Celebrating the Russian revolution

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Eye-witness accounts

The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

The specific achievements under socialism

Homeless children 1927

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

Baku oil fields

Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

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The Russian revolution may be 100 years old but reactionaries of all stripes, if they must see it at all, want to see it dead and rotting. In this state its use to them is in glorifying its actual and putative failures and turning a blind eye to its successes.

If the communists and their allies were able to achieve what they did in such backward conditions, what is that saying about the bourgeoisie today? Slovenly, past their use by date and basically backward (lift your game or get out of the way!)

Bourgeois leadership may have been fine against the feudalists. However it was pretty pathetic in Russia and China – to the point where the proletarian parties had to do it for them and did a vastly better job in the process. This last point is an irony of significance. And that’s the point about the advances of the 1920’s in the USSR: they need to ‘live’ and be exciting for us now – and be used as a contemporary point of comparison.

‘It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership.

‘There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it’.*

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Eye-witness accounts

In browsing on the topic of the Russian revolution, I came across a 40 page pamphlet, Women in Russia. It was published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1928 and reveals some of the changes and improvements in everyday life for women in Russia in the short space of ten years after the revolution.

women in russia

Karl Marx once said that you can measure the progress of a society by looking at the condition of women within it and that great social changes were not possible without ‘the feminine ferment’. I think he was – and is – right.

The pamphlet is the report by a group of five English women who visited Russia on the occasion of the revolution’s first decade to see what was happening. They were Beth Turner, Rose Smith, Lily Webb, Fanny Deakin and Florence Maxwell.

I can’t find out much about them individually, except for Fanny Deakin who at some point in time joined the Communist Party. Fanny was also a graduate with distinction from the ‘University of Life and Hard Knocks’. The Working Class Movement Library outlines her story thus:

Fanny Deakin (1883–1968) was a lifelong activist from Silverdale in the North Staffordshire coalfield. Of the five children born to her marriage with Noah Deakin, only one survived into adulthood.  This experience, typical of that of many working class communities, led to lifetime campaigning for better maternity services.  But her political involvement incorporated membership of the Independent Labour Party, the Labour Party and, later, the Communist Party.  Her political experience was shaped by disputes in local collieries and, above all, by the 1926 General Strike where Fanny was involved in leading processions, holding protests and speaking at large gatherings. Her motivation was summed up as ‘Fighting for the Mothers’.

The five women visited Leningrad, Moscow, Kharkov and Baku in order to learn about health services, kindergartens, birth control and abortion. They also visited coalfields in the Don Basin and the newly developed oilfields in Azerbaijan. Their trip was funded by local collections in England.

If you want to know why so many working class people around the world were pro-communist or pro-Soviet back then, before the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the development of today’s openly authoritarian oligarchy, ‘Women in Russia’ is one among many eye-witness accounts that helps explain the reasons.

Women had fought in the revolution and in the civil war. During the latter, for instance, 14,000 women took part in the military defence of Leningrad against the ‘White’ army forces of the anti-communist anti-Semite General Yudenich.

Women’s liberation from feudal autocracy was a promise of the revolution, and it was certainly achieved.

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The terrible conditions inherited by the Bolsheviks from Tsardom

In the decade after the Bolshevik-led victory, many foreign delegations visited to see for themselves what was happening, including some from the United Kingdom, which was geographically close and had a great militant working class socialist tradition of its own.

Could the seizure of state power by the Bolsheviks, the redistribution of land and the taking over of the principal means of production by the workers, lead to anything good? It’s amazing what was achieved so quickly, given the obstacles.

The mass poverty and suffering under Tsarist autocracy was bad enough – the Bolshevik-led government in 1917 was starting off under terrible socio-economic conditions. Russia was very backward economically with little industry.

And then, with the revolution’s success, a civil war instigated by the anti-communists in Russia and supported militarily by more than a dozen western governments made things extremely difficult for the new socialist government. About 8 million people were killed in the civil war, for which responsibility lay with the instigators. In the areas controlled by the anti-communist ‘White’ armies, such as the Ukraine, massacres were carried out by the ‘Whites’ against communists and Jews.

On top of that, Britain and its War allies blockaded Russia from 1918 to 1920, making trade (and the wealth arising from it) impossible.

In 1921, to make matters even worse (if that were possible), lack of rainfall led to famine.

Yet, under conditions of social ownership based on workers’ control, with production geared to social need rather than private profit, much progress was achieved.

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The specific achievements under socialism

The five English women properly contrasted the things they saw and experienced in Russia in 1927 to what they understood about conditions prior to the revolution:

In comparison with pre-revolution standards and conditions, the lot of the workers and peasants has improved almost beyond belief and is still on the upgrade.

Among the changes introduced by the Soviet government that particularly impressed the women were:

Equal pay for equal work enforced.

Laws against child labour. No child under 14 could be employed and those aged between 14 and 16 could not work more than four hours a day.

Allowance for single mothers. Unheard of in Tsarist times, the revolutionary government compelled fathers to pay one-third of their income in child support.

Birth control information was freely available and ‘secret abortion’ (what we would call ‘backyard abortion’) was countered by the provision of ‘skilled medical assistance’.

Workers’ committees established in each factory to make decisions, including the power to recall foremen and bosses. (In the Rabotchi textile factory which the women visited, the factory committee was dominated by women workers. The factory employed 5,750 workers and was previously owned by English capitalists. Under workers’ control, the factory abolished the humiliating practice of fines for lateness and introduced a medical clinic, crèche and kindergarten, subsidised meals, study groups, a library, games, sporting activity and a theatre).

Reduction of the working day from 10-and-a-half hours to 8 hours, with plans to reduce it to 7 hours in 1928. (This happened in January 1929).

Child care. Any workplace with more than 40 workers had to provide a crèche for the children of parents in the factory (paid for by the industry). Larger factories had kindergartens as well.

Free health care, including dentistry, introduced, with a program of new clinics and hospitals being built in cities and towns.

Expansion of maternity hospitals – 12,221 new ones built between 1917 and 1927.

– ‘Mother and child institutes’ set up to provide pre- and post-natal care.

– Conversion of the mansions and palaces of the rich into ‘rest homes’ for the workers.

Maternity leave. Workers received two months leave on full pay plus an allowance for staying at home to nurse the baby for nine months.

– Attachment of vocational schools to some large factories.

– Provision of rent-free accommodation for workers in places where factories owned the residences.

Free travel on public transport for workers who lived far from their workplaces.

– Programs introduced to improve health and safety in the workplaces, such as regular health checks, ventilation, drinking fountains and appropriate work clothing.

Expansion of formal education. In 1914, there were seven million children at primary school. In 1927, there were 10 million. In 1914, Russia had 90 universities. In 1927, there were 136.

Consumer co-operatives. Retail shops set up, with 15 million share-holders, along with state shops, accounted for 80% of business transactions.

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Homeless children

The ‘big enduring problem’ observed by the women in Russia was ‘one of the biggest problems’: homeless children. These were children ‘orphaned by war, famine and blockade’. The issue had been taken up by Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya, and was, in part, a cultural problem. The children ‘prefer to roam about in bands… the wanderlust is in their blood’.

The state was trying to assist them, however, and the five women visited a former monastery that was now being used as a home for vagrant children. The chapel was still being used for religious purposes.

‘Comrade’ Coal in the hands of the people

As some of the women came from coal mining families and areas, they were also able to compare with the situation in England, as they experienced it. They visited two coal mines in the Don Basin and were favourably impressed. The Russian miners, for instance, worked a 6 hour day or an 8 hour day depending on the depth at which they worked underground. Under the Tsar, it was either 10-and-a-half or 12 hour day.

The mine workers enjoyed a month off each year, on full pay, whereas in England, the women said, coal miners dreaded holidays as it meant financial hardship. Fanny Deakin knew this from experience, as her husband was a coal miner.

Mine workers mostly lived in new housing developments, which the women said were based on the ‘English garden cities’, near the mines.

Under workers’ control, every pit-yard had a medical clinic and health-and-safety inspectors were brought in, for the first time. Medical treatment was free – an impossibility under the old order.

Work gear was also supplied free of charge, and mine workers retired at the age of 55 on a pension. When in between jobs, miners received ‘generous’ unemployment insurance.

