The Hidden Connolly 29

Issue 29 in September 2007 brought another article by James Connolly unpublished since his death, calling for workers’ unity in Belfast.

Belfast Notes

[The Irish Worker, November 25 1911]

Labour in Belfast had the offer of a rare treat on Tuesday in the shape of a lecture by Tom Mann,1 but unfortunately it did not take advantage of it in anything like the numbers expected. Evening meetings are awkward for the seagoing brothers, engaged as most of them are on cross-channel ships which leave Belfast about 8 or 9 p.m., and many of the Irish Transport members were working late. That is the most that can be said in extenuation of the meagre attendance; but when that is said it still leaves the ugly fact that Labour had the opportunity of a treat, and missed it. Those who did turn up were anxious to arrange for another meeting, and all hands pledged themselves that when next our brother visits Belfast he will have an audience worthy of his abilities.

The Belfast Trades Council had a rather stormy scene on Saturday, November 11th, in the course of the election of a delegate to the Conference of the British Labour Party. The stormy scene was entirely due to the intervention of Mr William Walker JP against the candidature of Mr D R Campbell, President of the Trades Council.

Mr Campbell had spoken at the Irish Trades Congress in favour of an Irish Labour Party, and Mr Walker made this the excuse for an attack upon his candidature, arguing that a man in favour of an Irish Labour Party ought not to go to a Conference of a British Labour Party.

Contrary to all parliamentary procedure the vice-chairman allowed Mr Walker to speak in support of his motion nominating Mr Greig, and then refused the same right to any other delegate. This led to a questioning of his ruling, and to his retiral from the chair as a result of the adverse vote. Many bitter speeches followed as a direct consequence of the bitterness imparted to the debate by Mr Walker, and to whom also was due the fact that the division practically took place between those who favoured an Irish Labour Party and those who opposed it. The result was a pleasant surprise to the writer, Mr Campbell being elected over Mr Walker’s nominee by 22 votes to 10. Mr Campbell goes to the British Labour Party Conference as a delegate favourable to a Labour Party in Great Britain, and equally favourable to a Labour Party in Ireland, recog­nising that the one is the complement, and not the rival, of the other.

The newly-established Irish Textile Workers’ Union (textile department of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union), established as a result of the recent strike in York Street and Mile Water Spinning Mills,2 is forging ahead. Premises have been secured as club rooms in 50 York Street, with two front windows on this—the main—thoroughfare of the city, and a small hall in the rear, which is intended for the recreation of the members. A committee of women has been elected, consisting of delegates from every room in the two mills. At its first meeting this committee appointed delegates and shop stewards, and struck a levy of one penny per month per member for social and educational purposes. It is now generally recognised in Belfast that this union has come to stay, and, outside of a small official clique of stick-in-the-muds, this fact is welcomed.

There are signs of a revival of trade unionism amongst the labourers in the coal yards, most of the labourers from Milligan & Co. and the Antrim Iron Ore Company having been ‘persuaded’ to join the Irish Transport Workers’ Union in the past week. There are no worse treated labourers in the city, but the fatal sectarian and political divisions which are the curse of Belfast have hitherto conspired to keep them unorganised and at the mercy of their employers.

Some time ago a body of slaters’ assistants approached us with a view to organising, but although welcomed and given every encour­agement, could not apparently summon up courage enough to carry out their intention. We shall go after them in the near future, and would be glad to hear from them at any time.

The workers of Belfast have long been rent asunder by consider­ations of creed and party; they were divided whilst their masters were united. The time is coming when the pressure of a common oppression will find them united in a common bond of brotherhood in the common struggle for freedom.

Instead of divisions along the lines of creeds we will see union along the lines of industry, and instead of all the petty unions we will see the Irish Transport and General Workers gathering all into

ONE BIG UNION

of Irish workers against the united front of the employers.

That, at least, is the hope and aim of

Séumas

Notes

1      A leading socialist and militant trade unionist in Britain.

2      See Connolly’s article ‘Belfast Mill Strike’ (October 28 1911) in the last issue of Red Banner.

Socialist Classics: Karl Marx, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’

In Issue 27 in March 2007, Colm Breathnach discussed the relevance of one of Marx’s key works.

On rereading The Eighteenth Brumaire, what is most striking is that it is packed with insights that are relevant to contemporary struggles. The pamphlet describes and analyses the events spanning the period from the overthrow of France’s Orleanist monarchy in February 1848 to the coup d’état of Louis Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, in December 1851. What is there to learn from a study of such a distant historical period, one might ask. The American socialist Hal Draper wrote of The Eighteenth Brumaire that “an outstanding characteristic is its painstaking dissection of the complexity of the historical situation”, and it certainly reveals Marx at his best, teasing out the intricate interaction of the individuals, parties, classes and class fractions operating within the overall socio-economic context of a capitalist society.

In fact Marx sees politics as complicated and constantly changing in its relationship with the economic base. As Draper noted, he pays particular attention to the state, never abstracting it from its roots in the socio-economic structure of society but recog­nising that it can have a certain degree of autonomy, a certain dynamism that cannot be reduced solely to bending to the will of one class or another. Marx realised that this was a complex relation­ship, and rather than hide behind simplifications, he attempted to tackle this complexity.

