Arguably the text that started it all for Subversion. Written in 1972 when some of us were still members of the SPGB. We used this as the lead article in a magazine we called Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice. A bit pompous perhaps, the title changed eventually to Libertarian Communism.
Self improvement or social action
ELF’s (Edinburgh Liberation Front’s) campaign to abolish traffic from Princess Street has aroused a lot of interest and, I think (just from talking to blokes – non-members – in Glasgow), a lot of sympathetic support. If this campaign builds up (if) and succeeds, then I, for one, would be delighted. There’s no reason (if we overlook the profit ‘needs’ of Princess Street shopkeepers) why grass, trees, beer gardens, street theatre, and lots more, couldn’t replace the traffic-jammed street.
A section of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street has been banned to traffic, and the transformation, unimaginative though it is, is quite startling. So that people can see it can be done. The Princess Street shopkeepers will (I think) certainly oppose the abolition of buses (at least) as the bus stops are strategically placed so that the buses empty the potential customers right outside the stores. Consumer trucks.
I’m very loathe to oppose this attempt to assert people’s needs. It’s true, members will probably sneer, that they’re just trying to make capitalism more palatable, but the self-same members are not slow to go for as much money as possible and move from slums to cleaner and healthier areas. The Protestant ethic strikes again!
Apparently self-improvement is OK, moving from a brutal environment to a more civilised one. But note. In both cases, the environment is accepted as given. What I’m trying to get at is that both environments have been planned ‘from the top’. The ‘changing of circumstances’ (which members parrot) is seen simply as a self-transfer from one set of given circumstances to another, but not the changing of circumstances as such, as social action.
In the ‘Protestant ethic’ sense, the self-change from one given set of circumstances to another is the result of rewards handed down from above, which, individually, makes capitalism more palatable. Whether this succeeds depends greatly on the individual but, again, the wish for further self-improvement is simply a wish to move on to further given circumstances. The totality of these circumstances, capitalism, is then, for all practical purposes, accepted as given, that is, as natural, irrespective of how absolute their ‘revolutionary’ theory may be. Social action is then removed from the present world of real men (and women!) and reduced to an abstract, isolated act somewhere over the rainbow.
The separation between individual and social action leads to (or stems from) the separation between practically supporting capitalism and theoretically opposing it.
Members (reluctantly in some cases) ‘support’ trade unionism, ie, generally, attempts by workers to get more money in order to acquire a greater quantity of things. Fair enough. But outside of this, members are very wary (to say the least) to encourage workers to assert themselves in the wider ‘non-economic’ social world. Could it be that they see workers not as real men, but solely as ‘economic men’, abstract bearers of labour power? This is how the capitalist sees them.
There are even members who don’t support claimants unions, no doubt on the grounds that workers who have an unsaleable product (labour power) have no basis for any action, and therefore, should accept their lot. This, again, is exactly how the capitalist sees it.
As far as the boss is concerned, it’s the workers’ skills (labour power) he’s concerned with, not the man (or worker) as such. The worker is rendered less real than his skills, of which, apparently, he is the abstract bearer. We’re numbers, not men. And if unemployed workers, no matter how limited their views, ignore that they’ve nothing to sell, and still attempt to assert themselves collectively as men, then it’s rather strange “revolutionaries” who would sneeringly dismiss their actions as futile.
To oppose collective action (unity is strength) by the unemployed is to leave them helpless atomized victims of capitalism. Can Socialism (as a practical proposition) be established by isolated broken men?
But then, how many members attempt to see socialism as a practical proposition? Too many members still think of the “class struggle” in the 19th century narrow “economic” and “political” (parliamentary) terms. Although members stress “majority understanding”, for the most this is simply a quantitative total (1 + 1 + 1, etc) which is verified in parliamentary elections. The simple counting of skulls. They ignore (or oppose) the social acts which culminate in political action. Once “Socialism” is posited as a “thing” (an ideal State?) then “it” is seen as an Absolute above men. Thus Harmo in his article on B.F. Skinner (in the W.S.) sees men (and women!) being compelled to establish socialism. It’s almost as if the workers, after stumbling in a maze, eventually come along to us and reluctantly concede, “Oh, well, we’ve tried everything else, let’s try Socialism.”
Most members don’t think workers can do anything, short of abolishing capitalism – which they see as an isolated parliamentary act sometime in the future. This is seen as an Absolute act unconnected with men’s previous actions. Members (who prattle about “history”) are being utterly unhistorical in that they see “history” as an evolution of abstractions, FeudalismàCapitalismàSocialism, seen as abstract categories, and dismiss the actions of real women (and men) as a series of mistakes.
Predetermined means and predetermined ends
Some of the Glasgow members have got absolute pre-determined answers for everything. Which means they fail to understand the importance of clearly formulating the problems. What I’m trying to get at is that they never ask themselves “What (practically) can be done?” They’ve got the abstract answers but not the practical questions. And I mean practical. The days of abstract catechisms are over. I am not opposed to aiming for a social goal, or goals, but the blanket answer “organise for socialism” in response to all situations is, for any practical purpose, no answer at all. Or rather, an abstract answer to a concrete situation. Socialism is thus reduced to a “thing”, something above, and separate from, the real relationships between men. It’s almost as if men were called on to carry through the needs of “History” and not their own social needs.