Unlike under capitalism, coal production was increasing in the Soviet Union because of modernisation, not because of the workers being compelled to work faster.

Experts from Germany were recruited by the Soviet government to assist with new mines that were being sunk and the construction of power plants to supply electricity to areas that had lacked it.

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Baku oil fields

The women visited part of the Baku oil field, and this is what they experienced:

In Baku we saw oilfields of enormous extent. They cover over a hundred square miles. Oil is exported from here to India, France, Britain, Italy, Turkey, Persia and America, and the wells now dug will last for fifty years.

Fabulous wealth is represented in this wonderful oilfield, and it is easy to see why it is coveted by the British capitalists.

On our way, we saw the place where the British General Thomas set fire to several oil tanks in 1917, when he was compelled to retreat. He blew up many buildings and a large part of the population.

When capitalists owned the oilfield, the workers were housed in mud huts without windows — places that reminded us of the middens in some of our English slums.

Now, 20,000 men are employed erecting houses. On one estate alone, accommodation has been provided for 10,000 families. Rents average 1s. 6d. a week, and each group of houses has an up-to-date wash-house and each estate its own social club for recreation.

The houses are built in family flats on the American style, each with its verandah… Gas, electricity and heating are all free. The average wage is about 35s. a week.

The workers have, in addition, many benefits from social insurance for which there are no deductions from their wages. When they are ill, they receive full pay for a month. Women get eight roubles a month (4s. a week) for nine months while nursing a baby, and 30 roubles (£3) at their confinement. At death, 45 roubles (£4 10s.) is paid for funeral expenses.

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Women in Muslim-dominated parts of the Soviet

The report says:

It was in their work amongst the Eastern peoples, particularly the women, that the Bolsheviks encountered some of their most serious difficulties.

A backward and illiterate population, bound by superstition, religion and prejudice to keep its women in a state of seclusion, hidden from the eyes of men, bought and sold like cattle, subject to the whims and wishes of their husbands, had to be made to realise that the revolution had come, bringing with it freedom for women as well as men.

Under the influence of Bolshevik organisers tens of thousands of Eastern women threw off the “parandjak,” a hideous black veil of horsehair they had previously been compelled to wear when walking abroad, and dared to show their faces unveiled.

Although this was but a symbol of their new-found freedom, it was strenuously resisted by the priests and wealthy peasants. Women were beaten, in some cases to death, and murder and violence were frequent. Some of the organisers themselves met their death at the hands of the infuriated men.

Laws had to be passed for the protection of women who dared to unveil themselves, and funds were raised for the relief of the families of those who were killed during the campaign.

In spite of these difficulties the work progressed, and Eastern women are being drawn into the work of the co-operatives, the factories and even of the Soviets. In 1926-7 some 951,812 Eastern women took part in the elections to the rural Soviets, and 36,258 were elected as members of the Soviets.

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Basis laid for rapid industrialisation in first Five Year Plan

The progress made in the first decade laid the basis for the first Five Year Plan adopted in 1928, which saw further rapid progress in the economic and social realms. The successes of the first 5 Year Plan influenced US President Roosevelt’s decision to officially recognize the Soviet Union in 1933.

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Bold thinking, revolutionary democracy and ‘the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola’

Last month, La Trobe University organised a ‘Bold Thinking’ panel for its 50th anniversary program at the State Library of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

I was one of the four panellists. The others were Katie Holmes, professor of History at La Trobe, and my two old comrades, Fergus Robinson and Brian Pola. Fergus and Brian and I became known as ‘the La Trobe Three’ after we were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972. Amnesty International became interested in our case as we were political prisoners.

La Trobe live-streamed the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, including question time, and it can be seen here. Anyone wanting greater background can check out my book ‘Student Revolt’ (1989) or this essay which appeared in ‘Vestes: Australian Universities Review’ in 1984: VESTES essay – Student dissent LTU 1967-72 (1984)

This morning, I viewed the film of the event for the first time. I thought each of us did well but had a lot more we could have said.

As for me, I was extremely nervous. The last time I had spoken before so many people in a public political forum was 1980 at the Lower Melbourne Town Hall when I was on a panel in support of a boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games.

Prior to the ‘Bold Thinking’ event, I jotted down a few key points. I was only able to make a few of them – after all, there were four of us sharing an hour – and I want to offer a few more thoughts (in no particular order) here.

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  1. I had wanted to mention at the beginning of the evening that while the notion of ‘the La Trobe Three’ is valid because only three of us were gaoled, there were in fact four of us who were named in the Supreme Court injunctions. The fourth was Rodney Taylor, who was never captured and thus not gaoled.
  1. Also, in late 1971, twenty-three left-wing students were fined by the University’s kangaroo court, or Proctorial Board, and twelve were excluded (expelled for specific periods). The authorities had accurately identified the core of the militant left, with one or two ‘innocents’ thrown in to make it look fairer. The point I had wanted to make was that of those 23 comrades, five are no longer with us. I want them to be remembered, and do so now: Rob Mathews, Ken Rushgrove, John Cummins, Jan Schapper and Maggie Grant.
  1. A factual blooper on my part: I said that we escorted Defence Department recruiters from the campus in 1969 – it was actually 1970. (The first on-campus confrontation with the University’s governing body, the Council, had occurred in 1969, when a protest delegation entered a Council meeting without permission to demand student representation on the governing body).
  1. Fergus made the point that the type of student rebellion of the late 1960s-early 1970s is “almost impossible to replicate today”. I broadly agree but feel that his reasoning – decentralised campus structures and overseas students – requires further consideration. To me, a glaring problem is the absence of communists on campuses. La Trobe – and Monash – had genuine left-wing leadership for at least a couple of years and we instigated and led the issues and set the pace. At La Trobe, this was the situation in 1970 and 1971. Today there are lots of ‘greens’ and post-modernists on campuses so…
  1. Left-wing leadership was made possible through challenges we made to ‘revisionist’ or pseudo-left people with whom we were in open conflict. The CPA (Communist Party of Australia) was not just an opponent but an enemy. They sought to constrain our militancy and politically sought to divert our energies into supporting the Australian Labor Party. (At this time, after the ascendancy of Whitlam in 1967 as ALP Leader, the ALP’s position as the federal Opposition on Vietnam was no longer one of immediate withdrawal of all Australian troops but rather ‘holding operations’ in Vietnam. This pushed many of us further to the extra-parliamentary left, as there was no parliamentary party through which we could secure our goal in Vietnam).

The CPA was not in any sense a revolutionary organisation, and we were revolutionaries with an understanding of state power and the history of class struggle and the nature of the overthrow of one class by another. As with Marx and Engels in the C19th, some of our biggest ideological battles were with ostensible comrades, those seen as leftists or progressives. Within the left/rads/revs (whatever) is its opposite.

I believe there is a need for a similar overthrow of the faux left leadership today. Until that happens, the period of hibernation, or whatever it is, may continue for another 40 years.

  1. The question of our relationship to the counter-culture came up and I wish I had been a bit more nuanced. It’s true that I wrote my book, ‘Student Revolt’, because I didn’t like the way the period was being portrayed/trivialised in popular culture as almost wholly about sex, drugs and rock music. But I should have made the point that, for all our hard-line politics, we were also part of a counter-culture in that we were working and thinking outside the system. We eschewed the ‘proper channels’ established by the La Trobe University Act to channel student discontent – the Student Representative Council – and I recall a leaflet describing the SRC as a ‘glorified high school prefect system’.

Personally, I had a good relationship with the hippy kind of people but I didn’t approve of the idea of ‘dropping out’ of society and living in share-houses or of the drug culture. Indeed, in 1971 or thereabouts, I compiled a pamphlet called ‘Goddam the pusher man’.

I did wear my hair long back then, wore a purple coloured top from London’s trendy Carnaby Street for a while and loved the more edgy music – especially The Animals, Nina Simone, Country Joe and the Fish, and J B Lenoir (one of the few overtly political blues men). And (gulp) I owned a pair of flairs.

My distaste for the idea of communal share-house living reflected my strong commitment to home ownership, something I retain to this day. I had this attitude because from the age of three to five, I was technically homeless (using the Australian Bureau of Statistics definition of homelessness).

