The Hard Left: A 21st Century Anachronism

The conservatism of the Hard Left

One of the things the Socialist Party is often accused of by what is loosely called the Hard Left is ‘utopianism’. We are ‘utopian’ for wanting to establish an alternative to capitalism where goods and services are no longer produced for sale but to directly satisfy human need, where the class division of society into employers and employees, along with the whole system of waged labour, has ceased to exist and where the productive resources of society are owned in common by everyone.

This is indeed a utopia in the strict sense of the term – meaning ‘nowhere’. A socialist society does not exist, and has not existed, anywhere. But that does not mean it cannot exist.

True, on the Richter scale of political insult being called a ‘utopian’ ranks fairly low down. One could be called a lot worse in the colourful lexicon of the Hard Left.  We could have been branded as ‘revisionist’ or an ‘imperialist stooge’.

All the same, there seems to be something a little odd about this charge of ‘utopianism’; it has the ring of cognitive dissonance about it. After all, aren’t these assorted grouplets of Trotskyists, Stalinists, Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, Hoxhaists, Castroists and the like, supposed to have as their ‘ultimate objective’ precisely what the Socialist Party stands for? Are not the ‘iron laws’ of history, in their view, relentlessly pushing us in that direction, anyway?

Well, it seems not. It seems that the Hard Left – we can forget about the Soft Left who don’t even pretend to have socialism as a long term goal – have hit the pause button on history and that is where they intend to indefinitely remain. It seems that the pragmatic necessity of campaigning for reforms is always going to take precedence over the need for social revolution. Their reasons for thinking this will be examined later

Preconditions of Socialism

It should be obvious that to bring about a socialist society you have to have a significant majority who want it and broadly understanding what it entails. That is because socialism constitutes a radical change in the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak – meaning the norms and social expectations that govern human behaviour.

For instance, in socialism, since the very notion of economic exchange will have disappeared as a logical consequence of making the productive resources of society the common property of everyone. Exchange, after all, denotes an exchange of property titles and, hence, the existence of private property – what this means is that labour in a socialist society could no longer be coerced by the need to sell our working abilities for a wage; it must necessarily take a voluntary form. It also means that products of our collective labour – the goods and services we consume – would be made available to all on a completely free basis without any kind of quid quo pro exchange being involved.

In fact, these two things – ‘free access’ and ‘volunteer labour’ – hang together as social practices inasmuch as the one implies the other. They constitute the very essence of what is meant by the old socialist slogan ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’. But, clearly, in order to implement this, people have to know what to expect of each other. We need to feel the sense of security that stems from a shared vision of how society ought to function and a common set of values to guide and motivate us. Otherwise, the result will, very obviously, be chaos and societal breakdown.

Equally obviously, this social arrangement can only be implemented where there exists the technological potential to produce enough to satisfy the needs of the population.

Otherwise, chronic material scarcities would undermine and subvert the cooperative ethos upon which a socialist society depends. Self-interest, instead of complementing altruistic values (as would be the case in a healthy, balanced society), would increasingly work to crowd out the latter, as individuals scrambled to grab what they could regardless of the consequences for others.

Socialists contend that this technological potential has long been in existence; the barrier to its realisation is capitalism. Not only does capitalism deliberately curtail production to what can be profitably sold but a very large and steadily growing share of economic activity under capitalism is devoted, not to meeting human needs, but to meeting, instead, the systemic needs of capitalism itself – a prime example being the entire financial sector of the capitalist economy.

This massive wastage of human and material resources (from the standpoint of meeting human needs) will abruptly come to an end in socialism. These resources will be freed up for the purpose of significantly increasing the overall output of socially useful wealth while also, paradoxically, helping to mitigate the enormous and unsustainable pressures currently being exerted on our global ecosystem – simply by changing the basic purpose for which wealth is produced in the first place. That is to say, by changing the nature of the society we live in.

