New hope for socialist advance in 2011
While 2010 was a horrendous year in so many ways, 2011 presents the Left with new hopes and opportunities. We can draw succour from the fact that the time has never been better for a revival of socialist ideas and renewing our vision of a socialist society. This new opportunity is also being noted and commented on by a number of leading thinkers.
Capitalism is going through the sort of fundamental crisis that Marx and Engels predicted and which they were deeply convinced would usher in socialism. Only through a massive and unprecedented rescue of the world’s banking system could the ruling class temporarily prevent global capitalism from tipping over the brink. With outrageous impertinence they are now attempting to make working people pay for rescuing them from a catastrophe instigated by the bankers and their political helots.
2011 will undoubtedly be another difficult year, but it is also pregnant with opportunity for meaningful struggle and holds the promise of real revolutionary change. The anti-austerity demonstrations in many countries and now students taking action are merely precursors of intensified mass action in the coming year.
If the Left is to have any real input and provide leadership in this coming struggle. It should also use this time for reflection and reassessment of deeply held shibboleths in order to avoid missing opportunities, drawing false historical parallels or misinterpreting and miscalculating the forces for change.
With the virtual implosion of the financial system, here in Britain we are facing the dismantling of the welfare state, and could be forgiven for thinking we are threatened with a return to 19th century values. For the first time in the post-war period, as a population, we face a real reduction in living standards, the returning fear of job insecurity, homelessness and poverty. Globally, we face an apocalyptical environmental catastrophe with global warming, large geographical shifts of people, population growth and diminishing raw materials. As individuals we face increasing alienation in our jobs and in society, where communities have been destroyed and continuous labour mobility is demanded. On top of that, we are witnessing a tectonic shift in global economic power towards countries like China, India and Brazil which will have an even more serious impact on jobs and living standards, with unforeseeable consequences. In Britain we have enjoyed privileges based on our colonial and imperialist past. With the export of manufacturing and jobs elsewhere, those days are over, and working people now face draconian attacks that have already been flagged up by the present government..
The need for a rethink
It is perhaps, on reflection, no surprise that socialism in the Soviet Union collapsed. Marx and Engels themselves, towards the end of the 19th century, were very reluctant to recognise a revolutionary potential there and even when Engels was persuaded that there was (Marx was already dead), he was sceptical of the outcome because he knew that a highly developed capitalist system was essential before socialism could be successfully constructed.
Many of us who lived through the colonial liberation movement of the sixties onwards and witnessed the liberation of one country after another by nationalist and socialist leaders were convinced that these countries would go on to build successful socialist societies. (The consensus of the world’s communist parties then was that national liberation struggles would lead almost automatically to socialist transformation). That vision and those hopes have been thrown back in our faces. Today, particularly in Africa, we see only internecine wars, ingrained corruption on an unimaginable scale and an almost total destruction of social infrastructures.
Although Marx, and later Lenin, recognised clearly that finance capital would eventually become predominant in any capitalist system, they couldn’t have foreseen how the enormous expansion of speculative activities, at the expense of productive activities, have diminished the relative weight of real economy and seriously eroded national sovereignty. This in itself makes nation-based protest and struggle more difficult than ever.
The changing face of the proletariat
Conditions in Britain today are, of course, very different from those when Marx and Engels developed their theories. The proletariat they described as the revolutionary force that would usher in socialism exists no longer – it has shifted to China, India and other industrially previously under-developed countries. We no longer have a large and recognisable middle class either. Apart from the few very wealthy, 90% of us earn a wage, experience job insecurity and a degree of workplace alienation. Of course some earn very good wages and some are poorly paid, but all of us in this group are subject to the same mechanisms of the system. We won’t all think of ourselves as ‘workers’ but that’s what we are. That is why even traditional ‘white collar’ sections and higher status professionals in society find themselves taking strike action, picketing and fighting to protect their working conditions and jobs. This has led to a gradual ‘quasi-proletarianisation’ of increasing numbers of wage- and salary-earners. As a consequence of these changes, the 19th century concepts of working class and middle class, in a British context, are no longer particularly useful as differentiating factors, or in helping us understand how society works. Even the strong cultural differences that separated and identified these classes in the past have now largely disappeared. Across the class divides people watch X-factor and Strictly Come Dancing; young people go to the same discos and clubs, listen to the same popular music and buy clothing from the same chains; social differences are now mainly ones relating to income differentials.
In the absence of real industrial communities, very often, today, ‘working class’ is used to refer to those marginalised by the system, the neglected and forgotten in the old industrial centres and those ghettoised on council estates. While it is important to include such people in our struggle for justice, we must realise that they are not the mainstream and are hardly potential revolutionary forces. We have to stop identifying overwhelmingly with the dispossessed, the marginalised and extremely poor. It is essential that we focus on, and try and win over, those in the mainstream, often in well-paid jobs, who are becoming aware of the increasing threats to their own lives and welfare and will be looking for trade union support and allies.
These changes need to be reflected in our thinking, our analysis of society and our proposals for progressive change. We can no longer seek ideological refuge in repeating the mantra of the revolutionary potential of the ‘working class’, without better defining what it is and what we mean by it. By continuing to over-emphasise the role of the industrial working class (now hardly existent in the UK) in this way, potential allies and supporters who don’t see themselves as proletarian become alienated and feel excluded from the struggle; and many of these people may be very progressive, active trade unionists and even socialists.
New world forces
We are also seeing the seemingly impossible and contradictory situation of China, led by a communist party, overseeing a capitalist expansion on an unprecedented scale. Something no one would have thought possible on either side of the ideological divide in the past. How do we explain that? How can we interpret it? There is nothing that I know of in mainstream Marxist theory to begin to explain such a development.
Then, in Latin America we have progressive and socialist governments attempting to build socialist societies, but on a base that was scarcely developed in terms of industrialisation or civil democracy (hopefully we won’t see a reprise there of what has already happened in Africa).
In addition to the economic challenges, we are also facing a world increasingly divided more by religion than class. The rise of fundamentalist Islam in the East and Middle-East has filled the vacuum left by the communist parties and secular national liberation movements and is seen by the masses in those impoverished and war-ravaged areas as the revolutionary force to combat western domination and the imposition of capitalist values.
The severe impoverishment of many countries as a direct result of imperialist rapacity has also led to an increase in mass migration which is destabilising many countries and seen as a potential threat to the social stability of many western capitalist nations, which are now erecting walls to keep out those seeking an escape from poverty and injustice. All this has intensified the contradictions and conflicts, with the dominant capitalist forces prepared to resort to violence and localised wars to contain the problems and suppress any forces opposed to them.
In this context, we also have to recognise that, despite all the positive potential, on the level of consciousness and ideology, this crisis also provides a fertile ground for the revival of extremism (racism, chauvinism and religious fundamentalism). There is a big potential for developing protest movements that take on anti-capitalist content, but there are also ideological and political challenges that face every effort to achieve the necessary alliances and unite the diverse strands in a coherent current that will become effective in opposing the retrogressive demands made by imperialism and take society forward to socialism.
It is the job of the Left to ensure that the right wing is prevented from capitalising on the increased fears, alienation and wider social breakdown. It can be done, but only if we are able to build and maintain a unity on the Left and develop clear and attainable goals, jettison the anachronistic ideological baggage of the past, hold on to that which is still useful and prepare to adapt our thinking and tactics to the new realities, rather than refight old battles. Let’s make 2011 the year of socialist renewal.