My parents and I disembarked at Station Pier, Melbourne, in 1954 and after a very brief stint with my dad’s brother, Joe, who had worked on the wharves since the mid-1920s when he migrated from Malta, we became the ‘drifting migrants’ you see in the movies. My mum used to talk about how we had seven different accommodations – all boarding-houses in Coburg and Brunswick – within our first 21 months in Melbourne. That averages out as a move every three months. In each place, there was a single room for each family, with rooms running off long corridors. A notorious one in West Brunswick was run by a Lithuanian landlady. I was five but still vividly recall the police coming to evict an old drunk from his room. As they forced him out, the landlady ran behind them, screaming in her thick Baltic accent to the poor old bloke: “God help you! God help you!”

‘Housing for all!’ was a communist slogan back then. It should be revived today.

  1. We also shared with the counter-culture a genuine interest in how society could be reorganised, how people could live differently to the alienating system based on wage slavery.

And we were all moved by the wonderful provocative slogans emanating from the 1968 Paris uprising when ten million workers went on strike and students took over the streets with them. I use one of the 1968 Paris slogans as part of the banner of C21st Left: “Sous les paves la plage” – Under the paving stones, the beach!” Awesome stuff and I hope I live long enough to see a revival of the soixante-huitard spirit.

“Society is a carnivorous flower!” Oui!

  1. I had also wanted to mention and discuss Jean Luc Godard’s famous phrase (used in his 1960s film ‘Masculin-Feminin’): “The children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola”. It’s a rich comment, and an accurate one. We were the children of Karl Marx and Coca Cola in so many ways. I’ll flesh this out if I ever write a subjective memoir of those years.
  1. Brian said he was still a communist. Fergus indicated he wasn’t. I described myself as a “revolutionary democrat” who supports all struggles against dictators and tyranny, especially in Syria. I said that I wouldn’t feel safe in North Korea or Cuba or any other nominally ‘communist’ country today. I wish I had expanded on what this means. The reason I wouldn’t be safe is because I’d seek out the dissenters and rebels against ‘dictatorship over the proletariat’.

Revolutionary democracy, to me, is entirely consistent with Marxism. But one can be a revolutionary democrat without being a Marxist. For instance, there are Islamists who are revolutionary democrats (and there are those who are very much the opposite). Under conditions of fascism, people who fight for basic bourgeois democracy can be revolutionary democrats regardless of how they self-identify politically.

For Marxists, the ultimate aim is a more democratic society, one in which democracy is extended to the social and economic realm through the ‘lifters’ overthrowing the rule of the 0.1% who are ‘leaners’ and establishing their own rule. In the C21st, no-one in their right mind will support this if it means one-party dictatorship or a continuation of the current Australian model of two-party dictatorship. They will want a genuine competitive multi-party electoral system, one in which the parliament and other representative bodies reflect accurately and proportionately the people’s will. There is no reason why this cannot be achieved in a system based on social ownership.

  1. Which leads me to my regret that I didn’t once talk about ownership of the means of production. “Means of production”! Sometimes I feel like emulating Howard Beale, the character in Paddy Chayevsky’s great film script, ‘Network’ (1976), by going to a window in a tall building, opening it, and yelling to the universe: “I can’t take it anymore!!” but with the added words: “Why is no-one talking about the means of production?!!!!”

Revolutionary democracy, to me, implies the eventual social ownership of means of producing the stuff society needs, with a view to improving living standards and lifting everyone currently in poverty out of it globally, while also going well beyond catering for ‘social need’ through greatly expanding scientific and technological research and development in the interests of even greater progress – the pursuit of fun and fantasy. The early Suffragettes had it right when they talked about ‘Abundance for all!’ My early interest in communism, in the late 1960s, found that slogan enormously attractive. Old coms often talked like that. Back then.

  1. Early influences. It’s always of interest to others to know how and why someone becomes a communist revolutionary. This is largely because 99.9% of people in the west don’t, and they find it intriguing and weird that anyone would.

The ‘Bold Thinking’ event provided opportunity for each of us to talk about this. Fergus and Brian and I had very different upbringings and socio-economic-family environments. I’m sure we each could have talked more about ourselves, and I’ll do so now partly because, for one thing, I regret not being able to explain the extent to which I was already political when I first went to La Trobe in 1969.

I had been involved in the campaign against capital punishment – the hanging of Ronald Ryan – in 1966 and 1967. It was easy as a 15 year old to cycle from my home in West Brunswick up to Coburg to attend protests outside Pentridge Gaol. This year is my 50th ‘on the left’.

In my final years of high school, 1968, I attended the ‘riot’ outside the US Consulate in Commercial Road, St Kilda, Melbourne. The militancy helped ‘bring the war home’ and also jolted the CPA revisionists who had assumed they could keep leading and controlling the growing Vietnam solidarity movement. I was in my school uniform and my emotional response to the police riot, baton assaults and mass arrests left me both very frightened and excited by the fact that people were fighting back.

It may have been my first experience of the feeling that I was taking part in something much bigger than Australia. I had seen footage of the French and US student uprisings of that year – thanks to television. I felt for the first time that little ol’ me was part of a truly international movement of solidarity. (It was not, however, my first riot, as I had been at Festival Hall, West Melbourne, in 1965 when the Mongolian Stomper attacked Domenic DeNucci with the heavy brass ringside bell causing 7,000 Italian wrestling fans to engage in riotous behaviour that required the attendance of many police and several police divisional vans).

  1. And speaking of my old friend Television, I should have thanked it for bringing the world into my lounge-room. News reports of the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, when I was 11, stay with me to this day, as does film of Bull Connor setting vicious attack dogs onto black protestors in Alabama. Connor was a Democrat of the ‘southern’ kind and Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety. There was also footage on the news of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa. I wasn’t just disappointed or saddened by what was happening. I was angry – an anger intensified by the juxtaposition of programs like ‘Leave it to Beaver’, which promoted the idealised American family, against the real world characterised by so much oppression, suffering and resistance. Programs like ‘The Twilight Zone’ were among my favourites. In taking me into “a world of imagination”, Rod Serling really helped spark my imagination. Subversive stuff.
  1. Another cultural influence of that time – another expression of the ‘Coca Cola’ in Godard’s formulation – was science-fiction literature (and movies). For a few years in my teenage years I read short stories in that genre and received at Christmas the year’s ‘Best of Sci Fi’ collections. Back then, there wasn’t so much dystopianism. Arthur C Clarke in particular saw the positive potential in rapid technological development. To this day, I believe in reaching for the stars, figuratively and literally. But we won’t get there via capitalism, where R&D is constrained by the pursuit of maximum profit and concentrated private ownership. I would have liked to have made that point on the night.
  1. Still on personal influences, I told the audience how my parents were wage workers, my dad a factory worker and we were on the lower socio-economic side of life. I spent about 30 years growing up in Brunswick, which was all pretty much ‘lower socio-economic’ with many migrants from diverse places and many factories. You could be sure back then that wherever there were lots of migrants there would also be lots of factories. For more than ten years I lived next door to one. Its high red brick wall was the view a metre from my bedroom, blocking out the sun.

Perhaps coming from that background was the reason I do not share Fergus’ view that university life was fairly drab and that the left provided an avenue into stimulation from the boredom. To me, just going to the campus – two bus rides and eleven kilometres away in a strangely named suburb called Bundoora – was excitement in itself. My parents never owned a car and everything went into paying off our house. We never had a family holiday. I knew – and still know – West Brunswick like the back of my hand – every back alley, road and side street. There was a strong neighbourly ethos among some along my street but there was also insularity. For instance, West Brunswick ‘boys’ viewed East Brunswick, on ‘the other side’ of Sydney Road, with caution while we all regarded Coburg people as toffs and snobs. For me, going to La Trobe University in 1969 was like a whole new universe opening up. The politics was icing on that cake. I was meeting people of my own age cohort who lived on properties with beautiful gum trees in places I’d never normally visit, like Montmorency and Eltham. Not a factory wall in sight.

Brunswick suffered three main social problems back then: alcoholism, gambling and domestic violence. In my family home, there was no gambling and no alcoholism. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The act of going to university each day, all that way from Brunswick, was in itself liberating for me. An escape. I loved it.

  1. There was a smattering of applause when Brian declared that ‘the New Left’ treated women very badly. I noticed that some of those applauding were not our age cohorts, so wondered how did they know?