So he grapples with the question of the state, for example locating the origin of the centralised and bureaucratic structures of the French state, what he calls “this appalling parasitic body”, in the development of absolutism and the original French Revolution. In relation to the state bureaucracy, Marx implies on the one hand that this is an outgrowth of the bourgeoisie, a means to absorb its surplus members and to line its pockets with state salaries: an explanation that might well account for the senior ranks of the bureaucracy but not the vast army of petty officials and clerical workers that staff most states’ civil service. On the other hand, in a later reference to the bureaucracy under the second Bonaparte, he seems to suggest differently, seeing it as an “artificial caste” conjured up to maintain the Imperial regime, formed alongside the ‘normal’ class structure, arising out of a preponderance of small property owners and a surplus population of unemployed. In a similar vein, the question of the army acting autonomously of the ruling class is considered, and Marx comes to the conclusion that “barracks and bivouac” some­times tire of rescuing the bourgeoisie and suppressing popular revolt, and decide to “play state of siege in their own interest and for their own benefit and at the same time besiege the citizens’ purses”. It’s obvious that Marx is not proposing total autonomy for the state apparatus, but that he is of the opinion that, although these institutions generally serve the interests of the current ruling class, there are complicating factors which tug at that connection and sometimes sever it, if only temporarily.

There have always been two Marxisms: Marxism as faith, and Marxism as method of analysis. Marxism as faith is more Marxist than the man himself, because it allows for no flaws or weaknesses in his writings and thought. Marx, like all humans, was fallible, and while the thrust of his analysis and methodology are an invaluable starting point, there are some points on which he got things wrong. One of these was an occasional lapse into determinism (along the lines of “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the prole­tariat”), evident here in the expect­ation that the replacement of the polit­ical rule of the bourgeoisie by an authoritar­ian regime would inevitably clear the way for a successful prole­tarian revolu­tion. Yet before we get carried away with the idea that Marx saw his­tory as a gigantic conveyor belt leading in one direction, let us pause to look at what he actually writes.

When describing proletarian revo­lution, Marx makes it clear that it is not a linear process always heading on­wards and upwards, but one that often faces setbacks and forced retreats as the workers ”throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again”. Now he does conclude that this erratic path to victory continues “until a sit­uation has been created which makes all turning back impossible”, but this is not the same as saying ‘when a situation has been created’. In other words, the final destination is left somewhat open. Marx acknowledges the possibil­ity of defeat, and even gets around to discussing what happens to the workers’ movement in those circumstances: “In part it throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, exchange banks and workers’ associations… and seeks, rather, to achieve its salvation behind society’s back, in private fashion, within its limited circumstances, and hence necess­arily suffers shipwreck.” How reminiscent of the many private sal­vations, including the ‘community development’ sector, the ‘alternative lifestyle’ scene etc., on which many a good activist has ended up shipwrecked!

“Men make their own history,” Marx writes, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encounter­ed, given and transmitted from the past.” Yet generations of both fans and critics have simply ignored the first five words of that statement, inventing a pseudo-Marx who sees humans as puppets dangling on the strings of structure. What he’s actually saying is just common sense: that we have some room for manoeuvre in our lives but that this room is constrained by the structures of the society we exist in. Indeed, few could doubt that this was Marx’s approach after reading this account of the rise of the arch-opportunist Louis Bonaparte, manoeuvring his way through the structures of French society until he stood at its head—for here, if ever, was a man making his own history, but not exactly as he pleased.

If The Eighteenth Brumaire is about the relationship between state and class, it also has a lot to say about the related matter of party and class. Obviously, political parties are not what we are taught to believe in our civics classes, that is, simply free-floating associations of people joined together on the basis of adherence to a common ideology or policies. Even bourgeois political scientists will acknow­ledge that parties represent different interests than just their mem­bership or voters. Marxists on the other hand try to look deeper: What class, classes or class fraction does a party represent? Does its voting base or membership reflect its class orientation? How do other factors, such as the individual party leaders, gender, ethnicity or relationship with the state, interact with this class orientation and base? Marx’s portrayal of political parties (in the looser nineteenth century sense of the word) in the pamphlet is certainly centred on their location in the class structure, but it does not follow that he reduces everything to a simple formula of Party A = Class B, though that may sometimes be the case.

Indeed, he posits the general theory that, far from always belonging to the class they represent, politicians “according to their education and their individual position may be as far apart as heaven from earth” from that class. “What makes them repre­sentatives…” Marx tells us, “is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter [class] do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.” Sometimes it is even the politics that loops back and influences the class: “instead of gaining an accession of strength from it, the democratic party had infected the proletariat with its own weakness”. Yet he also reiterates (when explaining the division of monarchists into two factions) that there really is a binding and ever-present relation between politics and class:

That at the same time old memories, personal enmities, fears and hopes, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, convictions, articles of faith and principles bound them to one or the other royal house, who denies this? Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed senti­ments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundation and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting point of his activity.

Once again, we come across men and women making their own history but not as individuals floating free of the ties of class.

It is especially in describing the Party of Order, that conglomer­ation of monarchist politicians who attempted to rule France between the end of the revolutionary period of 1848 and the victory of Bonaparte, that Marx explores the complicated class/party relationship. He draws a picture of dissonance, of representatives being out of synch with those they represent, of various fractions of the bourgeoisie turning away from their political leaders, for very different reasons, to look to Bonaparte as their saviour. These reasons include the specific material interests of the various parts of the bourgeoisie, but also a plethora of inter-related factors, as is obvious from the depiction of the defection of a chunk of the conservative/monarchist majority in parliament to Bonaparte’s camp in early 1851. They deserted “out of fanaticism for conciliation, out of fear of the struggle, out of lassitude, out of family regard for the state salaries so near and dear to them, out of speculation on ministerial posts become vacant… out of sheer egoism, which makes the ordinary bourgeois always inclined to sacrifice the general interest of his class for this or that private motive”. The point here is not that Marx is saying that class isn’t the major factor in party politics, but that it plays itself out in a variety of ways, some of which are quite unpredictable. At the same time he is anxious to strip away the ideological veils that hide raw class struggle behind them, and he makes no bones about it that the great currents swirling under the surface of party politics are those of class struggle. What should not surprise anyone familiar with Marx’s writings is that he can see both the wood and the trees.