This, to repeat, is why many members simply see the abstract quantitative side of “majority understanding”: “Socialism” as the end, and the proles as the means to attain the end.
This “objective” (above society) way of classifying men in a strictly quantitative manner (which stems from natural science) is shown by the approach to organisation.
The Party is seen as sharply defined static classification composed of members whose “activity” is in no way a development or movement. The Party “is” as it was “in the beginning”. Everything is defined, labelled, “once and for all”. Therefore, as “no real change occurs”, activity must (for them) be limited to “above society” activity. The outdoor platform, for example, symbolises this perfectly. The “best members” (to them) are those whose views are closest to the founder fathers of 1904. Any form of practical activity (co-operation with non-members) which goes beyond the traditional “activity” is regarded as dangerous, if not heretical. When you get right down to it, they’re trying to convince the workers of the need for Socialism via moral persuasion. “Socialism” (like syrup of figs) is good for you.
The necessity, then, appears to arise not out of the strivings of men to satisfy their real social needs, but out of the “workings of history”. A divine plan?
Their inability to co-operate with others (compromise!) is, I think, based on the belief that not only is the goal (socialism) predetermined but also that there is only one (predetermined) “true path” to this goal. It’s one thing to aim for a socially possible goal; it’s another to believe that “History” “works” towards this predetermined goal. The more divorced from the mainstream of social activity do members become, the more they rationalise their failure by rigidly asserting the ultimate inevitability via the mechanical workings of the “economic factor”. See the WSP, particularly Harmo’s absurd article on Skinner.
There is the “vulgar evolution” approach underlying their beliefs, that is, human intervention is eliminated – until the “vital moment” when the “objective laws of history” (seen as natural laws independent of men) create the perfect predetermined conditions for the “upward development” into Socialism. As Stalin said, “Socialism follows capitalism as surely as night follows day”. It’s the mechanical approach. Society isn’t an “objective” machine.
If there is no diffusion of approaches, if there is only one road, and only one, which “objective forces” (seen as technical developments) have logically paved, then two things can be done. One, sit back and wait for the predetermined moment. Or, reveal this only true path to the less enlightened with a vigour and dogmatic certainty that passes into the realms of religious frenzy. In the “more sophisticated” (!) speakers this inner certainty of predestination takes the form of a smug world-weary approach, rather like a pedantic schoolmaster lecturing wayward pupils.
There can be no “mistakes” in this approach. No activity other than “talking down” to the unenlightened. Everything is complete, schematised, wrapped up, so that all that “the poor fools down there” can do is swallow it. In its extremity this approach leads to the condemnation of any activity that does not have Socialism as its “immediate aim”. Thus for some members the UCS workers’ opposition to redundancy was “futile” because “after all, it’d still be capitalism”. You see? They eliminate the actions of real men, and simply see society as an “objective” machine.
A faith for the working class
It’d be interesting some time to analyse the Party historically, and tie it up with the latter 19th century “Socialist” movement. In a curious way I think Marx was so utterly “far ahead of his time” that “Marxism” would have made absolutely no impact if it hadn’t been presented as an alternative (and historically more progressive) faith than religion. A “scientific” faith, a certainty “as sure as night follows day”.
An anti-dogmatic method was turned into a dogmatic system. The Marxists” stood Marx on his head. Even the word “Marxist” seems to me to have metaphysical connotations. Yet, considering the circumstances, I’m not sure what else could have been done. If the workers needed a guarantee that their struggles were not in vain, that “their day would come” (or at least if the sympathetic intellectuals thought they needed one) then a solidified faith was needed. This was the 19th century evolutionary positivism – with a proletarian twist in the tail. It’s time the Party honestly approached the problem that “Marxism” too is an historical product. But this would place the Party itself in historical perspective. A child of its times. Can it “grow up”?
The airy dismissal of “doing something now” with the cookshop recipe of “inevitable” stages of history assuring the “next step” as a cast iron certainty just won’t wash. The so-called “inevitable” stages were generalisations formulated by Charlie and Fred in order to understand what had occurred:
“Viewed apart from real history, these abstractions have in themselves no value whatever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe of scheme, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history” (The German Ideology, p15).
The (specifically) 19th century approach, derived from natural science that the abstract conception (the model) is more real than the complex phenomena from which it is abstracted, is the bugbear which haunts the Party. Thus speakers spend their time imploring workers to “understand” the abstraction rather than change the reality. “Reality” to most members is the “evolutionary unfolding” of the “economic factor”, the “development of productive machinery”, which reduces men’s needs to narrow “bread and butter” ones. A technological revolution; the freeing of machines.
