Poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, written in 1925. Read by Barry York. “Coolidge” refers to Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the USA from 1923 to 1929. The poem reflects its time – some specific references would not be appropriate today. However, the celebration of modern industrial achievement cannot be restated enough. More bridges – less borders!
Thanks to ‘Tomb’ for this post.
It may seem of little importance, just athletes and drugs; however it is about freedom and if you deny it to any group of people then that can always be applied to anyone or everyone.
The attack on freedom comes in many different ways and in many different areas, from jailing whistleblowers to anti-terror laws. Some of these attacks are in seemingly irrelevant fields such as sport. Athletes being singled out to adhere to rules/laws from which the rest of the populace are exempt. Singling out athletes in this way is bad enough but to place a body overseeing these laws that is outside the judicial system is an attack on the freedom of athletes.
A recent case in Australia of football clubs being used as political tools outside the law is of strong concern. The then Australian Labor government, through its Minister for Sport, spoke of ‘the darkest day in Australian sports history’ in order to try to take the focus away from their dismal poll showings. The Australian Crime Commission looked at it and found there was no evidence of anything illegal and decided not to pursue it, however the sports doping body – ASADA -agreed to and received police powers and increased funding to do so. The Essendon and Cronulla football clubs have been attacked by ASADA, the doping body of sport in Australia. ASADA used intimidation and threats to try to get the players to admit they had taken a banned substance. The players refused as they had not taken a banned substance as far as they knew and ASADA had not given them any evidence that they had. According to ASADA it doesn’t matter if you knew it was banned or that someone was giving it to you without your consent or knowledge. You are guilty. You have to prove it didn’t happen and ASDA can go on rumors to charge you.
ASADA tried to get someone to admit they took a banned substance as they had no worthwhile evidence. Footballers from Cronulla agreed and accepted a penalty of insignificance in order to finish the saga which has dragged on for more than 2 years while those at Essendon refused as they knew they hadn’t and wouldn’t accept an irrelevant penalty to get ASADA off the hook.
The important point here is the role of the media in convincing people there was some grievous crime committed and these clubs particularly Essendon should just accept the penalties. This has been the case without virtually any dissent from all journalists and a witch hunt has been happening for 2 years. The fact that so many people have accepted the guilt without question is of concern. Now one official is appealing a court decision that was seen to be not based on law and the media is trying to label them as monsters for pursuing their legal right.
It may seem of little importance, just athletes and drugs; however it is about freedom and if you deny it to any group of people then that can always be applied to anyone or everyone.
The following is a discussion from the Lastsuperpower site in 2003 about the philosophical basis of pseudo-leftism. The two contributors are ‘Albert’ and ‘Keza’. It stands up very well ten years on, and had a big impact on me at the time. – c21styork
Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish”
Date : Jun 15, 2003 4:48 am
“All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real”
Hegel’s remark “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real.” is central to understanding the philosophical outlook of communism.
It’s worth carefully studying Engel’s explanation of this seemingly paradoxical position, as it sheds a lot of light on some aspects of the problems with pseudo-Leftists and other reactionaries conservatives.
Fundamental to the genuine left is this concept:
“Just as knowledge is unable to reach a complete conclusion in a perfect, ideal condition of humanity, so is history unable to do so; a perfect society, a perfect “state”, are things which can only exist in imagination. On the contrary, all successive historical systems are only transitory stages in the endless course of development of human society from the lower to the higher. Each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin. But in the face of new, higher conditions which gradually develop in its own womb, it loses vitality and justification. It must give way to a higher stage which will also in its turn decay and perish.”
One aspect of that is the idea that “each stage is necessary, and therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Pseudo-Leftists assert the opposite. They are able to present themselves as more “militantly opposed” to the status quo than revolutionaries because they refuse to “understand” current reality as “necessary” and “therefore justified for the time and conditions to which it owes its origin”. Instead they simply denounce it from an ahistorical perspective as contrary to some absolute morality.
Anyone critical of the status quo is bound to highlight its negative features and denounce them as intolerable. But by denying that those negative features had their own rational basis the pseudo-Left obscures the rational necessity for inevitable change to the status quo arising from new circumstances that obsolete the justification for the old reality and necessitate a new reality.