Marx’s cutting descriptions of Bonaparte and his populist antics may seem like some comic farce, but they show a solid grasp of the phenomena of authoritarian populism. Rereading these sections with an eye on modern Ireland, the late Charlie Haughey comes to mind again and again. Indeed, Haughey and Bonaparte had much in common as political outsiders who clawed their way to the centre of power, posing as men of the people but always intent on living the high life, courtesy of the state: “And in Bonaparte the imperial pretender was so intimately bound up with the adventurer down on his luck that the one great idea, that he was called to restore the empire, was always supplemented by the other, that it was the mission of the French people to pay his debts.” Marx’s character­isation of Bonaparte’s proposal to set up an ‘honour system loan bank’ for workers brings today’s SSIAs to mind: “Money as a gift and money as a loan, it was with prospects such as these that he hoped to allure the masses.” This type of populist mass bribery was Bonaparte’s speciality, something that obviously tickled Marx, as can be seen in this reference to the president (soon to be emperor) plying the troops with goodies: “As a fatalist, he lives in the conviction that there are certain higher powers which man, and the soldier in particular, cannot withstand. Among these powers he counts, first and foremost, cigars and champagne, cold poultry and garlic sausage.” Like Haughey, Bonaparte wanted to be seen as the “patriarchal benefactor of all classes”, but just like Haughey, he could not “give to one class without taking from another”.

In a passage at the end of the book Marx details the complicated relationship between Bonaparte and the various classes: he has broken the political power of the middle class, but he protects its material power. Yet, given his support base amongst the peasantry, he wants to, and needs to “make the lower classes of the people happy within the frame of bourgeois society”, but in the final analysis his true loyalty lies with himself, his clique and the army who keep him in power. Such is the shifting sand upon which populism bases itself and these glaring contradictions are its fatal weakness.

In chapter VII, Marx attempts to define class, not in an abstract way but in reference to the situation of the French peasantry. Although his entire works are imbued with the concept, he rarely gets as close to a precise definition of class as he does here:

In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among the small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no commun­ity, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.

Now most socialists will be familiar with the idea of a ‘class in itself’ versus a ‘class for itself’, with the implied importance of class-consciousness arising out of struggle as the key element of the transition from the former to the latter. Marx clearly had this idea in mind, since he goes on to state that, because of the lack of class consciousness and organisation, the peasants saw the “unlimited governmental power” imposed by Louis Bonaparte as their repre­sentative and saviour. But a closer glance will reveal a more layered view of class. Note that while class is firmly grounded in the economic base, what glues people together as a class, in the objective sense, is not only their relationship to the means of production but cultural factors that arise from the mode of production and the opposing interests of other classes. Marx rarely misses a chance to tease out the contradictions, to spell out the dialectic: it is not that classes are like popcorn lying inert in their kernels waiting to be popped by the heat of the struggle (or the all-knowing vanguard!) but that they exist and do not exist at the same time. What is stunting the maturity of the class, Marx contends, is a lack of awareness of a broader, as opposed to a local, commonality with people of the same class. They may well be an ‘identity of interests’ but it has not resulted in a sense of being part of a wider class community. Political organisation is clearly seen as an important factor in the emergence of a class, though not the sole one.

Traditional far-left organisations are notorious for the ‘education’ they force-feed their new members: usually a few un­appetising morsels of Lenin and Trotsky taken with a large dollop of the truth according to the guru. They rarely prescribe raw Marx, as opposed to their authorised summaries. Derivative of Marx these tracts may be, but they bear little relation to the depth and breadth, the clarity and the contradictions, the incisiveness and complexity of the man’s work. Reading Marx is incompatible with the dictatorship of the leading few, because the ideas swirl round, the interpretations are manifold, the lessons varied, the party line missing, and most of all, the Holy Book dissolves into the grand messy multiple thought of a real human being, brilliant, flawed and committed as he was. Marx is still essential reading for serious socialists, and for those approaching his work for the first time, where better to start than with The Eighteenth Brumaire?

Drawing the line

In Issue 25 (July 2006) Aindrias Ó Cathasaigh argued for clarity and unity on the left.

Before we can unite, and in order that we may unite, we must first of all firmly and definitely draw the lines of demarcation.

Lenin

Revolutionaries are from Venus: reformists are from Mars. A gaping fault line runs through history between those who want to demolish the capitalist edifice and build anew, and those who want to make it more habitable by rearranging the furniture. Reformism works within the parameters laid down by the framework of capitalist society. Even in good times, these only stretch far enough to accommodate relatively generous welfare systems and extensive state intervention in the economy; in bad times, reformists are left with a diminishing quantity of crumbs to distribute and often find themselves shoring up the worst aspects of the system they wanted to ameliorate. The words of Luxemburg echo truer than ever: “Those who proclaim themselves in favour of the way of legal reforms instead of and as opposed to the conquest of political power and the revolutionising of society do not in reality opt for a smoother, surer, quieter way to the same goal, but a different goal: instead of bringing about a new system of society, just a quantitative change in the old.”

