- Category: Analysis
- Published on Thursday, 10 April 2014
- Written by Simon Hardy
Aphorisms on power, politics and struggle
Power is both a structural relationship and a process. Structurally, power exists in social, state and governmental forms. As a process it is the question of how relationships of power produce and reproduce themselves on an individual and collective level from day to day and from generation to generation.
Social power is defined in the social relationships of a society. Today it is dominated by capital, control of the economy and the social reproduction of our lives rests in the hands of the capitalist class. However this power is not total, there is resistance from working people, the poor, progressive forces and so on. The struggle in the social is a struggle over traditions, culture, the workplace and so on.
Governmental power is the legislative and the cabinet. It is possible to be elected to governmental power and implement some reforms. Whilst it is possible to alter aspects of the balance of forces in the social struggle (for instance introducing more rights for workers, curtailing the power of the bosses), government is itself also limited by the social and state power. The notion that a government enjoys complete autonomy from economics and "deep state" forces is an illusion.
State power is a combination of both the executive of the state (the ones that administer and implement the laws: civil servants, police, prisons, judges, etc.) and the "deep state", that complex network of shared interests, semi-official working agreements and the (increasingly out of control) intelligence services who no doubt have various emergency plans in place to prevent anything too radical from being implemented by a socialist government.
Whilst there is not a deep state in Britain like there is in Turkey, Italy (Operation Gladio) or Israel, the British ruling class is certainly coordinated through many informal ties and connections that cross the state with business interests and the military establishment. The executive state it is possible to influence in key areas (because of their repressive nature it is not psychologically or institutionally possible to influence or "win over" the police or prison officers), but for instance if key parts of the civil service can be won not just to standard industrial unionism but a political understanding of their role and how they could help implement a more radical left agenda (for instance in economic planning, aggressive anti-capitalist policies aimed at big business and finance) then that assists with the chipping away of the state power. Thatcher knew this, which is why she banned trade unions at GCHQ in 1984.
As such, political education for state workers is crucial. Understanding their role in the reproduction of power as a relationship allows them to develop a potentially critical faculty about their social function.
In politics and all social struggle, everything exists in relation to its opposite. The movement of one actor is constrained by what her opponent will do. If the resistance is significant then her options may be limited, if the resistance is weak or can be overcome than it is possible to score successive victories.
In this sense the Russian and Chinese revolutions were successful precisely because in each case the native capitalist class and its state were very weak.
Today left reformist policies are only possible in relation to the strength or weakness of the enemy. Revolutionary politics only seems applicable when the enemy is weak, when their state is fragmenting and there is growing revolt against their social order. Otherwise everything seems "impossible".
For the ruling class the same rule applies: they can only introduce their policies or measures in relation to the resistance that they might get in opposition to them. An illustration of this is the wave of neoliberalism and globalisation after 1989-1991; with one third of the world coming back "in from the cold", there was little organised state opposition to their pro-business policies. On a smaller but equally clear scale, when the British public sector pensions dispute collapsed in winter 2011/12, the government saw that they had an almost open field in front of them. Since then, the scale and pace of the austerity attacks has increased dramatically; the bosses and their politicians know that there is no serious opposition to them.
Without an autonomous, well organised and militant workers’ movement, all discussion of workers’ or left governments is utopian. This does not mean that the strategic debates should not be had out, but it does mean that they happen in a vacuum, as an abstraction, as an idea but one which has no bearing on a living movement striving to achieve that goal. This is similar to the approach of Marx and Engels as they strived to overcome the limitations of their Left Hegelian thoughts back in the mid-1840s: "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." (The German Ideology) The critical task today is to create space for working people to self-organise and become more confident. Everything has to be put into the task of rebuilding the militancy of the labour movement and (re)building a revolutionary left which is more attractive and more effective.
This means abolishing the anti-union laws, more democratic rights, a more plural and less dogmatic left, as well as more space for political expression. The left should think about organising a venue, for instance some kind of building in central London that is entirely given over to the movement on a non-sectarian basis (not an expensive cafe).
Socialists often compare actual political struggles for power today with a normative conception of what a workers revolution looks like, based on Russia 1917. If you can only conceive of a revolution as "Soviets + workers’ militia" then every existing political struggle will seem inadequate to you. This does not prepare you for the real world and the complexities of politics thrown up in the struggles happening today.