Revolutionaries are historical optimists who stress the inevitability of progress. Pseudo-Leftists are reactionaries who merely denounce how bad things are and actively reinforce the idea that they cannot be changed. But when revolutionaries reject the irrational obscurantism and moralistic posturing of pseudo-Leftists and line up together with the ruling class against them, by asserting that “all that is real is rational”, they are also implicitly saying “all that exists deserves to perish” as explained by Engels:
“And so, in the course of development, all that was previously real becomes unreal, loses it necessity, its right of existence, its rationality. And in the place of moribund reality comes a new, viable reality — peacefully if the old has enough intelligence to go to its death without a struggle; forcibly if it resists this necessity. Thus the Hegelian proposition turns into its opposite through Hegelian dialectics itself: All that is real in the sphere of human history, becomes irrational in the process of time, is therefore irrational by its very destination, is tainted beforehand with irrationality, and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality. In accordance with all the rules of the Hegelian method of thought, the proposition of the rationality of everything which is real resolves itself into the other proposition: All that exists deserves to perish.”
Hegel and the pseudo-left
Date : Jun 21, 2003 3:00 am
After reading Albert’s Hegel message I got a bit interested in Hegel and tried to find out what he was on about. The following message results from that. It’s not really finished but I’ve had enough of it for now…
In his Australian article ‘Not in Your Name Indeed’, Barry York described the politics of the pseudo-Left as a “mish-mash” , a “jumble of prejudices”, “more akin to a sub-culture than a political movement”.
I think these words captured something very important about the pseudo-left – in particular its atheoretical and ahistorical nature. Pseudo-left ideology lends itself well to bulleted lists of things to oppose and things to support. At the same time, events in the world are classified according to surface appearance rather than in terms of what underlies them. The pseudo-left may talk of the “underlying reasons” for something like the war in Iraq but this talk is always of “hidden agendas”, “secret motives” and is quite different from studying such events in light of the underlying flow of history.
Hegel’s statement: “All that is real is rational; and all that is rational is real” asserts that history makes sense: “the phantom of a world whose events are an incoherent concourse of fortuitous circumstances, utterly vanishes”.
In contrast, pseudo-left ideology attributes only the most superficial rationality to what happens in the world.
Indeed it seems to me that the pseudo-left has an essentially folk-loric version of how the world works. There is evil and there is good. (Or there is God and there is Satan). Being “good” means being pure and true and perfect and this comes down to opposing the dark forces of evil. It’s an abstract, ideal position which is capable of generating protests but has no serious orientation toward actually changing the world. The feel-good slogan “Not in My Name” captures its nature rather well.
The Hegelian conception of history exerted an enormous influence on both Marx and Engels. Although Hegel was an idealist, his view of history was one in which humans were seen as becoming progressively more capable of controlling their own destiny. He saw history as always progressing in the direction of greater freedom – driven by the dialectical opposition between what is actual and what is potential.
Hegel was an idealist because of his adherence to the idea of the supremacy of “Spirit” (akin to mind) over matter (which he saw as inert – “its essence outside itself’.:
“Spirit knows itself. It involves an appreciation of its own nature, as also an energy enabling it to realise itself; to make itself actually that which it is potentially. According to this abstract definition it may be said of Universal History, that it is the exhibition of Spirit in the process of working out the knowledge of that which it is potentially. And as the germ bears in itself the whole nature of the tree, and the taste and form of its fruits, so do the first traces of Spirit virtually contain the whole of that History.”
“The life of a people ripens a certain fruit; its activity aims at the complete manifestation of the principle which it embodies. But this fruit does not fall back into the bosom of the people that produced and matured it; on the contrary, it becomes a poison-draught to it. That poison-draught it cannot let alone, for it has an insatiable thirst for it: the taste of the draught is its annihilation., though at the same time the rise of a new principle.”
Engels pointed out that “according to Hegel certainly not everything that exists is also real, without further qualification. For Hegel the attribute of reality belongs only to that which at the same time is necessary: “In the course of its development reality proves to be necessity.” “.
