Skip to Content

"Criticism, alienation and engagement"

From a talk given by Pieter Lawrence on Wednesday 25th February, In Central London Branch

Comrades,  I hope you will forgive the pretentious title, but it does say what the discussion is about,  which is what titles are supposed to do.  I am not a great student of the sociologist Weber, but from what I know  he did say some useful things about the life of  institutions which may have a bearing on the present situation of our Party.

So, in opening up this discussion I would like to focus on a dilemma which can confront  an organisation that is founded at one time on new ideas and is at the forefront of progress.  At this point it is innovative; it is very much a  product of its own time; and it marks a break with the past. If it has some success it  attracts support  and what we might call "its own time" begins to move into the past.  The result is a   tradition which inevitably includes some  conservative tendencies and as further time passes this can make it difficult for it to adapt to new conditions. As we know from any evolutionary process, failure to adapt can be a serious risk to your health. On the other hand, a complete absence of conservative  tendencies would surely make for an unstable organisation that would be unlikely to survive anyway.

These  hazards are particularly acute in our modern world  which, without any shadow of a doubt is the most dynamic, fast changing society in history. So, what is the solution? We are not talking here about organisations in general.  We are talking about our Party which has been in existence for a hundred years. The problems of how organisations should adapt in our fast changing world is different in each case; what I want to focus on are the special circumstances that affect our Party.

One important feature of our situation stems  from the fact that  we argue a body of economic and political criticism which results in our dissociation from most of the of the political activity that is carried on.. We don't choose this.  It results from  the logic of our criticism. In order to maintain the integrity of our principled stand we have no choice. Our position of distance from most of what goes on in politics is determined by factors beyond our control.  These strictures even demand that we be distanced from movements and activities which contain some progressive elements or at least, have some progressive intentions.

The fact underlying this unavoidable but regrettable situation is that we know that  compromise  would be self defeating.  If compromise is summarised as "reformism", then we can look back and see the tragic failures of reformist policies throughout the 20th Century.  The mistaken idea that we should devote our energies to improving  capitalist society through reforms has led, certainly in absolute terms,  to the most destructive century in history. Had we ever abandoned our socialist principles the very idea of a new society based on equality and co-operation  would have been lost and that would have only compounded the tragedy.

Whilst this is true, and in all circumstances, inescapable, one consequence of our principled stand is that for the most part we do remain alienated from the  political life of society.  This is the connection, in the case of our Party, between criticism and alienation, and of course, this has a history.

In accounting for this history  it is useful to consider 3 significant stages in the history of socialist criticism over 150 years  The first is the position of  Marx and Engels in 1848 at the time of the Communist Manifesto.   The second is the position of our founder members in 1904. Lastly, we come to our present position at the turn of the 21st Century. I want to argue that each of these stages of socialist criticism relate to successive stages in the development of the Capitalist system and that each stage provided both limitations and expanded options for what socialists could say and do.  I also want to argue that we now have opportunities to engage much more positively with social developments in ways that could reduce our alienated situation.

So, beginning with 1848 I don't think any of us would deny the importance of the Communist Manifesto;  how could we?  It was a brilliant summary of the preceding development of revolutionary thought and it  expanded on these ideas.  Together with other works the outcome was  an  economic and class analysis of the capitalist system that laid the foundations of scientific socialism. We are all of us condemned to think and act only within a given social context and Marx and Engels were quite frank in accepting that they operated at an early stage of capitalism and therefore their position suffered from a lack of productive and political development. They were constrained by two major limitations.  Firstly, they accepted that the capitalist systems had not yet developed to the point where it had laid down a material basis for a full socialist society. Secondly, they accepted that the battle for democratic rights, that is, the vote was yet to be won.

As a result of these limitations they realised that workers would first have to, ". win the battle of democracy," then having captured political control would, and I use their own words, "wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state...    and to increase the total of productive forces as soon as possible."

With the wisdom of hindsight we can now look back and say that the programme set out in the Communist Manifesto was a recipe for a state capitalist system, but then of course we understand this in relation to all the economic and political limitations of the time.

When we come up to the situation of our founder members in 1904 they could work within conditions that were more developed.   In most of  Europe sufficient workers had the vote to enable a majority of  socialists to gain political control.   Also, I think the question is far from settled, but at least Engels took the view in the later 19th. Century  that capitalist development had in fact laid down a material basis for the immediate commencement of socialist society.  Personally, I have my doubts.  Recently our Branch put this question on a Conference Agenda where the discussion was inconclusive.

But to their great credit, our founder members in 1904 did something that neither Marx nor Engels had ever done. This was to apply Marxian economic theory to the limitations of political action within the capitalist system. This defined the limitations of reformism in a way that clarified the whole question of revolution or reform. But it did more than this. This development of ideas led to a body of theory and criticism that came to have predictive value. This has been a most important theoretical contribution
which is yet to be recognised.   If we look over the century from 1904 we find that our members predicted the failure of reform programmes to change society;  the failure of the Bolshevik revolution and all programmes including those of labour and social democratic parties to use nationalisation as a means of changing society.  Later on, by applying the same method, our members predicted the failure of Keynsian policies designed to set the capitalist system on a course of steady expansion without the
destructive affects of the boom/slump cycle.