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I would gladly have swapped places with a woman, had one been able to replace me as a target in the Supreme Court injunctions, but none were in positions of leadership at that time to experience that degree of state repression. Was this because of the undoubtedly male dominated nature of the left’s leadership at La Trobe? Did the men hold them back, consciously? I don’t think so.

Was there a problem with male chauvinism? Yes.

When I enrolled at La Trobe I broadly sympathised with equality for women but I also brought with me the common assumptions about men and women of that time. I didn’t come from a ‘bohemian’ bayside background, where Simone de Beauvoir was discussed over fine wine in the evenings. Some of my personal attitudes and expectations were quite conservative in that regard. I was fairly backward in some ways but, as a slow learner, I’m a good learner. While achieving much progress for women, the women’s movement also challenged and changed many men. Including me.

Was there also egalitarianism within the left? Yes again. (I wish I had a dollar for every leaflet I typed – it’s a myth that women did all the typing. It is true, though, that nearly all the leaflets were written by men – which is certainly proof of male dominance).

Going by memory, I think the first regular newssheet published by a women’s lib group on the campus was called ‘Women Arise’ in 1970 (or perhaps 1969). Helen Reddy’s magnificent anthem, ‘I am woman’ was a year or two away but, to me, it sums up all that was and is great about the best politics of women’s liberation. No hint of victimhood, it is a song of defiance, determination and optimism.

I told the audience that I strongly supported the Women’s Liberation movement back then. I did, and still do. It was a very effective movement with clear, attainable, political objectives and it included many socialist women. I regard it as one of the great socio-cultural-political developments of the C20th. But it certainly fragmented – as part of the left’s rapid decline, I would argue – and some of the later varieties of feminism were distinctively not socialist and some were divisive and reactionary.

Any “ism” that uses the term “white men” as though it somehow wins an argument or proves a point, let alone as an insult, loses me as someone influenced by Marxism. These days, I’m favourably disposed to the libertarian feminists who, while not socialist, none the less display some of the qualities of the soixante-huitards. Conservative feminists don’t like them very much. I would have liked to make the point that, in my opinion, we need more Pussy Riots and fewer neo-Mary-Whitehouses.

An old comrade from the La Trobe days has made this comment: “The effect was certainly one of male dominance. A more contentious and important issue is that of intent. Did we write stuff out of a sense of ‘male entitlement’ or because we had things to say and stepped onto a stage that was as much our own making as not? Did we exclude women, that is, discourage their involvement? That is not my memory and the problem I have with the proposition that we did (it’s more an assumption than a proposition) is that it delivers a nice backhander to the women, a more pernicious form of sexism than anything I can remember us being guilty of”.

  1. Smash Soviet social-imperialism! Fergus and Brian and I made it clear that we believed in international solidarity but it’s a pity none of us mentioned the fact that we supported the student and worker uprisings ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ as well as in the west. Again, I was a slow but good learner and came to regard the Czech and Polish rebellions as part and parcel of our own struggle. It made sense from a Marxist revolutionary democrat perspective to support the Polish Solidarity movement later and to rejoice in the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had no problem with the Maoist line that saw Soviet social-imperialism as an ascendant threat and US imperialism in decline following its defeat in Indo-China. Richard Nixon’s memoir (1978) shows how Mao and Zhou En Lai wanted more than just normalised diplomatic relations with the US in facing the Soviet threat.
  1. Decline of the revolutionary left. I know that several hours would have been required to discuss and debate the above points. It’s understandable that people are interested mostly in the dynamic period of the late 1960s to early 1970s when there was so much passion, intensity, dedication, excitement, argument, optimism and resistance to repression. But I would have liked to have said something about the period of decline too, which I think was starting during 1972. The subsequent years in the 1970s were nothing like the period from 1968 to 1971, in activism or in spirit, and I’m still waiting for the spirit of ’68 to re-emerge in the C21st.

The period from 1972 to 1980 warrants the same level of investigation and discussion as the earlier period but this has not been undertaken. From my point of view, those years were characterised by increasing dogmatism. We stopped thinking anew, or dialectically. In some cases, ‘we’ turned into our opposites. I know this from personal experience, and to a large extent it happened to me.

One of the important lessons I learned from my activism back then is that it is very hard to think critically or dialectically. And it is even harder to think for oneself.

  1. People usually want to know whether the gaolings, and involvement in left revolutionary politics, had an impact on our employment and careers. In my case, it had a very negative effect later in the 1970s when I was black-listed by the Director-General of the Victorian Education Department. I had completed my Diploma of Education and worked as an Emergency (or Relief) teacher in the Technical Schools Division of the Education Department. Back then, the principals of the schools could employ such casual teachers without needing the approval of the Department. To cut a long story short (I must write it up one day), I had been working at various schools on a casual basis, hoping to eventually be offered a ‘permanent’ teaching job, which would mean having a career and some security. I still have the references from principals of those schools and they range from good to very good in their assessments of me.

Finally, the principal at one of the schools told me that a full-time teacher was retiring and he would like to have me on the staff as an on-going teacher. I was thrilled, as I had been hoping for such an opportunity for many months. The principal took me into his office and rang the Staffing Office in my presence. He told the person on the phone that he had someone to replace the other teacher but when he mentioned my name the response made his face drop. His tone changed and at the end of the call he turned to me and said, “I’m very sorry, Barry, they told me you’re not to be employed”.

It’s hard for me to describe what a personal blow this was – in 1976 or 1977. It knocked me badly, emotionally and psychologically.

I was called to attend a meeting with someone from the Staffing Office, on a street corner in the CBD (I kid you not). I was told that the meeting was strictly ‘off the record’. The officer told me that “someone upstairs” had marked my file “Not to be employed” and that the reason was because I was “a known political activist”.

Of course, I went straight to the union with this news and, to their credit, the union leaders saw the issue in a principled way, as one of opposing the political black-listing of qualified teachers. I was able to keep working on a casual basis, as the Department regulations allowed principals in each school to decide who to take on as a Relief teacher. I had a lot of support and worked pretty much full-time as a Relief teacher, going from school to school as required. The fact that I was doing well in the classrooms, sometimes five days a week, completely undermined any arguments from the Department that I was not suitable for permanent employment.

It took about 18 months of protests, meetings, negotiations, and utter anguish on my part (I was almost certainly clinically depressed during this period) before the Director-General, Laurie Shears, surrendered and I was given an on-going teaching job. A highlight of the struggle was when the three separate teacher unions – The Victorian Teachers Union, the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association and the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria united and stopped work on my behalf. I was told by the TTUV president that it was the first time that the three teacher unions had taken united action.

Mao said that reactionaries lift a rock only to drop it on their own feet. I have experienced and witnessed that truth many times.

Barry victimisation by Education Dept - Brunswick Sentinel - 23 Nov 1977

 

  1. I hope this piece will prompt others from that period, or those with an interest in it, to send in their thoughts on that period of struggle… and beyond.

Struggle - La Trobe heroes cover 1972

The Individual and the left

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THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE LEFT

Tom Griffiths

  

Some introductory ideas/context

The medieval soul is superficial, impoverished, miserable – that’s why the role of religion had to be imposed to fill in gaps or provide a veneer.

The modern soul is deep, complex (and therefore prone to neuroses) developing further layers of complexity. Increasingly the link is to individuality within an increasingly complex and multilayered society.

******

I want to start this essay with a quote from The German Ideology, a work by Marx that predates the Communist Manifesto by not very much, and pose a rhetorical question to the reader: what stands out to you? What is Marx actually getting at?

“…private property can be abolished only on condition of an all round development of individuals, because the existing character of intercourse and productive forces is an all round one, and only individuals that are developing in an all round fashion can appropriate them, i.e. can turn them into free manifestations of their lives.” Selected Writings ed McLellan p 191

In case we missed it – and the left has a long history in peering through Nelson’s telescope on its position relating to the individual – Marx was pointing out that the development of communism couldn’t occur without the all round development of individuals.Abolition of private property from above, via some form of executive fiat, is no substitute for the broad cultural changes that “the all round development of individuals” assumes and that the abolition of private property must be a reflection of.

A Procrustean bed has no place here. As with spirituality, we have left the field of individuality and authenticity to the right – which is why we find some of their libertarian ideas attractive (presumably this must also apply to the Spiked crew).This 55+ year old quote from Barry Goldwater is a case in point: “Every man, both for his own individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development.