This qualification is important, otherwise Hegel’s statement could be taken as no more than the assertion that the status quo (being “real”) is always rational and therefore justified. Such an interpretation would contradict his view of history as a process of progressive change in which what is actual loses its necessity and gives way to its own potential: “It certainly makes war upon itself — consumes its own existence; but in this very destruction it works up with existence into a new form, and each successive phase becomes in its turn a material, working on which it exalts itself to a new grade.”
Getting back to the pseudo-left …it seems to me that their political outlook is characterized by a denial/ignorance of both necessity and rationality (and therefore of reality). Opposition to US imperialism turns out to be an unchallengeable, immutable, stand-alone principle of some sort. The idea that Bush et al could intend to democratize the Middle East – that their old policy is no longer rational (ie that in the current world situation it has lost its necessity) is seen as strange and nonsensical. How could it be possible for US imperialism to do such a thing?
It’s easy to appear as very revolutionary and militant if your stance does not include any appreciation of current reality and necessity. And the opposite is also true – it’s easy to attack those who are being (correctly) radical and militant. Basically you don’t have to feel responsible for anything that happens because such a stance does not involve actually trying to change the world.
In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific”, Engels said this about Hegel:
“This new German philosophy culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system — and herein is its great merit — for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development. From this point of view, the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.”
Pseudo left ideology does not encourage people to use their intellects to grasp the nature of what is happening in the world . On the contrary it propagates the idea that the truth can be hidden – (and sometimes) that there’s really no such thing as truth, that intuition and “gut feeling” are superior to logic, that the people who rule the world are stupid/irrational enough to “let things get out of control” and so on.
Anyway I’m getting tired of writing this ….
(by albert on 06/20/2003)
Thanks for the excellent article!
I’m getting inspired to read up on Hegel again too (also philosophy generally and have started reading Marx’s Notebooks on Epicurus to shed some light on why he wrote his doctoral thesis on atomic physics 😉
One point I’d stress is that it isn’t just the pseudo-Left which suffers from the various problems described. What distinguishes the pseudo-Left is often merely that it dresses up conventional ruling class ideas in a “militant”, “radical”, “leftist” but essentially a “pseudo” guise.
The basic idea that Engels finds appealing in Hegel is “the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process — i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development”. That dialectical emphasis on a process of progress and development is especially problematic to a decaying, moribund, parasitic ruling class.
Although some sections of the bourgeoisie still sing “Happy Days Are Here Again” and present themselves as at least complacent, if not progressive or revolutionary, the dominant mood is full of doom and gloom – literally terrified of what the future might bring (with a corresponding emphasis on “terrorists” as only one aspect of that).
As Marx pointed out, in any class society the ideas of the ruling class are of course the ruling ideas. That can easily be said glibly but it stands in direct opposition to such views as Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”.
The ruling ideas, those that dominate education, culture etc, are thoroughly pessimistic and stress the hopelessness of any struggle for change. That is especially the case for state sponsored education (“post-modern” university departments of doom and gloom) and culture (national broadcasters such as the British BBC and Australian ABC bringing daily sermons that everything is going from bad to worse).
The pseudo-Left has been let off the hook because it has been challenged only by the complacent right, which accepts the pseudos self-image as something “radical”, “militant” etc (by denouncing them on that basis, in support of the status quo).
Instead the pseudo-Left must be exposed as a direct reflection of ruling class ideology delivering exactly the official line – that nothing positive can be done to challenge the ruling class since even though they are obviously hopeless, no better alternative is possible.
That is what strips away the “radical” veneer. For example when faced with the usual diatribes against “consumerism” from greenies, these should just be treated as obviously a proposal to reduce real wages and discussed seriously on that basis. “Ok, so you want people to consume less. That’s easy – simply reduce their incomes. So I guess what you would need would be more unemployment – both to reduce incomes directly and to add to the pressure for reducing wages indirectly. That would explain a lot of green policies. I guess if we used less technology that would pretty well guarantee a sharp reduction in productivity and therefore in incomes and consumption. Hmm, interesting approach. Must be appealing to governments and corporations so they would give you a lot of funding. But aren’t you up against History – isn’t there something unstoppable about people’s desire to live better than before?”