However, the principle of a working class revolution, where there are organs of self-governance and repressive state force is wielded on the side of the revolutionaries, is still an important one. The point is we don't know in advance what that will look like. For instance will we see workplace committees in a country like Britain or more likely some kind of town assemblies/commune model? The revolution could come from a militant workers’ movement using militant methods to defend a left government in power, having to take more radical steps to defend a significant political gain against the bourgeois class.
"Politics is concentrated economics" wrote Lenin in 1920. As a reduction, this is true – but beware reductions! Politicians have either a direct relationship to business (the register of members’ interests in parliament proves this) or a mediated relationship, through lobbyists and the general structure of politics under capitalism, namely politics that has to serve the "common sense" of capitalist social relations. Capitalist politicians are often so simply because they operate within the realm of capitalist realism and help to reproduce the institutions and relations of power. Likewise, the capitalist state in a country like Britain is capitalist in as much as it exists in an increasingly mediated relationship to economics directly (since the sell-off of most of the state capitalist enterprises by Thatcher and successive governments). The state administers the continued functioning of capitalism, usually to ensure that business and property is protected and, if necessary, to bail out the private sector if a crisis on the scale of the 2008 credit crunch occurs.
Broad, radical left parties will always move to the right when they get closer to power. This process of triangulation is normally led by the centre or right of the party as their way of demonstrating to the "common sense" that they are fit for office. This is so inevitable it is almost a law of politics. The centre of the party moving to the right is not interesting; what is more important is whether the left of the party can marshal sufficient forces to maintain a debate within the party, of principles, policies and the importance of extra-parliamentary politics. The left at this stage needs to fight a two-pronged assault, both within the party and within the wider progressive movements, calling for and helping to organise more forms of struggle and coordination to put pressure on the right of the party.
Everything is ultimately a question of politics and the balance of forces. Writing off broad radical parties or refusing to engage with them because they have "sold out" or are "selling out" often ignores the reality of the immediate struggle, replacing it with a weary fatalism which only helps the right. As long as there is a battle to be had over the direction and ultimate fate of a left party then socialists should be involved.
The workers’ movement needs representatives in the state (both in the civil service and the elected legislative) but these representatives are not "leaders" of the movement. They are a subordinate part to it, one front of attack against capital among many others. If a broad radical left party begins to see itself as over and above the movement then it will lead to the MPs or elected representatives seeing themselves as independent from the movement, but also privileged. The state is built on the flow of power, corruption, quid pro quo culture of bourgeois society; it incorporates people into its structures by making them feel more important, by giving them a sense of prestige over people outside of parliament. Control of any people elected to office is essential: elected representatives must be accountable to the party and the party must be accountable to the working class and progressive social movements.
Can political events throw up the possibility that a radical left party is elected into governmental power before the workers’ movement is sufficiently strong and well organised to back it up?
Of course this situation is possible. It would be wrong to refuse to take power or abstain from electoral work in this event and wait until the workers’ movement is at a high enough level or self-organisation and militancy.
The task facing the revolutionary left is to wage the political fight around principles that any left government should base itself on (i.e. fight the flight to the right) and do what it can to prepare the workers’ movement to both put pressure on a left government as well as defend it against the right. The attitude of revolutionaries towards the radical phase of the Chavez government between 2002 and 2006 is useful for this discussion. The goal was not to overthrow Chavez in this time but to push him as far as was possible politically and build up independent organs of struggle in the social movement against the moves by the right to undermine the Chavista government. Does this imply no criticism of the government? No – far from it. In fact the independent workers’ movement can only strengthen itself through critical engagement with what left governments are doing, including developing and fighting for alternative economic or social policies.
Whilst the power of any government is limited by the state and social structures – even more so for a left government – in power, the most useful thing a left or anti-capitalist government can do is to weaken the bourgeois class and strengthen the working class. Disarm the police, disband the special or secret security services and pass laws which benefit workers in terms of working conditions and their ability to organise. This makes the conditions for class struggle outside of parliament much easier.