Instead of men using the communal productive forces (which includes men) to satisfy their social needs (in the widest sense of the word) men, apparently, are to adapt themselves to the needs of machines. Socialism appears not so much a society of socialised human beings as a society of universal capitalists. Slum kids at Christmas who suddenly find themselves on the inside of the shop store’s window. Plenty for all.
There’s enough truth in this approach to make it plausible, but I think it’s tied up with the fact that members can’t comprehend men having social needs which go beyond “economic” ones. Which is why anything that doesn’t immediately change the relations of production is considered worse than useless. Basically, it’s an elitist view, though (like Labour and Tory) they need a “majority vote” to carry it through. What members stress is “abundance for all”, which is actually a promise of a hedonistic paradise. Workers are simply called upon to “understand” this, then wait for the others to “understand” it – and voilà! That’s it!
Now, of course, I’m not denying that it will be possible to satisfy one’s “needs” (in the simple sense) within Socialism. That’s OK. But what then? It begins to sound like the Welfare State utopianised. More and more things. I don’t want to sound like a bloody reverend or an old Tory (which comes down to the same thing I suppose) but “man does not live by strawberry tarts alone”.
Nor do I advocate a return to the “simple life”, whatever that is. No, it boils down to what can be done now. We’re faced with the problem that, unlike the development of capitalism from feudalism, we have no alternative means of production which develop and grow beyond the old.
Developing social needs through struggle
Members are rightly wary of “creeping socialism” insofar as the exponents of such a theory propose that “socialist relations of production” can creep in unnoticed under capitalism. Well, unnoticed or not, it’s dicey, to say the least. “Workers control” in Yugoslavia illustrates this. It’s a con. Even so, I’m reluctant to condemn those who would at least hold dialogue upon this point. Of course, in an economic sense, capitalism trains workers perfectly well how to run industries in a co-operative manner, although the division of labour runs across the full consciousness of this co-operation. Moreover, it’s reluctant work, reluctant co-operation. Although to quite an extent technology has created the potential conditions for the withering away, if not the abolition, of forms of the division of labour, I think we’ve got to encourage concretely what the Party says abstractly, that is, social movements which go beyond the prejudices arising from the division of labour.
Now, Women’s Lib obviously springs to mind. Now “Women’s Lib” is such a vague term and covers all sorts of views – “equal rights for charladies” (fought for by Hampstead “terribly serious” females with names like Samantha because the poor chars are too busy cleaning out the Hampstead females’ homes to fight for themselves), Maoists, etc, etc. Nevertheless, instead of silly blinkered opposition, we should be discussing with women (and men for that matter) the implications of Women’s Lib. What (logically) is really under siege is, of course, not only the division of labour at its root, but that central authoritarian force, its offspring, the private property family. Watch the opponents of Women’s Lib (they often write “horrified” letters to the staider Scottish newspapers). It’s not simply that they’re opposed to women getting equal working conditions, etc; they’re opposed to women “renouncing their traditional roles in society”.
Once the “old man the provider” and “woman the housekeeper” roles are attacked, then the “family itself” is in danger. Women are “forgetting their place” and trying to open their cages. Are we with them, or against them? You are no doubt aware that it’s possible to be a sincere “revolutionary socialist” yet hold socially reactionary views.
Also, I always thought that “the little red book for schoolkids” was a good idea. The Party’s still so much a man’s domain (his hobby?) that members ignore the real struggles taking place in society wherein women and kids are involved. The family, schools, colleges, all institutions basic for the continuation of capitalism, yet never really have we encouraged assaults on these mind-bending citadels of capitalist power. What can be done, of course, may well be limited, but it’s up to people to strive for emancipation from “the natural order of things” so that in their practical striving, they will be brought face to face with the limitations arising from the all-embracing dominant power of capital.
To realise their ever-developing real needs they will be forced to go beyond the stifling clutches of capitalism. The necessity will arise out of their real social needs. But if they don’t strive, if they sit back and avoid the (invigorating) struggle, then the “necessity” will be only abstract and therefore not practically necessary at all. No doubt you can think of plenty of instances where we could at least try to make some impact. I’m utterly sick to the teeth with members dismissing activities outside the Party as futile and – wait for it – “unscientific”! Jesus H. Christ!
Don’t they understand that religion’s finished? (Ignore the showbiz revival – that’s showbiz). “Blessed are all thee who follow the only true path to righteousness…” Enough!
It’s members (and sectarians like them) who help keep religion going. The “debates” fanatics are to be avoided. You see, basically, you can’t beat sectarians by argument. As they’ve got everything wrapped up (in a gift pack) and have facile catechismic answers to everything, then they in return will demand absolute clear-cut answers from their opponent. Now clear-cut answers to everything can only be supplied by metaphysicians. It presupposes that everything’s fixed and in its place and eliminates any degree of creativity. Society isn’t really like jigsaw or crossword puzzles where the parts or words are all predetermined and men’s only part is to recognise the fixed and allotted parts
Practical social “answers” can only be resolved and become obvious through social activity. This is why the Party concentrates on men’s economic” needs. Because it doesn’t know (how could it?) what people’s social needs will be “on the eve”. They fail to see men (and women) creating social needs within the straitjacket of capitalism. “Needs”, for members, come down “from above” but are not really made by the people “from below”.
