Search This Blog

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Prospects for Socialism Today






Dr Tristan Ewins

Writing in the Herald-Sun, Chris Collins (11/1/19 ) argues that the Nordic countries have never been “socialist” because they have not conformed to the original Marxist definition of the centralisation of the means of production in state hands.  In reality, though, there were always a variety of definitions, and even Marxists themselves have revised their understandings.

Socialist aspirations include ending exploitation and the class system ; and reducing inequalities to a fair level. In Marx’s words, to advance the principle “from each according to ability, to each according to need’. That should include a strong welfare state and social wage ; involving not only natural public monopolies and strategic state ownership ; but also producers’ and consumers’ co-operatives, democratic funds, and a mix of competition, markets and planning.

Socialism also means building an economy focused on ‘use values’. (ie: not just maximising abstract exchange value ; eg: preserving the natural environment)  But we’re in a global economy: which means we have to live with the transnational corporations.  They are at best ‘a mixed blessing’: at times spurring innovations and job creation ; but also unacceptable inequalities in wealth and power ; as well as collusion, monopolism, planned obsolescence and so on.  But also arguably the consequence of  bourgeois dominance is that we live in a ‘One Dimensional Society’ where substantially different social alternatives are excluded from mainstream discussion. What’s needed is robust pluralism: where socialism is part of the debate ; and hence a genuine option in the broader context of democracy.

In response to writers who attempt to put Swedish Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in opposition to one another: for key Swedish thinkers and politicians such as Wigforss, Palme, Rehn, Meidner etc the Nordic Model was definitely a kind of socialism. The 'high water mark' was with the Meidner Wage Earner Funds proposals of the 70s and 80s. That marked the end of a 'corporatist consensus' (institutionalised consultation and co-operation) which developed over several decades starting from the 1930s. The model has been in slow retreat since. But its past successes over many decades still give a sense of what is possible.

Importantly, the wage earner funds were to be structured in such a way as to compensate workers for prior wage restraint. But the extent of that wage restraint had been such that the funds would eventually deliver economic control to workers over many years. One of the biggest problems with the funds is that they focused on workers alone rather than the broader category of 'citizens'. (hence excluding pensioners for instance)  In 1983 Australian Leftists like Laurie Carmichael wanted ‘Nordic Style’ policies in return for wage restraint under the the Government of Bob Hawke and 'The Accord'.  Unfortunately nothing of the sort was actually delivered.

That said: what kind of state is in a position to deliver on socialism?

Leninists are inclined to oppose the ‘liberal bourgeois state’ to the kind of state which existed under the Bolsheviks.  A ‘workers’ state’.  Trotskyists would argue it had become a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ under the domination of Stalin.

On the other hand, by certain interpretations a genuine workers' state is a democratic state ; where we can interpret 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' as a 'manner of applying democracy' ; the 'democratic dictatorship' of the working class majority.  (widely misinterpreted, the term always referred to the democratic rule of the working class as opposed to the rule of a single man such as Stalin) The ultimate aim is to create a ‘pure democracy’ where the state represents all people ; and the class system is permanently transcended.  Finally, the State itself is presumed by Marxists to ‘wither away’ with the end of all class divisions and antagonisms.  One flaw of this thinking, however, is the presumption that over the long run 'only class antagonisms matter'  to such a degree that some kind of state power is necessary either as arbiter ; or to enforce interests.

Arguably Sweden enjoyed a decades-long 'equilibrium in the class struggle' or otherwise what Korpi called a 'democratic class struggle'. Where the class struggle was in some ways 'institutionalised' between social democrats, unions, employers.  Concessions were made based on ‘the balance of class forces’ ; but open escalation of conflict was avoided as being in no-one’s interest. Then in the 1970s and 80s the Social Democrats and the LO (‘Landsorganisationen’ ; or Swedish Trade Union Confederation) attempted to assert their democratic leverage to achieve previously unheard of economic redistribution and democratisation.  Again: even with over 80% unionisation coverage they still failed. And Social Democracy has been on the defensive there largely ever since.   If anything, this gives an idea just how difficult the struggle can be.

What we need is a democratic state which is not a medium for direct OR indirect bourgeois rule. Nicos Poulanztas wrote about a 'logic of the class struggle' which 'imprinted itself upon the state field'. I'm not a structuralist (as Poulantzas was) ; but in a way that makes sense. The state tends to defend bourgeois interests ; but not totally. It is not a 'simple instrument'.  It is much more complex than that.  Rather, it has its own internal contradictions and internal struggles. What we need is a state which is fully committed to the implications of democracy: as opposed to the direct or indirect rule of the bourgeoisie.

The problem is that capitalism is supported by a clear majority of states ; as well as by the transnationals which are an expression of and foundation for global bourgeois dominance. Even assuming a state which breaks POLITICAL bourgeois dominance at a local level ; there are still the remainder of bourgeois states internationally; and global bourgeois economic power ; and economic co-dependence. 

Think about revolutionary France. The Revolution was diverted into Bonapartism.  (the rule of the French Emperor, Napoleon I) And eventually with the Congress of Vienna there was total Restoration of the "Ancien Regime" in France, and the consolidation of monarchies and their traditional bloodlines elsewhere in Europe. Liberal Democracy did not really take hold through much of the world until the Bolsheviks put much of the European bourgeoisie under such pressure as to implement the crucial concession of universal suffrage.  This had long been a key Social Democratic and Marxist demand. We're talking about a period spanning over 100 years. (throughout which we had other revolutions and struggles ; eg: 1830, 1848, 1871) Thereafter the bourgeoisie and its representatives have spent another 100-odd years thinking of ways to divide the working class against itself to prevent it from realising the potential of the suffrage. The splintering of the working class culturally and economically has made it increasingly hard to realise the solidarity we need to bring about the change we want.  Narratives on ‘political correctness’ and ‘left elites’ have just this effect ; and sometimes by neglecting class interests we play into the bourgeoisie’s hands.

Critics of socialism often declare that they don’t want ‘statism’ or state domination.  And this they associate with socialism.  Well, no - we don't want Stalinist-style 'statism'. (though I hate the term 'statism' as it is commonly used to stigmatise any place for the state ; even a democratic state) But 'wresting capital by degrees' from the bourgeoisie still sounds like a good idea - if done properly – and if only it were possible.  The problems of exploitation and economic polarisation still demand our attention as practical and moral questions.  And after all, radical redistribution of wealth is what the Swedes were attempting with the Meidner wage earner funds in the 1970s and 1980s .

Arguably the Mixed Economy represents progress towards that goal.  Though the ‘mixed economy’, social wage and welfare state can be supported by far more ‘moderate’ forces who want nothing more over the long term than to ameliorate inequality and ‘save capitalism from itself’.

"Wresting capital by degrees" from the bourgeoisie can imaginably involve a mix of public, co-operative and other democratic ownership - as opposed to 'Stalinist Statism'. But the process cannot be finished because bourgeois interests reinforce each other globally.  Currently, there is no (acceptable) ‘way out’ of capitalism. But if we mobilise we can at least force compromises which are in workers' and citizens' interests. And we can convince the bourgeoisie that compromise is sometimes in its own interests. (again ; 'saving capitalism from itself')  For example: natural public monopolies can reduce cost structures not just for citizens/consumers/workers – but also for business.  And a state-owned savings and loans bank (with a charter promoting competition and ethical banking) could inject competition into the sector of benefit both to business, and to most ordinary people.

Importantly - forcing compromise through struggle is in some ways more involved than just 'gaming the system'. Over the long term who knows what's possible? Again: think about Revolutionary France - and the hegemony of liberal democracies which only finally arose more than 100 years later.  We can only hope it will not take a catastrophe such as the First World War was to provide enough impetus to drive qualitative change ; to challenge the class system and the ‘defacto rule’ of Capital.