However, whilst without doubt our early members won the theoretical argument the working class did not take it up and instead went for reformist policies. This had one important consequence.   Whereas Marx and Engels had been much more supportive and much more engaged with  what they regarded as progressive movements, and whilst because of the early stages of capitalist development they had been justified in this support, the more sophisticated criticism of our members in 1904 at a later stage of capitalist development, meant that they would certainly not campaign for  reforms  of any kind. They would not advocate reforms  and would only express a very qualified support for those reforms that could be been, unequivocally, to contain some benefit to workers; and of course, you don't get many of those.

So here we enter a period in 1904  when socialist criticism is  not just an analysis of the economic development of the capitalist system, it  is also a criticism of the political activities of the overwhelming majority of workers in their pursuit of reforms and the various  policies which were mistakenly believed to be in the direction of socialism.  Inevitably this resulted, for all practical purposes, in  a  dissociation or alienation of the Socialist Party from the working class movement.

One hundred years later we are in more or less the same position of the Party  in 1904.  Our political case still applies, and still consists mostly of  applying  Marxian economic theory to the limitations of political action within the capitalist system. The law of value;  the nature of capital that can only exist through accumulation, operates as a set of class interests and economic constraints that no government, regardless of its declared aspirations can offset or control. This relentless drive of capital to
accumulate results in a constant pressure of economic selection through which the structure of production is maintained as an exclusively capitalist structure. This remains mostly immune to ideological interference.

We therefore still confine ourselves to this narrow analytical perspective; partly because for the past hundred years it is what we have done and this has led to some institutional inertia;   partly because through this method we have been proved by experience to be right; and above all the fact that we have still got capitalism which is bigger and stronger than ever, therefore, we don't see any reason to change. The problem is, we may not change, but the world does change and we need to address that change.   We find it difficult to engage with change because  we remain locked into the 1904 method of economic and political criticism.

The productive relationships of capitalism do not change but within that basic relationship many kinds of change do take place and these changes are the actual stuff of history.  At a rough guess, I suppose that by 1750, the wage labour/capital relationship had become the dominant productive relationship in Europe.  Without question, but now throughout the world this is still the same. Commodity production begins with an exchange of wages for labour time and this has been the case for over 250 years. But of course, over that time, and within that basic economic relationship there have been very great productive, technical and scientific, administrative and institutional, communicative not to say, cultural changes.  By focusing exclusively on a basic and  unchanging class relationship, and by confining our economic analysis of events to the limitations of that relationship we are blinded to the revolutionary implications of the dynamic changes that are going on all around us.

Our attitude is in great contrast to the attitude that Marx took who was much more aware of change and its revolutionary possibilities. For example we can take a brief quote from the Communist Manifesto.  "Modern industry has established the world market. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land.. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the
whole relations of society. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All
fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newly formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.   All that is solid melts into air, all
that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind."

Now, its possible that Marx  got a bit carried away by his own magnificent prose, but whatever you may think of the sense of that passage, one thing that comes through is the very real sense of excitement that he and Engels felt about the great changes that were taking place in their day.  What I want to suggest is that our alienation from all that is happening around us now prevents us from recognising the potential  revolutionary importance of modern change. Marx was not just observing the dynamism of capitalist
society his comments were predictive because since his day, of course, these changes have not only gathered pace but they have gone on to establish the material basis of world socialist society. It is this fact that provides us with the opportunity to be more positively engaged with modern development.

I am the last person to argue that if we had socialism to-morrow we could solve social problems without any further development.  For example the number of seriously undernourished people increases every year. In 1975 there were 435 million; now there are over 820 million.  Some members mistakenly think that capitalism produces enough food for all needs, but I remember Hardy's response to this when he said that if everyone had free access to the food in the shops it wouldn't last ten minutes. Hardy was
right. So world food production would have to be greatly increased  by at least 60%.  That would need to be organised, or at least co-ordinated,  on a world scale.

According to the  recent United Nations report "The Challenge of Slums", across the world in 2001 there were about  1 billion people living in shanty towns and other slums.  The report predicts that on present trends by 2030 2 billion people will be living in such slums. Then  of course there are more billions living in sub standard housing.  To solve this problem in socialism would require a massive expansion of every part of production connected with housing. Given the integrated nature of modern world production, this again would have to be co-ordinated on a world scale.

Then again, who can doubt that capitalism is in an ever worsening mess with its energy supplies. Here again, this would be an enormous project in socialism to set up an adequate and non destructive world energy system.

So when we say that capitalism has established the basis of socialist society it is a qualified statement that means we have a structure of world production; we have the communications; we have the skills and talents; we have the decision making bodies; we have the means of administration at local, regional and world levels, all of which could  be swiftly adapted, re-organised and developed so as to concentrate all these resources on providing for needs. What this in fact amounts to is an immense accumulation of the powers of social labour and of social organisation.