Actually the 100% Party revolutionaries shake hands with the capitalists in that the latter think that the proles can be “bought off” with more “things”, and the former claim that “Socialism” will provide more things than capitalism can. More sweeties for the proles. OK, the revolutionaries insist on “majority support”. In his own way, so does Head Teeth. The only real difference is a “bigger majority”. Because how the hell can one “understand” Socialism at the moment except abstractly?
This just won’t do. What practically is going to happen after the Revolution will surely arise as a development of what has been built up within capitalism.
The dead hand of Kautsky
I think overall Kautsky probably was the major influence on early Party members, and being such a tradition-bound Party the influence lingers on. Harmo’s article on Skinner is a good illustration of this. In Kautsky’s hands the phrase “the recognition of necessity” takes a rather sinister turn. “Necessity”, for Kautsky, is the “evolutionary” workings of history, the development of the “economic factor”. Men are reduced to colourless puppets whose only action (in the revolutionary sense) is to recognise the higher needs of the techniques of production and dissolve the old relationships that are holding back mechanisms.
Kautsky was a Darwinian before he became a “Marxist” and the 19th century idea of “progressive evolution”, the inevitable unfolding of a rigid predetermined order, was the basis of his outlook, from which he never wavered. The only subjectivity Kautsky allowed for was getting as many people as possible to recognise the (vulgarly) “objective” needs of “History”. In Kautsky’s book on the M.C of H. he says, roughly (I’m quoting from memory) that “there is a general law of nature that all animals including men, must adapt or die”. Words to that effect. It’s the “survival of the fittest” with a “socialist” sting in the tail. This is just plausible enough to pass for Marxism, but it completely eliminates the actions of men in socially creating their needs. The needs aren’t machines, they’re men’s. See the very first thesis on Feuerbach for Marx’s view. It’s completely opposed to Kautsky’s. It could have been written as an antidote to K.K.
Kautsky, like all the vulgar materialists, separates the thing known from the process by which knowledge is required. It’s all in the first thesis particularly. This isn’t a philosophical juggle. It strikes at the very root of the SPGB. Read over Harmo’s article again. Skinner, too, separates circumstances from men, just like Kautsky. And note Harmo’s approval of Behaviourism, for he notes merely that it has “shortcomings” in a class-divided society, but not apparently in a classless one.
Now what basically is Skinner’s view of men? Here it is, from the horse’s mouth – so to speak:
“We can neither assert nor deny discontinuity between the human and sub-human fields so long as we know so little about either. If, nevertheless, the author of a book of this sort is expected to hazard a guess publicly, I may say that the only difference I expect to see revealed between the behaviour of rat and man (aside from the enormous differences of complexity) lie in the field of verbal behaviour.” (The Behaviour of Organism, p442.)
Not the same book as Harmo reviewed, true, but this standpoint “sticks out a mile”. One can say “thank you”! Big deal. And this no doubt is “good dialectical thinking”.
The inhuman mechanical approach can go two ways. One, it can lead to capitalism (a thing) mechanically collapsing, or, and apparently polarised, it can lead to capitalism (again seen as a thing) evolving, steadily “building up” the “contradictions of production” until the “time is ripe” and workers mechanically recognise this and do the needful.
Now, accepting that capitalism won’t collapse like a decayed tenement how will workers “recognise” that the “time is ripe”? Not under-ripe or over-ripe but ripe? After all, if the bloody thing won’t collapse (which is true enough) why shouldn’t capitalism go on for ever? What is there in “objective conditions” that advises men that “now is the hour”?
This attitude is based on the belief that “favourable conditions” are inevitably evolving anyway, and that men’s actions won’t determine them. Predestination. It’s a religious view. At rock bottom, both apparently polarised views stem from the 19th century intellectuals’ belief that the workers are incapable of making history; that it has to be made for them, either via elites (Lenin) or “Scientific” determinism (Kautsky). If sincere working class Socialists still propagate such nonsense it’s basically more a sign of despair than anything else. Knock away their crutch of pre-ordained natural law which floats over the heads of real men, and all they’re left with to construct a movement with are those “bloody silly workers”.
It is true that capitalism, being alienated society par excellence, has its own peculiar laws, or tendencies, precisely because men’s co-operative act of social production (in the widest sense) is hidden and only “realised” in the act of exchange – which appears as “natural”, and men’s social production as unnatural, perverse, forced. This is “how it is” within capitalism. The social creations of men become independent of men and control their actions.
For example, capital “hires” men. The best basis of all history, the co-operative act of social labour, far from satisfying a human need, becomes a means for satisfying other needs. This, incidentally, is why Marx attacked those who simply advocated higher wages as the solution. Social labour appears to them (said old Charlie) “only in the form of acquisitive activity”. He was no “welfare state” technocrat. Basically, he’s a (sssh!) humanist, although that word’s become “dirty”, abused.