Originally published at Strangetimes.lastsuperpower on November 27, 2009
Another day older
And deeper in debt
Saint Peter don’t you call me
‘coz I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.
‘Sixteen tons’ is one of many songs about alienation under capitalism. The song was recorded in the USA in 1946 by Merle Travis, whose father had worked in the mines of Kentucky. Merle’s father often used the phrase “another day older and deeper in debt” around the house. The song has been covered by many country artists, as well as blues and rock performers – my favourite version is by Eric Burdon.
Merle Travis’ version is here:
Check out Eric’s too:
The ‘sixteen tons’ refers to work, specifically in the coal mines during the era of the ‘truck system’ (under which workers in company towns were paid with vouchers recognized only by the local store rather than paid in cash). This may seem to date the song, even make it irrelevant to the current time. However, I think ‘sixteen tons’ can mean any kind of work people do for wages under a system in which wealth is socially produced yet privately appropriated. It’s certainly true that mechanization and automation continue to reduce the numbers of people doing such work; the kind of toil that my father always referred to in my youth as ‘dirty work’. (He worked in factories and used to nag me: “Son, study hard and go to uni and then you’ll be able to become a school teacher. Don’t end up in a dirty job.”).
There’s nothing romantic about working in the dirty jobs and, as technological changes continue to reduce many of the more mind-numbing tasks, then it becomes more likely that more people will seek even greater freedom to decide what they do and how and why they do it. Multi-skilling is another example. The more it occurs, so too the greater the likelihood that workers will start wondering why they can’t strive to fully develop their many interests and desires. We are rarely these days just a machinist, just a waitress or just a teacher, and within a lifetime we can be all the above and more. But this multi-skilling occurs within the framework of capitalist social relations: we are multi-skilled in the interests of a capitalist class. But were the producers to one day control production, why would there need to be social limits to what we want to be and, indeed, to our satisfaction in striving toward achieving our goals and desires? This would be free enterprise in the best possible sense.
Capitalist enterprises that experiment with ‘worker participation’ seek to create a sense of ‘belonging’ yet cannot reduce alienation because it is rooted in the very economic system that allows the capitalist class to appropriate socially produced wealth. But, again, such experiments raise the question: why can’t the workers take over for ourselves? Why can’t we be the ‘board of directors’ and the owners? Do we really need ‘them’ to do it for us?
When I was in the communist party during the 1970s, the old veterans often talked about the ‘big one’ coming; that is, that one day, there would be a major global crisis for capitalism that would be so severe the system would not survive. They seemed to believe that without such a crisis, there would be no revolution. Later, after I quit the party and started thinking more for myself, I started to wonder why a revolution should occur from a crisis like the one experienced in the 1930s. Economic depressions hardly create optimism. Why shouldn’t people, as they did, mostly just want the system to work again as it had when they were in jobs? Of course, communist activists back then succeeded, to a point, in linking the economic crisis to its root cause, capitalism, but capitalism has clearly not continued a downward spiral in terms of living conditions and working conditions for most people. In absolute terms, working conditions and living conditions have improved since the 1930s in the advanced industrial societies. So, is it really about inevitable economic crisis? Is there any other fundamental reason for wanting to overthrow capitalism and replace it with social ownership?
I think there is. And, while I’m no expert when it comes to theory, I think it’s clear that, regardless of the condition of the economy, an excellent reason for wanting fundamental change in the social relations is because our human potential is so undermined by the wages system. We are alienated from the basic process of production (because we have no control over it as workers) and from other important aspects of our humanity. In his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx argued that in addition to being alienated from the process of production, the workers are also alienated from its product (as this is owned by the owner of the means of production, the capitalist) and we are alienated from one another, our fellow workers (as labour becomes a commodity rather than a social relationship because we are only an extension of the means of production that the owners of capital buy).
