Sunday, May 27, 2012

An inevitable result of vanguardism (1996)

Book Review from the January 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Canongate Press) 

The novel Grey Granite, the third volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's trilogy A Scots Quair, is a text that fits rather snugly within the canon of twentieth-century literary modernism, even though it is rarely to be found on a university syllabus, at least outside Scotland. 

 The plot primarily involves Chris Colquohoun and her son Ewan Tavendale, making a "new life" for themselves after moving to the industrial city of Duncairn from the country. While Chris works in a boarding house, Ewan goes to work at Gowans, the local steel works. The general relationships between these and other characters are obviously one of the main elements of the plot, but these relationships and the other events presented in the text are heavily coloured, if not determined, by Ewan's movement from an apparently self-reliant and individualist conception of his "self" to a more collective and class-conscious position. From an encounter (and argument) with an English socialist school teacher (who is largely, it seems, inspired by William Morris), Ewan comes first to an objective and rational recognition of a collective working-class interest which then develops through sympathy and empathy into a deeper subjective and emotional recognition of his shared experience with, and inclusion in, the working class. It is important to recognise that this movement from an exclusive individualist conception of his self to an inclusive class-conscious conception of self does not entail any loss of individuality. Rather it is in some sense a dialectical process in which the individual ego is lifted up, surpassed and preserved in the intersubjective collectively. 

Later, though, Ewan's individuality, preserved in the initial movement into class-consciousness, suffers some loss on his entry into and identification with the Communist Party, after which everything else is subordinated to their interests and aims. Part of the reason for this is the Communist Party's own identification of itself as "the working class" - that is, they substitute themselves for the class they see themselves as representing. This is, of course, an inevitable result of their vanguardism. Placing themselves in a position of leadership over the workers they then come to substitute themselves for the workers. As such, while ostensibly working for the overthrow of a hierarchical capitalist system, they come to institute a new hierarchy (quite apart from the fact that they would only bring about state capitalism rather than socialism if they succeeded in their aims); instead of serving the interests of the workers, they use the workers to serve the interest of the Party. This means that the workers remain in a subservient, subaltern position in relation to the Communists even while apparently struggling to free themselves from all hierarchical domination. 

Structurally, any vanguardist party, whatever its explicit intentions, is doomed to repeat this process, so betraying the revolutionary project it espouses. All this is made abundantly clear within the novel, in episodes in which the Communists lie to the workers in order to try and manipulate them for the Party's own ends as well as in the clearly-stated attitude of Jim Trease, a Communist leader: "For it's you and me are the working class, not the poor Bulgars gone back to Gowans." 

This is a novel with plenty to interest socialists, as should be clear from the above. It provides ample illustration of the hopelessness of the ideologies and strategies of both Labourist and Leninist parties and, by implication at least, of the necessity for the working class to organise and educate themselves for socialism, without leaders or hierarchies and against the constant capitulations and and political myopia that are the necessary results of reformism. I must finally state, though, that this is not simply a historical document or a political treatise. It is a wonderful example of literary modernism offering as much aesthetic pleasure as it does anything else, with great believable characters, full of human ambiguity, and a use of language that is simultaneously down to earth and poetic. 
Jonathan Clay