- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Saturday, 23 August 2014
- Written by JR & LS
Towards a South Downs commune
“For us, as revolutionaries, meaningful action is whatever increases the confidence, autonomy, initiative, participation, solidarity, egalitarian tendencies and self-activity of the masses, and whatever assists in their demystification. Sterile and harmful action is whatever reinforces the passivity of the masses, their apathy, cynicism, differentiation through hierarchy, alienation, reliance on others to do things for them, and the degree to which they can therefore be manipulated by others, even those acting on their behalf.” (About Ourselves)
The above quote, written by the late Maurice Brinton is placed at the head of this short piece not because I wish to establish political affiliation or a line of march but merely because it is true, or at least it should be. It’s now painfully obvious that the turn to orthodoxy after the failure of the 1968-73 upturn – by orthodoxy I mean Leninist-Trotskyism, the fetishism of its dictates: the first four congresses of the third international, a dismissive attitude to the left of orthodox communist currents of the first years of that international and Trotskyist sect-building generally (with all the bad faith that has entailed) – have been an utter failure. The top-down, burn it if we cannot control it, methods of these groups suggest that the roots of Stalinism is much deeper than many of us previously thought. They have repulsed many and with the crisis of capitalism in 2008 these organisations if anything became more marginal. That last fact is really the one which buries them, when Marxists suggest the test of ideas lies in practical application then they must judge themselves by their own criterion. The mini-bureaucratic fiefdoms that groups have become discredited the revolutionary left. Some thousands passed through these organisations and out the other side, sometimes still sympathetic but critical, others angered and cynical. To quote Brinton again, this time writing about Wilhelm Reich describing even the greater catastrophes of much larger organisations:
Reich writes “that in the course of the last ten years adolescents, adults, men and women, people from every walk of life have passed through the revolutionary organizations without becoming attached or committed to the revolutionary cause”. What drove them in, in the first place? “Not uniforms, not material advantage, merely vague socialist conviction, revolutionary feeling”. Why did they not stay in? “Because the organizations failed to develop this revolutionary feeling”. Why did people lapse into indifference, or go over to the Right? “Because there were bourgeois structures in them that were not destroyed”. Why were they not destroyed? “Because nobody knew what to promote and what to destroy”. The desired objective could not be achieved by appeals to discipline not even “by music and marching, for the others the Right could do that a lot better”. Nor could it be done with slogans … “The only thing which the revolutionary organizations could, without competition, have offered the masses and which in reality they did not offer … would have been the knowledge of what the uneducated, oppressed children of capitalism, hankering both after freedom and after authoritarian protection really wanted, without themselves being clearly aware of it”.
“Reich also repeatedly stressed that revolutionary propaganda should be positive. It should not be frightened of discussing the future, as concretely as possible. Fear of revolution was partly the product of ignorance. The broad “apolitical” masses would have a decisive effect upon the fate of the revolution. Revolutionaries should therefore find them where they were. They should “politicize private life, fairs, dance halls, cinemas, markets, bedrooms, hostels and betting shops”. Long before the Situationists (or Solidarity) came on the scene Reich had proclaimed that “revolutionary energy lies in everyday life” (Review: What is Class Consciousness?, 1972).
It seems to me that the ideas of Reich on repression and the deep roots of authoritarianism can be immensely useful to us again now in a society where consumerism and conformism is deeply linked to out of control commodity fetishism. I won’t be the comrade to make any great steps forward on this subject though comrades nationally and internationally hopefully will.
However, I do think the idea of a new type of society needs to be put concretely at the heart of our politics. For too long this has been just a rhetorical add-on, handled with the old line about how we could not create blueprints for the future awoken masses. One slogan, an old ’68 one, ‘Be realistic, demand the impossible’ actually is instructive here – when did we ever talk about what our lives, our localities and our environment might be like after capitalism?
A while ago I read a comrade on social media write that in their own lifetimes William Morris probably inspired more people to be socialists than Karl Marx, this struck me as immensely true and relevant. We need to write more about a post-class society might look like and also raise demands in are local areas for community projects, socially useful well paid work and services that, while they will be disregarded by local politicians and council bureaucrats, actually inspire people in our communities. We need to be more utopian, less inclined to compromise and totally dispense with the petit-Machiavellian nonsense that gives sect leaders their MO’s. We need political organisation that is also communities of solidarity, not exclusive communities for the initiated but open to everybody. Combating oppression clearly needs to be at the heart of everything.
The starting point for this is local groups whose politics are a totally egalitarian and internationalist socialism based on revolutionary humanist principles and hatred for the chains that prevent our free development. In Portsmouth we need campaigning priorities in the working class communities that we live in and also propaganda/events that start to sketch that horizon of freedom. JR
This piece first appeared on the Portsmouth Socialist Network blog and does not necessarily reflect the views of PSN which is a network which aims to bring together democratic socialists and anti-capitalists across the city and its surrounding areas.