The criticism of left reformism today, as evidenced in Ed Rooksby's article, is not that there is a strategic debate over how to get socialism as not even Rooksby claims we can get socialism simply through elections and governmental power. The debate over the need to "smash the state" is actually largely an abstraction in the current political climate. The debate with left reformism is to what degree you rely on the organised extra parliamentary workers’ movement to fight for these reforms (or do you just rely on MPs)? How do you prevent left reformists becoming centre left reformists and then becoming right reformists? How to stop the "flight to the right" is the key question.
No one should assume a left party in power will automatically have to resort to more radical measures to implement its policies. In most cases political collapse is more likely, that is, the party simply shifts dramatically to the right and accommodates to the "new reality" of state power. For instance, Rifondazione Comunista didn't put up a fight in power, its majority simply voted for war credits to support Italian troops in Afghanistan, despite a clear pledge to oppose the war.
Syriza in Greece, once in power, may choose to resort to more radical methods to implement its programme or it could just drop key parts of its programme in the face of opposition. Which path they take depends on a whole series of factors, not least of which is the personality of the people involved.
Can we support left governments? Of course, anything that chips away at the hegemonic control of bourgeois forces should be supported. But we have to be clear on the limitations, how only certain policies could be enacted – that it is no road to socialism. Socialists cannot advocate "left governments" as an end in themselves because they cannot bring about the "end" that we seek, in other words the end of capitalism.
The greatest threat for left parties is to join centre left coalition governments as minority partners. That is always the kiss of death. Radical left parties can vote for the policies of centre left parties on a case by case basis but certainly should never sign longstanding agreements or make an alliance with such forces. This is based on the simple fact that centre left governments are interested in managing capitalism on behalf of the capitalist class, though they also rest some support on the mass working class which can force them to adopt some left policies on behalf of their base. These types of parties will drag down any radical left party with them, if that party is so historically ignorant that they think it is better to prop up an ailing centre left party than stand on its principles. In the end such opportunist alliances will lead to the ruin of the left, and potentially years in the wilderness. Rifondazione Comunista is a warning to the rest of the left.
Political rule is the applied science of force and managing consent.
In the process of resolving any serious political or social struggle, eventually the question of force emerges. The will of the bosses’ government versus the will of the people exists in actual struggle in the form of the policeman’s baton versus the protesters fists or the scab versus the picket line.
Think of the difference like this.
In Broad terms:
Reformists aim to improve the lives of the working class under capitalism.
Revolutionaries aim to improve the working class’s capacity to fight under capitalism.
This is the difference between campaigning for a higher minimum wage as a demand on the government and campaigning for stronger trade unions to struggle to win that demand. Revolutionaries must never absent themselves from reformist struggles but they must always consider what could give this struggle a dynamic that will strengthen the capacity of the working class to struggle.
Lenin's position on the socialist state changed between 1917 and 1922. His book The State and Revolution in 1917 barely mentions the role of the party, except in passing, and his conception of the workers’ state is based on a network of communes working together.
By 1921 Lenin believed that only the Communist Party could lead the revolution: “[T]he dictatorship of the proletariat is impossible except through the Communist Party,” he argued in a speech against the Workers' Opposition. We have to be aware of different stages of Lenin's thought and no assume that there is anything like an ahistorical Leninism that was true for all times and ages.
"Politics is who gets what, when, how" – Harold Lasswell, American political scientist
Lasswell's formulation can be applied directly to Marxist understandings of how politics in any given society is the contestation of power. We can add to Lasswell's formulation that politics is who decides who gets what, when, how – who controls it as an end to who gets what. Politics is the question of tax, property, war, who can build what, and sell what, where. These all have social implications concerning poverty, racism, inequality, the destruction and reconstruction of communities.
Dual power emerges when communities or workplaces begin to make decisions over the allocation of resources. This is the moment at which politics begins to emerge organically from the social struggles of the oppressed. Power follows, due to the application of force to implement your decisions. The political dimension is only fully grasped when it is done on a sizeable terrain, involving many people; political power is recognised in relation to sovereignty over geography.
One of the most pernicious intellectual trends today is the belief that the social and political are separate or completely distinct. Whilst they have their own features and dynamics, they are inter-related at a quite fundamental level. Yet many activists want to keep the political out of their struggles. How many of us have heard "this isn't about politics, it's about people" or "We need to keep politics out of this movement, it distracts us from what unites us."
The social is the political.
All social questions ultimately relate to politics if they are concerned with the structure and ordering of life and our relations to each other as classes, or other social groups.