Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Discussion: ‘Bridging the gap (3): a way forward?’ – Len Arthur

Discussion:Bridging the gap (3): a way forward?’ Len Arthur
‘Bridging the gap’ discussion posts 1 & 2 argued that if, as socialists, we agree, to a large extent, that the structural problems of capitalism underlie the current economic crisis and drive climate change, there is nevertheless a huge gap between where we are now in terms of our effectiveness and capacity for resistance, and the need to transform the power of capitalism. Further, it was suggested that a key to taking on this challenge is a question of the relationship between our consciousness of the issues involved and our confidence to act. In short, the challenge is to attain greater understanding, unity and solidarity between those who accept the need to make such a transformation possible. This post will tentatively propose a possible way forward.

The second post suggested that a dichotomy exists within key current political debates about how this gap may be bridged, between those who would place an emphasis on being able to effect transformation through ‘prefigurative’ action (sowing the seeds of a future society in the present) and those who would emphasise large scale collective mobilisation. It was indicated that issues about the role of reformism, leadership, autonomy, horizontalism, transitional demands and party organisation are affected by this dichotomy.

Since the onset of the financial crash in 2007, it has become increasingly clear that those who support capitalism are committed to a brutal project of making the working class pay for the crisis. They need to re-establish their control and power over the working class in order to sustain their systematic exploitation of humanity and the planet. During the last six years, their intentions and methods have been more exposed than at any time since 1945, as the reality of systemic failures have been open to all, eroding the legitimacy of neo-liberal arguments. The financial crisis has revealed more than a bank-supported lending bubble; criminal behaviour and market fixing is seen at the very heart of the system, even being described by the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England as a ‘cesspit’. Writers such as John Cassidy and Naomi Klein, who are not Marxists, have found an eager audience in their exposure of the myths that underpin the economic arguments used by those who rationalise capitalism.

Despite this exposure, our ability to resist and fight back is weakened if we, as socialists, cannot provide both an explanation for this trajectory of capitalism and, critically, also offer an alternative and reasoned counter trajectory, thus enabling us to challenge, contend and move toward transformation. Drawing upon a key idea of Antonio Gramsci, this final blog post will propose that it is possible to work toward a new synthesis, thus overcoming the dichotomies of the transformation debate and, in so doing, so perhaps move the discussion about the related contentious and divisive issues - such as those relating to ‘reformism’ etc - into a constructive mode of discourse, aiding left unity.

Gramsci, in his writings between 1929 and 1935, later collected in the Prison Notebooks, developed a useful distinction between the ‘war of movement’ where the capitalist state is under direct revolutionary threat and the ‘war of position’ where, like siege warfare, neither the working class nor the capitalist state, can strike decisively against each other. Alternative forms of hegemony, in terms of both ideas and organisation, are required to sustain the ‘war of position’, and critically for this post, Gramsci points to both Italian history and revolutionary history more generally, to indicate how difficult it is to move back from a ‘war of movement’ to one of ‘position’. Moreover, he argues that a war of position is not easy to sustain and ‘is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness’. In making this analysis, Gramsci, was also drawing upon the debates of the first four conferences of the Communist International and Lenin’s consideration of similar issues, as in “Left-Wing”Communism – an infantile disorder, as well as the contemporary writings of Trotsky.

As Gramsci indicates, socialists are aiming for a ‘war of movement’ but have to recognise that this may not be achievable, given the balance of forces at one particular time. Therefore the idea of a trajectory toward transformation is critical but what can be done often falls far short, creating difficulties, recriminations and accusations: going forward can be easy but deciding when to defend, realise and accept that the advance is at an end, is fraught with political problems. However, a conscious and collective decision about when, how and whether to act is greatly helped by a political understanding of the balance of power. It helps to provide confidence about the process of how and why a particular decision was made, whilst still retaining a connection to a longer-term trajectory toward the prospects of transformation.

To what extent, then, is it possible to handle a war of position better, and what implications could this have for contemporary issues such as the experiences of Labour councillors facing Tory-imposed financial cutbacks? What is suggested here is that the war of position can helpfully be seen as having three forms, each dialectically relating to each other.