If anything the Global Financial Crisis gave a sense of capitalism’s enduring instability ; and that (should another crisis occur) radical interventions may be necessary ‘to save the system from itself’.  But public dissatisfaction with “bailouts at the peoples’ expense” may drive strategic socialisations sooner than we think.

Socialism is not ‘inevitable’ as the old Marxist Centrists used to insist.  We cannot anticipate all the policy innovations which may help ‘save the system from itself’.  But over the long term a more generalised breakdown cannot be ruled out either.  Socialists need to stand prepared for all manner of contingencies.  Global organisation and dialogue are necessary to best prepare for those contingencies.   That means not responding to discourse on ‘globalisation’ as an excuse for defeatism.   It means working out the possibilities of domestic social democracy/democratic socialism ; but also building the organisation and dialogue necessary to give rise to internationalist responses.   The current Socialist International is not an effective vehicle for this.  Can it be reformed?  Or do we need new forms of international organisation and dialogue?

Friday, January 25, 2019

Reflections on Australia Day 2019




Dr Tristan Ewins

The other day I happened upon a Facebook meme which argued that even if all white Australians are not personally responsible for the original dispossession of the Indigenous Australian peoples, they have benefited from it.  And they have a responsibility to set things right. 

There's a lot of truth here ; Though it's not just white people who benefit ; it's the whole of non-indigenous society. All non-Indigenous Australians have a responsibility to put things right. Economic and cultural empowerment. A genuine Treaty process.

At the end of the day we want Australia "to belong to all of us". But Sovereignty was never ceded. A reconciled nation is something that needs to be negotiated. And a Treaty cannot be merely 'tokenistic'. It has to address Indigenous grievances past and present. It has to set things right - permanently.

Some critics on the Right argue that Left proponents of Indigenous Rights (including on a Treaty)  want to 'divide' the country. But that's the whole point of democracy. Recognition of ideological and social divisions ; and provision of a democratic process to give them expression – and (to an extent) to resolve those. Though the urge to suppress all social conflict can lead to a kind of fascism.  ‘National unity’ can be a watchword for the suppression of dissent. In order for democracy to avoid being overly-authoritarian we need support for civil rights as well ; and tolerance of civil disobedience ; and support for industrial liberties.

For Australia Day, though, we need to consider our history and our values closely. Uncritical militarism is dangerous ; can lead to unthinking support for any and every war we're dragged in to.  There is far too little reflection on the catastrophe of Australia’s participation in World War One.  And Billy Hughes’ attempts to enforce conscription when the nation was already being bled dry on the battlefields of Europe.

Colonisation was a trauma for Indigenous peoples and that needs to be remembered. But the 'old' Australian culture should not be 'airbrushed' either. There's the spirit of Eureka. There are cultural figures like Henry Lawson who championed the sufferings of the working class and the downtrodden.  There were cultural icons like Ginger Meggs. Australia also democratised ahead of Britain, and provided full, universal and equal suffrage. (including women’s suffrage). Federation (the formation of the modern nation) was peaceful.

Pre-multiculturalism Australia had a culture. In part it involved deference to Britain and Empire.  That led to the catastrophe of over 60,000 dead from the First World War.  But it was more than that as well. We need to incorporate the old culture with the newer multiculturalism ; and preserve a central place for the appreciation of First Nations.  A bit like a Hegelian dialectical spiral where the old is forever preserved in the new.

But remember also that tens of thousands of Australians died fighting fascism in World War II. Prisoners of War of the Japanese endured horrific hardships in Changi and on the Thai-Burma Railway. Be-headings, starvation, torture. The mateship they developed was not some 'toxic masculinity'. It helped them survive in a bond of comradeship and shared hardship.

And let's not forget the women who contributed to the fight against Japanese Imperialism and fascism either. Vivian Bullwinkel for instance ; who was the sole survivor of a Japanese massacre of nurses ; driven into the sea and machine-gunned.  As well as testifying regarding Japanese War Crimes, she did crucial work supporting repatriated soldiers after the War.

The history of Australian Communism ; and of other socialists more broadly - can also be thought of as part of Australia's legacy. (and indeed an international legacy as well) I think we can be proud of Evatt's fight against the domestic McCarthyism. Of Whitlam's reforms. Of the Communists' fight against destitution, evictions and so on during the Depression. That our Communists overwhelmingly broke from Stalinism ; for instance, took a stand against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. That for a while we had a very strong mixed economy ; a highly progressive tax system ; and a very strongly regulated labour market.  For a time there was even a strong element of  ‘bipartisan consensus’ there: before the 1970s supply shock (mainly the rise in the price of oil) saw neo-liberalism and attacks on workers embraced in an effort to restore profits.

Mostly people want to enjoy a kind of national identity. We have to contest the meaning and form of that identity. Again, the danger is unthinking militarism and creeping authoritarianism.  But the Australian military needs a sense of its history, traditions, values.   This is crucial for democracy.  Given the history, that should overwhelmingly include anti-fascism. 

The idea of an 'egalitarian Australia' is almost dead in terms of practical implementation. Over decades it has been ‘emptied out’ into privatisation, labour market deregulation, ‘user pays’ and ‘small government’.  But it's well-worth reconstructing a national identity where the fight is on to retrieve older egalitarian traditions and policies.  It’s worth contesting national identity rather than ‘vacating the field’ and giving the Right ‘a free hand’.

On Facebook, also, more Conservative participants were arguing about ‘assimilation’ of indigenous peoples and migrants.

In response I argued: 

I wouldn't want to assimilate Indigenous peoples full stop. 'Assimilation' suggests minorities abandoning their old identity and culture to 'fit in' with broader society. I'd hope a Treaty would include a commitment to help preserve Indigenous culture and identity. But that we have a *shared* Australian identity *as well*. Think of Cathy Freeman when she won gold and did a lap of honour wielding both the Australian flag and the Indigenous flag. Shared cultural elements are the basis for common ground and engagement. I believe in an *integration* which is compatible with multi-culturalism. What's necessary is effective dialogue, mutual recognition and mutual understanding.   We need to develop mutual respect; and the kind of genuine, active and deep solidarity necessary to fight for a qualitatively improved social and economic system. That is (for me) democratic socialism.

But we have to remember the 'old' Australian culture as well. Pre-multi-culturalism Australia was not a 'blank slate' as some people like to suggest.

Indigenous peoples could also have their own advisory parliament ; which would communicate their needs and demands to the Federal Parliament. Establishing such an elected advisory body could contribute to reconciliation ; and frameworks for the practical development of a Treaty.

Technically you can have nations within nations. That can potentially lead to divisions re: nationalistic antagonisms. (that’s not to say people should ‘forget’ their ethnic origins)  But I think the Indigenous First Nations example is unique. They had their national identities. And the authorities of the day tried to take those identities away from them.

January 26th (marking the arrival of the First Fleet) is a divisive date on which to hold ‘Australia Day’.  It is suggestive of the notion that ‘real’ Australian history only began with colonisation.  Colonisation was a watershed moment – and that will never change ; but nonetheless the date should be switched if we are serious about reconciliation. 

On the other hand, some kind of ‘national day’ will likely be preserved.  And yet the meaning of that day will be – and perhaps must be - contested.   There is cause for shame from some chapters of Australian history.  There are also causes for pride.  Australia Day must be a time for reflection on all of this.  And to consider the form an egalitarian and just Australian nation might perhaps take into the future.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Remembering Rosa Luxemburg 100 Years Since Her Murder




above: socialist revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnkecht



Dr Tristan Ewins

16/1/2019

Comrade Marcus Strom alerted me and many others on Facebook that yesterday (15/1/19) was the 100th Anniversary of the brutal murder of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht ; and the dumping of their bodies in the Landwehr Canal in Berlin.  Liebnecht was an outstanding orator and leader.  Meanwhile, Rosa Luxemburg (a Jewish Communist ; born in Poland – but migrating to Germany where the class struggle appeared the most advanced) is the best remembered today.  This is largely because she is survived by a plethora of theoretical and practical political-literary work – much of it still relevant for the Left.  


