In the new year Marxists need to increase efforts to rebuild an anti-establishment politics rooted in the traditions of the past but addressing the questions of the present, argues Lewis Akers.
Tradition is a word bogged down in connotations. A pervasive modern attitude, rooted in both market liberalism and the left, holds tradition to be a collection of anachronisms, belonging to a past which needs to be swept away in favor of progress. Most of the past and its figures, no matter how progressive they were in their time or place, are seen as problematic. As a result of this, many figures are cast aside, and their lessons forgotten.
We cannot afford, as Marxists, to do away with history; doing so removes our connections to the lessons of the past and leaves workers without a way of seeing their struggles as part of a historical lineage. It reduces the scope of struggle to an enlightened present. One of the great English historians, EP Thompson, warned against the left castigating figures from history in his epic History of the English Working Class. He laid out the purpose of his work in the opening pages of the book – that the working class and their leaders needed to be rescued from the “condescension of posterity” to stop them becoming “casualties of history.” To rescue the giants of our history, despite their flaws, from the condescension of posterity and offer powerful yet dispassionate analysis of them and their movements’ contribution to our present remains an important task.
However, we must not get lost in the past. The past can only offer pointers, inspiration, and strength in the present. Using the analysis of old to address problems which are new will lead us into the fantasy world of sects who think they are in the midst of the Russian Civil War. A certain kind of history-monger exists well outside of this disappearing subculture. How many times in 2021 did we hear that figures like Joe Biden or Keir Starmer are ‘social democrats’ – to be related to as though that mass phenomenon still existed?
The fantastic reliving of the past leaves us unprepared for the major shifts in ideology and the structure of the social order. Mistaking capitalism’s liberal establishment for a mass working class social democracy, the NGO industrial complex for a radical intelligentsia and so on, can only lead the socialist left deeper into fantasy and isolation from wider social forces. The focus needs to be on rebuilding an anti-establishment and socialist politics which can understand the material conditions as they stand, address the difficult and tenuous questions in a unifying rather than divisive way, and encourage traditions of critical thought.
We cannot afford, in all this, to counterpoise intellectual and activist endeavors. In many ways socialists’ lack of influence comes not only from organizational weakness, but from the weakness of our ideas. To develop real strength we need hardheaded, realistic and pragmatic answers to the questions which are rightfully thrown at us. How can we take on the “Scottish establishment” without the intellectual work to identify the establishment, their development and where they are weak?
Despite all these challenges, it is worth being optimistic about the future and about the potential for the Marxist left to rebuild in the new year and the years ahead. For decades it might have seemed like nothing fundamental changed. Capital and its establishment seemed impervious to any development. And though they still enjoy extraordinary power, their difficulties are mounting. The return of inflation and a measurable shift in workplace relations in at least some industries, continued instability in the political scene, and sustained, chronic problems in the simple reproduction of the global system all imply openings for Marxists.
Conter will be working to add to our understanding of these opportunities, setting up forums for discussion and seeking to address the difficult topics that are so often elided or treated to crude partisan divisions.
At the start of the 20th century, a young and rather green would-be Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, chided optimists and pessimists alike for the abstraction for their hopes and fears:
“The nineteenth century has in many ways satisfied and has in even more ways deceived the hopes of the optimist…It has compelled him to transfer most of his hopes to twentieth century. Whenever the optimist was confronted by an atrocious fact, he exclaimed: What, and this can happen on the threshold of the twentieth century! When he drew wonderful pictured of the harmonious future, he placed them in the twentieth century.”
After listing the many atrocities that marked the onset of the new century, from the rise of racism in Europe to colonial war, he reminded these phenomena that they “are only the present”, waiting to be surpassed.
Our present is only transitory, and we need to prepare for what comes next. For that we need venerable knowledge of the past, realism about the problems of the present, and certainty that every present is defeated by the future.