Forms of the war of position

1) The struggle for ideas and understanding

I remember a socialist Cardiff shop steward called Carl Cave once describing capitalism to me as being like an octopus, with the tentacles of power of capital reaching down and sucking away at all aspects of our lives. Working for a dreadfully dangerous company using asbestos in oil seals and brake linings, he vividly knew what this meant in his everyday existence. Exploring and explaining how the hegemony of this octopus works – the ideological struggle, if you like – is an important part of the war of position. It is composed of a huge, international and extremely rich body of texts – such as can be found in the Marxists Internet Archives – and, for most of us on the left, reading, consulting and discussing around these issues is probably what takes up most of our time. Recent and effective examples are Owen Jones’ book Chavs and Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, referred to above, and I’m sure your personal list is endless.

Constantly exploring, exposing and explaining how capitalism works is essential and a guide to action but, paradoxically, can also contain the very real danger of reinforcing hegemonic fatalism: it can explain a monster that just seems too large and powerful to challenge. Hence, the best writings will contain some reference to the possibilities of how to challenge and, of course, our own reading and discussion can turn a critical analysis into an argument for resistance and action.

As socialists, we are committed to change through contention and transformation. A historical perspective is thus central to our process of critical analysis, enabling us to understand the shifting fortunes of our past struggles and those of capitalism and its defenders. Just within the UK we celebrate, among many other movements, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and the Rochdale Pioneers; and we still draw upon the lessons of the 1926 general strike and 1945–51 Labour government. It is not possible to imagine how we would conceive of the socialist project without these references. International working-class history also provides central lessons and inspiration such as the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – and perhaps even more so today, when the current crisis can only be understood in its international dimension. So, for example, people have recently argued that our current public sector situation is like the 1980s: we applied the ‘dented shield’ then and today we just repeat the formula.  I would argue it is not the same – the balance of forces have changed; capitalism was then ‘on a roll’ intellectually, associated with a series working class defeats and political reversals: now, as argued above, the capitalist raison d’être is exposed and therefore potentially more vulnerable and if we are serious about transformation, we should take account of this historically different situation.

Despite being an essential part of the process, transformation does not come about through ideas alone but also through practice; through action. As in the famous quote of Marx – his eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach – ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’.

As in all dialectical processes, some links to action can be closely associated with the role of ideas. Most recently, the UKUncut campaign against tax avoidance and evasion has drawn upon an analysis of corporations, recognising that those who rely on direct sales to the consumer value their public persona or ‘brand image’ as being central to their ability to sustain sales. So UKUncut, by directly undermining these brands through well-targeted public action, has hit at the value of these brands. Similarly, the Occupy movement, particularly in the US, has put inequality back on the political agenda. Mike Marqusee recently described his own experience in this area from the US in the 1960s. However, most forms of action that have a chance of influencing the process of transformation require greater collective work and effort and it is around these actions that the most difficult discussion revolves.

2. Boundaries, reformism, compromise and “selling out”

As Gramsci indicated above, sustaining a ‘war of position’ when it is difficult to move toward transformation and the ‘war of movement’ is fraught with sensitivities, even though it is clear that the power of capital reaches right down into everyday life. These sensitivities are often expressed in debates around the issues of reformism, compromise and ‘selling out’. It will be suggested here that perhaps thinking of boundaries as ‘frontiers of control’ may provide a unified way through the debates.

Paul Blackledge, in his assessment of John Holloway discussed in the previous post, argues that the power of the market and the pressure to reduce all economic relationships to ‘exchange value’ as a market price, prevents the carving out of an autonomous space of ‘use value’, that is protected against market price pressures and commodification. Blackledge goes on to say that Holloway, in not recognising this pressure, ends up compromising with reformism, instead of following a trajectory toward transformation. In making this argument, Blackledge comes close to arguing that effective resistance is not possible, other than that directly leading to transformation and a war of movement. Moreover, suggesting that compromise can be reformist confuses what is a tactical argument with a strategic argument about the nature of transformation. He ends up downplaying the rich history of socialists’ debates around coping with the problems of the war of position and, in effect, takes the debate backwards toward hegemonic fatalism.

