This Monday, the first of many ConterCast debates will be held in association with Sunny Govan Radio. Conter ed team member and CommonSpace journalist David Jamieson will debate Labour activist and ex-candidate Laura Dover on the question: is Labour’s road to socialism viable. In this piece, David Jamieson sets out why he believes socialists should resist the temptation to ‘pick a horse’, and instead develop a discussion around the crisis of the British state…
The overriding political matter of British society today is the crisis and decline of the British state. Therefore, the overriding political concern of the British socialist movement is that crisis and decline. The primary ‘internal’ obstacles to that political focus within the socialist movement are firstly, a fundamental theoretical misunderstanding of the state and secondly, a tendency to movement sectionalism, the priority to view one of the movements motivated by the crisis as the primary or even sole focus for socialists over the entire period. Corbynism is just one example.
But before moving onto those obstacles, we must first outline the dynamics of the crisis, and what we mean by ‘politics’ and the state in the context of the socialist movement. In the diction of the socialist movement, socialist politics is the elevation of the anti-capitalist movement to the level of a confrontation with the state. This is the most direct and total form of class struggle because it confronts the most concentrated and conscious form of capitalist class domination. As Daniel Bensaid summarised: “The class struggle is not reduced to the antagonism between the worker and his boss. It confronts the proletariat with ‘the whole capitalist class’ on the level of the process of capitalist production as a whole.”
This isn’t to make a distinction between politics and strategy on the one hand and organisation, activism and agitation over limited demands for reform on the other. Rather, ‘bread and butter’ socialist activism and activity makes politics possible, and politics is the necessary and elevating articulation of the whole movement and every juncture and hostile pressure it comes up against. This is a view of anti-capitalism still struggling to be reborn in the west. Politics, thought of as the ‘high’ politics of governance by ruling class administrations, is rightly derided and mistrusted.
Politics understood as an orientation of anti-capitalists on the strategic problem of state power has spent decades being portrayed as vain if not demagogic and dangerous. Yet the relative disinterest of today’s left in the state is a major weakness, compounding and partially emanating from the weakness of working class self-organisation. A lack of orientation on the state is a serious theoretical weakness in strategic terms (as explained further on), but it’s also a profound weakness in terms of tactics, the day to day manoeuvre for position by the left. Just as capitalist rule is concentrated, organised, and articulated through the politics of the state, so is the crisis. The left can’t therefore promote its own alternative, or even understand its own role in the present period, without being political. Without understanding itself, whatever its other important tasks, as representing an opposition to the state.
The state was the fundamental strategic problem of the socialist movement in the 19th and 20th centuries – it remains so today. Marxism stands out in that period as the creed which concretised its claim to be revolutionary by its insistence on the state as the essential site of revolutionary change. Other socialist doctrines, such as Social Democracy, Revolutionary Syndicalism and Anarchism, largely or wholly ignored it as a strategic problem. Social Democracy did this by increasingly positing the class neutral character of the state; Syndicalism by, at least in theory if not always in practice, downplaying political questions for economic and workplace based activism; Anarchism, while rhetorically focusing on the state, often in an apolitical and classless way, ignored it in strategic terms and simply hoped it would go away.
This was the major reason Marxism came to predominate in the 20th century, particularly owing to the success of revolutionary Marxism in the Russian Revolutionary period. The Russian Bolshevik party remains an almost unique experiment (and certainly uniquely successful) in truly political socialist politics, and its orientation on the state was an essential part of its success. The Bolshevik’s key theoretician, Vladimir Lenin, communicated this orientation on the state to his followers in The State and Revolution: “According to Marx, the state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of “order”, which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes … the state is the product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms, if it is a power standing above society.”
Debates over the state’s character, its means of reproduction, its points of strength and weakness and the nature of its interface with the mass of the population should go further than this basic recognition, but they must still start from this point. The contemporary and apparent lack of interest on the distinctive class nature of the state probably masks a widespread if vague hope the state is either class neutral or can somehow be made class neutral through reform. There’s no need for, nor space for, misunderstanding on this question. Though it’s always on some level an active negotiation between class forces and influences, and maintains a relative autonomy from individuated capitalist class interests, the state is the instrument of the capitalist class.