That is not to say that reformism is no more than a heinous conspiracy got up by the bourgeoisie to befuddle the proletarian masses who otherwise would rise up the day after tomorrow and cast off their chains. When working people look for a change in social conditions, that is usually expressed as a desire for reform in the existing system. When capitalism is incessantly presented to you as a god-given eternal way of life—and especially when no alter­native presents itself with any serious force—it is only natural to call for a remodelling of that system rather than its replacement. Reformism corresponds to, and reinforces, this state of mind. This is why there is a far greater history of workers voting for, supporting and joining reformist organisations than revolutionary groups, which have been confined for the most part to the political margins.

So folding our arms and sneering at reformists from a safe distance is not an option for socialists. Unless we are actively involved in struggles led by reformists, it is highly unlikely that any but a tiny minority of workers will be won to a socialist position. Unless revolutionaries are prepared to work wholeheartedly in united campaigns with reformist workers, and the leaders they support, we have no opportunity to vindicate socialist politics in practice. This doesn’t mean biting our lip and keeping our head down, but the exact opposite: openly and unashamedly arguing for our point of view. This in turn can only be done properly by understanding the real chasm that exists between the politics of reformism and the politics of socialism.

At first glance, there would seem to be a similar difference between the Labour parties of this world and the Communist parties. What could be further apart than the social democratic rose on the one hand, and the hammer and sickle on the other? But the similarity is greater than the difference. Crucially, when they talk of socialism, both see it as something to be handed down from on high, a blessing bestowed upon a grateful but passive working class. Marx’s insistence that the emancipation of the workers can only be brought about by the workers themselves means nothing to them.

When Stalinism has achieved power, it has presided over a system that differs from capitalism only in appearance. The exploit­ation of the workers takes place under state rather than private tutelage, but comes to the same thing. As with reformism, Stalinism has aimed at a restructuring of capitalist social relations rather than their abolition. The idea of a society and its economy being under the real democratic control of working people is foreign to both conceptions.

Where it hasn’t taken over, Stalinism has usually been another version of reformism with a different look to it: a Pepsi next to Coca-Cola. Communist parties have entered coalitions with capitalist parties, advocated trade union collaboration with employers and their state, rowed in behind advocates of ‘progressive’ capitalism. Since the Berlin Wall was knocked, those that haven’t clung to a mixture of Stalinist nostalgia and chauvinist bigotry have mostly gone further down this road. As with classical reformists, socialists need to fight alongside them where they have a following, while always recognising the basic difference between their politics and revolutionary socialism.

Another category not quite so radical as it might appear is that of left sectarians. ‘Sectarian’ is usually no more than a term of abuse on the left; it is not meant as such here, but as a frank description of a type of politics that does exist. It is a term Marx employed to describe those who put their own agenda before that of the working class, who didn’t believe as he did that “The communists have no interests separate from those of the proletariat as a whole.” There may be a word with less offensive connotations, and if so it should be used, but it is more important to understand the species than to label it.

Groups in this category act according to the self-interest of their organisations rather than the interest of the working class. Or worse still, they convince themselves that whatever suits themselves must be in the interest of the working class. If doing the right thing seems likely to lose them potential or actual supporters or members, then they will do the wrong thing, or do nothing at all. Their political engagement takes place under their own control whenever at all possible—sometimes directly under their own steam, often under cover of a wholly-owned subsidiary outfit or, better still, an enterprise in which they hold a 51 per cent stake: others can do half the work while they retain the final say in how it’s run. The un­democratic internal regime of sectarian organisations is no accidental phenomenon: if the party’s interest is paramount, why waste time discussing other points of view? Success is judged by membership figures, paper sales or media exposure, not by advances in the position or consciousness of the working class. Opportunism, and occasionally breathtaking opportunism, is always the other side of the sectarian coin.

These organisations can occasionally occupy a relatively prominent position and draw significant numbers behind them. In such a case, socialists have to be ready to work in united fronts alongside them—as long as these are genuine united fronts allowing for honest co-operation, and not empty shells under sectarian management. Even when working side by side with them, we should always remember that we are effectively in competition with them, arguing for a very different conception of socialism. The gap between their attitude and a truly socialist one is immense, as great as with reformism or Stalinism. It is not a minor difference of tactics, but a major difference of principle.

In fact, in the kind of struggles socialists engage in, standing against sectarianism is usually more relevant and necessary than standing against reformism or Stalinism. In the fight against the bin tax in Dublin, for example, campaigners wanting to leave everything to a future Labour government have been rare, and campaigners hoping for a invasion by North Korean tanks rarer still. But fictitious local campaign groups have proved a real pain, groups that have far less to do with anti-bin tax activism than they have with sectarian organisations inventing a platform of their own to artificially crowbar themselves into position. If only because sectarianism rears its ugly head more often on our part of the political landscape, an uncompromising opposition to it is crucial for socialists. Far too many of us take sectarianism in our stride, accommodating to it as if it were only to be expected, all part of the game. There can be no acceptable level of sectarianism, though: it is always a corroding influence that eats away at honest working-class politics, and as such socialists shouldn’t tolerate it.

Bemoaning the latest sectarian shenanigans can sometimes be a source of idle amusement, but is ultimately as futile as blaming the Pope for being Catholic. The problem is that many expect them to somehow behave differently. Acting as unselfish socialists taking their part alongside others in open, democratic activity is just not in their nature. Instead of blaming the cat for stealing the milk, we should get on with proper socialist politics in spite of them.

Comparing and contrasting these groups with each other is another common pastime. It is especially popular with members of these same groups seeking self-justification: whatever about us, we can’t be as bad as that other crowd! Of course some differences exist, but what unites them is way more significant than what divides them. One of the first things every Irish socialist learns is that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, for all the very real historical and contemporary differences between them, are both the same as far as the working class is concerned. It is high time we drew the same lesson for the Tweedledums and Tweedledees of the sectarian left.