As socialists, we are possibly more aware of trade union struggles and it is perhaps helpful to explore the ‘war of position’ tactical process of compromise, boundaries and the frontier of control within this context. Most trade union struggles, although they have the potential to move toward transformation and reveal the wider forces at play within society, actually end up with an agreement or compromise. This is not the necessarily the original intention of the struggle, but a question of the balance of forces. Mark Serwotka’s speech reported in the first of these posts, described the current difficulties in the public sector pensions dispute in these terms. Two key aims are essential in assessing whether a compromise needs to be reached with the employers. First: are the members affected fully and truthfully informed of the current state of play in the negotiation and level of resistance, and are they in democratic control of the decision making process? Second, do the terms of the proposed agreement take forward the benefits and the control of the members over their work and contracts and, if not, does the agreement still allow for a resumption of the struggle at a later date?  All trade union leaders face this situation and it can create a false division and pressure on militants if this is not recognised as a possible outcome, especially if the process is described as a ‘sell out’.

An example from my own experience relates to the early 1990s when, at the end of a two-year struggle to sustain our existing contract in higher education, the employers wanted all members to sign individually to accept the new contract. We argued that we would sign on behalf of the members and they would just sign to say they had received it. This may seem like a small point and some representatives, keen to get an agreement, couldn’t see the problem but it would have meant that the employer could argue, disingenuously, that the members had signed – not us, as a union. However, what was at stake was the chance to come back: by signing as a trade union, we preserved the collective agreement and retained our collective control over policing and interpretation. It was clear that we could have re-started the dispute over the principled issue of recognition and under this threat the employers backed down. Small, difficult, but important in the longer run, and the argument came from our wider socialist understanding of the longer-term strategy and the balance of forces.

Carter Goodrich, writing in 1920, described such an outcome as a ‘frontier of control’: the line at which the battle had temporarily stopped. In the case cited above, the collective agreement and contract described in detail the terms of employment and associated procedures, forming a boundary between the rights of the employer and those of the workers. In this case, the boundary, or frontier of control, is another way of expressing what is meant by the ‘war of position’. It represents a temporary outcome of an ongoing process of resistance, struggle and contention. It forms an essential part of sustaining the possibility of a war of movement and transformation. It is not helpful to have this difficult process of reaching a compromise described as ‘reformism’ or a ‘sell-out’.

I have suggested in my ZCommunications blog, using the term ‘deviant mainstreaming’, that there are prefigurative similarities between the boundaries arrived at through collective trade union struggle and those arrived at in establishing ‘alternative spaces’ (such as co-operatives), as recognised by the ideas of ‘autonomy’ and ‘horizontalism’, described in the last post. I suggest that recognising these similarities, through the ideas of boundaries and alternative space, might help us to overcome the dichotomy between trade-union and social movement type struggles, and thereby lay the basis for united action between the socialist left and the green and cooperative movements. Perhaps the main difference is that, where a boundary is established by a collective agreement, it requires constant defence and the exploration of improvement. It is not so easy to see the pressure to push out and generalise in social movements like cooperatives, where the boundary is one of ownership and interface with the market. But the key point, perhaps, is that the boundaries and the alternative space are not an end in themselves: they form democratic and collective organisations that can move in different directions. What is important is that the strategy pursued within the organisation can determine the future direction, either toward or away from transformation – both trade unions and co-operatives are examples of terrains for this struggle.

3. Leadership – the role of transitional demands and actions

Finally Paul Blackledge, in the ISJ article quoted last week, argued that socialist leadership, particularly in the trade union movement, was central to ensuring that the potential for transformation inherent in all workplace struggles, was brought to the surface. If, as argued in the earlier part of that article, the power of capital is difficult to challenge short of transformation and if compromise can be seen as reformist, life must be very short and difficult for those with leadership positions this side of the revolution! What is not explored and needs to be, to properly engage with the issues raised by John Holloway, is how those in leadership need to act once that position has been achieved. 

