Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Road Ahead (1964)

From the January 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The case for Socialism rests upon the fact that the capitalist social system cannot provide a decent life for its people and that, in the interests of those people, it should make way for the next stage in social evolution.

It is true to say that man has developed sufficient technical and productive capacity to sustain a social system in which wealth is freely available to all human beings. Capitalism itself has removed the barrier of low-productivity.

The one remaining obstacle to Socialism is the fact that the working class, who make up the majority of the population of the modern world, are not Socialists. Many of them have never heard our case and of those who have heard it most have rejected it. One of the irritations of being a Socialist is that the reasons for this rejection are too often rooted in ignorance—are, in fact, little more than transparent illusions. Many workers, with the tumult of capitalism raging about their heads, prefer to take comfort in these illusions rather than face the facts.

It is, then, part of a Socialist's job to do his best to destroy illusions. This is not necessarily work in which we take great pleasure; there are sickenly too many illusions for that. It is simply work which must be done.

The idea that the working class today are prosperous, and that capitalism holds out a comfortable future for them, must be examined and shown up for what it is worth. The facts on work, housing, health, material possessions, and so on, must be publicised and—especially important—put into their proper perspective. It must be pointed out that capitalism is a social system in which the owning minority will always live off the best while the working majority exist off the mediocre.

The prospects which capitalism offers must be examined. They are not attractive.

The history of the working class has, inevitably, been one of superficial change. Nobody can deny—nobody would want to deny—that working class conditions have changed since the war. What can be questioned is whether those changes have always been for the better and whether those which might have been for the better are not outbalanced by others which have been for the worse.

This is the question which the preceding articles have put. If they do not make pleasant reading it is only because capitalism is still as full of urgent problems and discords as ever. Crime is still a running sore—worse than ever in recent years. Some illnesses—those that are typical of the rush and strain of post war capitalism—are increasing and have replaced the old killers which were characteristic of the days of unemployment. Popular cultural levels can never have been lower. And so on.

What this means is that, no matter how much capitalism changes, it remains the same. Workers are continually being deluded by plausible politicians who promise them that, if they will work harder, restrain their wage claims, and so on. they will soon enter the Promised Land of peace and plenty. Behind the delusion is the implied promise that capitalism is a system in which every prospect pleases.

In fact, it is always the prospects alone which can be made to sound attractive. The reality--the present—is never so good; that is why the politicians must always allude to the present as a sort of pause before the golden future.

It is all an illusion. Capitalism has no future to offer the mass of its people. The one solution to society’s problems is the establishment of i new social order—Socialism—in which the means of producing and distributing the world’s wealth will be owned by the world’s people. The work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is to spread the understanding and knowledge which Socialism requires.

This month’s Socialist Standard asks the working class: Where Are You Going? The future depends on your answer.

Where are you going? (1964)

Editorial from the January 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

If there is one idea which is firmly held by the majority of people in this country it is that they are now better off than ever before. In this, they are supported on all sides, by newspapers, television, and so on. The result of this, to take one example, is that the years between the wars are remembered as a time of hardship, unemployment and, in many countries, of political dictatorship. There is now a spate of books with the theme that the First World War was a futile, bloody business which cleverer, less avaricious leaders could have avoided. The obvious corollary of this concept of the past as a time of dark misfortune is that of the present as a time of bright opportunity. And this is now a very popular idea.

The first thing to be said about this idea is that it has always been popular. Whatever their conditions, people have always been convinced that they were a sight better off than in the past. The Twenties and Thirties were supposed to be years of enlightenment, in which the hardships and prejudices of Victorian England had been finally cast aside. Victorian England was itself supposed to be a place in which the benefits of the Industrial Revolution were coming to fruition. Society at large has always regarded itself as lucky to be living in its present and has been glad not to have been living in its past

The years since the war have been devoted to this idea. The commonest picture—the adman’s picture, perhaps—of a member of the working class, in England in the Sixties, is of a bright, smooth young man who lives in a gracious house in a leafy suburb, has a charming, intelligent wife and a couple of children who will obviously one day make a name for themselves at University. This young man has a smart car, the latest furniture and clothes. His tastes are impeccably up to date. He has a well-paid job, and one with prospects. He is a man with a background—and with a future. Every line on his face, every hair on his head, shrieks of a comfortable, secure, modern living free from the disabilities of a discredited past.

Well, what is the truth of this?

This issue of the Socialist Standard sets out to take a look, at the beginning of another year, at the working class. It examines their working conditions, their education, their health, the pace at which they live. It takes a look at the way in which they spend their time off and are entertained. It poses some facts and some questions on problems like crime, which are as much a part of the Sixties as the adman’s smooth talk. And it puts the question to the working class: Where Are You Going?