The broad example of the slide into war ; and the murder of Rosa and Karl is still instructive today of the dangers of certain kinds of ‘social patriotism’.  In 1914 the parliamentary caucus of the SPD (German Social Democrats) voted in favour of war credits – to fund the War.  This was against the standing policy of the Second International.  Specifically it was the right-wing leadership of the Social Democratic Government following the 1918-19 Revolution who ordered the murders.  For genuine socialists, the names “Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann” will forever live in infamy.  And deservedly so.

It is disturbing to think that the SPD was perhaps the leading Social Democratic Party in Europe in 1914 – and yet it crumbled under pressure at the first real hurdle.  Many socialists – including Karl Liebnecht and Rosa – tried to agitate against the coming blood-bath. Rosa was imprisoned for the duration of the war after distributing anti-war material.  For years social democratic parties had talked about internationalism in the instance of a conflict. But in practice the German trade unions had been subverted ; had embraced a kind of ‘ethno-nationalism’. 


And they effectively fell into line in return for a handful of reforms.

Therefore perhaps there was no social or economic basis for stopping the war.  But the capitulation of the SPD parliamentary caucus set a demoralising example – which resulted in the split in the Social Democratic movement ; with the most uncompromising anti-war elements re-forming as Communist parties.

Right Social Democrats ; people like Ebert, Noske and Scheidemann ; were sold on ethno-nationalism in Germany since the start (of the war). They capitulated again when some social democrats argued the war should only be supported insofar as it was concerned with ‘national defence' ; and never be allowed to turn into 'a war of conquest'.  But the German Army hierarchy demanded open ended support for the war instead.  Again, in 1914 the caucus rolled over entirely. 

Karl Kautsky – the leader of the ‘Marxist Centre’ – and for a time the most authoritative Marxist intellectual in Europe and the world -  argued for a symbolic abstention on the issue of war credits.  But this gained little traction.  Lenin was to revisit Kautsky’s position following the October 1917 Russian Revolution, branding him a ‘Renegade’.  But more on Kautsky later.

The real worry is how the unions remained so conservative at the start of the war. And swallowed militarist nationalism hook, line and sinker.  In any case the war was to destroy those same unions ; as worker’s organisation collapsed in the face of total war mobilisation. It shows that achieving intellectual leadership of a socialist movement is not enough unless socialist, anti-imperialist and internationalist values can be successfully imparted to a broader base. As well as a willingness to fight when the situation demands it.

Who knows what motivations drove the German Social Democrats to support war in 1914? Fear of imprisonment or execution? Fear of the organisational destruction of the party? (False) assumptions the war would be short? Penetration of the caucus by government agents? Again: many social democrats insisted that support for the war be withdrawn once it became 'a war of conquest'. But the reality was that the Army had the guns. Again: the parliamentary caucus folded in the face of military pressure.

But what many Leninist and Stalinist critics do not recognise is that by 1915 the 'Centrists' (ie: as in the Marxist Centrists) had began agitating for peace at Zimmerwald.  Those people argued for a separate peace. So did the Revisionist Socialist, Eduard Bernstein. By comparison, Lenin argued for civil war - to turn the war into Revolution across all Europe if possible.  For all Lenin’s criticisms of Karl Kautsky – by 1915 he (Kautsky) was himself openly fighting against the war.  The critiques of Bolshevism by such diverse figures as Luxemburg, Martov and Kautsky – are still worth reading today as we grapple with the meaning and legacy of the Russian Revolution and its eventual descent into Stalinism. (though many critics under-play the severity of the conditions faced by the Bolsheviks ; and the role of Western intervention in fuelling the centralisation and resort to Terror which opened the way for Stalinism ; That includes destabilisation and support for the White Armies – which meant the threat of starvation and heating fuel shortages for ordinary Russians )

Rosa Luxemburg is famed for her unique, libertarian Marxist contributions to socialist theory and practice.  Her theory of the ‘spontaneity of the masses’ is more nuanced than shallow critics would allow for ; positing a dialectical relationship between Party leadership and proletarian initiative. She recognised early on the potential of the Mass Strike.  Also, she feared the consequences of over-centralisation within the Bolshevik Party for any revolution ; and particularly the substitution of the Party – and later the Central Committee – for real, grassroots and participatory proletarian democracy.  For her there could be no compromise or ‘middle way’ between Reform and Revolution.  She was a strong critic of Revisionism ; including the positions of Eduard Bernstein.

But there are traditions of Left Social Democracy which are not stained by that. For instance the Austro-Marxists.  The Austro-Marxists built a participatory counter-culture (workers’ sports, radio stations, libraries, forums, orchestras) ; and progressively funded public housing and amenities like laundries and pools for workers.  They even maintained their own militia to defend ‘the democratic path to socialism’.  This contributed to the sense that ‘Red Vienna’ was ‘a showcase of Social Democracy’. Though they also made certain fatal mistakes (eg: letting go of their grip on the state apparatus of force in the 1920s) which made it easier in the end for fascists to seize power in 1934.

So as against Rosa Luxemburg I believe a ‘middle way’ of ‘revolutionary reforms’ is possible. But on the 100th Anniversary of her death it is better to honour her very significant legacy.  The legacy of her bravery and self-sacrifice.  Of her intellect ; her uncompromising values ; her commitment to the working class and her faith in what she believed to be the coming revolution.

On the other hand, the example of the 20th and early 21st centuries (including the rise of fascism ; and also of neo-liberalism) appear to have put paid to a sense that some ‘inevitable teleology towards socialism’ can be counted on.  Historical outcomes are far more contingent and uncertain than the old Marxists were willing to admit.  Even though the continuation of neo-liberal capitalism is likely to cause intense human suffering – with increases in the intensity of labour ; and further cyclical crises and class bifurcation. And environmental crises also.  Perhaps old Marxist claims to ‘inevitability’ provided morale and confidence.  (as Kautsky put it – “the proletariat’s belief in its own strength”) 

But while there is *hope*, notions of inevitability can no longer be maintained.  Barbarism is as likely as socialism ; and that itself is a good reason to fight.

Rosa’s fears were realised in the end as Bolshevism gave way to Stalinism.  For Communists it is instructive to read her critiques of Bolshevism to get a sense of the dangers associated with Stalinism.  And also even with Trotskyism and Leninism.  Trotsky wrote of a ‘Soviet Thermidor’ in his critique of Stalinism, ‘The Revolution Betrayed’.   But in reality Trotksy supported the same policies of centralisation which led to a situation akin to the demise of the French Revolution - with the rise of the Napoleonic Empire in the place of the Republic.  (Stalin is seen as a ‘Bonpartist’ figure) ; Only Stalin’s repression of his own people – and his Terror against them - was far more extensive than under other ‘Bonapartist’ regimes.

Compared not only with Stalin – but also with Lenin and Trotsky – Luxemburg stands for a kind of libertarian communism.  To this day the leadership she provided with her activism and her writings – set a redemptive example for a Left which is often accused of ‘authoritarianism’ or ‘totalitarianism’.  Luxemburg  was a democrat and libertarian-revolutionary-communist ; and an uncompromising opponent of the wholesale slaughter of War ; and the Imperialist designs of the ‘Great Powers’.

My personal inclination is more towards the example of the reformed relative (Marxist) centre following World War One.  Especially the Austro-Marxists.  (though I am critical of them on certain counts as well)  But Rosa’s steadfast bravery ; her self-sacrifice in pursuit of peace, and for the liberation of the working class ; should always be honoured on the Left.

Today’s Left needs to engage with past Social Democracy (and Communism) if it is to understand its past ; draw the necessary lessons ; and better plan for its future. This should also include a consideration of the sources of the split in Social Democracy in 1914 ; and the historical ramifications of that. Rosa Luxemburg ; and others like Karl Korsch ; showed that a different kind of (libertarian) communism is possible. 