The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: They cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (The Conscience of a Conservative, 1960). It’s like Nietzsche with a southern twang. And before readers start hyperventilating over the very obvious holes in old Barry’s argument – “he would say that wouldn’t he, he’s let the property question slip through” – we need to be aware that the radical left has been complicit in effectively allowing individual agency and responsibility – cornerstones of freedom – to become the ‘property’ of bourgeois property.

Late American Marxist, Marshal Berman, (The Politics of Authenticity , All That is Solid Melts into Air  made a spirited attempt to rescue the individual and reclaim territory once charted by progressive forces, including the revolutionary left, and he deserves our thanks. I’ll be dipping into his material, amongst others, below. There are a lot of reasons why what have formerly been mass revolutionary movements can now hold conventions in broom cupboards and assuming the ostrich position concerning the individual is one of them.

But before proceeding further some off road detours or context, hopefully relevant, are called for.

Why bother?

My first detour is: why am I bothering? My motivation is twofold. The first, and oldest, springs from an ongoing interest and dissatisfaction with how communist, and broadly revolutionary leftist thinking, has dealt with the individual. The second comes from my not quite as old work as a family therapist, group worker and supervisor (men’s family violence groups) and refugee support worker. I have come to appreciate that there is a considerable degree of overlap between these areas.

Human Nature

My second detour takes a very brief look at human nature. An uncontentious materialist view of human nature sees it as neither purely biological nor as an atomised abstraction along the lines of Adam Smith’s ‘natural man’. Our biology may be fixed within evolutionary frameworks but our individual and psychological makeup occur within social and historical ones. These latter therefore unfold and develop as we interact with both the natural world and the world we create and struggle to overcome their constraints; as we make our history, so we make ourselves.

Late German sociologist Norbert Elias expressed this rather well when he said “What is fixed by heredity, the range or pitch of voice, for example, merely provides the framework for an infinite variety of possible articulation.” (p36 The Society of Individuals)

Since the scientific revolution that accompanied modernity, numerous figures have expressed this fundamental truth. The 19thC thinker J.S.Mill, for example, wrote that: “Human nature is not a machine to be built like a model, and set to exactly the work proscribed to it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.” (On Liberty)

A more robust view  was expressed by Ivan Michurin, a Russian/Soviet scientist (he straddled epochs): “We cannot wait for favours from Nature, our task is to wrest them from her”, while English Marxist historian Christopher Hill, in God’s Englishman (p218) quoted Hugh Peter saying in 1648, “The work of God will go on [but] I am not in the mind we should put our hands in our pockets and wait what will come.”

Hugh Peter was expressing the idea of giving “history a push”, of loosening the reins on human subjectivity. During periods of revolutionary turmoil the “task to wrest them from her”, was not so much directed at Nature as at moribund ruling classes content with the idea that it was their natural and divinely ordained right to be in charge.

This idea captures a dilemma faced by proletarian parties which led successful revolutions in backward societies. These revolutions were obviously on the side of historical development but the ‘push’ was not solely directed at proletarian revolution. There was first the not so small problem of the bourgeois revolution to complete or even get started. We are familiar with the expression ‘push/pull’ and the push in Russia and China was in both bourgeois and proletarian directions with the latter being eventually defeated by a pull that was able to pass itself off as progressive. Deng Hsiao Ping’s “black cat, white cat: who cares so long as it catches mice” summed this up. As necessary and correct as the united front with the peasantry was, it was also a compromise and one of the components of this compromise – the one I’m interested in here – is the cultural space given to individuals and the cultural beliefs and practises that corralled that space.

Clearly siding with Michurin’s stand, Berman proposes that “It is inherent in our nature to make all things new – including ourselves.” (The Politics of Authenticity p165). In today’s world of deadened discourse we would insist that this view must accord with ‘evidence based practise’. What can I say, other than: it does and in bucket loads.

The Individual in Context

Picking up the point that we make ourselves, it seems reasonable to ask: how and from what?  Elias makes the obvious, but easily overlooked observation that individuation, the process of becoming individual, presumes some sort of social context because one must have a society, clan or group to individuate from.  While this may seem obvious its implications are easily missed, even by so-called Marxists, who should frankly know better.

In dialectical jargon the individual and society are in relationship as thesis and antithesis, each being antithesis or opposite to the other. In more colloquial vein they occupy different sides of the same coin. Speaking of the relationship between society and the individual across history, Elias  speaks of the ‘frozen antithesis’, a forced and inevitable one sidedness that cements one side of a contradiction, the ‘society’ side, to the exclusion of its opposite, the ‘individual’ side. When this happens the mutual interpenetration of opposites cannot be seen, let alone analysed, blind-siding us in the process.

Plekhanov’s favourite Hegelian aphorism that a contradiction leads forward covers similar ground. And this is what we have seen in traditional (pre modern) societies where the relationship between society (or group) and individual, the we/I balance, as Elias puts it, is fixed. And from the point of view of those involved, eternally so. Dynamism or fluidity in the relationship is absent and the individual is severely constrained and barely recognised.

There were very compelling reasons for this and they revolved around the issue of survival. For tens of thousands of years human survival was marginal and hard won. Individual survival depended upon the survival and viability of the group the individual belonged to. Initially these were small, family based units before developing into larger clan or tribal based societies and beyond. To use a maritime metaphor, the seas were too rough and the water too close to the gunnels for the individual to be able to stand up and rock the communal boat. Hence for most of our history the individual has had to serve the interests of the group and by so doing enhance his/her own chance of survival. The first struggle for freedom then was freedom from imminent danger, the freedom to survive. The struggle to wrest ourselves free from domination by nature is the basis upon which individual freedom emerges.

But this took many thousands of years and the development of mystical beliefs and practises – cultural, religious and loosely, ideological, were the secondary, and at this stage of our development, the most useful vehicles deployed to pass survival manuals from one generation to the next. As Daniel Dennett points out, harsh realities meant that we simply didn’t have the time or opportunity to turn the wealth of empirical knowledge our ancestors gained into higher level, scientific knowledge.

Romantic beliefs that surface from time to time, like those espoused by many greens, that our forebears lived in a harmonious relationship with nature, leapfrog conservatism and head straight for reaction. The fallacy of this belief rests upon an assumption that the relationship was essentially benign, if not between equals then at least between mutually respectful partners where a fair, de facto accommodation could occur. Nothing could have been further from the truth. For many tens of thousands of years nature held the whip hand. Our ancestors did as nature dictated.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Alienation, here the separation of individuals from their potential to develop, was systematically imposed, unavoidable, unconscious and experienced as normal in static societies that were governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people must be satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves, Berman says, as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” (The Politics of Authenticity p xxvii-xxviii) A static equilibrium is Berman’s description of Elias’ frozen antithesis.

This static equilibrium was dominant in the west until the demise of medievalism between the 16th and 20th centuries – (Russia across the 19th and 20thC, although if we include the Vatican in our reckoning we will need to push out the time frames a century or few). It is difficult to find a better, more dispassionate and dystopian description of traditional power and order than that given by prominent 19thC French reactionary Joseph de Maistre  who saw humanity as sinful, weak and proud with savage natures that must be kept in check by an uncompromising and unquestioned authority. “…all greatness, all power, all social order depends upon the executioner.” What can one say but “yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir.”

A static equilibrium describes social arrangements that warm the hearts of conservatives and reactionaries across the broad sweep of history, from Plato to Edmund Burke, Burke’s contemporary de Maistre and beyond in both directions.

Marxists have no difficulty in identifying Burke as a stick in the mud given his immediate hostility (1790) to the French revolution and his valorization of tradition, albeit within the context that accepted the gains of the English Revolution. Plato is more interesting because he was identified by the Second International’s leading theoretician, Karl Kautsky, as a prototype socialist come communist. Late American Marxist Hal Draper, was no fan. “Plato’s state model is government by an aristocratic elite, and his argument stresses that democracy inevitably means the deterioration and ruin of society. Plato’s political aim, in fact, was the rehabilitation and purification of the ruling aristocracy in order to fight the tide of democracy. To call him a socialist ancestor is to imply a conception of socialism which makes any kind of democratic control irrelevant.”