A brief placeholder for a future discussion of class consciousness
A short while ago a great deal was being said within a certain political group about class consciousness and the need to “raise class consciousness on a mass scale”. The listener was forced to ask himself, perhaps for the first time: What exactly are they talking about? What do they mean by what they call class consciousness? One of the people present, who had kept very quiet the whole time, asked a leading party official who had insisted with particular fervour on the need for developing class consciousness among the German proletariat whether he could name five concrete features of class consciousness and perhaps also five factors which impede its development. If one wanted to develop class consciousness it was surely necessary to know what it was that one wanted to develop and why it did not develop of its own accord under the pressures of material poverty. The question seemed logical. The party official was at first a little surprised, hesitated for an instant, and then declared confidently, “Why, hunger, of course!” “Is a hungry storm trooper class-conscious?” was the prompt counter-question. Is a hungry thief class-conscious when he steals a sausage? Or an unemployed worker who accepts two marks for joining a reactionary demonstration? Or an adolescent who throws stones at the police? But if hunger, on which the CP had based its whole mass psychology, is not in itself an element of class consciousness, then what is? What is freedom? What are its concrete features?
In 1934, expelled from the German Communist Party and in exile in Denmark, the psychoanalyst (and then still Marxist) Wilhelm Reich wrote an essay entitled What is Class Consciousness? under the pseudonym of Ernst Parnell. The essay, while still formulated in the ‘Leninist’ terms of his former party, is a scathing attack against its mechanical certitude and of the failure of the German Left of the 1930s in being able to articulate and relate to the needs and desires of the masses.
The narrative of Stalinist betrayals was not a sufficient answer for Reich who believed “one of the reasons for the failure of the revolutionary movement is that the real life of individuals is played out on a different level than the instigators of social revolution believe”, rather mass consciousness far from contemplating inter-imperialist rivalries or ‘politics’ in the narrow sense, is “made up of concern about food, clothing family relationships, the possibilities of sexual satisfaction in the narrowest sense, sexual pleasure and amusements in a broader sense, such as the cinema, theatre, fairground entertainments and dancing”. It is concerned “with the difficulties of bringing up children, with furnishing the house, with the length and utilization of free time, etc. If politics are to bring about international socialism, they “must find the connection with the petty, banal, primitive, simple everyday life and wishes of the broadest mass of the people, in all the specificity of their situation in society”.
If socialists refer to the need to ‘raise class consciousness’ or ‘educate’ people then aside from identifying elements of this consciousness we should also know what inhibits and stymies it. For Reich this conformism is rooted primarily in sexual repression* and the imposition of sexual morality through the traditional allegiances of Family, the Church, and Nation which encourage “renunciation of earthly happiness, obedience, propriety, abjuration and self-sacrifice” and base themselves “on the guilt feelings of every member of the proletariat, upon their usual unassuming moderation, upon their tendency to undergo privation with dumb willingness and sometimes even with joy”.
But why reappraise Reich today? The above picture can seem anachronistic to us in the wake of the sexual and gender liberation movements, whatever their limitations and subsequent co-option. And while it is clear the family in its changed form still plays a large role in inhibiting the development of consciousness (and is likely to play a larger role as social reproduction is privatised and welfare provision removed) many may feel the failure of the sexual revolution has seen capital appropriate much of its outward form while neutralising its liberatory content.
Where Reich can be revisited is in grasping the subjective element of the present. Neoliberalism has politicised areas of daily experience and given them exaggerated importance as potential sites of struggle, people have to become ‘walking CVs’ and their psyches and subjectivities potential markets (data mining, the Cloud etc.). Alongside this is the privatization of social reproduction of which claimants and the disabled are experiencing a concentrated form of an attempt to refashion labour relations, increase the rate of exploitation and exert social control through dependence on the state and the shifting locus of the ‘wage’. We should also take into account the stratification of the class, and ask do people imagine themselves as ‘workers’ jostling over the frontier of control with the boss, or does this stratification and ways of undermining collectivity, be they zero-hours contracts or boosterish attempts to convince people their work isn’t work (‘do what you love’), give rise to a petty narcissism of minor difference and competition, especially when ‘manager’ does not have the same meaning or features that would distinguish someone from their workmates?
If Reich is correct about the nature of mass consciousness then it follows that the best way for the left to organise, and the impetus for people to organise themselves, is around issues that are understandable and relate to their lives, the people around them and the areas in which they live. In short we must reduce as much as possible the gap between ‘politics’ and ‘everyday life’. On Merseyside claimants and tenants have set-up a group which runs surgeries, stalls, political actions, and functions as a space to talk about problems and have a bit to eat or drink. Why has this succeeded where the left has largely failed? The group may experience the usual problems of such attempts: specialisation, difficulty in sustaining activity, the pressure to find funding and resources, the development of the same internecine spats that afflict the left... and yet it represents a small but modest step in creating a low-level infrastructure.
While there are significant political differences there are a growing number on the left, hastened by the implosion of the SWP and the aftershocks through the Trotskyist/Leninist groups in Britain, who are attempting to grapple with organising methods and coming to similar conclusions. This brief piece was originally written in a similar spirit to A proposal to take to Left Unity: an organising party , although I am critical of the Left Unity project it is interesting how many of the (problematic) practices of the Dutch Socialist Party resemble a perhaps more managerial version of what anarchists would term a Solidarity Network. I believe this strategy is a viable one for us in the present: it brings together both workplace and social struggles, it has potential to be broad, horizontal and reliant on self-activity, and taps into the prevailing current of people organising around specific issues with the potential to leave a lasting infrastructure rooted in local areas. LS
*This is a crude characterisation, for an introduction see Social and Sexual Revolution: from Marx to Reich and Back by Bertell Ollman, and the obligatory The Irrational in Politics. Most sympathetic accounts treat Reich's 'Marxist' period as distinct from his later project, for an idiosyncratic take on the continuity between the two see Wilhelm Reich: Beyond the Mad Scientist Paradigm.