A different kind of social democracy is also possible: committed over the long term to the pursuit of ‘revolutionary reforms’ which would deepen democracy, transform the economy , and over time challenge the class system.

May Rosa Luxemburg (and Karl Liebknecht) always be honoured and remembered on the Left.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

‘Political Correctness’ and ‘Cultural Marxism’ – Why the Right is Wrong ; a Response to Kevin Donnelly



above:  Conservative Social Commentator, Kevin Donnelly is a high-profile 'public intellectual' - best known for his opinions on Education.  Donnelly also regularly challenges multi-culturalism, and radical views on 'gender fluidity'.  Like many Conservatives he criticises so-called 'Cultural Marxism' . (arguably capitalising on fear and ignorance) He argues that 'Cultural Marxism' is a threat to Western Civilisation and the legacy of the Enlightenment.   But Donnelly's opinions deserve to be challenged - For the sake of 'genuine pluralism' ; and for the sake of clarity when it comes to understanding the modern Left.

This is the first of what I hope to be two essays in response to Kevin Donnelly


Dr Tristan Ewins

Australian Catholic University based public intellectual,  Dr Kevin Donnelly has established himself as one of Australia’s most prominent big ‘C’ Conservative voices: and undoubtedly as an important influence on the ethos of the governing Liberal Party.  This essay is a progressive response to Donnelly’s book, ‘How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without’.   (probably to be followed by a second essay into the future)

As part of the so-called ‘Culture Wars’ in Australia, Conservatives have decried what they call the ‘Black Armband’ view of the nation’s history (Historian, Geoffrey Blainey’s term) : a view of Australia’s complicity in imperialism and colonialism ; and a past Conservatism which disadvantaged minorities.  Instead Donnelly and those like him emphasise a narrative of Australia’s broad liberal and Christian traditions. (and even of how liberalism developed in tandem with the broader Enlightenment tradition).  Donnelly argues that these have involved pluralism, freedom and intellectual rigour.  

What is ‘Cultural Marxism’ anyway?  Double Standards in our ‘Historic Memory’

While most on the ‘broad Australian Left’ could probably still fit comfortably into the ‘liberal left’ category , Donnelly and other big ‘C’ Conservative thinkers see something more ‘sinister’ at work. The term ‘Cultural Marxism’ is increasingly thrown around with abandon. (Donnelly seems to prefer that to the use of the alternative term, ‘Critical Theory’)  He cites ‘the Left’s’ ‘Long March through the Institutions’ as leading to ‘Politically Correct’ thinking in schools and universities ; and more broadly in popular culture.   Importantly ; this so-called ‘Politically-Correct’ (PC) outlook often has a tendency to emphasise gender, sexuality, culture and race. (a shift from  ‘old left’ emphasis on social class and a critique of capitalism)

Despite most of the ‘broad Australian Left’ arguably identifying as ‘liberal left’, ‘Marxism’ in particular is cited as the ‘bogeyman’.  The reasons for this are obvious: to capitalise on fear, ignorance and confusion. 

Many Conservatives identify ‘Marxism’ as an ‘unbearable evil’;  even though most of them cannot pin-point what the term actually means.  Donnelly refers to Pol Pot and Stalin amongst others as examples of ‘Marxism’. A more thorough investigation might have identified the place of US bombing in Laos -  in facilitating social collapse, and the consequent rise of Pol Pot.  (this is before mentioning the place of Pinochet’s coup and the mass murder in Chile 1972; the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, 1980; and of the massacre of over half a million Leftists and labour movement activists by Suharto in 1960s Indonesia ; and other ‘Cold War atrocities’) Also, the place of Western intervention in giving rise to an outlook of utter desperation amongst the Bolsheviks in the period spanning 1917 through the 1920s – could accompany a more thorough investigation.  As would the place of the First World War – which set the scene for Russian social collapse ; and itself resulted in approximately 20 million deaths.    

Bolshevism specifically degenerated into Stalinism.  Other Marxist thinkers such as Karl Kautsky and Julius Martov identified the effective likelihood of this , and the damage consequently done to the broader socialist cause – relatively early on during the Bolshevik Revolution.  Marx himself had identified the threat of ‘Bonapartism’. – whereby  a political leader consolidated themselves above social classes and other interests.   (that could apply both to Napoleon Bonaparte I AND to Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III ; and finally to Stalin himself)  Arguably Stalinism – and the Cult of Personality around Stalin – saw this taken to a level previously unthinkable.   Even before Stalin’s rise, ‘Jacobin’ strategies of revolutionary Terror were also an important factor – but that was not the whole story. 

To consider the prevailing ‘selectivity’ in our ‘historic memory’: Trotsky’s march against Anarchist dissident Sailors at Kronstadt in 1921 might be compared in nature to Winston Churchill’s sinking of the anchored French Fleet during World War II (July 1940) – following the French surrender to Germany.   While the Bolsheviks responded to what they saw as an existential threat to the Revolution, Churchill considered a scenario (Nazi capture of the French fleet) which could have turned the tide of the War in Hitler’s favour.  In Churchill’s case over 1000 French sailors (until then Allied to Britain) were killed.   In the case of Kronstadt total causalities were over 10,000. (considering both sides) 

(As an aside ; If the Bolsheviks had heeded the voice of Rosa Luxemburg (in 1918) a maintenance of liberties may have provided an ‘outlet’ through which the whole situation may have been avoided in the first place in Russia.  But in reality now we will never know.)

Both acts could be questioned morally.   It could also be argued that desperate circumstances lead to ethically challenging dilemmas. (to put it mildly)  What is often missing with ‘Conservative critiques’ as usual – is intellectual and moral consistency.  Critics of Trotsky, for instance (and I am not a Trotskyist), are often silent when it comes to other ‘fateful decisions’ such as that of Churchill.  Dissident Marxist critiques of Bolshevism and Stalinism  (rg: Kautsky, Martov, Luxemburg) are also largely absent from popular memory . It should not be like this.

Donnelly points to the ‘Frankfurt School’ as the source of the so-called ‘Cultural Marxist’ movement.  The ‘Frankfurt School’ began as an intellectual movement in interwar Germany, before migrating to the US in for fear of Nazism. (some ‘Critical Theorists’ were to re-establish themselves in Europe following the defeat of Hitler)  Forming the ‘First Generation’ of Critical Theory ; thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Eric Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, while retaining a critical disposition against fascism, could not delude themselves about the direction of the USSR under Stalin.  

Also, the prospects for the organised working class and traditional socialism had appeared increasingly questionable as fascism rose in Europe.   

‘The Frankfurt School’ increasingly became synonymous with ‘Critical Theory’.  Broadly speaking ; ‘Critical Theory’ developed a critique of Western culture, and an emphasis on minority perspectives and rights.  Some self-identifying ‘Critical Theorists’ tended to suppose that the ‘traditional’ socialist movement’s ‘historical moment’ had passed.   In other words – that the working class had largely been co-opted ; in part because of the role of popular culture.  (to which you could also add other factors, including religion and nationalism; In more recent decades, the decline of ‘Fordism’, factory labour and so on in many countries – has seen an accompanying decline of organised labour as well) 

Nonetheless, Marcuse – with his work, ‘One Dimensional Man’  (originally published in 1964) – focused on the socialist project as one of ‘radical negation’ – of ‘a Great Refusal’ (of capitalism) involving ‘minority’ perspectives, including racial minorities, women, students and so on.   This was a break with the traditional (Marxist) view of socialism arising primarily from ‘a Dialectic of Class Struggle’ .  

Marcuse especially was influential in the late 1960s with the wave of ‘student uprisings’ which swept Europe. (and the rise of the ‘New Left’)  Marcuse was notable in rejecting modern society’s emphasis on an outlook of ‘social closure’ for which there is no room for deep criticism or negation ; an outlook for which ‘the system delivers the goods’ and should not be questioned. “Democracy”  was becoming increasingly tokenistic and shallow on account of its manipulation ; a tendency which continues still.

