Conter editor David Jamieson argues that moments of major political change should encourage, rather than halt debate and intellectual life on the left. Conter will launch its first print edition Friday 6 December at the Flying Duck in Glasgow.
Why launch a new journal of anti-capitalist thought at such an intense time from British politics? Why now, when all the old certainties of British politics, established by Thatcher and various epigones and imitators since the late 1970s, are apparently coming apart, and there is such a premium on action?
In every conceivable outcome of this election – from the most promising and exciting to the most dangerous or deflating for the left – the crisis of the social order will persist and, in most of the possible scenarios, deepen dramatically.
Should Corbyn be in a position to form a government, its programme will come under instant and profound attack from the international system and the British ruling elite. The parliament, including very many (perhaps a majority) on the government benches, will be full of enemies who wish to tear it down, or at least break its will to make meaningful reforms. Powerful forces, both here and abroad, will seek to make an example out of Corbyn.
It can be difficult to recall at the height of an historic election that so much will depend on extra-parliamentary activity. So in the event of our most favourable election outcome, a Labour government will only press for radical change to the extent it is pressurised to do so from outside the Westminster cordon. And unless that pressure from below is more powerful than the pressure from within the state, little will be achieved except defeat and humiliation.
Should a more difficult or disappointing result emerge, answers must eagerly be sought on the next steps for various movements and for socialists as a whole. A setback must not be turned into a route, when the fundamental condition for advance – the disarray and dysfunction of British capitalism and a widely felt demand for change – are still so prevalent.
The impact of the real world on the bubble of official Scottish nationalism may be less dramatic and outwardly apparent, but it is still very real. In a few swift strokes, Corbynism, Brexit and the new mood of opposition to national self-determination from Westminster has scrambled the political co-ordinates of the leadership around Nicola Sturgeon. For now, that small clique pretend not to have noticed this, just as they pretend not to notice deepening internal tensions in the SNP – both masked for now by the party’s continued electoral buoyancy due to the national question.
So whatever happens next, debate will be absolutely necessary. Socialist thought is still recovering from a long period of defeat and stagnation that has offered few opportunities to test theories of social change. No matter what the outcome of the election, Corbynism as a body of ideas and assumptions about political action and transformation will mutate drastically under the shock of reality. Furthermore, the new reality will translate into Scotland in highly distinctive ways.
With so much at stake across a range of struggles at this time, activists could be forgiven for asking whether now is the time for talk. But in fact, this attitude to intellectual development has been a constant refrain on much of the western left for many years; perhaps even more so in the more sallow period immediately before and after the 2008 financial crisis. When challenges to the status quo seemed at their most exhausted, the anger at a (largely imaginary) left-intelligentsia engaged in chin scratching and book reading as the world burned, reached a greater pitch.
A difficult truth about the modern radical left is that its failings are not largely attitudinal, moral or cultural (though such problems do exist). Indeed, some of its most damaging drawbacks are precisely intellectual. It is badly out of fashion on the British left today, for example, to ponder the state, to ask what forms socialist organisation should take in order to be most effective, or to attempt a determination of what makes our generation of capitalism distinct from the whole history of the capitalist epoch. In other words, many of the questions that have fascinated and obsessed socialists for most of the history of the workers’ movement are now routinely ignored without explanation.
At least, they are ignored in public. Minds are always at work, even when they do not publicly articulate. The suspicion is that quiet decisions have been made in the heads of many who oppose capitalism today. Perhaps these decisions include; the state is ultimately class-neutral and can be taken over or otherwise directed by progressive forces, organisations made up of anti-capitalists are unnecessary and their roles can be performed by pluralistic electoral parties attached to the state, or that what defines the capitalist system is the prevalence of the market and large-scale private ownership, a confrontation with which would mean socialism tout court.
In any case, the argument against the left performing an independent intellectual life would be more compelling if it genuinely placed an emphasis on political action over political thought (though even this phrasing makes the proposition sound ridiculous, as though action could be separated from thought any more than body separated from mind). In reality, what is inevitably substituted for theory that is native and healthy to the socialist movement, to its organisations, to its history and ideological preoccupations, is theory which is foreign – even hostile – to the socialist tradition.
In other words, in a left averse to serious intellectual life, potentially useful political thought is substituted by harmful political thought, not by action.
The most common form this has taken in recent years is the abandonment of a rigorous, analytical examination of society for purely moral examinations. The process by which this comes about is obvious enough; a movement in a period of retreat, and which cannot conceive of a victorious endpoint, is prone to return to frustrated assertions of moral superiority over the world around it. However necessary a moral criticism of society may be, and no matter how correct and inevitable moral outrage is in a time of universal injustice, it is not sufficient to the task of social change. Obsessions with moral categories and may even harm that task.
This intellectual tendency – the inevitably individualising force of moralism (morality raised above civic or personal codes to a political approach) – has driven parts of the western left into ghettos in recent years, as much as any formal flirtation with ‘liberalism’ or indeed ‘postmodernism’.
That said, those ideological forces are real and demonstrate clearly why anti-capitalists cannot rely upon campus-based political thought. There’s no need to dismiss every idea that emerges from the academy. Amid the debilitating specialisation of social thought on campuses, and the sometimes bizarre babble put out in academic publications, there are still many academics and researchers producing work of great use to social movements and anti-capitalists (and it would be philistinism of a different order altogether to dismiss campus activism in years when a mix of commercialisation and austerity have spiked both staff and student militancy).
In which case, what sort of intellectual life does the socialist left require?
First, it needs to be independent; of the mainstream media, of academia, of all the major electoral parties and institutions of the more broad and ecumenical left. In short, of all the tendencies which do not share its desire for a final rupture with capitalism, and its endeavour to construct a relationship between the ultimate aim of that rupture and immediate political practice, no matter how much more limited in its possibilities.
Such independence does not mean isolation. We do not need a sectarian or dogmatic journal detached from all of the fronts in the fight for immediate political reform. Independence is the best position from which to establish relationships – with activists in many parties and none, and in workplace and tenant unions and wider social movements, as well as with sympathetic academics.
Secondly, it should be a lay publication. It should debate ideas, including those which are abstract or conceptual (necessary for theoretical work), in formats and language which are accessible and, where possible, enjoyable. It should be written predominantly by people who are engaged in movements and struggles. It should be a place that encourages intellectual growth, and spurn our society’s noxious culture of shame and elitism around education and literature.
The object here is not pouring out wordy articles for self-satisfaction. It is, in a term which has become popular in the modern left, a form of ‘capacity-building’. A left that cannot think clearly and dynamically cannot win. And like practical organising tasks, intellectual life is not automatic – it requires labour and organisation. Centres of thought for the socialist left must be constructed, just as union branches must be constructed.
And finally, it must be a publication with practical application in the world. It must seek to arm the left with ideas, analysis, history and theorisation that will help it in understanding and changing the present and future of our society.
It therefore needs to be a living, breathing publication that hosts readers’ and writers’ groups and public forums. It requires a physical presence in the world alongside the wider array of struggles.
Like any other form of organisation it therefore requires the work and engagement of a diverse field of people who want to change the world, and are prepared for the mental as well as organisational tasks this demands. We invite anyone involved to get in touch and involved.
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Pictures: Gren Gale, Conter