1 The Class Struggle and Liberty

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 21, 2010

The theories of social revolution have not been produced by theorists, who at most have supplied the technical terms, often at the expense of these becoming looked on as clichés rather than as natural truths. Peter Kropotkin (v) is usually regarded as the main theoretician of anarchism, but he himself wrote upon the subject: ". . . if some of us have contributed to some extent to the work of liberation of exploited mankind, it is because our ideas have been more or less the expression of the ideas that are germinating in the very depths of the masses of the people. The more I live, the more I am convinced that no truthful and useful social science, and no useful and truthful social action, is possible but the science which bases its conclusions, and the action which bases its acts, upon the thoughts and inspirations of the masses. All sociological classes and all social actions which do not do that must remain sterile."1

The fashionable philosophers of today, whose academic pedantry and class prejudices do not permit them to take note of anybody not mentioned in the university curriculum, will deny that such ideas germinate in the masses and will credit the motivation for social progress to classes of society more congenial to themselves.

It is by no means new to try to reconcile anarchism in terms of Marxism, as is done in the "student debate" of today. Even during the lifetime of Marx, the validity of his economic criticism of capitalism was accepted by the libertarian wing of the International (vi). The International was the first attempt to express the class struggle in terms of an organisation based upon the working class. The difference of thinking, as between Marxists and Bakuninists, was a clash between centralism and federalism, and on whether the existing State machinery should be used or destroyed. It is impossible to discuss the capitalist system in terms of changing it without some reference to the work of Marx, and some use of what have now become his clichés, even though the latter have often been used out of context to justify completely different concepts from those intended.

Perhaps to avoid the repeated use of the political cliché we need the skill of the Victorian telegraphist, accustomed to whittle down to two or three words the verbose lucubrations of the bourgeoisie. There is a classical story that, on one occasion during the Crimean War, a general sent a telegram urging that Lieutenant Dowbotham be granted every facility to prove his merits, and that consistent with his military duties it should be borne in mind that his advancement and protection would greatly please those distinguished persons vouching for him. In telegraphese this became "Look after Dowb". So far as modern Britain is concerned, there is no need to think in terms of a conspiracy by the upper classes. Their watchword is still "Look after Dowb". Those who feel that in persisting in using the phrase "class struggle" we are being unutterably banal might reflect on how upper-class endeavours are geared to looking after Dowb. He is guarded if not from the cradle, certainly from the classroom, until the grave (and beyond as far as the bourgeois historian is concerned).

To look after Dowb from his earliest induction in the public school, he is trained on spartan lines both as a servant of abstract power and a master of lesser humans; he is bred in an elite known to each other in strength and weakness from earliest years, immured to the hardships of power as well as made desirous of it; inculcated in the dominant mystique and way of leadership, and isolated from the rest of the community even at play.

To this day, the "public" school system of education dominates the British ruling class and the task of governing the nation at top level is entrusted to it. Only now has it been possible to envisage a revolt from within, since the continuous absorption of the new ruling class by the old has diluted the latter to a greater extent than was ever thought possible. The capitalist class was welded into the old aristocracy upon the playing-fields of the public schools. Now, a new liberal ruling class is rising from the managerial and technocratic ranks and sensibility and intellect may be found even among the education-fodder. A Shelley (vii) is no longer a total phenomenon in the public school or university. In any case, in modern society he would be treated rather differently. Those who aspire to a gentleman's career in publishing do not go "Shelley baiting", even at school. They wonder how his poetical productions could be used to advantage. Perhaps in advertising?

Even radical Dowb may be looked after nowadays; there are for him the new worlds of the film, radio, TV press and publicity. There he may enjoy progressive views if he wishes. He can combine his fashionably provocative radicalism with his innate privileges, whilst staid Dowb major pursues the more humdrum road to glory in the Foreign Office or the top echelons of industry.

The sequence of command-and-obey which is preached as high gospel in the education factories is not shattered by more generous views; indeed, the more urbane, who try to bridge the gap between the classes and are specially courteous to those who have not had their advantages may well be the more dangerous.