But importantly, some examples of ‘Critical Theory’ are radically at odds with Donnelly’s caricatures.

‘Second Generation’ Critical Theorist’, Jurgen Habermas  argued about ‘Legitimation Crisis’ ; a decline and perhaps even collapse of public confidence in the State and other institutions.  For example: the perceived legitimacy of the State (and indeed capitalism itself) – could suffer in the wake of attacks on welfare, and other hard-won gains of working people, such as labour market regulation and workers’ rights and liberties.  (all the more so where Social Democratic and ‘Left’ parties actually refuse any ‘consensus’ around austerity, and other policies harmful to the working class and the disadvantaged)

Habermas also argued about the conflict between ‘System’ and ‘Life-World’  - a consideration of capitalism’s economic-system-imperatives ; its priorities ; and the way these conflict with peoples’ ‘quality of life – especially for the working  class.  ‘System’ effectively ‘colonises’ ‘life-world’ ; becomes  detached from the real-world needs of human beings. Economic insecurity and increasing intensity in the processes of exploitation are part of this.  (eg: falling  wage share of the economy ; less free time ; increasing class ‘stratification’ or ‘bifurcation’)

Drawing in part from Habermas: Arguably, democracy is increasingly reduced to ‘administration’ in the interests of capitalism.  Real pluralism is ‘hollowed out’.   And the inability of governments to resolve the economic and social crises which follow intensify the consequent crises of legitimacy.  As an aside: the ‘Identity Politics’ which Donnelly opposes so strongly – actually helps maintain an illusion of greater pluralism.  This outcome is ironic in light of Marcuse’s original vision of a ‘Great Refusal’. All the oppressed of the world need solidarity more than ever.  But to paraphrase Marcuse ; objectively, without this ‘Identity Politics’ society and politics would have been better-exposed as being otherwise ‘One Dimensional’.

Also importantly: democratic socialism more broadly is part of what we might call ‘The Western Tradition’.  (which Donnelly argues he is defending)  Capitalism increasingly puts the gains of democratic socialism – including labour rights, broader liberties, the mixed economy, progressive tax, the social wage and the welfare state – under threat.   

But rather than ‘rejecting’ the Enlightenment project, Habermas instead refers to it as ‘unfinished’.  So without rejecting ‘Modernity’ and ‘Enlightenment’, Habermas defends the potential for what he calls ‘Communicative Action’ and the achievement of a ‘Perfect Speech Situation’.  (that is, perfectly free and rational exchange and engagement without distortions or coercion; And hence: social actors striving for agreement on the substance of human liberation through Reason and Ethics-inspired dialogue)


There is more than so-called 'Cultural Marxism' on today's Left ;  We've considered Habermasian Critical Theory for a start  - but 'Post Marxism' and 'Agonism' are also notable ; Past Conservative and 'Centrist' traditions also opposed hard economic Liberalism

There is a different emerging tradition on the Left, also, that is worth mentioning. ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxists’ such as Chantal Mouffe assume enduring pluralism, and a permanent place for dissent. That enduring pluralism is at the heart of their perspective. In other words: they assume consensus will not ensue .  Indeed, for  many either it is thought to be overly-optimistic to seek that consensus - or maybe even it is undesirable.   There is also the question of class struggle ; which can be exclusive of communicative action and any ‘Perfect Speech Situation’ in contexts driven by interest. When capitalists have been increasingly (and successfully) dictating terms in response to various economic crises from the 1970s onward – they are not necessarily interested in dialogue which involves compromise.  (unless forced)

Crucially, though – in practice both Habermas and the Agonist democrats assume a need for pluralism, liberty and engagement.  The examples they provide ‘fly in the face’ of Donnelly’s characterisation of ‘the modern Left’ and ‘Politically-Correct-enforced-conformity’. 

Continuing our consideration of Critical Theory:  To assert the centrality of Habermas to Critical Theory is also to assert that the broad Critical Theory tradition cannot be boiled down to post-modern and deconstructionist rejection of Modernity, Enlightenment, Reason ; or what might be called ‘the Western Tradition’.  ‘Post-Modernism’ itself also has meant radically different things to different people. While some people claim it as a rejection of ‘Modernity’ and its assumptions, Australian social theorist Peter Beilharz (in ‘Postmodern Socialism: Romanticism, City, State’)  suggested it might be constructed as ‘the critical moment in Modernity’. Here ‘Modernity’ refers to societies and economies of increasing scale and complexity ; developing further with industrialisation, and with themes of Enlightenment, Reason, and so on. We’re talking about a frame which in a way is inclusive of certain tendencies in socialist, liberal and capitalist traditions – even though these are historically in conflict with one another as well.

Again we are in highly-contested terrain.

It might be noted, though, that there is also a now-mostly-forgotten tradition – a tradition historically associated with the Catholic working class – a tradition which styled itself as ‘Centrist’.  (Though notably, those such as Giddens and Blair have also tried to resuscitate a kind of ‘Centrism’)  Yet intellectuals such as Donnelly have apparently chosen to ‘side’ with big ‘L’ Economic Liberalism and big ‘C’ Cultural and Political Conservatism.   (if this is not so, Donnelly does a good job of hiding or avoiding it)  

The old-style ‘Centrism’ emphasised ‘corporatism’, welfare state, and some labour rights including labour market regulation.  Today, Giddens and Blair identify as ‘Social Democrats’ or ‘The Radical Centre’.   But looking back to the original ‘Centrism’: amongst some there was a clear authoritarianism. Some ‘Centrist’ leaders such as the ‘Christian Social’ President of Austria, Engelbert Dolfuss – beginning with his seizure of power and dissolution of a democratically-elected Socialist government in 1934 – historically chose to side with a kind of fascism.  (ironically, not long before the formalisation of the ‘Axis’ of Germany and Italy , Dolfuss sought the protection of Mussolini from Hitler – in return for the suppression of Social Democracy!)

‘Corporatism’ –including state mediation – or forcible suppression - of class conflict and differences– was itself part of the broad fascist tradition ; though arguably different kinds of ‘corporatism’ (eg: re: Swedish Social Democracy) were much more ‘democracy-friendly’.  (or even co-existed with a kind of ‘democratic class struggle’ (see: Walter Korpi) )  (the ‘Accords’ under the Federal Labor Government in 1980s and early 1990s Australia could also be considered corporatist ; not fascist in the sense of Dolfuss ; but compromising the interests of the working class on a number of fronts)   Importantly: though a right-wing authoritarian and fascist, Dolfuss was not a Nazi.  Indeed he opposed Hitler.  (and was assassinated by Nazi agents)

Today - to overcome an ensuing negative electoral response to austerity and other associated attacks, fear of ‘Political Correctness’ is played-upon.  This means  ‘papering over’ the contradictions which could ‘get in the way’ of preserving right-wing footholds amidst the working class – parts of which feel ‘abandoned’ by ‘self-styled social democratic’ parties for whom issues of economic inequality and exploitation have been largely  ‘relegated to the Too-Hard Basket’.  To elaborate: in this context modern-day Conservatives attempt to make inroads into traditional social democratic working class support bases.  They exploit often-exaggerated discussions around ‘Political-Correctness’ ; with the assistance of the monopoly mass media. This is in a context where much of the working class is relatively conservative on culture compared with the so-called ‘cultural Left’.

In light of the tendency of Critical Theorists to emphasise what they saw as the almost-totalitarian nature of modern popular culture and capitalism in achieving ‘systemic closure’, it is ironic that today some Conservatives see its own perspective as a totalitarian, ‘politically correct’ threat to everything laudable in Western Civilisation.  In reality, today’s Left is highly plural.  While some still identify with the theoretical lineage of Marxism, many (perhaps most) post-modernists and deconstructionists do not identify as ‘Marxist’ at all. 