Supporting Capitalism

Where do the Hard Left stand in relation to all of this? Since they are not really interested in talking about, let alone advocating, socialism – because it would be ‘utopian’ to do so in their eyes – how is a mass socialist consciousness ever going to come about, in their view? When precisely will it no longer be ‘utopian’ to talk about socialism – if ever?

They frequently cite in their defence that famous quote by Marx in The German Ideology (1845), completely misunderstanding the point Marx was getting at, and interpreting it as justification for their lack of interest in promoting a genuine alternative to capitalism:

   ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

A major premise to which Marx was alluding here was precisely the existence of a sufficiently developed technological potential to make communism (aka socialism) realisable. While socialists contend that this potential has long been around, the Hard Left, on the whole, tends to deny this and, in doing so, inadvertently and unnecessarily helps to prolong capitalism.

For them, it is not really capitalism that is responsible for the persistence of needless poverty. Though they may rail against ‘greedy corporations’ and how these prioritise profits over people, the problem, they suggest, is that we still lack the necessary technological infrastructure that could make socialism a material possibility. In short, we still need more in the way of capitalist development.

For instance, absolute poverty, defined by the World Bank as a condition of severe material deprivation in which individuals are compelled to live on an income of less than $1.90 per day in 2011 prices, continues to affect hundreds of millions of people around the world. Overwhelmingly the absolute poor are concentrated in the Global South. From this it is inferred that the problem boils down to the unequal relationship between the ‘rich world’ and the ‘poor world’ – as if poor people don’t live in the former and rich people don’t live in the latter.

For many on the Hard Left this unequal relationship is a function of ‘imperialism’ rather than capitalism as such. Consequently, what is required is a struggle against imperialism and the imperialist nations – in particular, the United States. This entails supporting ‘national liberation struggles’ in the Global South and the efforts of these poor countries to develop themselves economically, freed of the malign influence of this First World imperialism. In this manner do the Hard Left partisans of ‘Third Worldism’ align themselves with the interests of local capitalisms in the Global South.

The problem is that capitalism is a global system; it is everywhere driven by the same logic. That is a logic that works to block the realisation of the enormous productive potential we already possess and it is only by establishing a global alternative to capitalism that we can hope to release this potential. You can hardly do that if you are an advocate of Third World nationalism. Nationalism is no threat to capitalism; on the contrary, it is an ideological prop to capitalism.

Not only that, the Hard Left naively assume that ‘material abundance’ is something that must become an empirical fact, an experiential reality for everyone, before we can even begin to talk about socialism – a sociologically inept idea, anyway, given capitalism’s compulsion to constantly induce in us, through the power of advertising and the like, a chronic sense of deprivation, even when our lives are already cluttered with often useless gadgets and our fridges are stuffed to overflowing with packaged food. Until then, argue the Hard Left, capitalism is still needed, albeit under the tutelage of the benevolent state and dressed up in the trappings of socialist terminology.

Such backward and distinctly non-revolutionary thinking stems from their deep attachment to the state capitalist model of capitalist development such as was implemented in the early decades of the Soviet Union. At the time this model did indeed seem to permit a comparatively rapid rate of capital accumulation in international terms. A case can certainly be made that state capitalism was better suited (from that point of view) to an earlier period of capitalist development than rival models (such as laissez faire capitalism) – what the economist, Walt Rostow, called the ‘take off’ stage of economic growth in his influential book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960).

Later, however, as the Soviet economy grew in size and complexity and shifted from an extensive to an intensive form of economic growth, this state capitalist model with its built-in structural rigidities and inefficiencies, increasingly became an impediment to capitalist development, resulting ultimately in the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. But the fundamental conservatism of the Hard Left, with their obsessive preoccupation with ‘productivism’ and GNP growth for its own sake, makes it difficult for them to relinquish their blind faith in state-led capitalist development. It is as if they are trapped in a 1930s time warp when good old Uncle Joe Stalin ruled the roost and so called ‘central planning’ was all the rage.