Some believe that those in this category can be won round. Of course, individuals, groups, and on the odd occasion even whole organisations can break from their moorings and chart a different course. But this involves a clean break with their past, not a gradual internal evolution. Reading the tealeaves of sectarian minutiae to divine some process of change from within is a particularly bad way to waste your time. Hoping for a change in the party line is pointless when the line can always be changed back: what the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.

Just like those involved in reformist or Stalinist groups, people in sectarian groups are capable of breaking out and coming around to radical socialism. But this is usually as a result of external pressure, above all pressure that draws them towards a clear alternative. As long as they remain inside the whale, their energy is dissipated and smothered. Most long-term members of such groups are frankly beyond redemption, having been schooled in the ignoble art of agreeing with whatever their leaders say and knowing no better. While potentially decent socialists within them should of course be won over, looking for groups with such a perverted conception of socialism to provide the revolutionaries of the future is a vain hope.

This attitude could be called sceptical, but if it is, then those who aren’t sceptical just haven’t been paying attention. Experience, now and for years back, points to the conclusion that lions will convert to vegetarianism before the sectarian leopard changes its spots. Medieval alchemists spent entire lives trying to make gold out of base metal, with nothing to go on but blind faith. Those who persist in hoping that the sectarian left will play a positive role display a similar determination to defy the obvious. If, in spite of everything, some socialists still see them as potential partners, then it begs the question asked by militant trade unionists in another context: What do these people have to do to not be our partners?

Such an attitude is largely based on the belief that it would all be so much easier, and save a lot of bother, if only pre-existing organisations with hundreds or thousands of members could be made to see the light. Many a socialist has entertained the fond hope that reformist, Stalinist or even nationalist organisations could be made to serve their purpose, but this short cut has usually led them up the garden path. While socialists can work as a tendency within such organisations in certain circumstances, unless they work clearly as socialists, the organisation ends up transforming them rather than the other way round. Tolstoy is one Russian rarely quoted on the left, but we could do a lot worse than heed a warning of his: “In order to lift others out of a quagmire one must stand on firm ground oneself, and if, hoping the better to assist others, you go into the quagmire, you will not pull others out, but will yourself sink in.” The same applies here.

The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made machinery and wield it for its own purposes. Pulling at the sleeves of sectarians can only end in tears. When socialists engage in joint activity with them on their terms and under their control, we end up merely holding the ladder for them. As the fifth wheel on someone else’s wagon, you only make a bad job look a bit more respectable than it is in reality. If you find yourself in such a position, com­plaining is of little use: just move out and move on.

Subtracting reformists, Stalinists and sectarians from the equation thankfully leaves a far from negligible quantity. Time was when socialists in Ireland had a very limited choice of places to go, but the market domination of that cartel has broken down in recent years. Groups rejecting what has passed for left-wing politics have attracted more people, new groups have come into being, and independent socialists have managed to stand on their own two feet effectively. Meanwhile the old organisations have hit a wall and got stuck in a rut. Their boasts of strength on paper ring increasingly hollow, and while the same old faces try and reassure each other that things are on the up and up, at least some of their members are facing the realisation that their party card is limiting their political activity instead of facilitating it.

No one could honestly say the prospects for revolutionary socialists are rosy, but in some ways they are better than they have been for years. To capitalise on them, however, we will have to be confident enough to strike out on our own, without relying on the goodwill of forces with a different agenda. In many struggles of late, we have proved our commitment and staying power and punched above our weight. Too often, we are guilty of underestimating the impact we have made, and can make in the future. Where we have had the stomach to get on with the job instead of looking over our shoulders, we have surprised people with the way socialist activity can be carried on free of the constraints imposed by the tired old methods.

There are of course different opinions amongst us, different approaches and different emphases. These can and should be the subject of full, open, broad-minded debate. What they cannot and should not be are excuses to avoid common activity. There is no reason in the world that we cannot fight shoulder to shoulder while discussing our differences sharply and cordially. This kind of pluralist unity, respecting the opinions of socialists and coming together to fight capitalists, should extend to creating common organisational formations wherever feasible.

Important as it is to bring together actually existing socialists, more important is to win over new socialists coming into fresh battle with capitalism, and to learn from them. There is no substitute for the hard and patient work of developing socialist politics indepen­dently from the ground up. In the long run, it is a surer and swifter route than any other. There is no shortage of work to be done, and not a few victories to be won, by revolutionaries willing to get their feet wet and hold their heads up. Socialism is above all else the self-liberation of the working class: sticking to that principle, and rejecting those who have taken a different direction, is the pre­condition for building up a socialist movement worthy of the name.

Socialist Classics: György Lukács, ‘History and Class Consciousness’

A great if flawed work of Marxist theory, argued Maeve Connaughton in Issue 23 (November 2005).

This collection of essays written between 1919 and 1922 is one of the best fruits of the re-flowering of Marxist thought brought forth by the capitulation of reformism in the first world war and the Russian revolution of 1917. Lukács notably highlighted the “reification” inherent in capitalist society—the way relations between human beings are turned into abstract things—and thus reclaimed a forgotten dimension of Marxism. Nowadays no one can get away with denying or dismissing Marx’s critique of alienation, and this aspect of Lukács’s work doesn’t seem quite so groundbreaking. But there is plenty more besides in History and Class Consciousness that is well worth thinking about.

