Saturday, September 30, 2006

Marx, People and Society (1979)

From the February 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

These days it is fashionable to write long, confusing, dull books about Marx. The qualifications for the job are a commitment to Leninism, a selective bibliography and a capacity for dialectical distortions. The search to discover what went on in Karl Marx's mind has beaten the question of what a Scotsman wears under his kilt as the number one talking point in trendy pubs. To play the game you don't have to be a socialist - but it helps if you learn by heart the required Leninist cliches. Thanks to these modern Marxist scholars we have not just one Marx but many: Hegelian Marx, Young Marx, Mature Marx, not to mention Dead Marx who passed his words of wisdom beyond the grave to Young Lenin. One of the favourite topics of those who treat Marxism as a spectator sport is what they call 'Marx's ontology' (his conception of the nature of Man).

Marx's view of 'human nature' is essentially different from all others because it is historical (seeing people as socially developing beings) and dialectical (seeing humanity and Nature as two parts of the same whole). Marx speaks of 'reality' as being both 'naturally human' and 'humanly natural'. The idealist philosophers had always constructed their own model of the human race and placed it in Nature. It was not coincidental that these models corresponded to the ideals of the ruling class of the day. Thus, capitalist philosophers depict humanity as selfish, lazy aggressive and incapable of co-operation. Unlike the Utopian Socialists, Marx did not construct an ideal being to fit into a preconceived pattern of socialist society. His conception involved two questions, firstly, what are the general characteristics of a natural being, and secondly, what are the specific characteristics of a human being? He divided these human attributes into dialectically interdependent powers and needs.

Marx associates three powers and needs with human life; work, eating and sex. He did not say that people must work or eat or have sex in one way as opposed to another in order to be 'natural', but simply that these activities are in the nature of their being. The attributes of 'Species-Man' are more extensive, for it is these that separate it from the unthinking animals. Marx's concept of human nature, then, is concerned with natual and specific attributes of homo sapiens, not the particular moral predilections of the philosopher.

But he doesn't leave it that. Marx's view was that in private property society, an especially under capitalism, people are alienated from their real selves (or, to borrow a Feuerbachian term, alienated from their human essence). By alienation is meant - not surprisingly - the absence of unalienation, people living in accordance with their species and their nature: Socialist society. This is where the Redbrick intellectuals lose Marx's point entirely. He was not concerned with alienation as some kind of existential void to which 'modern man' is doomed. The existentialist, Hyppolite, has it wrong when he writes that alienation is a 'tension inseparable de l'existence' and is inherent in 'la conscience de soi humaine'. Marx consistently relates alienation in property societies to socialist unalienation:
[Communism is] "the complete return of Man to himself as a social (i.e. human) being - a return become conscious, and accomplished with the entire wealth of previous development."

This will mean:
"the positive transcendence of all alienation - that is to say, the return of man from religion, family, State, etc, to his human, i.e. social, mode of existence." (1844 Manuscripts).

In his only complete outline of his theory of alienation, Marx indicated four relations which cover the whole of human social existence. Firstly, people are said to be alienated from their activity. Marx especially refers to productive activity, for that is the most important form of human creativity:
" . . . labour is external to the worker, i.e. it does not belong to his essential being: that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not a home. His labour is therefore not voluntary but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it." (1844 Manuscripts).

Secondly, Marx explains how we are alienated from the product of our labour:
" . . . the more the worker by his labour appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life in the double respect; first, that the sensuous external world more and more ceases to be an object belonging to his labour - to be his labour's means of life; and secondly, that it more and more ceases to be means of life in the immediate sense, means for the physical subsistence of the worker."1844 Manuscripts).

The third relation of alienation, according to Marx, is that people are alienated from each other because of class divisions and inevitable social conflict:
"Just as [Man] estranges himself from his own activity, so he confers to the stranger activity which is not his own . . . a man alien to labour and standing outside it . . . the capitalist or whatever one choosed to call the master of labour." (1844 Manuscripts).