Of particular importance, in my opinion, is Marx’s notion that the worker is also alienated from his or her individual humanity or ‘species essence’. It’s worth quoting Marx on this:
“In creating a world of objects by his personal activity, in his work upon inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species-being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as his own essential being, or that treats itself as a species-being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, whilst man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, whilst man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom. An animal produces only itself, whilst man reproduces the whole of nature. An animal’s product belongs immediately to its physical body, whilst man freely confronts his product. An animal forms only in accordance with the standard and the need of the species to which it belongs, whilst man knows how to produce in accordance with the standard of every species, and knows how to apply everywhere the inherent standard to the object. Man therefore also forms objects in accordance with the laws of beauty.
“It is just in his work upon the objective world, therefore, that man really proves himself to be a species-being. This production is his active species-life. Through this production, nature appears as his work and his reality. The object of labor is, therefore, the objectification of man’s species-life: for he duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he sees himself in a world that he has created. In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him”.
While technologies, management techniques and living standards have changed since Marx’s time and since the end of World War Two, capitalism itself hasn’t changed in any fundamental sense. It remains a socio-economic system where social relations are based on commodities for exchange, in particular private ownership of the means of production and on the exploitation of wage labour.
So the ‘sixteen tons’, the symbol of production based on the exploitation of wage labour, remains as relevant as ever. The song is also valid today when it suggests drudgery – we work, we get older, we generally go deeper into debt. Our greatest achievement in countries like Australia is paying off the house. Yet we spend the better part of our lives doing so. And even in Australia, with comparatively high home-ownership rates, most of us do not own our own homes outright.
In ‘Sixteen Tons’, Merle Travis was referring to the ‘store system’ in the geographically isolated mining towns of Kentucky whereby the company – the owners of the mines – also owned the stores which had a monopoly over the provision of goods and services. Workers frequently went into debt to the company store and were thereafter ‘trapped’ into working at the particular place to pay off their debts. The truck system ensured they could not save cash. Today, for ‘company store’, I suppose one can substitute the word ‘bank’.
The ‘company store’ is also very important to an understanding of alienation because it symbolizes, in the song, the physical expression of the wages system as experienced by the workers. Workers in any industry rarely see the real boss – the owners of the company. We talk often about ‘the bosses’ – the boss did this, or the boss said that – but usually this refers to those we see and meet and experience at work each day. These are managers rather than bosses and, despite their high salaries, are usually as dependent as the rest of us on the wages system. When trade union leaders urge the ‘bosses’ to be fairer or speak angrily against unfair bosses, they are missing the point unless these bosses are linked directly back to the owners of whatever the means of production happens to be. Invariably, such militant rhetoric merely seeks longer chains and bigger cages for the workers, and is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
The company store might be pressured into lowering some prices, giving more credit or deferring some repayments, it might replace stern and impersonal counter staff with the happy smiling faces of staff with diplomas in ‘human relations’ – but still the source of exploitation will exist. Once the truck system was abolished, workers were paid in cash – but no less exploited, no less alienated from their work.
The worker in the advanced economies is rarely trapped into the company store system today. Indeed, the individual worker is able to leave one job in pursuit of another at any time: but the new job will still be based on the wages system. And the debts, to the bank, will still need to be repaid. Someone will own the show – ‘the mine’ and ‘the store’ – other than the workers who produce goods and/or provide services. It is true that leaving one job for another is easier in good times, when labour is in demand, but this misses the point that wherever the worker goes, they will end up working for wages, the work is not voluntarily performed but only performed because individual workers cannot survive without those wages. The entire class, the working class, is thus defined by its relationship to the owners and the wages system keeps us locked into what is in essence wage slavery.
The Marxist notion that alienation denies us our true humanity and potential, the enjoyment and fulfilment of our ‘species essence’, brings me back to the song. For, in my view, the most important lyric relates to the ‘soul’. The worker, in the song, owes not just money but pretty much EVERYTHING – the best hours of his awakened day – to the company store. Which is really saying he owes it to the company. Which means the class of owners.