Lukács rejects both ‘common-sense’ empiricism and academic detachment: Marxism “is inseparable from the ‘practical and critical’ activity of the proletariat… to adopt it leads directly into the thick of the struggle of the proletariat” (History and Class Consciousness, London 1971, p 20-1). This is because a true understanding of society coincides with the interests of the working class, whose fight for liberation entails the end of all oppression. Recognising this connected social totality is what gives a deeper meaning to everyday battles (p 22, 71):

the ultimate goal is not a ‘state of the future’ awaiting the proletariat independent of the movement and the path leading up to it. It is not a condition which can be happily forgotten in the stress of daily life and recalled only in Sunday sermons… The ultimate goal is rather that relation to the totality (to the whole of society seen as a process) through which every aspect acquires its revolutionary significance.… Only when the immediate interests are integrated into a total view and related to the final goal of the process do they become revolutionary, pointing concretely and consciously beyond the confines of capitalist society.

Capitalism always seeks to split the world up into separate ‘issues’ with little or no relation to one another. Even its opponents often go along with this approach, each choosing to fight their own corner. What capitalism dreads above all is a determination to oppose all its various injustices in a unified way, to raise these disparate struggles to a higher level that challenges the foundations of the capitalist way of life itself. Bridging that gap, relating every individual battle to the war as a whole, has to be a constant imperative for socialists. Each individual brick has to be handled carefully and laid correctly, but unless it is properly connected to the other bricks to form a building, its purpose is severely limited.

It is all about class consciousness, how far the working class understands its own real interests and the role it can play in bringing about a new society. For all its contradictions and crises, capitalism will not decay of its own accord: unless the working class believes in itself and its capacities, and acts on that belief, there is no other way of putting an end to the system.

The proletariat cannot liberate itself as a class without simul­taneously abolishing class society as such. For that reasons its consciousness, the last class consciousness in the history of mankind, must both lay bare the nature of society and achieve an increasingly inward fusion of theory and practice. ‘Ideology’ for the proletariat is no banner to follow into battle, nor is it a cover for its true objectives: it is the objective and the weapon itself. Every non-principled or unprincipled use of tactics on the part of the proletariat debases historical materialism to the level of mere ‘ideology’ and forces the proletariat to use bourgeois (or petty bourgeois) tactics. It thereby robs it of its greatest strength…

p 70

Their class consciousness is the workers’ greatest strength because it embodies the crucial conviction that they can indeed overthrow capitalism and live a different kind of life. “Even in the very midst of the death throes of capitalism broad sections of the proletarian masses still feel that the state, the laws and the economy of the bourgeoisie are the only possible environment for them to exist in” (p 262). Anyone brought up in capitalist society has it almost wired into our brain that this is the way things are and the way things have to be. Things can be modified here and there, the government can be replaced with another government, but the basic framework more or less stays as is. Very few workers are over the moon with capitalist society, but likewise, very few really feel there is any other way of running things that would work. To break out of this and realise that it’s all a lie, that the world can run in a different groove altogether, is a big step. Even many who think they have taken that step have in reality gone no further than a more radical version of reformism.

The inertia generated by acceptance of the capitalist ground rules is more powerful than all the armies the system can muster (p 262):

the strength of every society is in the last resort a spiritual strength. And from this we can only be liberated by knowledge. This knowledge cannot be of the abstract kind that remains in one’s head—many ‘socialists’ have possessed that sort of knowledge. It must be knowledge that has become flesh of one’s flesh and blood of one’s blood; to use Marx’s phrase, it must be “practical critical activity”.

This activity, properly understood, teaches and proves the potential of the working class: “that it can be transformed and liberated only by its own actions” (p 208).

Lukács’s masterly treatment of the socialist attitude to the law—a treatment relevant to discussions on direct action in our own day—illustrates this. For him, the use of legal or illegal methods is “a mere question of tactics”. If the right thing to do is illegal, it should be done anyway; if it happens to be legal, that doesn’t make it any the less revolutionary. The attitude that illegality is a virtuous thing in itself, that the law should be broken for its own sake, “suggests that the law has preserved its authority—admittedly in an inverted form—that it is still in a position inwardly to influence one’s actions”. Instead of either obeying the law purely because it is the law, or disobeying the law purely because it is the law, we should deal with it “In the same way a yachtsman must take exact note of the direction of the wind without letting the wind determine his course; on the contrary, he defies and exploits it in order to hold fast to his original course” (p 262-4).

The job of a socialist party is to stand up for the class conscious­ness of the workers, even when that consciousness is clear to only a minority of them. It has to prove that the attitudes and actions it proposes coincide with the interests of the working class, to persuade workers that it is only a vehicle for what they need (p 42):

The true strength of the party is moral: it is fed by the trust of the spontaneously revolutionary masses whom economic conditions have forced into revolt. It is nourished by the feeling that the party is the objectification of their own will (obscure though that may be to themselves), that it is the visible and organised incarnation of their class consciousness. Only when the party has fought for this trust and earned it can it become the leader of the revolution. For only then will the masses spontaneously and instinctively press forward with all their energies towards the party and towards their own class consciousness.

So it is not a question of setting up your party and then calling workers over to it, but a process of socialists developing towards a position where their aspirations become those of the working class in general: “the organisation is much more likely to be the effect than the cause of the revolutionary process” (p 41).

Lukács praises Rosa Luxemburg for recognising this, but goes on to criticise her organisational attitudes. She should have split from the social democrats earlier, he writes, setting up a clear-cut revolutionary organisation like the Bolsheviks did in Russia. The same case has been made many times since, but it remains a doubtful one.