Like so many aristocrats after him Plato’s ideal of individual perfection was one’s acceptance of the role a person was born into, performing one’s ‘proper’ function, a perfect balance Plato called justice. It was a pity that Kautsky was unable to ask simply: justice for whom?

While Plato was an aristocrat and a static equilibriumist (it’s not a neologism, I’ve checked) there is little point getting carried away with his reactionary politics two and a half thousand years down the track. But the same allowance cannot be extended Kautsky or other revolutionary figures drawn to Plato as some kind of Ancient Greek avatar of revolutionary socialism.  While violent class struggles may occur within Plato’s schema “they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.” (Berman The Politics of Authenticity p xxviii) What Berman is drawing attention to is, in systems jargon, first order or quantitative change. What is required is second order or transformative change. The board itself needs to go. That the leading figure of the Second International saw Plato as a prototype socialist indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual and the demos generally.

Under traditional circumstances people’s personal identity was derived from the roles they were born into or assigned. This promoted social stability of course (what’s not to like comrades?) while inhibiting innovation and creativity. It also shielded the undeveloped self from expectations and disappointments beyond one’s station. While systems are not sentient the advantages they confer pass on to those that are and these advantages were most warmly accepted by those who, coincidentally, sat at the top of what Hill describes as “the cosy hierarchical world picture [that] must not be disturbed lest the social hierarchy be challenged.” (The Origins of the English Revolution p345)

Berman’s take is similar pointing out that “Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (The Politics of Authenticity p100)

The dead hand of the past, a point not missed by Marx, weighed down on the aristocracy and the peasants alike, but “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded.” But no matter what station one was born into everyone “was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” (Ibid p101)

The respective autobiographies of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Infidel, Nomad), Souad Burned Alive and Phoolan Devi (The Bandit Queen of India) describe both these aspects with an intense, intimate clarity. The life stories of these women are required reading by those serious about understanding, on a personal level, how tradition works and the risks that must be confronted in the struggle to form an authentic self.

THE WINDS OF CHANGE – CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN EUROPE

What I have been attempting to describe is the dividing line between the pre-modern and the modern world. The transformation of the former to the latter saw the relationship between the individual and society transform from suffocating stasis to dynamism. The place of the individual has grown enormously, with modernity facilitating this growth and there can be no doubt that this development has enriched those societies subject to its influence. There can also be no doubt that the transition was, or is for those societies still in transition, anything but smooth or complete.

While contradictions and conflicts of interest between society and the individual continue to exist and may often be very sharp, modern societies have created a social and political space (a cultural space if you like) where individuals can fight for and extend their own piece of the action. While we often think of these developments in terms of ‘rights’, it is worth remembering that along with creating ourselves we create the need for new rights and we win them through struggles against both nature and socially imposed impediments.

Gramsci described as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the transition was protracted, violent and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. This latter point should serve to reassure, by the way – looking back we can see that frozen antitheses were melting all over the place, a fact that should encourage us to look for the current melting points.

These transformations ushered in the modern era and with it the modern individual. Most bourgeois opinion, that is, most ‘opinion’, prefer to either be overtly negative about revolutions or to ignore them. This also applies to attitudes of any oppositional movement that comes from below – cultural or otherwise – where the default perspective offered is, as suggested, to not only turn a blind eye or to focus on the negative aspects but to demean and treat with contempt the ignorant or stupid masses. Where are Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters pumping out Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive when you need them I ask rhetorically.

The threat and fear of ‘chaos’ is an oft repeated mantra by both conservatives and reactionaries, especially as revolutions threaten or are in their midst. Communist parties, especially those in power, have shown themselves to be prone to catching this bug and the challenges it throws up in spite of their need to launch cultural upheavals or revolutions. This latter is surely part of the job description, a recognition that it’s ok to consciously and deliberately give history a push. But the modernist cultural revolution, if I can call it that, was not prescribed or consciously directed and the participants were most unlikely to have had a clear idea about how things would unfold or where they would end up. Developments were more akin to an unpredictably moving but unstoppable tsunami, moving forward here, being held back or pushed in other directions there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Hill’s histories is with this in mind. So too with Shakespeare who wrote his plays as the tide began to surge.

The ‘left’, of whatever stripe, speaks of and seeks to work with ‘social units’ – the working class, unions or worker or community organisations, parties etc. But unless this contributes and leads to an ongoing transformation of the social unit or group (getting rid of the board), and thereby to the opening up of opportunity for individual growth and transformation, the ‘left’ would be pissing into the wind and indicating that, on this matter at least, it has failed to understand or embrace the modernity that Marx and Engels, amongst many others, were so enraptured by.

Group maintenance without transformation is a dead end. Group transformation without individual transformation, is politically fraudulent and reactionary, seeking to maintain the existing or traditional power relations within the group, community or society. As repeated once already, the board itself has to go.

THE EMERGING INDIVIDUAL

Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood; that is, from tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation. Voluntary organisation cannot occur without the existence of self-motivated individuals. Today this is the norm, indeed so normal as to barely raise comment. In the social sphere alone we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.

But the communist movement has struggled with the free aspect of the individual uncritically buying (I use the term advisedly) the bourgeois assertion that central to this freedom is freedom of property ownership and hence of capital. The individual that emerged from the medieval straightjacket was associated with the development of capitalism, capitalists and aspiring capitalists, what Hill termed ‘the industrious sort’. One sidedness in an analysis is always a problem and an embarrassing one when the analysis is promoted as dialectical. Here the matter of the individual is left dangling, a frozen antithesis, stained with its association with the ‘industrious sort’ so central in the development of capitalism (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Individuality, individualism, bourgeois individualism and its junior, aspiring cousin petty bourgeois individualism, are generally carelessly treated as synonyms. While some common ground between them is real, contradictions and points of divergence emerged early on. Failing to see this, or downplaying their importance and lumping them all together, is more than careless, it is lazy and betrays an ambivalence about the place of the individual absent from Marx and Engel’s thinking.

As mentioned Berman has attempted to correct this by focusing on the emergence of the individual, as has Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individual’s connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the flourishing of the individual among the ‘lower sort’, the members of the ‘many headed monster’. (Change and Continuity in 17th Century England)

Failure to distinguish between capitalism and modernity

Associated with this has been a failure by the left to distinguish between capitalism and modernity. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that has been common to both. By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one was frustrating, distorting and impeding the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction (we can see it too in Goethe’s Faust, albeit in a less politically conscious way); indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, the newfangledness, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour, in perpetuity, to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this.

Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, in other words, modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist constraints.

The identification that left wing radicalism has made between the capitalist economy and the liberal state with ‘individualism’ has also seen it linking radicalism with, as Berman puts it, “a collectivism that negated individuality.” This is succinct and accurate. A collectivism so understood, one that attempts to negate the ‘newfangledness’ so admired by Marx, will take us nowhere other than a dead end. More disturbingly it aligns a radical, anti-capitalist sensibility regarding the individual with the premodern. Indeed, that is what it is a hangover from. It is backward looking and as communists or assorted radicals we need to remind ourselves that that is not the direction we should be heading.

The Marxist Archive reflects this problem and makes its own contributions (see the entries for ‘Individual’, ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ and ‘Autonomy’ for examples). While not wishing to make such a detour as to get lost let me make the following points. Its entry for ‘Individual’ goes no further than formal logic or the medieval Latin word ‘individuum’ in describing particular, indivisible things. This includes individual humans, of course, but also individual rocks, horses or flies crawling up a wall. Unique persons, with their multiplicity of individual characteristics fail to make the team. ‘Individualism and Collectivism’ is more nuanced, but remains problematic (or should I say symptomatic?). It speaks of collectivism transcending or sublating individualism; that is a collectivism which does not suppress the individualism of bourgeois society, but supersedes it. This gets closer, but supersedes to what? Primacy is given to collectivism with the transcendent, dialectical leap, only relating to it. Individualism, which remains ‘bourgeois’, or consistent with the individuality that emerged under capitalism, remains unsuppressed but also untransformed. It is as though dialectics has had a seniors’ moment and forgotten that individuality too, must transcend its bourgeois limits.