I know that Marx was an atheist, and it’s not possible to embrace a materialist philosophy and also believe in God. But as an atheist myself, I do think the notion of the human ‘soul’ should not be dismissed in any discussion of alienation. No, I’m not suggesting for one moment that there’s a thing called a soul that exists independently of our sensual reaction to the material world. But there is something that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom and, again, it is what Marx called our ‘species being’. Were it not for this quality of humanity, we could not feel or sense our alienation. We would just work like the spider that weaves its complex web without any sense of what else we could be doing that would be more fulfilling, more efficient, more liberating, more beautiful and useful. We would not imagine the new things and new ways of doing things that precede achievement and progress and are nurtured by it.
Given that 99% of the population don’t spend any time studying theories of alienation, it becomes something that is felt rather than understood, and expressed through a desire for greater meaning in life. In the 1960s, the counter-culture movement gained enough followers to set up experimental communes in rural areas based on the principle of self-sufficiency. This too was an expression of alienated people seeking something better, but in reality doing little more than expressing their alienation rather than seeking to change the system that causes it.
Unlike production in medieval times, self-sufficiency proved impossible in a modern industrial society and the hippies left themselves wide open to stand-up comedians who saw dependence on the dole cheque or wealthy parents or drugs – or all the above – as being necessary to the experiment. Besides, the great majority of people didn’t want to drop out; they rightly wanted the benefits and material advantages of life in an advanced industrial society. But this too has its down-side, in that people tend to seek happiness through objects. And while I will never say anything sacri-religious about my Plasma TV, I certainly want greater freedom as well as more stuff. The struggle against alienation is a quest for greater freedom and self-actualisation, regardless of whether capitalism is going through periodic economic crisis or not.
The expression of alienation that seeks greater meaning in life usually has a religious form, including the quasi-religious green outlook in which Nature is God. I’m always stumped as to why so many people support or sympathize with green ideology (by which I mean the idea that we must develop some kind of subservient harmonious and ‘sustainable’ relationship with the natural environment rather than continue to actively change it in our collective interests). But perhaps alienation offers an explanation. We all sense our ‘powerlessness’, our disconnect from the way social relations are structured, and, arising from that, many of us seek some sense of control over life. A few people go in for things like growing their own vegetables or becoming self-sufficient in domestic energy. Those who do get into this, really take it very seriously. They are not just growing their own veggies but ‘Saving the planet’ no less.
Marx certainly saw religion as an expression of alienation, with humans creating gods as a reflection of themselves but believing them to be separated from and external to themselves. Everyone knows Marx’s statement about the ‘opium of the masses’ but in the same discussion in his Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) he describes religion as “the soul of soulless conditions”, the “sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world”. He is not endorsing religion, but seeking to understand it. There is no suggestion that religion solves the problem of alienation – far from it – for “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions.”
The solution to alienation lay not with seeking meaning somewhere other than the material conditions of existence or of making people feel better so they can cope, or new management techniques in the workplace that make us work better and happier and more effectively, but rather the solution is to change the economic basis of the problem. Anything else keeps us on a merry-go-round. But that is a bad example, for merry-go-rounds are usually fun, whereas the wages system generally isn’t. Proof of this is found in the oft-repeated expression in the workplace: “I just work here”. Or in the enthusiastic lunch-break discussions about winning the lottery. Few people who win the lotto return to work on a voluntary basis. Rather, they start doing what they want to do. They seek to make the most of their freedom from wage slavery. It’s not about ‘the money’ or waiting for ‘the big one’; it’s about freedom and fulfilment or what Marx (in The German Ideology) called “self-activity” (self-actualisation), the opposite of alienation. This self-actualization, or “development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting-off of all natural limitations” cannot possibly occur under capitalism but, to Marx, only through communism when “self-activity coincides with material life”.
Without the overthrow of capitalist social relations and their replacement by social ownership of social wealth, people will remain alienated, the best years of their lives being organised to produce someone else’s profit or servicing that system. Under a system in which the workers are the ruling class, production could be geared to social need and the desires of imagination rather than to the profit of the few.
‘Sixteen tons’ is a heavy weight but nothing compared to the creative power of human beings when freed and unleashed from the constraints of capitalist social relations.