This question can be stated in many ways. Are working conditions really improving? What is happening to our health? Is modern education any good, and is it freely available to all of us? Can crime be eliminated, and if so, how? These questions, and many others, can be summarised into one enormous, overriding issue. Can capitalism give us the sort of life, the health, the abundance, the security, which all human beings should have? Can it offer the prospects of future security which a humane social system would take as a matter of course?

The so-called social surveys can never answer these questions, which probe into the very roots of private property society. Only a Socialist can ask whether the class ownership of society's means of wealth production is the best way of running human affairs, or whether it is wasteful and vicious and inhumane. It is by examining the lives of the people who work and suffer and, tragically, vote for capitalism that this question can be answered. This, within its limits, is what this month’s Socialist Standard offers. And behind the articles we publish is the biggest issue now facing the world working class.

Capitalism or Socialism? Where Are You Going?

Was Antonio Gramsci a Socialist? (2017)

From the April 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
This month sees the 80th anniversary of the death of an icon of the left – Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci (1891-1937) was an Italian political activist who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s Fascist regime in 1926 and died while still a captive 10 years later from a combination of illnesses. He was an undoubtedly courageous figure who fought difficult family circumstances when young to educate himself and became a prolific writer and editor for the emerging left-wing press in Italy in the second and third decade of the 20th century. He wrote intensively of the need for both workers’ rights and workers’ revolution and actively involved himself in the political action he advocated. He was a leading member of the foremost left-wing movement, the Italian Socialist Party, until, after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, his disenchantment with what he saw as their over-timid approach led him to become, in 1921, one of the co-founders of the Italian Communist Party, which pledged allegiance to Lenin and the Bolshevik regime. Then, in 1922-23, he spent a significant period in Russia as delegate to the Communist International (‘Comintern’) and, on his return to Italy, was elected to the Chamber of Deputies and served until his arrest and imprisonment. Sentenced to 20 years for subversion, he was however able to continue writing in prison, where access to books and the extensive knowledge of history and politics he had accumulated during his years of political activity led him to produce a mass of notes, observations and essays on an astonishingly broad spread of topics, later ordered into what were called the Prison Notebooks. It is largely on these and on the collection of letters he wrote from prison – mainly to family members – that his reputation as a social and political theorist lies.
Gramsci is said, in the Prison Notebooks, to have developed a new and original kind of Marxist sociology, which, over the last half century or so, has engendered a vast range of debate, interpretation and controversy by academics and others – the so-called ‘Gramsci industry’. One of the key matters debated has been his concept of ‘hegemony’ (‘egemonia’). This was the term Gramsci used to describe what he saw as the prerequisite for a successful revolution: the building of an ideological consensus throughout all the institutions of society spread by intellectuals who saw the need for revolution and used their ability to persuade and proselytise workers to carry through that revolution. Only when that process was sufficiently widespread, would successful revolutionary action be possible. So hegemony was what might be called the social penetration of revolutionary ideas.
This outlook is very different from the fervour with which in earlier years Gramsci had greeted the Russian revolution and advocated similar uprisings in other countries. By the second half of the 1920s, with Italy ruled by a Fascist dictatorship and opposition leaders exiled or imprisoned, Gramsci came to see revolution as a longer-term prospect which would depend on the conditions existing in individual countries.
And it is this ‘long-term’ idea of revolutionary change that has been interpreted in very many different ways according to the standpoint or political position of the individual commentator. One way it could be read would seem to tie in closely with the Socialist Party’s view that only through widespread political consciousness on the part of workers and majority consent for social revolution can a society based on the satisfaction of human needs rather than on the profit imperative be established. In this light Gramsci’s hegemony could be seen to have the profoundly democratic implications of insisting on a widespread and well-informed desire among the majority of workers for socialist revolution before such a revolution can come about. Indeed it is clear that Gramsci was not unaware of Marx’s ‘majoritarian’ view of socialism (or communism – they were interchangeable for Marx) as a stateless, leaderless world where the wages system is abolished and a system of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’ operates. In an article written in 1920, for example, Gramsci refers to ‘communist society’ as ‘the International of nations without states’, and later from prison he writes about ‘the disappearance of the state, the absorption of political society into civil society’. However, though he referred to himself as using ‘the Marxist method’, such reflections on the nature of the society he wished to see established are few and far between and cannot reasonably be said to characterise the mainstream of his thought.
