Statement of Intent - Radical Chains

radical chains

Statement of intent from the communist journal, Radical Chains, published in London between 1989 and 1998.

The prevention of communism has been, and remains, for capital, the pressing requirement, even where the resulting social forms are barriers to the self-expansion of capital. Radical Chains exists in order to develop revolutionary critique ... In this period of deepening decay and disruption, our starting point can only be the need for free association and the potential for abundance.

The working class is bound by radical chains: it experiences suffering and dehumanisation of global significance, yet - because of this - develops capacities and needs which call for the supersession of class society. This 'greatest of all the productive forces' demands conditions adequate to itself, and is self-driven to bring them into being, ie to abolish itself as the working class. Communism is thus not merely an idea. It is a human need, embodied in the historical presence of combined propertyless labour power.

Communism is freely associating people creating themselves through conscious social planning. Communism is the living potential against which the alienated categories and experiences of the present make human sense. Marx's method was developed in the period of ascendant capitalism. It remains the foundation of revolutionary thought and action today. The world in which we live is riven by a contradiction between the need for and possibility of planning and the law of value. Within the transitional epoch as a whole these correspond to the needs of the proletariat and those of capital, which remain the polarities of class relationships across the earth.

Planning has not superseded the law of value, and is not doing so. There cannot be planning except by the producers. Administration, by bureaucracies and elites, functions in a variety of forms as a surrogate for the law of value. Centralised, top-down attempts to coordinate the activities of the direct producers and adjacent social strata must fail, for they are properly subject neither to the discipline of the market nor to that of the consciously associating society. In the presence of combined labour, containment and external coordination of an administrative nature can only be partial, unstable, and unsuccessful.

The communist potential of the working class remains unrealised: the containment of October was primarily achieved before October, internationally, through bourgeois administrative responses to the proletariat in Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. The USSR was transformed into a centre of reaction penetrating the world labour movement.

For more than half a century stalinism partnered social democracy in obstructing proletarian self-transformation on a world scale. In fact, the bogus claims made for Soviet 'planning' gave social democracy a new lease of life by appearing to vindicate the rationality and viability of centralised administration. By virtue of its origins in the destruction of October, stalinism was able to bring marxism into disrepute. It corrupted marxism which became something else whilst seeking communist credentials, and being granted them by the political representatives of capital.

The problem today is even more serious than that of the years following 1848 when the revolutionary party, as Marx observed, was 'driven from the field' by the industrial and commercial recovery. It is not only that are we surrounded by the debris of October. The working corollary of this is that in different national locations the working class has been obstructed by often symbiotic mass stalinist and social democratic 'workers parties' and social structures functioning as barriers to proletarian self-development. Even worse, there continue to exist small but politically significant groupings which have internalised - with whatever reservations - key aspects of the stalinist ideological legacy. The crippling assertion that the USSR and similar entities were transitional societies is only the most obvious of these. Stalinism is too often narrowly and misleadingly seen as a primarily political degeneration.

The core of historical materialism is the analysis of social forms of surplus extraction and labour process control from the standpoint of communism. Stalinism may for a time have suspended the law of value as a means of economic regulation, but without bringing about a move towards planning, which can only be conscious, democratic and global. Social democracy has done the same in more partial ways, where capital remains the direct form of surplus extraction. Imposing limits upon the law of value only preserves it. During an entire historical period the prevention of communism has been, and remains, for capital, the pressing requirement, even where the resulting social forms are barriers to the self-expansion of capital. Radical Chains exists in order to develop revolutionary critique and thus to carve out a theoretical space within which the need for and movement towards human emancipation can be explored. This objective requires the re-evaluation of categories and concepts which have previously been debased. This does not simply necessitate a project of recovery, but an attempt to forge new categories and concepts appropriate to our own period.

We are not a party, nor even the nucleus of one, though we aim to develop as a contributing strand towards a future formation. The revolutionary party of the proletariat will not come into being without a revolutionary movement in the working class. In the meantime, the closest available approximation to such a party necessarily takes the form of dispersed individuals and groups, of which Radical Chains is one. To declare a political party nucleus prematurely without recognition of the complexity of the prevention of communism is to create yet another barrier against proletarian self-formation, and to perpetuate the dispersal. In this period of deepening decay and disruption, our starting point can only be the need for free association and the potential for abundance.

COMMENTARY (by W.Dixon, from Radical Chains no.3)

Nothing is decided. The question of the form of social regulation is not resolved. Rather, we enter a more fluid period. In the short run, though, alternatives to capital are discredited. The breakdown of administrative structures; assiduously identified as communist has given the free market project a boost to its claim to represent the fulfilment of history. This resolves down to its principal claim to represent the highest achievement of individual freedoms. Yet for all the talk, what a paltry dream this amounts to.