If, in theological terms, the hand of God is everywhere, then, in capitalism, the Universal God whose hand “guides men’s destiny” is, ultimately, the world market. The Labour Party Keynesians try to appease “God”; it always outwits them.
The myth of “economic man”
In “Brighton Line” Steele claims (in his reply to Mike Bradly) that members no longer cling to the “ballot box only” fetish. Maybe true. OK. So what? So members speculate that other means may be used. Big deal. But surely the means will only arise and become obvious on the basis of what the workers do now. Or will these means arise mechanically? Out of the hat, so to speak? Surely it will only be because workers, through trial and error, have perfected these means. In other words, it won’t be simply that the means are there all the time – a passive outlook which accounts for the parliamentary fetish – but instead that men’s actions will have created them.
Let them speculate away, the “revisionists” and the “orthodoxy”, the point, however, is to change society. The Party can easily contain all these controversies (!) without changing one iota. A battle between speculators (interpreters) is a phoney battle. A struggle of phrases.
You see what I mean about them separating men from their circumstances? How they (unwittingly) denigrate workers? They’ve posited means here and workers there. But they don’t realise that the very effort to create and develop (transcend) these means is the only practical guarantee that workers are capable of self-emancipation. Marx attacked the SPGB in his third thesis on old Feuerbach. Have a look as well at thesis No. 8.
Socialism can only be rendered practical as a result of men’s activity. This activity is socially determined, not in the sense that we have no choice, but simply that we must be aware of what is possible and what is impossible. But although social conditions determine our possibilities, it is only through activity (backed by theory) that we can transcend these conditions, making Socialism a practical necessity rather than an abstract possibility.
The Party, in a weird Hegelian sense, appeals to workers who are, in a way, aware of their alienated state yet basically accept it. The belief that “Socialism” is something above men, that the struggle is for a “thing” called Socialism and not for the socially possible realisation of men’s needs, is essentially religious. If “philosophy is religion translated into thought” (Marx) then “mechanical Socialism is religion translated into politics” (Donaldson). The fear that men’s needs can be satisfied within capitalism is based upon the belief that men’s needs are limited to their stomachs.
I think this view marked a phase, a stepping stone in the history of Socialism. The view that “History” is working for us independent of our present activities, that “Socialism” is something above men in a master-servant relationship, with men the bearers of “History’s” needs, reflects the immaturity of the working class. That this view is now being increasingly challenged by an increasing number of workers is a pleasant sign indeed. The “act of faith” is now being challenged by critical activity. This could be the enclosing of the historical gap between theory and practice. Historically, the theory was formulated by intellectuals from outside the working class, the proles’ priests. Now the very development of capitalism has, to an increasing extent, proletarianised the intellectuals and intellectualised the proles. Irrespective of the wishes of the capitalist class and independent of their wills the “needs” of capital have increasingly democratised the working class.
If this sounds mechanical and in contradiction to my previous statements, it isn’t. That’s the point. It’s the capitalist class who, typically, see everybody in their own image – economic men. The expansion of their capital determines their social position. Capitalists themselves are utterly alienated – and wallow in it. What is peripheral to them, to be picked up and discarded as cheap trinkets, culture, art, should be central to the working class. Not in the sense that they are ready-made things, isolated from men, simply to be gazed at, but instead that they should be creative productions of the working class themselves.
I liked the idea of street theatre because it was at least intended to be created by people, not packaged and sold to them. How to involve people; that’s the point. Christ, I’m beginning to sound like one of those Bloomsbury pooves who ran around in the thirties looking like caricatures of Michael Foot in flannels and bare feet and chewing raw carrots! “Art for the People!” No, No! Art by the people. Never, never have the proles even set up their alternative newspaper. The Unity Theatre and suchlike were well meaning attempts to hold up mirrors to the proles. But people only stare at mirrors. Seats are for spectators. The Party is a universal bench. I say universal for the other companion parties are simply extensions (outer branches) of the SPGB.
The universal panacea
It was a dreadful (and mechanical) mistake to foist the D. of P. on other countries’ socialists. Instead of realising that capitalism, although universal, has tendencies peculiar to a particular country, the Party started from the abstract model of capitalism and straitjacketed it on the international movement (which doesn’t move). This dangerous absurdity was highlighted about 20 years ago when the Continental Spartacists, which included Pannekoek, invited the Party to send a delegate to their conference, which was, I think, in Amsterdam, or perhaps in Brussels. Anyway, the EC sent them a letter containing an “Introducing the SPGB” leaflet!
Naturally the blokes never replied. How many chances have we missed over the years? We couldn’t even co-operate and encourage blokes to develop their own movement; we had to present them with the Universal Panacea package scheme to be swallowed on delivery. Just when the capitalists were losing the remnants of the British Empire, the Revolutionaries filled the branch with their own brand of chauvinism. The Party is really Hyndman collectivised. British to the core, By Jove!