That said, it would be dishonest to simply ‘deny’ ‘The Cultural Turn’ and the transformation of what passes for progressive politics. The point is to establish that the retreat of a ‘more-traditional’ socialism has not been ‘total’ ; that ‘culture’ and ‘economics’ need not and should not be considered exclusive of each other ; and for much of the Left economics and social class still matters ; though the project of an alternative democratic socialist economic project  in ‘The West’ has arguably been mainly in retreat since the 1970s.  To some extent it has been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Much More to Marxism than The Conservatives Understand

Donnelly’s emphasis on ‘Stalinist Dystopias’ and ‘Political Correctness’ also side-steps the matter of Marxism’s original ‘Cultural Project’.   For Marx – and many who followed him (including, for instance, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov) economic abundance under Socialism was not to lead to surveillance, Terror, Cult of Personality,  labour militarisation and labour conscription (In short: Oppression) – but rather to cultural and social opportunity arising from material plenty, including free time.  For instance, this might mean freedom to partake in Art and Philosophy -  amongst other pursuits.

To take the example of Austrian Social Democracy (or ‘Austro-Marxism’) in the 1917-1934 period: this meant promotion of working class culture including sport, radio stations and libraries ; and involving amenities for working class people.  This included impressive public housing estates, including hot running water, communal pools and communal laundry facilities.   (rare for the time)

And even before this timeframe ; going back to the original theorists of Marxist orthodoxy during the height of the Second International and earlier (ie: pre-WWI):  this might even have meant assisting people in seeking after the highest truths for their own sake.   In addition to ‘freedom from oppression’ that also includes ‘enabling freedom’: empowerment for the purpose of self-realisation.  Understood thus the tensions between collectivism and individualism can also be mediated ; and socialism can provide opportunities for individual self-realisation which do not arise under capitalism.

To conclude: Donnelly portrays  a Left that  has nothing ‘positive’ to say about ‘Western Civilisation’. He totally misses the whole point made by thinkers like Marcuse – that societies which refuse to accommodate debate whereby a significantly-different kind of future can be envisaged and communicated – are not genuinely free!  This must also involve the inclusion of dissenting social movements in public debate.

But also, the idea of a ‘teleology’ (or ‘necessary direction’) of history – as presumed by orthodox Marxists - is questioned amongst today’s Left.  Following the lead of ‘Post-Marxists’ and ‘Agonists’, the future is considered by some a matter of ‘collective will formation’, strategy and choice. (indeed, a matter of ‘counter-hegemony’, or the mobilisation of the broad social forces necessary to facilitate change)  Hence as part of a pluralist agenda we ought strive for a tolerant Left ; though still: radical democrats ought not be na├»ve or complacent in the face of existential threats to democracy. (eg: the resurgence of fascism in Europe)

Also: arguably capitalism has always been ‘repressive’, ‘regressive’ and in some senses even ‘progressive’ - at the same time and in different ways.  As Marx argued in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ (1848):  Capitalism unleashed an unprecedented wave of economic growth and innovation .  (establishing the preconditions for socialism)  At the same time capitalism has involved waste, exploitation, excesses, and warped priorities. These conditions gave rise to various movements; for Socialism – but also the Centrism which we have mentioned, and more recently environmental movements.

So in that context: for today’s socialists, the socialist project should still be about ‘radical negation’ in the sense of class struggle (and broader struggle) against the exploitation, warped priorities, injustices and excesses of capitalism. 


But socialism can be about affirmation also.  We can acknowledge the progressive economic contributions of capitalism: and of ‘modernity’ considered more broadly.   And along with the original Marxist Social Democrats – who trail-blazed in their pursuit of Free, Equal and Universal Suffrage as early as the 19th Century (when almost all others neglected that cause as ‘too radical’) – we need not reject the place for some kind of parliamentary democracy and far-reaching liberties.  Most definitely we should also be striving to extend the reach of democracy ; including economic democracy – whether through the restoration of a robust mixed economy ; or through workers and consumers’ co-operatives ; or through other avenues such as ‘wage earner funds’ and comparable projects.   

While the perspective of ‘class’ should not be considered ‘sufficient and exhaustive in its own right’ ; We should not shy away from ‘class struggle’ in the broad sense.  We should embrace the fight for social justice ; for economic security and distributive justice ; and a fulfilling life for everyone.  Again, that does not have to mean rejecting the very humanity of individual capitalists. (we must avoid the ‘brutalisation’ of politics where we can) It does mean questioning the morality and outcomes of capitalist social and economic relations. 

Finally: we should work to decouple the view of liberties and capitalism- whereby they are seen somehow as ‘essentially and inextricably linked’. (to the exclusion of socialism)  In fact ‘liberty’ and ‘capitalism’ are often in tension and conflict with one another.  And depending on the specific expression, the causes of liberty and socialism can be mutually sympathetic.

The cause of democratic socialism is not forever exhausted ;  but ‘hope’ requires of  us that we take a stand.  Donnelly’s narrative on so-called ‘Political Correctness’, and his ‘beating up’ of the bogeyman of ‘Cultural Marxism’ - is part of the problem.  So too is the abandonment of the cause of economic justice by significant sections of the self-identifying Left.  As an Australian Labor Party member of approximately 25 years it is painful but necessary to acknowledge that for decades Labor has been at the heart of a range of policies which have undermined certain rights of labour, as well as the mixed economy, and at times the welfare state.  Importantly - the Trans-Pacific Partnership has recently been endorsed by the Federal Labor Opposition: a move which could leave governments open to being sued by foreign corporations should they facilitate policies (eg: on the rights of labour) which affect company profits. Even in Victoria under Daniel Andrews of the Socialist Left we see ‘Public Private Partnerships’ and ‘Asset Recycling’.  (‘code’ for privatisation)  It is those kind of scenarios that leave the broad Left vulnerable to Conservative and Far-Right strategies of ‘divide and conquer’.

We should have learned that lesson by now.


Bibliography

Beilharz, P. (1994), ‘Postmodern Socialism—Romanticism, City and State, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.
Donnelly, K (2018) , How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia – Enemies Within and Without, Wilkinson Publishing,  Melbourne
Eley, G. (2002), Forging Democracy, The History of the Left in Europe, 1850–2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Galili, Z. (1989), The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution—Social Realities and Political Strategies, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Gruber, H. (1991), Red Vienna—Experiment in Working Class Culture 1919–1934, Oxford University Press, New York
Hudis, P. and Anderson, K., eds, (2004), The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, New York.
Kautsky, K. (1964), The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, University Of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor
Korpi, W. (1983), The Democratic Class Struggle, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Lenin, V.I. (1996), Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Pluto Press, London.
Marcuse, H. (1968), One Dimensional Man, Sphere, London.
Marx, K. and Engels, F (1989), Selected Works I, Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Mouffe, C. (2005a), On the Political, Routledge, Abingdon.
Mouffe, C. (2005b), The Return of the Political, Verso, London.

Outhwaite, W (1994) Habermas – A Critical Introduction, Stanford, California
Rabinbach, A. (1983), The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War, 1927–1934, University of Chicago Press, London.
Trotsky, L. (2007), Terrorism and Communism, Verso, New York.


Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Jeremy Corbyn , the Left and Marxism: With Lessons for Australia and the World


above: British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is seen by many as radical, but his policies are traditional-social-democratic


Dr Tristan Ewins

Australian Labor Party activist and social commentator

British social commentator, Mal Fletcher (On Line Opinion 7/11 ; and ‘2020 Plus’)  warns of the ‘dangers’ of a ‘Hard-Left’ Jeremy Corbyn and the spectre of Marxist and socialist resurgence.   But what’s the reality behind this posturing?  We’ll look at both the claims made against Corbyn and at the deployment of Marxism as a ‘political bogeyman’. From there we’ll look at social democratic and Marxist arguments around economy and society more thoroughly.