Finally, men and women are alienated from their species-being:
"In tearing away from the object of his production . . . estranged labour tears from him his species life, his real species objectivity, and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his organic body, nature, is taken from him. Similarly, in degrading spontaneous activity, free activity, to a means, estranged labour makes Man's species life a means to his physical existence. "(1844 Manuscripts).

There have been those who have questioned whether these early writings of Marx (only published in English in the early 1930's) should be treated as being consistent with his later developed theories, Clearly, any of Marx's writings, taken in isolation and detached from socialist conclusions, can be futile and even misleading. Used by socialists in the battle to free the working class from the world of capitalism, the concept of alienated people - with its dialectical negative, unalienated humanity - is a vital aspect of a coherent Marxist theory. For trendy academics the exercise is about as vital as a fortnight's holiday in Highgate Cemetery.
Steve Coleman

Will Labour Lose? (2006)

From the October 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

The present Labour government appears to have run out of steam, but trading one group of career politicians for another is not the answer.

An astute observer once said "governments are not elected . . . they are dismissed". According to this view, after a party has had a period in power the electorate consciously aims to get rid of it by voting for a rival party in a decision regarded as the "lesser of two evils". And it is undoubtedly true that every government - regardless of political banner - has always ended by alienating the electorate that once supported it. Many voters believe politicians are dishonest or have become cynical about elections, reasoning that "60-seconds of democracy" is small recompense for five years of neglect and policies that rarely express their preferences. If elections are so meaningless, some reflect, then there can be little point in voting - a sentiment borne out by low electoral turnout.

Despite being unable to find lasting solutions to workers' problems, political parties must always try to combat voter disillusionment. Behaving like chameleons, they must search for ways to improve their image, reinvigorate old policies and give the appearance that this time things will be different, this time the electorate will be given exactly what it wants. Before the 1997 general election the Labour Party successfully engineered its own metamorphosis, re-branding policies and redefining its agenda. The commitment to nationalisation enshrined in the 1918 Party constitution was abolished and Trade Union influence over policy - always more mythical than real - was publicly abandoned. Its image, thus transformed, seemed revitalised and business, media and the electorate acclaimed the party that now called itself New Labour.

But nine years after the Labour Party was enthusiastically swept into government, the same electorate cannot wait to dismiss them. Reviewing the May local elections results the Electoral Reform Society concluded the Labour government faces "wipe-out" in the next general election and "predicts that Labour stand to lose 149 of its present 355 MPs bringing its commons strength down to 206 - even worse than 1983". Ministers have responded with conciliatory messages that Labour will listen more closely in future and, in the words of John Prescott, "renew itself after nine years in government".(Observer, 28 May)

In the third week of June this year, Labour's tattered image took another knock when an Ipsos Mori poll revealed that one in four Labour supporters wants their party to lose the next election. The poll deduced that "the leadership is becoming increasingly divorced from its own grass roots, 23 per cent agree Labour should be kicked out of power". Supporters wanted the party to experience "a period out of office to rethink what they stand for and what their vision is for the future". A majority of those polled expects the next general election to end with either a hung parliament or a Tory majority, believing a re-launched Conservative Party to be more in touch with what ordinary people think. In the wake of hospital cutbacks, Home Office scandals and the 'peerages for cash' fiasco, Hazel Blears conceded, "the voters are angry that we have taken our eye off the ball". (Observer, 18 June).

At the end of June, Labour Party fortunes went from bad to worse. In the double election in Blaenau Gwent - where Parliamentary and Welsh Assembly by-elections were held simultaneously - an embittered electorate took revenge by voting down both Labour Party candidates. The elections were prompted by the death of Peter Law, who had defected from Labour and succeeded in overturning a 19,000 Labour majority in 2005. Until it was lost, Blaenau Gwent, whose past MPs include Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot, was regarded as Labour's safest seat. Defeat in the Assembly election denied Labour of the majority it hoped to regain in the Welsh Assembly.