It’s an elitist view to regard the working class as an amorphous mass of stomachs. This way to the promised trough. Incidentally, did you read that snippety little article on Materialism by Gilmac a couple of months back? I think Chemical Materialism is the only name one can give that view. It’s old hat. Misses the point completely. The irony is that to write a decent article on the subject would chop the legs off the Party. It may have been rhetorical flourish on old Engel’s part when he said that the proles (German or otherwise) were the inheritors of Classical German Philosophy, but he was right on the ball.
I’m not indulging in any appeals to “higher” ideals, but poverty of life includes, but doesn’t end at, “basic needs”. The more brutalised the conditions, the greater the stress laid (in propaganda) on the listeners’ obvious poverty and the glaring affluence of the capitalists. This is the usual Glasgow stuff, and it’s very understandable. But it’s difficult for blokes to understand what is meant by “needs”. Secretly he may hope for a Rolls Royce and a top hat, but really he thinks his hopes wouldn’t be realised under Socialism and it’d be “equal shares for all”. Which might end up in him getting less than he does now.
Man as a social animal is something members parrot but don’t really understand. Members’ well meaning attempts to explain “each according to his needs” only adds to the confusion. It’s almost like a Sermon on the Mount (or, in Edinburgh, on the Mound) in that speakers stress individual needs. “Some men need a lot to eat, others less. Some may prefer fish suppers, others grilled steak, etc.” It’s well meant, but it’s so abstract that workers nod their heads and think, “That’s ok. Some silly bastard’s going to eat fish and chips while I eat steak.”
Speakers fail to point out that men will have to strive to create, or construct, these social needs. They put society in one corner and men in the other, failing to realise that men are social individuals. Because they’re so abstract members are really moralists, for they’re hoping that men (as isolated individuals) will play the game and recognise within themselves the “sensible” limitations of their “needs”. This is actually a proletarian reflection of the moral idealism of the philosophers of the free-trading capitalists.
The earlier capitalists’ Utopia, their moral dream, a society where each man recognised the rights of the other, was of course only an abstract morality. Which is why in comparing what “should be” (the morality) and what actually occurred men became cynical of “human nature”. This “revolutionary” stuff that is peddled is a mixture of working class immaturity and petty capitalists’ utopian yearnings. The Party truly is a child of its times (1904).
When old Charlie said that the Dominant ideas were the ideas of the ruling class he sure said a mouthful. Amusing how speakers quote this without realising the depths the man was getting at. They see it only in as obvious crude way, newspapers, TV and so on, but they fail to comprehend it from the other side in their own approach. The shedding of bourgeois ideas (and practice) is a constant struggle. What is vital, I think, is greater discussion (dialogue) with others outside the Party.
Anyway, I hear that Glasgow Branch will be raising an item for discussion at the ADM on the Party’s attitude to organisations such as Women’s Lib groups, etc. They want to be told their attitude. It’s an attempt, I suppose, but “attitude” has a rather passive ring.
A political museum piece
Unfortunately the Party’s become an end in itself. “Discussion” is blinkered and goes round in circles. As an example, at an outdoor meeting recently a worker pointed out he’d listened to the Party “for 40 years” and they were still pretty much in the same position. Now, granted some questioners are at it, seeking a weak spot in “the case” to bolster up their own prejudices, nevertheless this is a valid point. The speaker understandably rationalised it in some way, basing his views on “the fact” that “conditions are turning favourably in our direction” and it’s simply a case of “plugging on”. Of course I heard the same answer from other speakers over the last 15 years or more, and no doubt it’s a stock question and answer. Now it’s practically impossible to get any internal discussion on this point (discussion with “outsiders” is simply a competition) as the Party is never subjected to any scrutiny in depth. Superficialities abound – “we should sell more SS”, “put colour on the cover”, and so on – but it’s all circular self-deception. Nothing is resolved, for nothing is touched upon basically.
The Party is not looked upon historically, except that certain dates are dragged out (1904) to “illustrate” that “out of the darkness came the dawn”. And after that presumably it’s Amen. It’s interesting to note that Marx’s opposition to Bakunin was not solely over the controversy about the state, although it’s related to it, but mainly because M. Bakunin denigrated any activity short of the abolition of capitalism.
So, on the one hand, we find the advocacy of the necessary historical development of capitalism (including of course the forces leading to its negation) and on the other the non-working class idea of abolishing the system irrespective of the conditions. In the Party we find the first view in a completely vulgarised version (“forces” above men, that is, men reduced to recognisers of “objective” forces, but are not seen as a force themselves) amalgamated with the second view, the cry on every occasion for the “Abolition of the Wages System”.
I think us critics of this are part of a general “movement” or turbulence which has arisen over the last few years. A revulsion towards unquestioned authority in any form. It would be easy, but misleading, to call it anarchism. It’s the breakdown of the rigidly held barrier between “political society” and “civil society”, between politics and social life. It’s been on the cards here since the rise in America of the SDS and the breakdown in the American SLP. Lots more of course, but it’s the latter which highlighted it for me in 1969.
