2000s >> 2002 >> no-1178-october-2002

Book Reviews: ‘Sovereign States or Political Communities?’, & ‘The State and Community Action’

Reformist dead – end (1)

Sovereign States or Political Communities? Civil Society and Contemporary Politics. By Darrow Schecter. Manchester University Press. 224 pages.

German philosophy is still alive and, judging by this book, is just as impenetrable as it ever was. Schecter’s basic argument is that while Marx was right to see that capitalism is based on the exploitation of wage-labour and right to say that a real democracy – what Schecter calls “a self-governing civil society” – is only possible on the basis of the abolition of both capitalism and the state, Marx was wrong to say that socialism would involve the end of politics.

This is largely a question of definition. Marx thought that socialism would mean the end of politics because he associated politics with the state and of course there would be no state – as a public institution having a monopoly of the means of legitimate violence within a given part of the globe – in socialism. Schecter, basing himself on various 20th century German political philosophers, comes to exactly the opposite conclusion. Defining politics as the disinterested pursuit of the common good, he argues that it cannot co-exist with the state as states are bodies which, besides being influenced by the most powerful interest groups, seek to contain and manage the various conflicts of material interest and competition for money that go on within capitalist society.

Thus, what is called “politics” today is merely competition between rival parties of professional politicians seeking state power on the basis of promising to improve the material position of those who vote for them. This reduces so-called democratic choice to giving electors the chance of saying yes or no every few years to whether an outgoing government should continue in office. Most people realise this and is what they consciously do when they vote, if they bother to vote at all. It also explains why they see politics as marginal to their lives.

Real democracy, says Schecter and we would agree, involves people actively participating in decision-making about general issues; which assumes that meeting their material needs is no longer an issue since these are adequately met by other means – which can only be on the basis of socialism. Which is why a real democracy can only exist in socialism.

Schecter also investigates how such a desirable situation could be brought about. At one time the working class movement – the trade unions, a mass party calling itself socialist – was seen as the instrument of this but now, says Schecter, this movement has accomodated itself to capitalism seeking only better conditions within the system and even being integrated into the state administration of labour and welfare matters. He sees a potential replacement in what have been called the “New Social Movements” – “feminist, peace, ecological, gay rights, indigenous peoples’ rights” groups – though only insofar as these pursue politics (in his sense) by seeking to represent, not the sectional interests of their constituencies within the state, but the whole of “civil society” against the state.

Although he realises that these NSMs (as, apparently, we have to call them) are just as liable to accommodate themselves to capitalism and to be co-opted and integrated into the state as the Labour Movement was, he vastly underestimates this. In fact he seems to ignore the extent to which this was essentially all these movements ever wanted and indeeed the extent to which it has already happened (women can now become trained killers in the armed forces, open gays can sit as Tory MPs, and in America they’ve got a black Secretary of State).

What is disappointing (if only because Schecter was for a short while a member of the Socialist Party and so should know better) is that he calls the regimes such as used to exist in Russia “state socialism” rather than state capitalism. He also (p. 52) misquotes Marx. Marx did not write in connection with the 1871 Paris Commune that “the working class cannot lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. What he actually wrote was “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machine and wield it for its own purposes” (Address of the General Council of the IWMA on the Civil War in France, 1871, beginning of section 3, in Marx The First International and After, Penguin Books, 1974, p. 206, emphasis added).

In other words, the working class can lay hold of the existing state machine but not “simply”, i. e. it must first change it by, in the occurrence, lopping off its militaristic, bureaucratic and other undemocratic features before wielding it to abolish capitalism thereby making itself redundant.


Reformist dead – end (2)

The State and Community Action. By Terry Robson. Pluto Press. 250 pages.

With the manifest failure of Labourite reformism and Keynesian economic policies by the end of the 1970s, the sort of people who previously had joined the Labour Party to get reforms designed to benefit “the poor” deserted Labour, setting up and joining instead single-issue campaigning charities and other such organisations to work towards the same aim, although with considerably lowered sights.

Among such organisations were grass-roots neighbourhood and community councils in areas inhabited by the worst-off sections of the working class. Incredible as it may seem today, some of these activists put forward the idea of “community action” as an alternative to “working class action” not just to get improvements within the capitalist system but even to bring it to an end.

It was never going to work since, despite the personal views of some of those involved, “community action” as such was in the same tradition of piecemeal reform as the Labour Party had been, only even more piecemeal in that whereas Labour had sought reforms at national level the “community activists” were only seeking changes at local level. Some of these charges – better street lighting, community centres, better provision of public services, more information about how to claim state benefits – were unobjectionable in themselves and did improve things a little but the idea that this had anything to do with “challenging capitalism” or “creating a culture of resistance” was, frankly, just laughable.

Robson makes this point in passing, but his main concern is the relationship between community action and the state. Following the riots in the black ghettos of America in the 60s and 70s and in Brixton and Harmondsworth in Britain a decade later, the governments in both countries decided to actively encourage “community development”. They set money aside to fund local community associations and full-time community workers. Robson accurately describes this as “letting the poor manage their poverty”. The governments’ aim was clearly to allay disacontent and integrate the people affected into mainstream capitalist existence.

This continues to this day, with the present Labour government’s much trumpeted “local initiatives” aimed at ending “social exclusion”. There is also a narrowly financial aspect: letting the poor manage their poverty is cheaper than having this done by civil servants subject to civil service terms and conditions over pay, job security and pensions. In other words, full-time “community workers” are in effect cheapo state functionaries. To imagine, then, that such associations and such workers could form the basis of an anti-state, anti-capitalist movement is just a pipe-dream. Being state-funded these are no more likely to bite the hand that feeds them than the state would be to allow its hand to be bitten.

Robson tries to set all this in a wider theoretical framework by referring to the idea of “hegemony” of the pre-war, imprisoned leader of the Italian Communist Party, Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci, apparently, observed (not very originally) that capitalist control was not based on mere coercion but also on consent; according to him, this consent was mediated by “intellectuals” who transmitted ideas and values favourable to the ruling class amongst the general population. To overthrow capitalism, he concluded, the working class movement needed to produce its own intellectuals (who needn’t necessarily be of working class origin) who would undermine the work of the pro-capitalist intellectuals and lead the working class against capitalism and its state – for Gramsci was, of course, still a Leninist vanguardist.

Robson’s conclusion from all this is that while some of the university-trained community workers might have considered themselves to be such pro-working class intellectuals they were just the opposite: intellectuals co-opted by the state to get the worst-off sections of the working class to acquiesce to capitalist rule without kicking against the pricks too much.

It’s an interesting theory but this is the least interesting part of the book. It also contains two errors that rather undermine Robson’s credibility as a person who knows what he’s talking about here. He includes the Bolshevik leader Bukharin as one of the theoreticians of Second International “economistic” Marxism (but he was only born in 1888 and didn’t publish anything substantial till after 1917) and he also has the Paris Commune (1871) occuring at about the same time as the Chartists in Britain (1830s and 40s).

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