What I find quite shocking, especially in a party that prides itself on its Marxian scholarship, is that these great  changes have not been incorporated into our general arguments.  This prompts the question, has the fear of reformist compromise and our general hostility to the capitalist system made us blind to the revolutionary significance of change; is this why we remain locked into the narrow, negative  perspective of 1904 criticism?  The plain fact is that if we take the sum total of all the socially  useful factors of modern life that are linked throughout the world in all their wide ranging functions, we find that capitalism has itself established what could be the structure of  world production and organisation of socialist society. This exists now all around us. It is what capitalism has brought about.

The question that follows is this; how do we become more engaged with the socialist possibilities of these great world developments? The answer lies in the fact that as it has  developed  as a global system,  capitalism  has been compelled to develop not just the class/value factors of production and
administration but also its  socially useful factors.

There is no better way to express this than with a quote directly  from Marx.  In Capital Volume 1 he said this - "So far as therefore labour is a creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition,
independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race: it is an eternal nature imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between Man and nature, and therefore no life."

This then becomes a key part of the Marxian method of formulating practical proposals for how socialism could operate. This is to separate the class/value factors of production, decision making and  administration, which would be redundant in socialism, from the socially useful factors which would be retained and developed for the sole purpose of providing for needs.

So, as the advocates of a society in which useful labour will produce goods solely for use, this is the task that is now in front of us;  it is a task which has been set by modern capitalist development.  To be engaged positively  with this development it is our job to propose how all these socially useful factors could combine to make up the organisation of  democratic decision making, administration and production in socialism.

In the past, not going beyond critical analysis was justified by lack of development.  This was well expressed by Engels in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" where, in criticising the utopian thinkers he said, "The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the Utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain." Now of course, almost 150 years further on, the solution of social problems is no longer hidden in undeveloped conditions. On the contrary,  the material means of solving problems are all around us. So,  in the developed conditions of modern global capitalism, whilst critical analysis constitutes the theoretical basis of our case, now it is a  starting point from which we should set out how socialism could be organised.

This could have consequences for the whole range of our arguments. Positive engagement with social development could also modify  our approach to non-socialist activities.  This again has its difficulties because it requires a change of entrenched attitudes which is always  painful.

As a Party we tend to be hostile to the activities of all non-socialists. This has a simple logic.  In one way or another non-socialists are supporters of capitalism.  We are opposed to capitalism.   Therefore we are
opposed to the activities of non-socialists. In the past this was often spat our with total conviction, not to say a certain some venom,  and for many members this has been the  last socialist word on the subject.  But is it? I think not!

What we actually find is that we share many of the basic hopes and intentions of many thousands of people who are active in all kinds organisations. Socialists do not hold a monopoly on social concern. For example, many people are concerned with  the plight of these 820 million starving people we mentioned  and they try to do something about it. We share that concern, this is something that we have in common with them. So it is not true that we are hostile to all non socialists. So how can we be more engaged with these people with whom we share some common ground?

They are in organisations like Oxfam. They work voluntarily collecting money, running charity shops and organising raffles. This is  to finance workers in the field in many places, doing what they can to provide seeds, tools and equipment and small scale irrigation schemes and things like fresh water wells.  Others are in organisations such as the United Nations Association in the hope that agencies like the Food and Agricultural Organisation could do more to help the starving.

We are quite right to say that these efforts do not stand a chance of ever being able to solve a  problem that is getting worse. As I said, over the past 25 years the numbers of starving people have doubled. But rather than be hostile to the activities of these people we should adopt a much less alienated approach.

Instead of emphasising the futility of their activities argued exclusively from the alienated position of 1904 economic criticism;  instead of shouting great abstract slogans them such as common ownership, democratic control and production for use to which we attach very  little practical meaning; we could argue from a  basis where we have set out how existing world wide organisation already exists for dealing with the problem of world hunger.  This more  engaged approach would be to describe how the principles of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use could be applied in practical ways. This would convert the higher abstractions of economic analysis into proposed lines of practical activity. This would in turn  project what people in OXFAM are trying to do into a different social
context in which their work could be more successful in solving  the problem. This would draw their attention more directly to the need to alter the present economic and political framework which is so destructive of their efforts.

I see no difficulty in producing literature specifically aimed at people in such organisations as OXFAM that would set out such practical proposals. This more engaged approach would be to acknowledge that  they are doing what they can to lessen world hunger but the problem is getting worse, and then say, "The action to solve this problem must include action to bring about a society where you will have the freedom to act more effectively and this is how it could actually work. The work of solving  the problem and the work of creating the conditions in which it can be solved go together."

And of course the same approach could be directed at other organisations, for example, the many environmentalist groups.

To summarise then:  I am suggesting that we should build on our economic and political analysis and apply its logic to the fantastic development of all the socially useful factors of modern world society in setting out how socialism could operate.  Then armed with this set of practical proposals we make every attempt  to be more positively  engaged with the many non socialists with whom we share  common ground of concern and indignation and the need to establish a world of equality, democracy and  co-operation."

Pieter Lawrence

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under given circumstances directly encountered and inherited from the past."

Karl Marx.