The answer that is being suggested in this post is that there is nothing wrong with socialists seeking leadership positions in any organisation of struggle, so long there is complete openness about how politics links with the issues faced by the members, and that the problems of leadership will necessarily mean engaging with the difficulties of a war of position as well as movement. I am suggesting that it is possible to cope with these difficulties and maintain a trajectory toward transformation, not just as an idea but also in practice, in three inter-related stages. First: constantly engaging with the social and economic context, through discussions about how a range of ideas and understandings can help to clarify the issues and shape possible solutions. Second: accepting that compromise may be necessary, but it should take place openly and, as far as possible, move the ‘frontier of control’ - the boundary between our space and theirs – in our direction. Third: the aim should always be to move through these stages whenever possible from a war of position to a war of movement: and that this can be achieved by always looking for the opportunity to raise transitional demands and actions.

Transitional demands have a long history but the clearest statement is still that of Trotsky writing in 1938 where he defined them as a ‘…bridge between [the] present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.’ The language is of its time and context but the core idea remains valuable. So, for example, given today’s crisis, which has clearly been brought about by a failure of capitalism and in particularly the banks, the demand that we ‘will not pay for the bankers’ crisis’ enables a link to be made between every issue over cuts, job losses and wage loss and the failures of the system: preparing the ground for radical change and transformation: a war of movement.

Going further, and making links between prefigurative social movements that emphasise autonomy and horizontalism and those that emphasise collective generalisation, it is possible to use the core of Trotsky’s definition and argue for transitional actions as well. So, for example, an alternative space that significantly reduces carbon emissions or a cooperative that controls the use and distribution of the value created and has an influence over the use value of its output, is a prefigurative challenge to climate change and capital. Moreover, if this alternative space is linked to a horizontal movement to replicate and expand, the challenge is greater, as is the direct link with transformation. A related argument was made recently by Hilary Wainwright.

Developing transitional demands and action, as has been argued here, is not always possible and we often find ourselves doing our best through developing our conscious understanding, or forced to accept a ‘where the battle has temporarily stopped’ compromise. Transitional demands and actions provide a means of keeping the debate open about the possibilities of moving toward transformation in terms of practice. In addition, while developing transitional demands and actions is not necessarily straightforward, the collective process of debate is in itself worthwhile. The key importance for our current time, however, is that an openness about such an approach helps to relate to the ‘exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness’ of a war of position as described by Gramsci, without losing sight of the need always to work towards a war of movement. By indicating that resisting capital and climate change is not easy, that there is potentially a fundamental unity about the role of capitalism across a wide range of issues and grievances, and that there is an underlying similarity between different ways of fighting back; we may be able to help promote greater understanding on the left and a more effective unity in action.

What, if anything, you may ask, does this have to do with the Labour Party, committed to change through elections and social democracy? Owen Jones, writing in the Independent recently, raised similar issues. Well, working through the three stages outlined above, an answer may sound like this. First, what is Labour’s analysis of the current economic situation? In an earlier post it was suggested that there may be an overlap with radical Keynesian thinking on inequality and the thinking of Marxists, such as David Harvey. In any discussion about policy within the party, socialists should at least try to make a link with these debates and the questions about who pays for the bankers’ crisis. If this type of contextual issue cannot be raised directly, then it should at least inform discussion on specific policies. So, for example, on the role of AMs and councillors in relation to the Tory cutbacks: if the issues are only tackled from the basis of technically balancing the books, then the Tory cuts will just be made. However, if the political context is taken seriously, then it becomes a different question, of whether it is possible to develop transitional demands and actions or, on what grounds can a compromise be reached that will still sustain a forward trajectory toward transformation? If the issues are not resolved in this way, we as socialists should still work in unity with organisations that are resisting, whether they are made up of party members or not.

And finally - left unity?
The key argument in these three posts is that the political consciousness of the trajectory to transformation is key, sustaining confidence and potentially providing a guide to action in whatever contexts socialists find themselves in. The implication is that a form of political organisation is required to encourage and support leaders – for the want of a better term - to facilitate the discussion and help coordinate action, with transformation as the aim. It is for us in the Labour Party to consider how this might relate to us but we should also be involved in discussions beyond the party. So, for example, many writers have started to look to Syriza in Greece as a good example of how socialists could come together in a way that facilitates debate and action across all forms of resistance – a consideration that has received increased attention with the recent problems of the SWP. Do you think what has been suggested in this post helps clarify issues and provide a means of reaching out and developing unity with all those who recognise transformation is required?

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