The free market critique of administrative planning cannot help but reveal its own limits if it is to damn centralised planning. Its critique is hobbled because it shares the administrator's belief that external mediation of the producers is necessary. All they differ on is the form this should take. Free marketeers point to money as the most efficient mediation. In doing so, however, they point to the limit of their so called freedom.

The price system presupposes an inherent boundary to human knowledge that requires the subordination of the individual to a general system over which there cannot be control. It is a grim vision of the possibilities of human fulfilment. Direct recognition of need must be denied in favour of subordination to money mediation. The individuality on offer is one from which subjectivity is subtracted. It is dominated from the exterior, by our social intercourse become objective in the commanding movements of the price system. This individuality can be no more than the husk within which subjectivity rattles around. We might puff and we might blow but no bravado can hide that hopes for real life echo in a mansion of forlorn possibilities. Our desires and our capacities are torn, apart by money; this is our poverty. Other individuals are stood opposite us in competition. Subtraction of subjectivity takes its most personal form in this individual against us, become object that in turn objectifies us. Mutual antagonism particularises us; this individuality is just a particularity, atomized, denying subjectivity. Without subjectivity we cannot recognise subjectivity.

The limiting form of individuality encapsulated in the market had been increasingly discredited as it was subverted by the assertion of needs. The ideal only ever existed formally; the struggle for class formation has never accepted this system. Yet, there has been no linear transition to the control of production by needs. The possibility of temporary retrieval of the market model was possible because it appeared as the alternative to, even supersession of, administrative control. Those intent on preventing the possibility of planning, particularly in the Soviet Union, depended on a rigid atomization of the producers that wiped out attempts to communicate and so to collectivise the class. This anti-planning, bureaucracy, desperately imposed and reimposed the need for its own existence. In doing so it necessarily confirmed everything that was said by the free marketeers but did so with a new significance: atomized knowledge, the sterile individual, was clearly no longer the pre-condition but the result of the preservation of a role for mediation. History is not ended but dances on its head. Such is the antagonism of the old forms of power, Stalinist, market, socialist, to the abundance in the social productive forces.

Socially and politically the market system had lead to the revolution from the destruction of which eventually the elite had arisen. Yet the cost of preventing the move to planning, the securing of atomization, was the concession of individualised control over the labour process; control over the surplus was lost. Various attempts to marketise parts of the system have faced intractable problems. Failure to control the working class necessitated the attempt at a wholesale move to the market.

Yet limitations to the freedom of the individual had been recognised within liberal political economy even in the nineteenth century. They found it necessary to re-theorise individual freedom under the impact of a developing social alternative. Of what use was freedom if you lived in poverty? There were chains of material and spiritual deprivation that had to be taken account of if the system would survive the threat of the alternative.

The interventionist programme had to interrupt social initiative, to forestall movement founded on needs, by recognising these on behalf of the solitary individual. This would prevent the appearance of the subject in the productive forces but at the cost of contradicting what was to be saved. While supposedly enabling the individual, it tended to disable by intercepting an active relation to need. This diverted the relation of needs to communism but did so at a cost for capital by tending to suffocate its source of vigour, absolute poverty, in regulations that formally recognised need.

The diminishing influence of classic liberalism was the result of bourgeois society's recognition of the working class as a social power. It had no choice. Any attempt to have re-imposed the paradigm, to re-subordinate needs wholly to money would have had devastating consequences for the system. Social democracy became the ruling ideology of bourgeois society.

The post-1945 settlement appeared to complete this move to social democracy while, with the cold war, communism was identified as an external foreign threat. This situation has not lasted. The social democratic forms have broken down as, more dramatically, have their counterparts in the East. In both instances the forms collapsed on the back of the social power of the working class. While this was general across the West, Britain occupied a special position. Welfare had achieved its political goals but without the necessary productivity deal. The crucial question was always whether or not the trade unions could deliver the membership. Not only did they fail but to keep any role they had to accommodate the militancy of their members.

It was not a surprise that the ideological offensive against welfare should have been so virulent in Britain. The radical right attacked the consensus as one that actually enabled conflict. It was seen as allowing the workshy to prosper while empowering trade unions and so undermining the wage relation. Keith Joseph could even characterise Britain's problems as arising from an incomplete bourgeois revolution.

