating from local politics, who hug the fond illusion that the electorate chooses them for their personal qualities and public devotion.1

It is difficult to place the Labour Party accurately in Figure 8, as if it were a concrete philosophy rather than a united front. The nearest one can get would be to draw a line from social-democracy to radicalism, and from social-democracy to Fabianism, completing the triangle with a line from Fabianism to radicalism. Having done that, one will still find a millionaire MP with laissez-faire views on capitalism outside the neat triangle. When we turn to the Conservative Party, we can draw a triangular corral bordered by economic individualism, fascism and the centre, outside which only the occasional maverick wanders.

There is a certain similarity of idiom along the lines. Philosophies have common ancestry, as do men and monkeys, but the similarities need not deceive us. Often the same cliché is used to signify something utterly different. "The State is our enemy" is often repeated all along the individualist line; devotion to the State along the totalitarian. But some of those who talk of sacrificing for the State see it only in its idealised family role as the nation-state. So they talk with awe of those who "died for the State" when they themselves do not even want to pay their income tax to the State. The term "workers' control" is used not only by those who believe the workers should directly control the industry in which they work, but also by those who advocate more participation in management, the election of officials or even just the fact of saying this is the policy of the State when it is nothing of the sort. ("Spain is a Workers' and Peasants' Republic", said the constitution of the country which appointed General Franco to his command, and much the same sort of thing is said in countries of Eastern Europe today.)

Impassioned pleas for the State not to intervene sound much the same along the individualistic lines, but the nearer one gets to capitalism the more it is "necessary" for the State to intervene in its repressive role, or for that role to be taken over by a private police force. It is natural that the climate in which theories are nurtured will affect them. The individualism that has grown up in the workers' movement is different from capitalist individualism. Totalitarianism differs in the same way. Yet it is a fact of power in the modern world that whoever aspires to rule, irrespective of all these ideologies, must fit themselves into the pervading system of state capitalism. The modern State is too powerful to be fashioned by theory. It must either be abolished or it will shape the party that rules it. Even those aspiring to abolish it could act no different, if by some freak of chance they took power. It is for that reason that revolutionary anarchism opposes party formation and participation in government. Once one finds oneself in office or power, one ceases to be a revolutionary, no matter what one's affiliations might be.2

It is implicit in the party programme of today that the impersonal nature of the modern State shapes the parties, rough-hew it as they may. That is why they concentrate on personalities and reformism. Only by a thoroughgoing revolution could a party change the State, but the genuine authoritarian revolutionary is like the Loch Ness Monster -- if he were anything more than a legend, he must now be all but extinct. The authoritarian communist mainstream of today is polluted by the effluent of the Comintern, and gives off the stink of patriotism. What is described as "the Left" talks in the language of nationalism.

It is understandable that internal pressures force the Kremlin back to Holy Russian chauvinism, and that in Eastern Europe the politicians have to resort to racial denigration and division to take the heat off themselves. But even in opposition, that part of the "Left" which is influenced by Moscow or Peking, and even by Havana, can only on patriotic gush to explain itself. Those who "support the heroic struggle of the Vietnam people under the great Ho Chi Minh against the Yankee aggressor" might as well have said the same thing about "the heroic struggle" of the British under Churchill, the Russians under Stalin or the Americans under Roosevelt; and in retrospect would still do so. They might not go on to eulogise the struggle against the Hun aggressor under Lloyd George and Clemenceau -- not to mention Czar Nicholas -- because Lenin made his views known on that conflict at the time. As he has become a god, his opinions are unquestioned by the faithful, but need not be pushed by analogy too far.

If the authoritarian communist has fallen into the trap of talking about national liberation and forgetting about social revolution, the danger for the libertarian is to fall into reformism. Once the near-impossibility of changing the State is accepted, and it is assumed, inaccurately, that it is therefore also impossible to abolish it; or, accurately, that this cannot be done without revolution and those with pacifist ideas reject this, one is driven to the position of liberalism. The militancy with which liberal ideals might be advanced does not make them revolutionary. Revolution has to do with social and economic change. Except in the transition to capitalism (in the American Revolution, for instance), even a liberal with a gun is not a revolutionary but an armed liberal. It may be necessary under a dictatorship to fight for so elementary a "reform" as free speech, but if one does not understand exactly what the issues are, one finds oneself fighting for any political leader or nation-state that happens to use "free speech" as a slogan.

In a dictatorship, reformism and revolution might be working on parallel lines. This is the case in Spain today. The Roman Church has for years backed the fascist filly but, always anxious to hedge its bets, now places its money on the Christian Democrat opposition. It even shares a stable with the Communist Party. A "democratic opposition" has been set up, including the "Comisiones Obreras", to make sure that if Franco goes, the alternative will not be social revolution, but a liberal, Catholic state without American bases.

Yet it cannot be denied that this opposition is working against Franco and stirred the students. Militant democracy is on parallel lines to this active reformism. But even social-revolutionary movements in Spain are acting in the same direction, since it is towards the overthrow of the present regime. For them to be deceived by the democratic opposition would be a disaster, even though they may be working with it.

Party lines may coincide with the class struggle but they have nothing to do with it.

Ideologies originate from common sets of economic or social principles. The use of them for the conquest of power is part of a struggle between rulers and ruled.

  • 1Those on both sides of the House who like to believe this are apt to quote Burke to prove that they do not have to consider what their constituents think of the measures they pass, as if this reactionary politician's opinions had bound the British people for evermore.
  • 2The Spanish anarchist movement did in fact send representatives into the Republican government during the Civil War, fearing that the exclusion of working-class movements would lead to Communist Party domination. But their ministers in the Cabinet ceased to be revolutionary, and called for compromise with the government (including the communists).