There’s got to be a lot more honesty. Smugly arguing from a defence position is out. Perhaps if the party can spread its wings and encourage activities in all fields, push them on, then there’s hope for the old SP yet. If not, if it retreats into its dogmatic shell, then it can simply be regarded as a political museum. A period piece. Perhaps the ADM will point the way.
If the Party, instead of simply commenting on what has happened (looking backwards), projects itself and practically strives for the development of working class unity, then this will unleash a need for quickly produced pamphlets on various subjects. So much time has been wasted over the merits and demerits of a printing press, of branch publications, and so on, but these will arise as a result of basic changes overall, not vice versa. Grant that the Party remains an “above society” commentator and there’s no real need for further publications. Of course we should be looking beyond the Party as far as publications (at least) are concerned.
I’ve just glanced through a recent book called “Radical Man” by Charles Hampden-Turner. It looks pretty interesting. The author points out something we knew anyway, but an interesting point, that conservatives and dogmatic leftists have a great deal in common, at least as far as their personal relationships (social life) are concerned although their political attitudes may apparently differ.
An attitude is often a pose, passive. There is a good quote in the book by William James:
“No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one has not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.”
How about this quote from “Radical Man”:
“Both Right and Left can be singularly uncreative, while compulsively repeating the same arguments and ideas. Both can be blind to the flaws and discrepancies within their own beliefs while rejecting the subtleties of the other’s arguments. Both, by defining all non-believers as enemies, dupes, as apathetics can cut themselves off from the receipt of novel ideas” (p 263).
The changing working class
The trouble with a lot of these “left” splinter groups is that they only see the industrial proles through a sociological telescope. They either romanticise them or contemptuously dismiss them, which actually comes to the same thing.
The working class now is quantitatively different from its 19th century predecessors in that the term encompasses a lot more than just factory hands. I don’t just mean that in the crude Glasgow Branch way, that is “objectively” in a quantitative manner, but subjectively in that “higher” social groups are now becoming more radicalised. Lecturers, teacher, for example. This, incidentally, was my grouse with the branch’s definition of a class “as being determined by ownership”. This is one-sided in that it’s “objectively empirical” and fails to take into consideration the fact that although empirically a group may be defined as being part of the working class, this means little practically until the group itself begins to identify itself as part of the working class. Teachers’ wage demands have taken a much more militant turn over the last few years, causing dismay even among older teachers insofar as they are losing their “respectable middle class” image. Although they take the increases anyway.
When you see teachers and university trained men generally protesting about what is being taught and also at “big business” motivated base of “education”, then we’re witnessing the radicalisation of sections of the working class. All this may have been obvious to us, but it was of little importance until it became obvious to the people involved in the education industry. When you see architects protesting that their projects are being cast aside for the benefit of “jerry built” profits, then it’s only a step away from seeing that their projects are unrealised because the “needs of capital” render them unrealisable. What I suppose I’m getting at is that the Party has, in an ideal sense, reached the end of the road (abstract Socialism) without practically walking up the road. In some way or other we’ve got to turn back, without losing sight of the goal, and lend a hand to those who, by trial and error, are beginning to radicalise themselves. If we don’t, then I’m certain that the SPGB will disintegrate, becoming a faint voice – from the past.
The division of labour sectional struggles must, in some way, be tied up into an increasingly total class movement. I can’t forecast how the struggles will develop – but then nobody can, including the Party. We’ve got to recognise that the struggle is basically not a mechanical one in the vulgar sense in which the “economic contradictions” are usually seen, but really a clash between class “needs”. The working class’s needs are more human that the capitalists’ (the needs of capital), therefore it will become the whole of society versus the “needs” of capital.
At the moment it isn’t clear-cut but we’ve got to encourage dialogue with others who are understandably just as vague and hesitant as we are. That’s if they’re honest. Only sectarians have everything cut and dried, which is simple enough if one erases the real striving of men and substitutes inevitable “natural laws” independent of men. Such people have more in common with Martin Luther than Charlie Marx.
If everything was simple and clear-cut we’d have had Socialism long ago. Forgive me for repeating myself, but “Socialism” (like Capitalism) isn’t a thing. If one keeps on holding up the “Object” as an abstract ideal one ignores the difficulties facing men in concrete situations. Really, I don’t expect men to line up either for “Socialism” or “Capitalism” seen as things. Some may do so but not generally. “Socialism” will simply express in a crystallised form the very real needs of humanity. In different conditions “socialism” presents itself in (in a sense) a different form. Although Socialism has never been realised various stages in the movement have seen different organisational forms. The early Marx’s idea of a Jacobin-style dictatorship, the later Social Democratic parliamentary parties, workers’ councils, all reflected conditions at various times. Within the context of the particular periods all these forms are understandable and (perhaps arguably) justifiable. Yet all the left-wing sects (including the Party) are still attempting to fight today’s battles using slogans and organisational forms of yesterday. In an unfortunate sense the would-be revolutionaries are blinkered traditionalists. It is futile to “go back to Marx” to find out what can be done now, for of course all these groups can pick and choose selected phrases from old Charlie in order to justify their “position” (something static?). Dogmatism run riot.