As Lukács notes himself, “in comparison to the western nations the situation in Russia was relatively simple” (p 312). Capitalism, being less rooted, had taken less of a grip on workers’ consciousness, and the Tsarist regime left little if any room for reformism to take hold. In Germany, on the other hand, capitalism was well established, and the Social Democratic Party occupied an overriding place in the political culture of the working class. Luxemburg and her comrades being part of a recognised left wing within that party gave them political access to workers that they would never have had outside the party. That left wing broke away from the party as significant sections of the German working class were beginning to see the need for such a break. Whether a more ‘Russian’ approach would have brought better results is far from probable, and attempts to implement such an approach in Germany after her death brought little success.

Unforgivable, though, is Lukács’s attack on Luxemburg’s criticisms of Bolshevik policy in Russia. Where she insists that the working class needs full freedom to build a new world, he maintains (p 292) that

it must not allow itself to be pinned down on the whole complex issue of freedom.… Freedom cannot represent a value in itself… Freedom must serve the rule of the proletariat, not the other way round.

Lukács here manages the feat of getting the truth absolutely back to front. The working class takes power exclusively in order to liquidate capitalism and pave the way for a society where freedom is indeed an end in itself. If freedom is only a means to some other end, a tactic to be used and discarded at will, then this temporary workers’ rule turns into its opposite. Such a process was underway in Russia as Lukács was putting the book together, and he was already fitting himself to bow down before it. A desire to bring about socialism, he writes, “must entail the renun­ciation of individual freedom. It implies the conscious subordination of the self to that collective will that is destined to bring real freedom”, and of course—surprise, surprise—“This conscious collective will is the Communist Party” (p 315). All this proto-Stalinist drivel did not flow from the genuine political insights Lukács had revealed, which is why the powers that were in Russia demanded that he renounce History and Class Consciousness. He obliged, and blunted for decades an intellect that had the potential to offer powerful contributions to the international workers’ movement. Reclaiming his major work, and freeing it of the outlook that contradicts its central thrust, can help make such a contribution today.

Come back Ilyich, all is forgiven

In Issue 20 (November 2004) Joe Conroy reviewed an assessment of Lenin’s politics in 1917.

V I Lenin, Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917, edited and with an Introduction and Afterword by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)

Karl Marx is almost accepted in polite society these days. Guardian journalists write books about him and conclude that he was a decent old stick after all. But Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: he’s a different proposition. You can draw a picture of Marx—albeit a profoundly false one—scribbling away for himself in the British Museum, harmlessly working on his eccentric theories. But playing down actual involvement with revolutionary activity is virtually impossible in the case of Lenin, what with 1917 and all that. If the fact that “Marx was before all else a revolutionist” got covered up not long after Friedrich Engels said so at his graveside, Lenin has always, as György Lukács put it, symbolised “the actuality of the revolution”.

So you have to admire an academic who writes a book arguing that Lenin is far from a discredited dead dog, but a figure to learn from. Although the title page describes this as a selection of Lenin edited by Slavoj Žižek, there’s far more Žižek than Lenin. The cover of this edition (the hardback came out two years ago) is adorned with pictures of both men, and “Žižek on Lenin” is the most prominent legend. Žižek’s contrib­ution to the book is easily longer than Lenin’s. His mammoth afterword ‘Lenin’s Choice’ often has little to do with Lenin at all. When he asks “So where is Lenin in all this?” (p 292) it reminds you that he has wandered off the point for a hundred pages or so. Some of these ramblings are interesting ramblings, but they don’t really butter any parsnips as far as Lenin is concerned.

His selection of Lenin’s writings needs to be argued with. While he writes that “It is impossible to overestimate the explosive potential of The State and Revolution” (p 5), it’s not possible to estimate it at all when he decided not to include this, the best thing Lenin ever wrote. If consider­ations of space were at play here, some of his own musings could have made way for it. The pamphlet Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? has more right to be in there than some of what has been included. New translations would have been preferable to the Collected Works renderings, complete with the dull Muscovite footnotes that give you too much information on the ideological trend of some forgotten Russian periodical or other.

The predominant feature of Lenin in 1917 is his determination to seize the time, to take the opportunity to seriously go for all-out revolution. Others on the left, he wrote, “picture socialism as some remote, unknown and dim future”, unable to see the chance of realising that future in the present, when “socialism is now gazing at us from all the windows” (p 100). Against these, not to mention a considerable wing of the Bolshevik leader­ship, he insisted that unless the workers took over, the Tsarist generals would establish a dictatorship, and the working class internationally would be left in the lurch: “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now” (p 116).

But this was no solo run, with the revolution emerging from Lenin’s bald head:

Indispensable as Lenin’s personal intervention was, however, we should not change the story of the October Revolution into the story of the lone genius confronted with the disorientated masses and gradually imposing his vision. Lenin succeeded because his appeal, while bypassing the Party nomenklatura, found an echo in what I am tempted to call revolutionary micropolitics: the incredible explosion of grass-roots democracy, of local committees sprouting up all around Russia’s big cities and, ignoring the authority of the “legitimate” government, taking matters into their own hands. This is the untold story of the October Revolution, the obverse of the myth of the tiny group of ruthless dedicated revolutionaries which accomplished a coup d’état.

p 6-7

Lenin spent much of 1917 trying to convince socialists that the workers knew better than they did, telling them they should listen

for the initiative of the revolutionary people to begin expressing itself as something majestic, powerful and invincible.
Let all sceptics learn from this example from history.… Don’t be afraid of the people’s initiative and independence. Put your faith in their revolutionary organisations… Lack of faith in the people, fear of their initiative and independence, trepidation before their revolutionary energy instead of all-round and unqualified support for it—this is where the SR and Menshevik leaders have sinned most of all.

p 109-10

It wasn’t just the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks who needed convincing. The Bolshevik party and Lenin himself had to change course. Faith in popular initiative and independence was a radical break with Lenin’s earlier theory that socialist consciousness had to be imported into the working class from outside by the revolutionary party. Many of Lenin’s followers still haven’t made that break, continuing (as Žižek puts it) “to dream that Revolution is round the corner: all we need is the authentic leadership which would be able to organize the workers’ revolutionary potential”. We need to realise that “This mysterious working class whose revolutionary thrust is repeatedly thwarted… simply does not exist” (p 307‑8).

