From the August 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
We examine key changes in society and why they happen, using a Marxist perspective.
An essential part of the socialist analysis of our world is the intellectual grasp of its restless dynamic of change. Everything is in the process of becoming something else: an acorn becomes a seedling which becomes a tree which becomes a home to animals and produces acorns which those animals bury to become seedlings. A star explodes and seeds space with dust that becomes other stars and planets which develop life from that stardust. In any single object, and the abstraction that we use to comprehend it, we can see that it is composed of the memory of its conception together with the seeds of its future.
To restrict the understanding of anything to just its present form would be very misleading. When we look at a baby we think of the adult it will become, when we see beauty we are conscious of its inevitable corruption by age and when we look at a building under construction we imagine its final façade; we see the piles of bricks as what they will become just as an archaeologist will see a less structured pile as what it once was. Cultural and political history are subject to the same dynamic –although reactionary ideology is dedicated to denying this obvious truth. We are told that capitalism is the paradigm of human cultural achievement and that any denial of this, especially with reference to the universal dynamic of change already described, is hopelessly idealistic and politically destructive. People say to socialists: ‘how can you possibly be sure that what you advocate will be better than what we have now?’ or ‘the revolution will only make things worse’. Nobody can look into the future with absolute clarity but if we’re correct in our belief that everything is composed of both its past and possible future, then can an analysis of the present give us some reliable clues as to our future? What are the elements within the present that give socialists the confidence to believe that the new world is emerging within the womb of the old?
Looking at the past we can see elements of our present within it; cities built on trade such as Venice, London and Amsterdam were developing a flourishing merchant class during Europe’s renaissance and the reformation periods. The wealth of this emerging ‘bourgeoisie’ gave them the means to challenge the power of the ‘ancient regime’ of the King and aristocracy. The technologies of navigation, steam power and the mechanisation of production gave rise to this emerging ‘middle class’ and the economics of capitalism which today is ubiquitous in every part of human existence. Of course the rise to political power of this new class did not go unchallenged and the resulting struggle we call ‘the bourgeois revolutions’.
Using this perspective of history we can see that technological change leads to new forms of production which in turn creates new economic relationships between members of a community. When such a new group or ‘class’ becomes conscious of its economic importance and how the contemporary political structure frustrates its development it will then challenge that structure for political power (usually to help accelerate its own wealth). The dynamic element within history is this ‘class struggle’. Can we glimpse elements of our future using this historical analysis? Socialists believe so: and whenever the current ruling classes start howling about ‘threats to the health of the economy’ we know they are pointing to social reforms such as health and welfare expenditure, etc.
The greatest emergent quality within capitalism is, ironically, social production itself. All of the necessities of life are produced socially but acquired individually (by the capitalist). That the producers (the working class) perceive that their economic interests are not represented within the present political power structure reflects the similar relationship of the past between the bourgeoisie and the king. So, in this way, we see the seeds of our future (socialist revolution) in the economic relationships of the present. Human culture is a dynamic economic and political process that is always changing. Any attempt to analyse economics and politics without a realisation of this most important factor is like trying to get onboard a speeding train while wearing a blindfold. The popularity of this ’blindfolded’ approach to the study of political economy is obviously in the interests of the status quo whose agency within industry and the centres of learning has encouraged superficial theories such as ‘neo liberalism’ etc. In this way almost all contemporary economic and political theories have been merely attempts to rationalise the irrational realities of the market system which is conceived of as eternal and essentially unchanging.
Does this Marxian approach imply some kind of ‘economic determinism’ and its proponents as ’crystal ball gazers’ and prophets? It is impossible to conceive of the ’present’ without reference to the past and future; our understanding of all three can be more or less comprehensive depending, decisively, on their mutual inclusion. All Marxists do is recognise this inescapable logic in our analysis - the efficacy of which can be tested on recent historical events such as the failure of the Soviet regime to establish socialism and the rejection of ‘state capitalism’ by its citizens.
Our rejection of any socialist content or potential within the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 was based on the historical analysis described. The contention that the future is ‘unknowable’ is the same as contending that the past and present are also ’unknowable’ - as, indeed, they are when any one of the three components is absent within the analysis. Economic determinism is a leftist misinterpretation of Marxian theory because it excludes the vital concept of ’majority’ consciousness becoming a material force for historical change. The economic elements for making Socialism a practical alternative have been in place for at least a century but as is painfully obvious the mass consciousness necessary for revolution is almost entirely absent.
Many aspects of the history of the last century are discussed as reasons for this: the carnage of two world wars and the subsequent loss of confidence in human potential to make a better world (poignantly expressed in Adorno‘s phrase: ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’) and the ubiquity of the distraction of consumerism together with the minority control and ownership of the mass media being two of the most probable. None of these explanations, however, can disguise the cultural, political and moral bankruptcy of 21st century capitalism. If you, the reader, are convinced by our analysis we invite you to become a part of the ’material force’ for revolutionary change; by doing so you validate the theory you embrace. The Left may advocate endless slogans and demonstrations generated by their elitist view that they know what’s good for you and that they can lead you to a better life. We know that mass consciousness and self-determination is the only way to create socialism; history will decide if we are correct because, among other things, it can never betray you.