The real nature of the enthusiasm for the individual could be seen in one of the earliest texts of the new free market political economy, Second Thoughts on Full Employment Policy (Samuel Britian, Centre for Policy studies,1975). Here the argument was put that government's commitment to full employment through intervention should be dropped. The central proposition of monetarist theory, relates Brittan, is that rather than by fiscal and monetary policy, unemployment is determined by the functioning of the labour market. Unwillingness to take on union control meant a combination of wages and productivity incompatible with full employment. The only solution had been to disperse the problem to the level of macroeconomic policy. This had required the effective reduction of real wages through inflation. Inevitably this lead to struggle to regain real wage levels. The implicit socialisation of the wage that was the condition of the macroeconomic policy had become the socialisation of struggle: 'more and more people resort to collective action to try to prevent their own earnings falling too far behind the escalating price levels.' (Brittan 1975, p.18) This was a threat to 'political stability'. To understand the ensuing instability it was necessary to 'distinguish sharply between the individual and the group pursuit of self interest. The former is no threat to a free society and is indeed a positive stimulant; if an individual decides that he has a non-negotiable demand for more than he can earn in the market, there is very little he can do about it.' (Brittan, 1975, p.19.). Here is the heart, crudely expressed, of all free market dreams of free individuality - an impotent particularity. It is contrasted with the baleful situation where this individual joins with others, when the chances of doing something about it are considerably improved.

In short the political elements of the wage, responsive to concrete labour, and hence needs, had to be removed or controlled. This would tend towards the absolute poverty of needs before money and so abstract labour. Obstacles to a market in labour had to be removed to reintroduce competition, atomization. This was the programme of supply-side economics.

There might be some sense in the claim that the Thatcher years set out to complete the bourgeois revolution. The right have indeed been happy to accept such an accolade: it gives the process a sense of inevitability. This is nonsense. There could never be some ideal of bourgeois society since by its nature it produced within itself an alternative social power. As early as the French Revolution fear of the people, the terror and attacks on property had put a block on moves in Britain to democratic reform. The idea of balance in the constitution prevailed: the people balanced by the aristocracy. As accumulation continued so the influence of the proletarian social power would develop, so that in the matter of democracy for example the bourgeois scum were forced to the conclusion that it was far better to give than receive. In general bourgeois society had to limit itself. The point of bourgeois society has become to preserve bourgeois society by preventing the completion of the proletarian revolution. In its need to grapple with this problem Britain has been the most advanced section of bourgeois society. It is absurd to speak of completing the bourgeois revolution as if some objectivised ideal could be realisable without reference to the subjectivity of the working class. In this situation ideals have an absolutely reactionary role to play.

The point that follows from this is that, whatever the rhetoric, the priority for the Thatcher programme could be no different from that of the reforms its followers affected to despise. It was rooted in the failure of the welfare state; Thatcher could not evade, indeed her project was predicated by, the same political priority that had envisaged the welfare state. What had changed was how the political should be positioned. The ability to claim to be returning to original virtues was plausible since the politicisation of the wage had become the socialisation of struggle, so the attempt had to be made to return to the unified wage. While this all had the look of a return to vigour it was actually only a consequence of failure in forms of control. The implications for bourgeois society are far more profound than suggested by any temporary gain in political initiative.

While many on the left who had developed debilitating relations to the welfare administrative forms could only understand Thatcher as defeat, it was not so easy for the Thatcherites to assume their own victory. Easy as it was to break a political opposition that had sunk in a swamp of bureaucratic inanity, Britain's rulers have never been so careless as to confuse this with breaking the working class. The move to restore an automatic economy was still plagued by the priority of political stability. Every step forward would require a step back.

The Thatcher government certainly reorientated the economy in many important spheres, yet how far have they really got? Public expenditure is still over 40% of the economy and this tends to rise during recession. There was no significant defeat of the working class under Thatcher, as was emphasised by her own tactics. Where she had success it came from her own tactical judgement not to take on more than one enemy at once. Yet her tactic already supposed concessions to the rest of the working class. The point of dismantling the old welfare consensus was to avoid confrontation with the whole class.

The free market programme declared its primary policy aim to be inflation control. Behind this stood the determination to depoliticise the operation of macroeconomic policy. This political aim had been forced on them by the development of class struggle. Yet even before the fall of Thatcher she had compromised on this aim. Before the 1987 election credit conditions had been eased to sustain a recovery which would ensure re-election. This was followed soon after by the world crash of October 1987. Money was pumped into the economy to preserve liquidity and prevent a wholesale collapse of the financial system. More importantly for world economy Alan Greenspan did the same in America.

What was revealed at this point was the pitiful dependence of this free market current on the left it despised. The free market programme had been dependent on overcoming the limiting contradiction at the heart of policy: between concrete labour, the tendency to needs, but political stability, on the one hand; and the tendency to abstract labour, the subordination of needs, but the necessity to collectivise the class on the other. It had achieved political manoeuvre here because the administrative structures encouraged a disaffection that could not clearly see a communist alternative; the revolutionary left played a disorganising role here. Furthermore, social democracy had itself accepted the need to cut welfare after 1974, so implementing a subordination of needs to the global law of value. Tory rule would be continually punctuated by the legitimate claim that in important respects it continued work already started under Labour. Bourgeois society could make the plausible claim that there was no alternative.