No longer, of course, is education itself a preserve of the wealthy or those favoured by the State. The modern State is too large a monster to be satisfied with trained servants coming from so small a minority. Not only are there wider fields for those trained to rule than ever there were, but the growth of science has created a demand for technicians and scientists. The system of licensed education in turn creates the modern fetish for examinations and the continual polishing and re-polishing of academic learning that goes with them. So we find that some pass their thirtieth birthday, still students, still about to make their contribution to society, doing their academic researches and enjoying their chosen hobbies at the expense of those who work, and the State welcomes it; for the whole purpose of education factories is not to increase the sum of knowledge, but to make docile citizens.

Kropotkin's "typical optimism" was derided when he said2 that a man need only work until his fortieth year, and then might devote himself to research or science or whatever took his fancy, having performed sufficient value for the community and done his share of the world's work already. But Kropotkin was scientific enough in his analysis and assumptions, and only optimistic in that he believed scientific progress should be used for the betterment of man and not to his disadvantage. He did not believe that this would happen at all if the State were not destroyed root and branch. Because this has not been done, education remains a method of giving a little liberty within the State.

Unfortunately for the bourgeoisie, the process of education cannot be entirely canned and criticism of the present order may creep in. For some take their learning seriously and not all accept their predestined role as trainee mandarins. While the student rebellion may partly be the last outcry of nature before the obsolescence of adult professional life, it is now reasonable to expect that not every student can be bought and sold in the cattle market, and amongst the trainee mandarins there are bound to be some who will reject their destiny in the Destruction State, and it is for these that Cohn-Bendit (viii) amongst others, has become a spokesman.

It would hardly be true to assert, as do some followers of Marcuse (ix) that students form a class of their own. But, in our scientific renaissance, students cannot be charged to do nothing but think about social problems, without coming to some recognition of the basic facts of society and therefore the need for rebellion. The young automatically question established authority. Some enthusiastic Tories think that the answer to student militancy is to cut off their grants. But even the ultra-Toryism of an Abdul the Damned -- to cut off their heads -- would not suffice. The system will not stand up to scrutiny. The "queen of the sciences" in specific universities may still be the classical queen, theology; it may be the drag queen, economics; or the lady-president of the sciences, Marxist-Leninism in Eastern Europe -- or the American equivalent, social and business administration. But now they must buy out or abdicate. The ruling class must woo and win the trainee mandarins; the current asking prices are advertised in the columns of the better Sundays. They are well in advance of thirty pieces of silver, and may even be accepted without the need for selling out. You object to using your degree for destructive nuclear research? Why not try the social services?

At present, Marx's analysis that the ruling class is sustained by the surplus value produced by the working class, very largely holds good. We still live in a competitive society, though its edges are becoming blurred by collectivism. Labour is bought and sold like anything else. The myth of capitalism is, of course, that one gets what one deserves; those who do well out of the system like to believe that it is their superior intellect that is the cause. The Conservative credo is that without some reward, society would go flat. The same people protest indignantly when they find that "after their expensive education and training" perhaps "a dustman" is doing as well as themselves. They do not like the logical application of the competitive system which is that everything is bought and sold, and in the cheapest market possible. If there is a superfluity of doctors, down will go their wages in proportion to the national level. If nobody wants to become a dustman, the dustman's wages will rise, unless forcibly kept down by the State. This has been a reason for government intervention in industrial matters since the Black Death caused labourers' wages to rise, and legislation artificially lowered them.

Abolition of competition is not enough. In a non-competitive society, such as we have had in the past and are likely to have again (the Jesuit state of Paraguay or the communist countries today) the relationship of classes will still be to the benefit of those with power. Property relations have, after all, changed in the "communist" countries and classes are theoretically no more. Still, no fair observer could deny the continuation of the class system, and even those who pretend "the class struggle no longer exists" in the Soviet countries must see that while the big capitalists and landlords have vanished, and only small owners, especially small farm owners, remain (and even these face disappearance as the State extends its monopoly) yet there are quite obviously classes of some sort. Though in Russia the "capitalist" in the Marxian sense is an anachronism, and exists only on the very periphery of the economy, market trading (with illegal overtones), there is no social equality. Classes certainly exist in the sense used by sociologists to denote distinct social strata based upon different levels of income and occupation, and also in the sense of the dispossessed against the rulers, even if they no longer exist in the older sense.

In so far as this division of classes is concerned, not only is there no socialism in Russia, but the signs of it being wanted anywhere in the counties are less than ever. The working class, deceived for so long as to what socialism is and on the nature of the class struggle, uses such phrases in the way that the Christian mouths phrases without grasping their content. The Soviet under-privileged look for economic betterment individually or collectively, and lavish praise on those individual rulers who will give a little more liberty in some matters. In some of the satellites it is only necessary to do a little flag waving for the ruling class to be regarded with favour.