Individuum (and its siblings individualis and individuus) was, in relation to the now emerged individual (bourgeois or otherwise) a word at a low level of synthesis, a direct reflection of Elias’ frozen antithesis and Berman’s static equilibrium, characteristic of undeveloped or backward societies. A collectivism that negates, or awkwardly slides over individuality within a modernist context, that strips the particularities of individual persons and highlights only those features common to all is backward looking and reactionary.

The bods at the Archive, seem to understand that the individual is important but their ambivalence gets in the way of them seeing the matter as dynamic. The antithesis remains frozen.

But if dialectics has meaning this must also indicate that we also have a problem with the universal, although this is not an issue for here.

Although we are social creatures who define ourselves in relation to the other, modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. The synthesis has developed to a much higher level. Roles and limits are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average citizen at work transcends him/herself out of work or even at work – is he/she a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger … How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!

Berman points out that “To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” (The Politics of Authenticity p xiv). In a repressive society people cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms, as with the Stoics, or openly rebellious forms where people can only be themselves, or strive to become so, against the system. Revolt, Berman reminds us, is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows. It is not only right that we rebel against reactionaries, but in doing so we act authentically.

If the theory of revolution grows out of and develops alongside the idea of authenticity, we need to be able to evaluate how well proletarian parties like the Bolsheviks and CCP fulfilled or sought to fulfill this within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable. Within the west I think we’ve been under performers and more aligned with the historically regressive. Revolutions in undeveloped countries present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudalist culture predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably unavoidable. That was certainly what they inherited. This did not mean that individuality did not develop. It is difficult to read Lu Hsun or any of William Hinton’s accounts without seeing new and vibrant individuals emerging. But there is also an ambivalence borne of the circumstance (the constraints) of these revolutions. In his very sympathetic Reconstructing Lenin, Hungarian historian Tamas Krausz remarks that “the autonomy of the individual and of personality as the communal societies’ main context of unfolding was missing not only from Lenin’s legacy, but from the legacy of the entire period, which insisted on other areas of development.” (p369)

What I find disappointing is the lack, or apparent lack, of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal and that it was occurring, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, and its rationale, does not strike me as beyond the wit of the players to articulate. While my own ignorance may be the driver here, the lack of much written material indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there has been a deep ambivalence about the individual in revolutionary movements generally and that this has been dealt with through avoidance and a one sided focus on notions of collectivism.

One of the problems I have with this (there are a few) is that this ambivalence leaves the door open to the development of anti-capitalist feelings that spring from a backward looking romanticism, a yearning for a pastoral, harmonious, pre industrial past, based on scarcity and frugality.

This reactionary yearning looks to an idealised, non-existent past and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fascist groups like ISIS. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic period that arose partly in response to the Industrial Revolution. However, as Berman states, we envision equality within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. (p36) And Amen to that!

During the 18thC and 19thC that reactionary yearning for harmony and stability was expressed strongly in reactions to the Enlightenment and to the French Revolution. Prior to the revolution reactionaries on both sides of the English channel were busy drawing the cultural authoritarian wagons into a circle, drawing upon Neo-Classicism from the arts and Newtonian physics, in order to promote social stability by encouraging people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed and closed to scrutiny. This de facto united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism occurred because both ruling classes required social stability. The British were more successful having had a revolution, albeit limited in its extent and aims; the French were not because they hadn’t. But on both sides of the Channel ruling class anxiety was a clear sign that the horse had well and truly bolted. Whilst it is obvious that there were a great many other issues that drove the revolution, the progressive unfettering of the individual, his/her emergence as subjects on the social and political arena, was prominent among them. Following similar developments that had been occurring in Britain, the third estate mob was becoming less and less mob like.

By 1790, for example, before the direction of the revolution had become clear, Edmund Burke was quick to fire a shot across the bows, dismissing the philosophes and the revolution that Burke would have seen as their mongrel child, as “sophisters, economists and calculators. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom.” Proud submission? Servitude an exalted freedom? Warming to his theme and moving seamlessly into hyperbolic overdrive he predicted that “All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …” (Reflections… paras 127-8)

While Burke’s prose is simultaneously impressive and nausea inducing he employs a sophistry unmatched by any of his erstwhile French targets. We should keep in mind that de Maistre’s reflections, made after the revolution, dispensed with Burke’s draperies and cut to the chase. Berman points out that what Burke was effectively admitting to was that the “whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies” which is where de Maistre’s executioner comes in as reinforcer. Shelley exposed these lies in his poem Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. It is good to have Burke in mind while reading it.

French reactionary responses were also predictably hostile. What had been lost was the clarity and predictability of medieval Catholicism, especially the stability and obedience to medieval hierarchy. Individuals, they argued, had been severed from their traditional (and subservient) ties. The atomised, uncontrolled individual, the individual who no longer respected the sanctity of the place of his/her superiors, was a threat to social cohesion and aroused consternation among those superiors for whom de Maistre was an influential spokesperson. Individualist liberalism was destructive to the social order and de Maistre’s uncompromising worldview has cast a long shadow.

Had figures like de Maistre simply faded into the background and, along with their ideas, exited stage right, we could happily channel the Mandy Rice-Davies line of “well he would [say that] wouldn’t he” and move on. What is of ongoing interest about de Maistre, aside from his ‘casual’ attitude on maintaining social order, is his influence on Saint-Simon, one of the Utopian Socialists’ heavy lifters, a man who had a significant influence on the development of numerous socialist currents that developed in the mid to late 19thC. Both men were contemporaries and it was de Maistre’s thinking about social cohesion and political authority that garnered influence. Auguste Comte, Saint-Simone’s secretary and father of sociology, frequently and approvingly cited him.

Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for more of the same.

Historical events demonstrate more powerfully than words that this has a shelf life. Taking sides in the individual/social divide, however, presented real challenges, cultural and political, that have seen ostensibly radical and revolutionary ideologies promote ideas that bore disturbing similarities to feudalist or semi feudalist ideas of community with limited space for individual development, let alone transformation.

The development of society to  higher levels (higher levels of syntheses as Elias would put it) enables higher levels of individuation and individual development, opening the way to increased fulfilment (and increased dissatisfaction); increased chances of happiness (and increased chances of unhappiness and disappointment), all of which are society specific. So which road, the high road or the low road? Old maritime charts used to have “this way there be dragons” to describe unknown waters and discourage exploration. Dragons might be scary, but “this way there be development”.

This of course is not a one way street as the development of the individual in modern societies is necessarily accompanied by the development of society, of a multiplicity of choices in how we can be ‘we’ as well as ‘I’ and ‘we’ relationships are no longer necessarily permanent and inescapable, no longer a constraint to the development of free will and personal responsibility.

The working class itself has made it clear through its actions and choices that it values individual growth and development and the economic development which facilitates this.

The question for communists and assorted ratbags is: do we?

 

To each according to their needs…

The principle of distribution under communism is: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The separation of work performed and income is clear. However, there is misunderstanding on what is meant by ‘to each according to their needs’.

David McMullen elaborates…

Are property rights essential to prosperity and liberty? The ‘No’ case.

This is a presentation by socialist economist David McMullen at a Melbourne Argument debate at the Royal Oak Hotel, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on February 8, 2017. His opponent was Ted Lapkin, a former adviser in the Abbott government.

Private Property Rights are Essential not only to Economic Prosperity but to Political Liberty – The No Case

February 12, 2017 via Different Wavelength

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When looking at economic prosperity and political liberty, the private property rights we are concerned about are the ownership rights of the capitalist class over the means of production or productive assets. We are not arguing about private property rights over items of consumption. So I acknowledge everyone’s right to their own toothbrush.

What I want to contend is that in the future we will get by very nicely without private ownership of the means of production. We will do this by creating a class free society where the means of production are socially rather than privately owned. This will free the economy of the many shackles placed on it by capitalism and at the same time create a society that requires the fullest political freedom for its proper functioning.This future system is generally referred to as communism.

OK why do I take this singularly unpopular position which everyone knows has been totally discredited? Well, I subscribe to the Marxist view that capitalism creates the conditions for this new more advanced system.In a nutshell, capitalism eliminates the need for the profit motive and hence the need for its own existence. It does this through the creation of modern industry and technology which open up the prospect of universal prosperity, and of robots and computers doing all the work that we really don’t want to do. Under these new conditions we can begin to imagine people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing level of prosperity. In other words we can see social ownership having a totally different and better form of motivation than the profit motive that is associated with private ownership.