The extraordinary absence of opposition was at no time better revealed than in the lead up to the Falklands War when the Labour front bench vied with their opposite numbers in their protestations of patriotism. Out of this shameful episode Thatcher emerged triumphant supported by patriotic structures that Labour meticulously constructed around her. She moved from least popular to most popular prime minister of the century, from the debacle of the '81 riots, to '82 and waving the flag of the great imperial leftovers. She had survived, and with her much else, by playing the nationalist card. Yet this contradicted her programme which aimed at the eradication of the national particularity of labour. Within her success of the Falklands lay her downfall over Europe.

The '87 crash was decisive. It threatened a situation in which real alternatives could be posed. Social democracy would be incapable of containing these alternatives, this being all the more dangerous since financial collapse threatened to affect all sectors of the class. The political priority reasserted its primacy over particular tactics; controlling inflation was dropped. Conditions for the preservation of ineffectual opposition had to be conceded in the short run.

The inflationary period that followed undermined the credibility of the Thatcher government. Avoiding one problem had only transposed it into another. The image of competent government had been tarnished. Thatcher attempted to retrieve her situation with the national populist card. Her Bruges speech brought to the fore the issue of sovereignty and behind this control over national economic policy. Incredibly she was able to identify Europe as the source of creeping socialism. In doing so she flouted her own free market principles. The very idea of a sovereign economic policy suggested control and so choice. Europe as a policy of integration promised separation of the economic from politics and a re-fetishisation of money through the reconstitution of its automaticity at the supranational level. European money would exclude the possibility of responding through interest rates, exchange rates, or the price level to the competitive loss of concrete labour in Britain. This would throw the burden of adjustment firmly on the labour market. For British capital, Europeanisation, by subsuming needs of national labour in a wider market, offered escape from the problems that had beset it since world war two - a working class which, in its control of the labour process, had turned social democracy to its own advantage from the 1950s onwards.

Thatcher's inability to escape politically orientated intervention was not a matter of career saving, only, but was an expression of the contradictory premise of the free market as a political project to remove the political from the economy. Its difficulties had to be difficulties for Thatcher's own career. In another specific area the free market programme had run into obstacles. The poll tax had been conceived as a device that would introduce a market principle into public expenditure. It aimed towards the overturning of direct recognition of needs by reconnecting service to payment. The poll tax was part of the broader thrust of Tory policy towards the depoliticisation of the wage. Yet the poll tax could not fail to socialise opposition since it was aimed at an aspect of the wage that fell outside usual negotiating channels but was general to everyone.

The poll tax failed because of the curious nature of opposition for capital. Thatcher's political success had relied on comparison with an ineffectual opposition rather than on directly positive virtues. Thatcher had to avoid situations in which the working class could unite around an alternative oppositions. Behind this dependence on the Labour Party lay a recognition and fear of the social power of the working class and the imperatives for her class of the prevention of communism. The poll tax had provided an issue through which serious alternatives to Labour might flourish. At its heart was the explosive issue of needs. In the event this potential was never adequately addressed. The campaign didn't escape its initial appeal to a populist anti- thatcherism. Nonetheless it had become a focus enabling many alternative currents to gain organisational and street experience outside the normal forms of the labour movement. Concessions were, again, necessary to preserve the loyal opposition.

Thatcher's downfall is intertwined with the contradictions at the heart of the free market. Her fall in part marks a turning back from the point of its greatest offensive. Although the policies that follow are appropriately represented by the duller Mr Major it should be remembered that in important respects after '87 Thatcher had led the backsliding, not through choice but because she couldn't escape the same political priority as social democracy. The free market is also the tendency to abstract labour, and hence class collectivity. For capital its realisation must be avoided at all costs.

Capital can offer little new. It has breathing space because of events in Eastern Europe but this will close. Meanwhile social democracy, certainly in Britain has drooped to the right. We seem to be in fora period of Majockism, in which 'ism' might suggest too strong a sentiment for the phenomenon. Within this, though, Europe will be a vital factor, one that may, ironically for Thatcher, succeed temporarily in re-establishing a money fetishism where there had been policy. Yet conditions for success are already setting up the process by which it will be undermined. Free adjustment will inevitably leave uneven deprivation across Europe, but threatening labour everywhere. This will require social and regional policies that must even in obviated ways recognise need. Capital must run to stay still. Mechanisation has historically absorbed forms of concrete labour that were the basis of struggle; what is revealed today is an analogous tendency to crisis in political forms as structures that were intended to stabilise become the basis of new struggle; new political forms must again be devised. The problem is that these must appear increasingly crude and pragmatic; their ability to intervene in social consciousness will become ever more attenuated.

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Jun 26 2011 14:14


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