The Communist Party in these countries merely sets the tone for a careers pyramid, based upon a different set of values from those of capitalism, and yet fundamentally coming back to the lie of rewards for service; the sham need for obedience and duty; and the super-imposition of self-sacrifice when the needs of the State demand it.

It is in this respect that Russian Marxism has parted company with the Maoists, the Chinese brand of Marxist-Leninism. This wing clearly recognises the existence of class struggle both in capitalist and "communist" countries. They tend, in the capitalist countries, to be more progressive than the orthodox communists, who deny class struggle and think only of the national needs of Moscow. Although the Maoists claim to be in the tradition of Stalin, they are in fact more revolutionary than those communists who have thrown over the Stalinist myth, and as regards the Soviet Union, the Maoists proclaim revolutionary opposition much more clearly than the timorous Trotskyists were ever able or willing to do. Whereas Trotsky (x) blamed Stalin personally, or "the bureaucracy", but insisted that Russia was "the workers' state", the Maoists understand there is a class struggle in Russia and its satellites, and even in China.

However, since they are themselves in power in China, it would be too much to expect them to realise that in that country the enemy of man is the means by which he is governed. They perceive the divisions in their regime, but conclude that it is due to their own shortcomings as a bureaucracy, and preach self-criticism to the point where it becomes absurd. They strive to eliminate "bourgeois relics" in their own party, thinking that by a "cultural revolution" they will be able to reconstruct the party and shake off the bad habits it no doubt acquired during the struggle against capitalism. They fail to see that what oppresses the masses is not so much the habits the party acquired under capitalism, bad as they may be, but the powers they have acquired since. They cannot introduce an anti-authoritarian regime except by abolishing themselves, and though this may be the theory of Marxism, it will never be the practice, for power readily convinces its possessors of their own indispensability.

They are revolutionary in every country but their own, like the Victorian bourgeoisie. They represent socialism without liberty -- which in Bakunin's formula, means tyranny, just as liberty without socialism means exploitation.

With this "liberty" without socialism we in the West are familiar. It is seen in the plea of the private-enterprise capitalist to be left alone by the State to make money and keep it. But he does not entirely reject the State; he merely despises it, as the public hangman was once despised and rejected by the supporters of capital punishment. If anything is run by the government it cannot be any good, he says, but he calls for greater punishment by government of those who interfere with his profit-making and safety. At the height of his individualism, in the middle of his boasts as to the manner in which he left his former employment to start on his own "to better himself" and never looked back (or beneath) he wants the government to take legal sanctions against those who leave his own factory gates to go on strike to better their own lot.

This "liberty", too, is the "national" form which consists in the right to have the same tongue as the otherwise faceless rulers. It is the "liberty" one defends when one has surrendered every civil liberty to become a soldier. It is the classical "liberty" to starve on a park bench or to dine at the Ritz, modified today by the fact that the State will readily take charge of the vagrant and so enable the expense-account diner to sup at the Ritz with a comfortable conscience.

It is the "liberty" to say whatever one chooses, within reason (that is to say, within law) provided one does nothing effective about it. Cant about liberty may always be recognised; it is accompanied by a hope that liberty will not become "licence", that is to say, that it will never be real freedom, and that nobody will take advantage of benefits really intended for those conferring them. It is "liberty" for politicians to criticize each other, and a breach of privilege for us to criticize them when they do not feel like it. It is "liberty" for judges and magistrates to express their prejudices, it is "contempt" for us to reveal our contempt.

Law is not liberty. The most progressive laws merely mark the boundaries beyond which liberty may not go. To express social change in terms of law means a defeat in the class struggle, not a victory; it facilitates the rise of a new ruling class, or renders the old one more capable of withstanding supercession.

All classes may be revolutionary. All are capable of making great changes and reforms. All may, in their time, be progressive, and degenerate only with changing conditions. But only productive classes can be libertarian, because they do not need to exploit others, and do not need, therefore, to maintain either the machinery of exploitation, or the means by which others can be forced or persuaded to give up their liberty in return for real or imagined protection.

  • 1Letter on his seventieth birthday to a meeting in Carnegie Hall, New York; 1912.
  • 2>Fields, Factories and Workshops (Nelson).