Frustrated Social Democrats
Both Charlie and Fred happened to snuff it at a time when Social Democracy was “sweeping the board”. Actually, in Germany anyway, the SPGB was at its electoral height when it was least dangerous as far as the old autocratic State was concerned. The wave of horror following the 1871 Paris Commune and the ban on the German “Socialist” movement made it a near cert that “respectability” and pacifism would permeate the German Labour movement. And thus twas to be. Just as the reality of the French Revolution was transformed in Germany into the “revolution in the mind”, that is, the philosophy of the early Hegel, and the anguished disillusionment in France following the “Glorious Revolution” was paralleled by the philosophy (not action) of the later Hegel, so too was revolutionary activity reduced to a bare statement of “revolutionary principles” in the Erfurt Programme. Critical activity was reduced to a static dogma which stood aloof from practice, almost as if the words themselves possessed a magical quality.
The Party lies firmly in the abstract Social Democratic tradition, taking the principles (the magic words) but not the practice. Yet can a political party be anything other than a reforms movement if it is to survive? True the Party survives, but more as a political curio than a movement. Part of the Party’s dismissal of Syndicalism and the “General Strike” panacea stems from the SPD, particularly (perhaps) from Bebel. The condescending attitude towards trade union activity which is rife in the Party comes directly from Hyndman. In a very real sense the Party has always stood above the real struggles in society, clinging to its set of magic words, reflecting the 19th century “theorists above the working class” parentage.
I think that the 1904 Party viewed “politics” in a very narrow sense. This is very understandable as extra-parliamentary activity was practically nil. The lack of any real movements in social life meant that the Party couldn’t develop beyond a “frustrated parliamentary” sect. It recognised the importance of the State and the dangers inherent in orthodox Social Democracy (reformism as an end) but failed to “go out” into social life (activity outside Parliament) in order to encourage a truly radical political (in the widest sense) movement. It actually “dropped out” of society, concentrating on “educational propaganda”. Yet without making any social impact it hopes “some day” to make a parliamentary impact. But by dwelling upon parliamentary elections it relinquishes its right to be the “militant class party”. The sum total of votes cast by isolated individuals in no way compensates for the lack of a solid class base. In this (very real) sense the Party is “above classes”.
A massive amount of thinking has still to be done by those who genuinely desire Socialism. Honesty on the Left. So long as all the sects simply indulge in scholastic in-fighting, then those workers who have vague hopes of “social justice” and are “anti-boss” will generally support the Labour Party. I’m not suggesting that we should pander to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator but I think, for example, we could have held an open discussion meeting on the implications of the sit-ins. No more open and shut answers. Encourage those who are interested (and perhaps involved) to have their say. A so-called “good meeting” in Glasgow Branch is one where some pedant from the IS swallows the bait and swaps quotes from “The Civil War in France” with the speaker. Meanwhile the proles just spectate. Which Party has all the answers?!
One of the good points about the 1968 uprising in Paris was the mass forums held in theatres and cinemas wherein those who simply mouthed abstract dogmas were jeered at. The blokes were concerned with practical implications not mind-reducing doggerel. Creation, not repetition.
Davie Donaldson (Glasgow)
Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach
I. The chief defect of all previous materialism (including that of Feuerbach) is that the things, reality, the sensible world, are conceived only in the form of objects of observation, but not as human sense activity, not as practical activity, not subjectively. Hence, in opposition to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism, which of course does not know any real sense activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensible objects really distinguished from the objects of thought, but he does not understand human activity itself as objective activity. Consequently, he regards the theoretical attitude at the only genuine human attitudes, while practical activity is apprehended only in its dirty Jewish manifestation. He therefore does not grasp the significance of “revolutionary”, “practical-critical” activity.
II. The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator himself must be educated. This doctrine has therefore divided society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can only be grasped and rationally understood as revolutionary practice.
VIII All social life is essentially practical. All the mysteries which lead theory towards mysticism
find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.
XI The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it.
Harmo’s article on B.F Skinner was in The Western Socialist, No 1, 1972.
Gilmac’s article on materialism was in the April 12972 Socialist Standard.
Note on Davie Donaldson’s article [appeared in journal Critical Theory and Revolutionary Practice, No. 1]: The view of Marx’s ideas presented in this article – as a critical theory and revolutionary practice – is advocated by such writers as Labriola, Lukacs, Gramsci, Korsch, Marcuse and Lichtheim. The opposite view – “Marxism” as a doctrine of economic determinism and mechanical materialism – can be found in such writers as Engels, Kautsky, Lafargue, Plekhanov, Stalin and Trotsky.