Firstly: yes British Labour is turning Left after years of Blairite Centrism.  Corbyn is bringing British Labour back to the ‘relative historical mainstream’ of ‘traditional social democracy’. 

Still, Corbyn’s plans for limited resocialisation (eg: of railways and utilities) threaten a precedent whereby decades of privatisation are not necessarily “a one way street”.  Some on the Right – including so-called ‘Labour moderates’ appear quite frightened at that prospect.  If anything it is they who are ideologically-inflexible on the public sector ; and cannot abide by its extension in any way, shape or form.  But compare this with the 1970s when Labour thinkers such as Stuart Holland (in ‘The Socialist Challenge’)  were demanding “Nationalisation of the Commanding Heights”.   Considered historically, Corbyn is not ‘far Left’ ; but rather is suggestive of British Labour ‘returning home’ ideologically to ‘traditional social democracy’. (although some in the Corbyn camp – and in the ‘Momentum’ movement which supports him - might be more ambitious over the longer term) In light of this, Australian Labor’s Bill Shorten’s ‘shift Left’ appears much more modest. Shorten will not consider resocialisations ; but may pursue ‘a living wage’ (though has equivocated on prior commitments to raise minimum wages), and moderate progressive tax reform.

Other Corbyn signature policies include Free Education, preservation of the National Health Service,  efforts to reduce inequality, and an investment in public housing.  This also means a more-progressive tax system; improvement of wages – including for the working poor;  a proper industry policy ; and public investment in infrastructure.  It suggests a Labour Party which treats social democracy seriously ; not a ‘far Left’ Labour Party ; but a Labour Party which refuses ‘Policy Convergence’ on neo-liberalism and ‘right-wing economic consensus’.  The ‘shift to the Left’ is not ‘extreme’, but nonetheless it is the most significant development on the British Left in decades.

Fletcher seems to agree that ‘planning’ is inevitable ; but poses the question “who does the planning?”.  If planning is not democratic, here, do we suppose it is done by the corporates ‘behind closed doors’ ; with many politicians just taking it for granted that ‘the crucial economic decisions’ are not to be made democratically?  That is: that the job of representative government is merely to ‘provide support’ to the corporates – who are the real economic decision-makers.   Nonetheless, comprehensive economic planning by central government is not the answer either. Not least of all because it could result in unacceptable centralisation of economic (and hence cultural, social and political) power if implemented without safeguards.   Arguably we need both ‘democratisation’ AND ‘checks and balances’ in the economy ; which also translate into political, social and cultural ‘checks and balances’.

That said:  what are we to make of charges of ‘Marxism’ ; and is ‘Marxism’ really such a bad thing?

Capitalism is a real ‘mixed bag’ here: a mix of success and chronic failure.

Market economies involve corporations and businesses which can be driven by the market context to respond innovatively to the intricacies of consumer demand ; and allocate resources as efficiently as they can in order to remain competitive.

On the other hand there is the threat of monopoly or oligopolistic collusion ; as well as planned obsolescence.  Some areas (eg: energy markets) exist in a context where product differentiation is difficult ; many consumers would just like to ‘take such things for granted’.  At the end of the day many of them are simply fleeced by predatory corporations. 

So on the other hand while the traditional Marxist aim of ‘centralising the means of production in the hands of the State’ may seem archaic, great swathes of the Marxist critique of capitalism retain force.  What Marx referred to (in Capital Vol I) as ‘the coercive laws of competition’ means that capitalists are constantly driven to revolutionise the means of production.   Historically, this has led to relative material abundance – which Marx saw as ‘a good thing’.  On the other hand, these dynamics result in inefficiencies, including duplication of cost-structures and premature obsolescence.  To offset this capitalism is forced to adopt a posture of ‘perpetual growth’. This can have environmental and social consequences as ‘the economy’ is decoupled from human need ; and instead the emphasis is ‘growth (regardless of actual quality) no matter what the cost’.  Also today’s capitalist economy is truly global ; and arguably capitalism is ‘running out of new markets to expand into’.  This could lead to serious crises into the future with insufficient markets to absorb capitalism’s ‘excess produce’.

Today,  also, those ‘coercive laws of competition’ might result in ‘an unsustainable race to the bottom on tax’ or with regard wages – which means less consumer demand over the long-run.  It can also result in privatisation of essential infrastructure and functions ; which means the State abdicating responsibility for ‘what it does best’.  Hence the possibility of nepotism and corruption in the context of ‘Public Private Partnerships’ for private sector mates ; and/or full privatisations ‘at a relative discount.’

Privatisation of ‘Government Business Enterprises’ (eg: Medibank Private and the Commonwealth Bank in Australia) also means that those enterprises’ ‘social charters’ are lost.  In many cases that included a responsibility to behave competitively.  Reversion to privatisation can mean a return to private oligopoly ; an inferior deal for consumers ; and in the worst of cases damaging collusion.

At the end of the day workers, businesses, citizens, consumers – all end up paying for this.  But many capitalists support the ‘neo-liberal status quo’ for Ideological purposes ; or because they are fearful of “a foot in the door for socialism”.  (more on that later)

Marxism also critiqued the tendency in capitalism to centralise ownership of most capital in fewer and fewer hands.  That observation remains in force ; and the consequence is “the translation of economic power into political power”.  Narrow-neoliberalism is enforced with the zealotry of “an official ideology” ; as are corporate interests.  Unions are curtailed and vilified ; the wage share of the economy falls ; Media Moguls manipulate the climate of public opinion cynically.  ‘Political Correctness’ is constantly beaten up to divide the constituencies of broadly-Left Parties by attrition. A return to the principles of social democracy is dismissed as ‘populism’.  In Australia specifically we have the Conservatives banning labour movement imagery in workplaces (eg: the “Eureka” flag) ; threatening charities who speak out on public policy ; trying to shut down mass movements (eg: ‘GetUp!’) and prevent them from participating in elections.  (and yet at the same time they still talk of ‘liberalism’ and ‘free speech’)

Capitalist societies dealt with problems of distribution via markets and through the dynamics of  ‘supply and demand’.  This was ‘more efficient’ than the ‘waiting queues’ we once heard of in the USSR ; and market forces also meant innovation and responsiveness.  But ‘the market’ also ruthlessly excluded the poor on the basis of ‘capacity to pay’.  In the West arguably we had greater cultural freedom and innovation.  (though perhaps ‘post-the-Cold-War’ the West does not ‘need’ liberalism and democracy as much as it used to for purposes of legitimation ; hence liberties – and perhaps democracy itself - are under threat)  But the ‘economic abundance’ we enjoyed existed in the context of a global economy where the [economic]  ‘Core’ exploited the ‘Periphery’.  For example, American economic exploitation and subordination of Central and South America ; and the emergence of countries like Bangladesh as ‘the sweatshops of the World’.    The ‘World Economic Order’ will also ‘be up for grabs’ with the rise of China and India; and continuing relative prosperity cannot be taken for granted.

But if a ‘traditional socialist economy’ (along the lines of the former USSR) is not the answer, what is?

Firstly in response to those specific issues just raised:  again considering the Australian context ; a socialist energy policy might provide micro-renewable energy for the poor, and for public housing estates (see: the former South Australian Labor Government’s policy as of February 2018) , to reduce demand on the National Grid, and ensure that everyone can enjoy cooling in times of ‘peak-demand’. (eg: Heatwaves)  The ‘leave it to the market’ response, however, would see vulnerable people (eg: the elderly) ‘opting out’ in the process of ‘supply and demand’ – despite the fact they are the ones who need the product most.  (and human lives are at stake!)  Meanwhile importation of textiles from enterprises who ruthlessly exploit their workers – including unsafe working conditions – might be banned.