When looked at closely in fact, Gramsci’s thought is overwhelmingly marked by what may be called the coercive element of his Leninist political background. So, while undoubtedly in his later writings he came to see the Soviet model as inapplicable to other Western societies, he nevertheless continued to conceive of revolution as the taking of power via the leadership of a minority group, even if in different circumstances from those experienced by Lenin in Russia. The most important pointer to this lies in Gramsci’s view of the state. Hardly ever does he view socialism other than as a form of state. The overwhelming thrust of his analysis and his recommendations for political action point not to doing away with states and the class divisions that go with them but to establishing new kinds of states. In 1919, enthused by the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, Gramsci wrote: ‘Society cannot live without a state: the state is the concrete act of will which guards against the will of the individual, faction, disorder and individual indiscipline ....communism is not against the state, in fact it is implacably opposed to the enemies of the state.’ Later too, in his prison writings, arguing now for a ‘long-term strategy’, he continued to declare the need for states and state organisation, for leaders and led, for governors and governed in the conduct of human affairs – underlined by his frequent use of three terms in particular: ‘direzione’ (leadership), ‘disciplina’ (discipline) and ‘coercizione’ (coercion).
So, despite what Gramsci himself recognised as changed times and circumstances compared with Russia in 1917, he continued to be profoundly influenced by Lenin’s view that ‘if socialism can only be realised when the intellectual development of all the people permits it, then we shall not see Socialism for at least 500 years’ – in other words that genuine majority social consciousness was unachievable. And in line with this, when looked at closely his ‘hegemony’, far from eschewing the idea of a revolutionary vanguard, sees an intellectual leadership taking the masses with them. In other words the ‘consent’ that his hegemony, his long-term penetration of ideas, proposes is not the informed consent of a convinced socialist majority but an awakening of what, at one point he refers to as ‘popular passions’, a spontaneous spilling over of revolutionary enthusiasm which enables the leadership to take the masses with them and then govern in the way they think best.
Human nature
Underpinning this lack of confidence by Gramsci in the ability of a majority to self-organise is a factor little commented on but particularly significant – and that is his view of what may be called ‘human nature’. In writing explicitly about human nature, which Gramsci does on a number of occasions, he expresses agreement with Marx’s view that human nature is not something innate, fixed and unchanging, not something homogeneous for all people in all times but something that changes historically and is inseparable from ideas in society at a given time. This view of humanity is in fact described by Gramsci as ‘the great innovation of Marxism’ and he contrasts it favourably with other widely-held early 20th century views such as the Catholic dogma of original sin and the ‘idealist’ position that human nature was identical at all times and undeveloping. But despite Gramsci’s stated ‘theoretical’ view on this topic, scrutiny of his writings in places where ‘human nature’ is not raised explicitly but is rather present in an implicit way points his thought in a different, more pessimistic direction.
When he writes about education, for example, his pronouncements about the need for ‘coercion’ indicate little confidence in the ability of human beings to behave fundamentally differently or to adaptably change their ‘nature’ in a different social environment. In corresponding with his wife about the education of their children, in response to her view that, if children are left to interact with the environment and the environment is non-oppressive, they will develop co-operative forms of behaviour, he states ‘I think that man is a historical formation but one obtained through coercion’ and implies that without coercion undesirable behaviour will result. Then, in the Prison Notebooks, on a similar topic he writes: ‘Education is a struggle against the instincts which are tied to our elementary biological functions, it is a struggle against nature itself.’ What surfaces here as in other places, even if not stated explicitly, is a view of human nature not as the exclusive product of history but as characterised by some kind of inherent propensity towards anti-social forms of behaviour which needs to be coerced and tamed.
Viewed in this light, Gramsci’s vision of post-revolutionary society as a place where human beings will continue to need leadership and coercion should not be seen either as being in contradiction with his theory of ideological penetration (‘hegemony’) or as inconsistent with the views that emerge about human nature when his writings do not explicitly focus on that subject. So we should not be surprised that Gramsci’s vision for the future is not a society of free access and democratic control where people organise themselves freely and collectively as a majority but rather a change from one form of minority authority to another – a change from a system of the few manifestly governing in their own interests to the few claiming to govern in the interests of the majority.
The evidence of Gramsci’s writings therefore suggests that the revolution he envisages is not one in which democracy in the sense of each participating with equal understanding and equal authority prevails. Crucially, the leadership function is not abolished. The hegemonisers will essentially be in charge, since they will be the ones with the necessary understanding to run the society they have conceived. What this society might be like he does not go on to say in any detail. But it would clearly not be a socialist world of free access and democratic control that rejects authority from above together with its political expression, the state. For Gramsci any such considerations were at best peripheral to the thrust of his thought and his social vision. And though he did have a revolutionary project, it is not a socialist one in the terms that socialism is correctly understood.
Howard Moss