I became active on the left when I was in my mid-teens. The main issue, as I recall, was ‘capital punishment’. The Victorian State Government was determined to proceed with the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1966. I have vague memory of attending May Day rallies prior to that, with my dad, but it was around the age of 15 that my self-conscious direction moved to the left. Other issues were the civil rights movement in the US and apartheid in South Africa. The scenes from both countries on TV filled me with anger – not just at what was happening but at the hypocrisy of the societies that did nothing to stop it other than words. Within a year or two, the war in Vietnam came to dominate and I distributed banned literature at high school against the US and its allies in Vietnam. I had dabbled in some Marxist readings prior to going to university in 1969 and, caught up in the spirit of 1968, I was determined to be active at uni.
I couldn’t have imagined in 1969 that my activism, and embracing a Maoist position, would lead to several arrests on demonstrations, suspension from university, loss of my Education Department Studentship and in 1972 imprisonment for contempt of court at Pentridge Gaol with two comrades. 1972 was a bad year to be gaoled because the movement generally was in decline. It never recovered its spirit, or its politics. With some notable exceptions, people wandered off into the ALP or, like me, became nasty dogmatists akin to zombies mindlessly doing what they knew best; torn between feeling self-fulfilment but deeply frustrated at the same time, sensing, but not comprehending, what had gone wrong. Essentially, those of us who failed to keep thinking became ‘religious’. This remains a huge problem today, as so many adopt the ‘correct line’ on issues without any need to investigate first. They found the formula of Truth long ago; everything can be slotted into it. The resultant disconnect from reality is palpable – and bizarre.
The years 1968 to 1971 stand out, to me, as a time when the Left existed loudly and clearly, through struggle against authority outside and within the established Left. What passes for left-wing today strikes me as antithetical to the rebellious optimistic outlook we had back then, and antithetical to the desire to argue and debate and, most importantly, to oppose fascist regimes and stand in solidarity with those fighting them. Slogans such as “Not in my name” or “Hands of Syria” have nothing in common with the sadly evergreen “Smash Fascism!” An ‘Anti-imperialism’ that results in objective support for tyrannies that oppress people struggling for democracy is no different than the anti-imperialism of Mussolini and Gaddafi.
What’s Left? can be defined best by values and historical experience, and of course theory.
To me, key elements are:
– Support for Progress. I use a capital ‘P’ in order to stress that there is such a thing. It happens through human imagination, ingenuity and engineering. As Engels pointed out long ago, humans are distinguished from all other animals in that we can create what we can imagine. Harmony with Nature – Sustainability – have never been part of the left’s lexicon. Marxists believe in unleashing the productive forces through the further mastery of Nature and through freeing research and production from the social relations imposed by capital. This is the opposite of the ‘green’ world outlook.
– Internationalism: ‘they’ are ‘us’. Be ‘they’ oppressed people resisting a fascist regime in Syria or asylum seekers reaching our shores in unauthorised boats. Or ‘foreign workers’ arriving lawfully on special visae. In a globalising world, humanity is one, as never before.
– Democracy. The left understands that democracy has come about through struggles against ruling classes over centuries, resulting in rights such as universal suffrage. We take so much for granted in bourgeois democracies. It was 800 years ago that a king was forced to seal a charter with rebellious barons to agree to be subject to law and not above it. Yet today even in developed democracies, we still have to resist encroachments on liberty, be they in the form of Section 18C that allows the state to decide what is offensive or the new anti-terror security laws that open the way to a police state.
– Last but not least, the working out of a left-wing position has always come through struggle against its opposite: the pseudo-left position. This was true when I was first active in the Vietnam solidarity movement, when we struggled against the old Left Establishment that tried to constrain our youthful rebellion and to gear the movement to serve ALP electoral objectives, and it is true today, in the new century. To the media and to most people, the pseudo-left is ‘the Left’. Which explains why that kind of left is nothing more than an unpopular set of sects. I find the pseudo-left dull in its predictability and undialectical thinking. That is why I have used the terrific slogan from Paris 1968 as the sub-heading to my site: “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!” It was either going to be that one or “Reach for the stars!”