The decline of the British state, from its peak as the predominant world power at the start of the 20th century to its position of financial crisis, internal political polarisation and growing geopolitical dislocation in the early years of the 21st century, is an organic crisis, deriving from the character and make up of British capitalism. It’s not a crisis fundamentally cause by a “bad decision” or a tissue of bad decisions by the UK ruling class, though certainly errors have worsened it. Decisions made by governments, capitalists and state managers in previous decades, all meant to ameliorate weaknesses in British capitalism or to hobble working class dissent, have bred further weaknesses and class antagonisms.
The project of Thatcherism, to smash the unions and dissent, and to reorganise British capitalism through financialisation and economic liberalism, has produced a modern British state facing calamity. The economy is grossly unbalanced and regionally underdeveloped, suffering from chronic problems of low productivity, under investment and private debt. And society is more ideologically polarised than it has been in several decades.
This crisis, as noted, is organic. The left hasn’t caused it to happen (except in the sense that continual conflict between social classes have contoured the development of the dysfunctional society) and the left can’t stop the crisis. It has no interest in doing so either. The left’s only interest in this period is establishing a truly independent political pole around which to organise its own forces. This is why politics and an orientation of opposition to the state is so important in this period. Without independence from the institutions of British capitalism, no radical politics is possible.
Nor should it be imagined any stable ‘middle way’ can be achieved. Either the left or reaction will win the crisis period. Attempting to prop up collapsing institutions in the hopes they will create some plateau upon which incremental and careful reform can be worked out is a hopeless approach. The crisis is made up of sharp and violent ruptures, whether the left wants to participate in them or not. The left must intervene in the crisis always with its own politics. An independent position by no means threatens sectarianism. On the contrary, once an independent position is established, acts of principled unity with forces to our right, such as those influenced by liberalism, become more rather than less possible and useful.
The UK crisis has developed onto several fronts. They include, but are not limited to, the national question in Scotland, Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, the political deadlock in Northern Ireland (and wider national question) and Brexit. The temptation of many on the left is to simply pick a horse and ride it. Especially when this leads to interleft sectarianism, it should be substituted for an understanding of all fronts as united in a dynamic totality, with each impacting the others in complex ways. This orientation on the crisis itself, but by concrete interventions into its particular articulations on these various fronts, is impossible without an independent political pole, established in support for working class interests.
But this must not be allowed to become ‘the night in which all cows are black’, a featureless political landscape in which all ‘good’ developments are supported and all ‘bad’ ones resisted, in place of a strategy. Instead each developing front must be understood as advancing another. This is most easily understood from the point of view of Corbynism’s present limitations.
The EU is objectively a barrier to radical economic reform, and most anti-capitalists working within the Labour project now rightly accept Brexit, at least partly on this basis. But acceptance must become an active intervention for a ‘people’s Brexit’, a Brexit as much as possible on the terms of the left allowing for the greatest move away from neoliberalism. Corbynism is effective to the extent it abandons the traditional concerns of Labourism – especially the orientation of providing good stewardship to the British state. In Scotland, socialists are right to sabotage a state which is objectively anti-working class, and must push the national question in a way that, wherever possible, helps socialists in the rest of Britain breakdown the Labourist orientation on the state.
But to do this the independence movement in Scotland must move away from nationalism and a Scottish national orientation and onto a Britain-wide analysis. Scotland cannot ‘leave’ Britain and Scottish independence cannot achieve this. Scotland will always be part of British society, the British economy and so forth. A coherent advance for the left in Scotland after (or before) independence can only be realised by the growth of the socialist project across the islands (and ultimately beyond). Above all else, the period demands the left abandon support for institutions like the British state and the European Union. Rupture is inevitable and desirable.
Fronts will develop differently and different tactics will be necessary in coming years. But the left must develop an extensive theory of the British crisis, and a plan for a coherent interventionist strategy. It must also present society with a programmatic alternative to our present crisis state. These short notes represent only a germinal stage in that project.