Since (state) capitalism is still needed, in their view, a corollary of this is that there is no point in working to put in place that other major premise upon which the establishment of a socialist society is predicated – namely, majority understanding of, and the desire to bring about, socialism. Such talk, they say, is premature and ‘utopian’. Their stock defence of this position is that they are ‘materialists’ so putting forward the case for socialism is ‘idealist’. We learn not through ‘abstract propaganda’ but ‘practical experience’.

Hard Left idealism

Actually, this betrays a crude, mechanical and completely reductionist view of what materialism is actually about. Ideas are part of our social environment, not something separate from it. There is no dichotomy between ‘ideas’ and ‘experience’. Ideas are the means by which we make sense of our experiences.In the Communist Manifesto there appears the following passage:

‘All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority’.

The emphasis on ‘self-consciousness’ here is deliberate and intentional. You cannot logically separate the notion of a working class that has become aware of its status as the dispossessed productive class in capitalism – Marx’s ‘class-for-itself’ as opposed to a ‘class-in-itself’ – from the collective desire to make the means of wealth production the common property of all. The one thing implies the other. In other words, putting forward the case for socialism – what the Hard Left dismisses as ‘utopianism’ – is actually a key part of the development of proletarian self-consciousness.

In the Hard Left’s mechanistic conception of what ‘materialism’ is about, the desire for socialism is somehow supposed to magically spring out of the material conditions in which workers find themselves without the active intervention, or propagation, of ‘ideas’. But how is this possible since we don’t live in a socialist society and can only anticipate it in our imagination? Yet it is precisely the role of imagination that the Hard Left is intent upon deriding and downplaying in its mechanistic conception of revolution.

In Capital, Marx touches on precisely this point when he distinguishes between the instinctive labour of (other) animals and human labour:

‘A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.’

(Volume 1, chapter 7).

Precisely the same argument can be applied to the establishment of socialist society. And yet, the process of imagining such a society as a precondition for establishing it is dismissed by the Hard Left as ‘utopianism’. Tellingly for them it is only when the vanguard (which – presumably – alone possesses this ability to envisage an alternative to capitalism) has captured political power on behalf of the workers that the latter can be instructed or socialised into the ways of socialism.

In short, their mechanistic view of materialism goes hand in hand with their own elitist, social engineered conception of revolution.

A self-fulfilling prophecy

Thus does the Hard Left’s entire thinking on this matter help set in motion a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that fundamentally hampers the spread of socialist ideas. The mere fact that the socialist cause continues still to attract comparatively few supporters is cynically cited by them as the very reason for spurning it. In this way, the Hard Left joins hands with the overt supporters of capitalism in striving to ensure socialism remains firmly off the political agenda.

But as long as the socialist cause is spurned, so long will it continue to attract few supporters. Its lack of support is somehow equated with a lack of credibility – though ironically many of these groups that ridicule us for being ‘utopian’ are significantly smaller in size than the Socialist Party itself.

However, the basic assumption being made here – that if an idea attracts little support it must therefore be lacking in credibility – seems questionable. In an ideal world size shouldn’t matter. An idea would stand or fall on its own ground and irrespective of the support it attracted.

After all, Hitler came to power on the back of the electoral support of literally millions of German workers. Are we then to infer that Nazi ideology had much to commend itself for this reason? Conversely, Nicolaus Copernicus advanced his heliocentric theory in the 16th century in the face of near universal opposition, even outright hostility. Should he have abandoned that quest and caved in to the prevailing consensus? Some historians suggest that Copernicus’ ideas are what helped to kick-start the subsequent scientific revolution.

Without wanting to stretch the analogy too far, socialists today are in some ways the political equivalent of Copernicus back in the Renaissance era. What is scorned and mocked today can become the common sense and convention of tomorrow and more rapidly than we can ever imagine in a world in which the pace of change is accelerating

Socialism is an idea whose time has come and, small though the number of socialists may now be, it only takes the logic of the Butterfly Effect to make a real and cumulative impact on the world we live in.