The wave of disillusionment is not just confined to Labour voters, however, with disaffection spreading inside the Labour Party itself. Labour Party membership has declined dramatically since 1997 and is now below the 200,000 mark - the lowest level since Ramsay MacDonald split the party in the 1930s. The membership has grown weary of being implicated in what the media call a "conspiracy of lies," and resentful of arrogant leadership. A YouGov poll presented to the Compass conference on 17 June found that only 25 percent of Labour Party members believe they influence Party policy, while three-quarters felt policy had been hijacked by rich donors whose influence has grown as membership has shrunk. The Labour Party, desperately short of funds and like many of the electorate struggling with debt - estimated at 27 million pounds -, must either depend on millionaires or turn to state funding, a move not popular with the public.

Aware of growing hostility, many senior members are distancing themselves from Prime Minister Blair by announcing that the Labour Party under Brown's leadership will revitalise itself and re-brand unpalatable policies. "The trouble with the current approach is that we will go out of power for 15 years," grumbled Michael Willis, speaking to the Compass conference. Like many, he blames Iraq and Blair's presidential style for the electorate's resentment. (Guardian, 19 June). Every effort is being made to show 'clear water' between Labour under Blair and what Labour might be like under Brown. "Too many traditional Labour supporters felt the government had taken their goodwill for granted and said government was getting more difficult," said Ed Balls, Economic Secretary to the Treasury. Brown's political allies promise greater Party equality, reducing dominance of Whitehall and "restoring progressive politics." (Guardian, 19 June)

But if forecasters can be believed it now seems likely, irrespective of who actually leads the Party, that Labour will lose the next general election. Yet does it really matter which party forms the next government?

Capitalism is a splintered society; divided not just by sectional ownership of the means of production but by the economic rivalry of independent states striving to exercise authority over given geographical areas. Conventional political parties endorse the framework of capitalism and compete to win control over the state and to administer the economic system within its boundaries, which necessarily means perpetuating the wages system and the persistent hardship for wage and salary earners. The policies propounded by these parties are similar because they are manifestations of the same political imperative - a continuation of capitalism - and are distinguishable only to the extent that they propose different organisation methods to administer the same economic system.

Voters vote governments out because they appear incompetent, incapable of finding solutions to the daily problems that confronts wage and salary earners. But government can never solve these problems because their permanent solution lies only in the abolition of capitalism and the wages system. Economic laws that politicians are powerless to change and leave little room for manoeuvre determine what politicians do and how they must react. It is not the deceitfulness of politicians that is the problem but rather the economic structure of society.

But it is not just political parties that refuse to think outside the framework of capitalism. Most wage and salary earners rarely question the structure of society and passively support the system that always works against them. In misguided expressions of defiance that flow from frustration and lack of understanding, voters repeatedly swap Labour governments for Conservative, or Conservative governments for Labour - as they have on seven separate occasions since the second world war - in the hope that it will somehow make a difference. They are always disappointed by the outcome. Mandating a political party to administer capitalism means that workers surrender political power to their class enemy and condone the continuation of their own exploitation, their insecurity and their poverty - a lesson that workers seem unable to grasp as the same mistake is slavishly repeated over and over again.

But while trading one group of careerist politicians for another can never be the answer, changing society's economic structure is the only answer.

Capitalism exists only because workers allow it to exist. Changing the structure of society, however, is not as simple as changing political allegiance to a party. Capitalism is based firmly on a principle of leadership, where a minority in secret makes decisions and the excluded majority is told what they should do and how they should think. Changing the world's economic structure by converting the means of production from class ownership to common ownership requires that workers individually understand what they want and actively combine to change their condition. Socialism cannot be delivered by leaders and is achievable only by the concerted action of a politically conscious mass movement without direction or leaders, for only then will the majority become the decision-makers.

The task may be daunting but must begin somewhere. Workers would do well to start by considering whether capitalism - under any political party - is really the future they want.
Steve Trott