More generally: Probably the best Leftists can expect in the foreseeable future is to forge “historic compromises” which deliver security, freedoms, opportunity and happiness for the masses they represent.  We should talk about Marxist ideas on socialism and communism honestly and not closed-mindedly.  But if ever the world does approximate Marx’s ‘authentic communist ideal’ it might never occur strictly via the path Marx predicted. The industrial working-class might never return to the economic pre-eminence that Marx predicted, and to a significant extent as he observed in its early development.  This also means the industrial working class might no longer be considered the ‘universal subject’ bearing ‘universal liberation’.  The reality will be much more ‘messy’ ; and the task is one of building alliances ; and indeed what Gramsci may have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’.  This is exactly why efforts to divide the Left’s constituencies against each other are such a threat.

A more ‘rational’ economy means – to begin with – setting the public sector free to do what it does best.  Efficiencies arising from Natural Public Monopolies ; and more competitive markets in the context of Government Business Enterprises with ‘social’ and ‘competitive’ charters ; can mean a ‘better deal’ for everyone . (workers, citizens, business)   And ‘collective consumption’ (via tax) of essential social goods and services (eg: Health, Infrastructure, Education, Welfare Services) also results in a ‘better deal’.   Extension of the public sector in this way does inevitably involve ‘planning’.  And while central planning might not be advisable for an entire economy, there is a strategic place for it.

Most of the OECD is also far from emulating ‘the Nordic Historic Compromise’.  In Australia, specifically, though, we are well behind the OECD average with regard our Tax to GDP Ratio as well. Extrapolating from the percentage gap between Australia and the Nordics, Australia would need to raise tax by around $300 billion/year to match Nordic tax to GDP ratios.  (The current figure may be slightly lower: The OECD recently placed the Nordics at around 45% of GDP ; though Wikipedia suggests in the vicinity of 50% - with 54% for Finland ; Perhaps Wikipedia is somewhat out-of-date ; sadly the Nordic Model continues a slow retreat) And redistribution via tax remains an important lever to ‘grow the social wage and welfare state’.  (which are vehicles not only for redistribution and fairness, but also for ‘efficient collective consumption’)  

But that kind of change ‘does not happen over-night’. A medium term objective for Australia, then, might be to match the OECD average ; and progressively raise an additional $80 billion/year (in today’s terms) ; or otherwise put: raise progressive tax by 5 per cent of GDP.  In the rest of the ‘Anglosphere’ (USA, Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand) progressive parties could do to think on a similar scale over the medium term.

Beyond this Leftists could also think in terms of a ‘democratic mixed economy’.   That is: an economy based on a strategic mix of competitive markets and planning ; but also promotion of economic democracy at a range of levels.  Let the public sector do what it does best ; and don’t necessarily be narrowly Ideological or traditional in determining this. (for instance, strategic and limited public investment in print media may be a ‘cultural imperative’ : where ‘legacy media’ retain great cultural power ; are centralised in the hands of a few ; and where the quality of journalism is declining in that context)  But where market forces act more to the benefit of society than not – then democratise those market forces.  This can mean State Aid in support of mutuals and co-operatives on both a large and a small scale. (both producers’ and consumers’ co-ops)  That could also involve ‘public sector co-investments’ with co-ops to help them maintain the scale necessary to remain competitive.  In specific contexts regions could also contribute: where local jobs are at stake.  It can also mean policies for democratic collective capital formation, and also for (union-friendly) co-determination.  ( ‘Democratic collective capital formation’ refers to a range of policies from Superannuation in Australia (less radical and democratic) to the attempted ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in Sweden (more radical and democratic) which aimed to compensate workers for wage restraint with collective capital share ; resulting in radical economic redistribution.  ‘Co-determination’ means structural corporate consultation with workers ; including worker representatives on company boards.)

Critics could argue that such policies are ‘a foot in the door for [democratic] socialism’.  And indeed they might well be.  But the ‘Keynesian Post-War Historic Compromise’   - which benefited workers and citizens – was in the interests of business as well.  Resurgent social democracy and democratic socialism today might also (in some ways) be beneficial to business as well as to workers, consumers, citizens.  We should be able to reach a ‘rational consensus’ around a robust mixed economy where the debate is focused on ‘where to draw the line’.  This would mean Liberals, Conservatives, and the so-called ‘Social Democratic (Blairite) Centre’ ceding Ideological ground.  It would result in a rebalancing of class forces ; and for this alone it would be strenuously resisted by many.  The Nordics show both the potential for delivering ‘a good society’ on the basis of similar policies ; and also the possibility of pitched struggles over ‘where to draw the line’ on economic democracy.  Swedish corporates ‘had their way’ in defeating the ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ in the 1980s.  Again, there has been a ‘slow retreat’ since ; but the overall historic example is still inspiring.

Today ‘Labour’, ‘Capital’ and other social forces could agree that a ‘robust mixed economy’ is pretty-much in the interests of all ; but that what Swedish social theorist Walter Korpi called ‘the democratic class struggle’ will continue on many fronts ; and in this process there are ‘no guarantees’.  In this process we could envisage what Gramsci would call a long  ‘War of Position’ or what Kautsky earlier referred to as a
‘War of Attrition’.  They are different conceptions; but are similar in way ; and both are valid in their own sense. ‘War of Position’ assumes a long ‘counter-hegemonic’ struggle – not only a struggle for the state ; but for society’s ‘common sense’ (the Ideological assumptions that are reinforced such as to be ‘taken for granted’ in a given society) ; and the way that Ideology is entrenched in the various institutions and social bodies of civil society. ‘War of Attrition’ meanwhile suggests a ‘wearing down of capitalism’ over the long term ; through social movements, cultural, industrial and electoral interventions – but not a ‘War of Annihilation’ (another Kautskyan term) which assumes more of a ‘frontal assault’ to overthrow the capitalist state.  Importantly, Kautsky supposed there were (rare) circumstances where ‘War of Annihilation’ made sense ; but if pursued under the wrong circumstances this could simply exhaust the proletariat ; see it demobilised or even suppressed or crushed.   ‘Wars of movement’ (the Gramscian term for a ‘pitched assault’ against capitalism) are not to be ruled out in every circumstance ; but where democratic processes could provide ‘a pathway to democratic socialism’, a strategy of ‘revolutionary reforms’ or ‘slow [democratic] revolution’ is preferable.  Though the Left needs to be prepared for the contingency that the bourgeoisie could well ‘dispense’ with democracy itself (as far as it is capable) if its interests are seriously threatened.

Finally let’s remember the underlying human principles of Marxism  ; which were made a cruel mockery of under Stalinist regimes.  Marx saw the material abundance produced under capitalism as creating the economic basis for human freedom.   This could mean a shorter working week, as well as greater opportunity for cultural, social and economic ‘personal growth’ and participation.  In Australia a reformed National Curriculum might also promote active, informed and critical citizenship, amidst a backdrop of tolerance and deep-seeded pluralism.   (though this is more in the spirit of Chantal Mouffe’s  ‘Agonistic’ ‘Post-Marxism’ than the original perspective of Marx) Marx’s overall approach was not a mere ‘bread and water socialism’ ; even though socialists believe there are areas (eg: health and education, water and energy) which demand comprehensive socialised provision.  Indeed there are aspects of the Marxist vision which could be compatible with certain strands of liberalism concerned with personal growth, liberty and empowerment.

Marxism should not be seen as an ‘Ideological bogeyman’ ; especially where terms like ‘cultural Marxism’ are thrown around with abandon – but where few people understand what Marxism really means anymore.   The fact that Jeremy Corbyn is experiencing such resistance to any return to ‘traditional social democracy’ (including substantial disinformation) provides some idea, also, of the resistance and ‘muddying of the waters’ we might encounter if we propose anything more-radical.  But future convulsions in response to capitalism’s shortcomings (or what Marx would have called its ‘contradictions’) are inevitable.  Somewhat ironically: in the ‘big picture’ socialists could well hold the key to ‘saving capitalism from itself’ even while setting the foundations for surpassing it with a far more democratic and free society much further into the future.

April 2018