This means that what was previously impossible becomes possible.Past history already tells us that sharing poverty and laborious work is impossible. You cannot create equality under those conditions. It is a utopian dream. For example, as the Middle Ages illustrate it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to live off everybody else’s hard work and you end up with a very nasty class society. Also when assessing the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, it is important to keep in mind their backward economic conditions as a factor in determining how things turned out there.

Now, favorable economic conditions presently only exist in the rich countries where less than 20 per cent of the world’s people reside. What about the rest of the world? It looks like it is going to take a number of generations for them to develop. It is hard to be any more definite than that. However, I would suggest that the prospects are best if there is a healthy global economy and a willingness to provide well directed economic aid and also to offer diplomatic and military assistance to those resisting the forces of tyranny and corruption.

Anyway, why do I consider that social ownership will bring greater economic prosperity and progress? There are five reasons that strike me as being particularly important.

  1. Firstly capitalist firms cannot match the work performance that would be achieved where workers unprompted want to do the job to the best of their ability.Capitalist firms have to apply various rewards and penalties to get their employees to do their bidding. However, if a job is in any way complex it becomes difficult to correctly assess how well people are doing their job. And jobs are becoming increasingly complex so this is becoming more and more of a problem.
  2. Secondly once we get rid of private ownership and private debt we will also get rid of economic crises, stock market crashes, bank collapses and extended periods of depressions or recessions that lead to unemployment and reduced production.
  3. Thirdly we will get rid of the waste of human labor that Marx called pauperization where a large number of people are thrown on the scrap heap and survive on welfare. They are not equipped to develop work skills or they are psychologically maimed from living in this society.
  4. Fourthly, we will not have capitalism’s sluggishness in terms of what are arguably the main drivers of economic progress, namely,science, research and development, and technological innovation. There are a number of reasons for capitalism’s lack of vigor in this area. If I can beg your indulgence I will list six that I am aware of. Firstly, capitalists are not interested in major technological breakthroughs that will make their present investments less valuable or even obsolete. They just want incremental improvements that increase their value. Secondly, benefits from spending on R&D are long term but capitalists tend to have a short term perspective. Thirdly because of the public good nature of new knowledge, firms cannot capture all the benefits and so underspend on it. Fourthly, where intellectual property right laws are applied, access to knowledge is restricted. Fifthly, government funding for R&D is the first thing to go when there are government budget cuts. And also there is huge wastage as researchers game the funding system and personal prestige and career take precedence over outcomes. And sixthly, capitalism generates an anti-technology and anti-science attitude among the alienated masses. People see the modern industry created by capitalism as the problem rather than capitalism itself. We have people whose livelihood is threatened by new technologies. And there are the greenies who have a romantic view of the pre-industrial past.
  5. Now the last but by no means least on my list of capitalism’s economic problems that will be overcome under communism is what economists like to call government failure.Capitalism tolerates a lot of bureaucracy and regulation.Much of it is devoted to catering to the needs of vested interests in ways that harm the economy. Vested interest is just another term for private property. And as well as this there is of course empire building by career minded bureaucrats.

OK those are my arguments for why I think that private ownership of the means of production is a fetter on the economy. Now I want to address what I think are the two main arguments against what I’ve been saying. Firstly, we are told that social ownership would require excessive centralization and secondly that you can’t change human nature.

Economists argue that all this well-intentioned motivation would come to very little because an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system. And as a consequence social ownership would require clumsy centralized resource allocation of the kind that existed in the Soviet Union. I am not going to speculate on how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism. However, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody over components from producer to user enterprises that would prevent them from making decentralized decisions based on prices. Furthermore, we could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. Indeed, there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, because of the absence of ownership barriers, there would be far more scope for coordination, and less scope for secrecy and deception.

Human nature and mutual regard

Now what about human nature? A society based on social ownership requires far more than simply state ownership, although that is a prerequisite. There need to fundamental changes in people’s behavior and abilities.

The behavior change can be best summed up in the expression ‘mutual regard’.You do the right thing because you want to contribute and you know that your efforts are not futile because a large and increasing section of society is doing likewise. As well as being the basis of morality and what is considered honorable it is also enlightened self-interest. By everybody serving others we are all served. This altruism is not the self-denial that Ayn Rand made it out to be.

Many would doubt the ability of rank and file workers to do the complex kinds of work required in the future. However, I would suggest that people have greatly untapped potential. There are many ways that they are presently held back or find themselves unchallenged.

The kinds of changes we are talking about here will not happen overnight. There will have to be a transition period that will take a generation or more and is generally referred to as socialism. It will take time to totally eliminate private ownership, starting with the big fish, and it will take time to move completely away from the old capitalist work incentives. And it won’t be smooth sailing. Good behavior will only win out once the good majority gain the confidence and moral courage to stand up to those who behave badly. And there will be lots of old management types trying to run things in the old way and convincing workers that the new ways are futile. So it will be touch and go for a while and we may need more than one stab at it.

Now let’s look at political liberty

With the emergence of capitalism we have seen for the first time a degree of political liberty. We have constitutions limiting the power of government, we have elections, the separation of powers, habeas corpus. These would have been unimaginable in the Middle Ages or in any other pre-capitalist society.

The main problem however is that the capitalist system tends to abandon political liberty in times of crisis. Also a big test of political freedom is our freedom to confiscate the means of production from the capitalists and convert them into social property. In the face of a serious revolutionary movement one would expect to see states of emergency, unofficial death squads, and well-resourced propaganda campaigns spreading fascism and xenophobia.

Historical accidents

What conclusions should we draw about the lack of democracy in the so-called communist bloc countries? The Soviet Union etc? The first thing to note is that we dealing with an historical accident. By virtue of some rather specific or contingent circumstances,communists found themselves in charge in countries that with few exceptions were economically and socially backward, and totally unsuited to undertaking a communist revolution. Also, the regimes did not arise as a result of popular support for communism. In the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China the primary concern of the peasant masses was nothing more than land reform. In Eastern Europe the regimes were due to the arrival of the Soviet Red Army at the end of WWII rather than popular revolutions. So I think it is safe to say that these regimes would not have survived if they had been democratic.

However, it is important to keep in mind the alternative in most cases was right-wing tyranny rather than democracy. And of course these regimes eventually lost the minimal revolutionary content they may have originally had.So their authoritarian nature could no longer be blamed on communists. Instead we just had phonies like Vladimir Putin who pretended to be communists until the collapse of the Soviet Union and we presently have people like Xi Jinping in China who still pretend to be communists. The take-home message here is that the conditions were very different from what we would expect in the future when revolutionary regimes come to power in highly developed societies on the back of widespread support for their political program.

Freedom of speech

Now, the economist Milton Friedman famously argued that freedom of speech and the emergence of diverse political groups require the decentralization of resource ownership that only capitalism can deliver.He argued that under capitalism you have the possibility of finding a rich patron. Marx and Frederick Engels and the Bolsheviks received money from anonymous benefactors as well as from robbing banks. Under social ownership, however, resources would be centralized in the hands of the very authorities that you may want to criticize. However, I would argue that with everyone having very high disposable incomes and access to the Internet you would not have to rely on central authorities providing resources. Also I do not see any insurmountable obstacles to ensuring open access for various resources needed for a vibrant political life.

I do not want to paint too rosy a picture.A revolutionary government during its initial phase may have to declare a state of emergency if there is a rebellion by supporters of the old order. Their rebellion could take the form of civil war, terrorism and sabotage, and dealing with it will not be easy. At the same time, for success, we will need the freedom to criticize those in positions of authority when they display incompetence or lack of revolutionary politics. Bottom up supervision will be a critical part of the system. Indeed, a social system that relies on people taking the initiative without external prompting, could not function if people are not able to say what they think is wrong and what they think should be done about it.

Summing up

I will now make two points to briefly sum up.

Firstly, capitalism creates the very economic conditions required for a more advanced classless society that will be based on social ownership of the means of production.

Secondly, a primary task for the present period is ensuring economic and political progress in the more backward regions of the world. For this we need a liberal global economic order, well directed economic aid, and diplomatic and military support in fighting the battle for democracy. And critical to this is beating back the nationalist anti-globalist wind that is blowing at the moment.