The working class has to draw its own conclusions and work out its own salvation. The arguments and proposals put to them are one—very important—factor in this, but the actual victories and defeats that workers go through teach lessons in themselves. Lenin always maintained that it was the concrete experience of the 1905 revolution that gave the Russian working class such a head start in 1917. The Bolshevik party that succeeded in 1917 wasn’t bringing socialism to the workers from outside: it had essentially fused with a working class that had set out upon a revolutionary road.

And this only happened after Lenin had fought for the Bolsheviks to abandon what had long been their defining standpoint, their interpretation of the nature of Russia’s revolution. They, and Lenin most of all, had always believed that it wouldn’t be a socialist revolution, only a radical capitalist one that would clear the way for socialist struggle. Not only did he now argue for this position to be dropped, he wanted socialists outside the party who had disagreed with it brought into the Bolshevik leadership. Imagine any of today’s far-left organisations ditching its definition of Stalinist Russia, and then inviting members of an opposing group to make up half of its central committee!

The transformation of the Bolshevik party in 1917 bears comparison with a similar process taking place in Ireland around the same time. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin party had spent a decade advocating a dual monarchy: a self-governing Ireland linked with Britain by the one king. The 1916 rising was linked with Sinn Féin’s name despite the party’s lack of involvement with it. When the upsurge in republican sentiment later swept the country, thousands took over the existing Sinn Féin organisation and essentially changed its policy to a republican one. To some extent, the revolutionary workers of Russia did the same with the Bolshevik party, pressuring it to fit their own aspirations. By October Lenin could write: “the Bolsheviks, i.e., the representatives of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, have now embodied in their policy the idea which is motivating countless millions of toilers” (Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?).

Amidst today’s movements for global justice, Žižek sees a role for the party (p 296-7):

How do we invent the organizational structure which will confer on this unrest the form of the universal political demand? Otherwise, the momentum will be lost, and all that will remain will be marginal disturb­ances, perhaps organized like a new Greenpeace, with a certain efficiency, but also strictly limited goals, marketing strategy, and so on. In short, without the form of the Party, the movement remains caught in the vicious cycle of “resistance”… the last thing we want is the domestication of anti-globalization into just another “site of resistance” against capitalism.

He has a point here. The various aspects of capitalism can’t be overcome in splendid isolation: a broad, generalised assault on the system as such is needed. And like any form of political activity, that assault will need to organise itself as effectively as possible.

But, firstly, building a movement to get rid of capitalism is not all—or even mainly—a matter of organisation. The desire to have such a move­ment, and the belief in its practical possibility, will have to take shape first, and that comes down to political argument and experience before it comes down to taking organisational form. Secondly, if we “invent the organiz­ational structure”, it is unlikely to resemble previous structures, least of all “the form of the Party” with or without a capital P. The horrible experience of “the Party”—Stalinist, Trotskyist or otherwise—has discredited the name so much that we need to find another name for what we want. As Lenin wrote in 1917, when calling on socialists to abandon the name ‘social democrat’, “it is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen” (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

The Lenin of 1917 is not all of Lenin: there is a Before and an After. Up to a few years before, he had more often than not been an advocate of elitist and arrogant party-building, of a workers’ revolution that would shrink from taking a socialist direction, of a deadeningly static interpretation of Marxist philosophy. A few years after, he was more often than not an advocate of party dictatorship, of compulsory obedience to the party line, of reducing socialism to featureless economic construction.

But the honeymoon period in between was something else. In 1914 the international socialist movement collapsed as war engulfed Europe. Lenin’s response was to go back and rediscover the emancipatory heart of Marxist thought, to discern the revolutionary possibilities created by capitalism at its height. Lenin was a new man by 1917, someone determined not to let the prospect of socialism slip by.

This is the Lenin from whom we still have something to learn.… The idea is not to return to Lenin, but to repeat him in the Kierkegaardian sense: to retrieve the same impulse in today’s constellation. The return to Lenin aims neither at nostalgically re-enacting the “good old revolu­tionary times”, nor at an opportunistic-pragmatic adjustment of the old programme to “new conditions”, but at repeating, in the present world­wide conditions, the Leninist gesture of reinventing the revolution­ary project…

p 6,11

Half the power of Lenin, says Žižek, is in the name, “the extent to which the signifier ‘Lenin’ retains its subversive edge” (p 312). That name stands for the harsh reality of revolution in flesh and blood, which is why it still enjoys the contempt of the intellectual prizefighters for the powers that be. Even people committed to overthrowing those powers are ignorant of Lenin’s revolutionary inspiration, his commitment in 1917 to win a world without classes or states, a socialism where “all will govern in turn and soon become accustomed to no one governing” (The State and Revolution). If the things this Lenin stood for are the same things we stand for, we would be mad to spurn his help in the fight.