A revolutionary project for our times
What does it really mean to be left wing, radical or revolutionary in the
second half of the 1990s? Living Marxism is launching an open discussion
around that question. The aim is to clarify the meaning of anti-capitalist
politics for today. And we need your help to get it right.
First let's fill in some background to the discussion. The political world
in which we all live and work has changed beyond recognition since the first
issue of Living Marxism hit the streets in November 1988. The end
of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the
Western labour movements more or less wiped out the forces of the traditional
left. Then the impact of economic slump and political decay did much the
same to the right.
One upshot of these momentous changes is that the terms left and right do
not mean very much any more. As we have discussed in Living Marxism features
over recent months, there is no longer any clear delineation between the
various shades of mainstream political opinion. Ideological differences
have largely disappeared, and politicians now appear merely as individual
'personalities' rather than as representatives of a clear political programme.
The end of left and right is an international phenomenon. So while Tony
Blair and Baroness Thatcher can form a mutual admiration society in the
British media, across the Atlantic US President Bill Clinton and his most
prominent right-wing opponent, Newt Gingrich, could recently appear together
in a televised debate that looked more like a love-in.
A big factor behind this state of affairs is what we have called the temporary
suspension of the class struggle. The most obvious illustration of this
trend is the decline of industrial action by workers over jobs, pay and
working conditions; the number of strikes in Britain today is at a historically
low level. More broadly, there is no longer any real sense in society of
a confrontation between the collective forces of working people on the one
hand and capitalists on the other.
Of course, people still get angry and embittered about what capitalism does
to their lives - redundancies, pay restraint, housing problems and so on.
But today most people tend to express their rage in an arbitrary, individual
fashion rather than as part of an exploited social class. That is why something
like the recent protests over animal welfare can easily become an outlet
for popular frustrations about the state of society today, while more traditional
forms of working class action are considered irrelevant.
As a result of the suspension of the class struggle there is little pressure
on politicians to act in the clear-cut interests of any distinct class in
society. With all sides competing to appeal to the nebulous no-man's land
of 'Middle England', the dissolution of political lines accelerates.
It is against the background of the end of the traditional left-right divide
that we can identify a need to clarify the meaning of anti-capitalist politics
today. The upheavals of the past decade have made redundant most of the
language and the policies associated with the left. The landmarks which
guided left-wing politics through the past century have been swallowed up
by the tide of history, and those who still look to them today will quickly
In Britain, for instance, people who call themselves socialists have always
lent heavily on the Labour Party and the trade unions. Yet these organisations
have been entirely transformed in recent years. Tony Blair's New Labour
is now a classless party of law and order and austerity, staffed by well-heeled
women and former polytechnic men. As for the trade unions, they are no longer
unions at all in any real sense. Instead of collective organisations of
workers, they have become marketing machines selling cut-price insurance
to their members and cut-price pay and productivity deals to the employers.
The collapse of the old politics has created a lot of confusion about the
problems people face and what needs to be done about them. In particular,
many of the basic assumptions of an anti-capitalist approach to the world
are now dismissed out of hand.
There have always been two starting points to our approach. First, that
human emancipation is the one goal worth fighting for. And second, that
the barriers to realising that goal are not natural or technical, but social.
They stem from the fact that capitalist society is managed so as to
subordinate the needs of the majority to the interests of a profit-hungry
Such an anti-capitalist approach has never commanded majority support in
Britain. In the climate of today, however, people's horizons are even lower.
From all sides, attention now tends to focus on the moral failings of individuals,
and any attempt to find a social explanation for our problems is seen as
irrelevant. At the same time, any idea of changing the way society is run
is rejected, often on the basis that change could only be for the worse.
This fatalistic mood has been noted with relief by members of the establishment,
whose books and newspapers are now full of the comforting thought that,
no matter how bad the market system might be, it will survive, since at
least 'the alternatives have been discredited'.
It is important to note that what has changed here is not the exploitative
and repressive facts of life under capitalism. What has changed are the
political perceptions of that reality.
Earlier this year, social commentator Richard North announced that 'one
of the oddest features of modern Britain is that there is nothing big to
protest about'. For decades, North noted, 'bright young people' had been
able 'to fight for socialism, against the Bomb, against American intervention
in Vietnam, even for women's rights. All these causes have gone'. All that
remains, he said, is green protest, 'and in truth even that is a busted
In one sense, of course, this analysis is wrong. There are plenty of big
things to protest about in Britain. The old beasts which North lists, from
social inequality to imperialism, still remain to be slain, and new ones
rear their ugly heads all the time. Where he is right, however, is that
today none of these 'big things' are seen ascauses, which young people
believe that it is possible and necessary to fight around.
Most people have given up on any idea of striving for liberation and emancipation
through trying to change society. Although there are still plenty of complaints
and criticisms about what is happening, they rarely get at the deeper roots
of the problem in the workings of the capitalist system. So while there
might be a public furore over the 'excessive' pay rises of a few executives,
there is no uproar about the increased economic insecurity afflicting millions
of working people. The same culture of low expectations helps to explain
why local campaigns against roads or in defence of trees are often the limits
of the politics of protest today.
Not only have the politics of liberation been rejected, but some very regressive
trends are now being embraced as positive developments. We have often noted
in Living Marxism the increasing tendency towards interference in
people's affairs by all manner of official and semi-official agencies these
days, from the police and the courts to social services, counsellors and
censors. Worse still, this new authoritarianism is now widely welcomed on
the left as a defence of society's victims.
An equally dangerous trend is the vogue among radical-minded people for
'identity' politics; stripped of the pretentious jargon of empowerment,
this usually signals a retreat from an engagement with broader issues in
favour of narrow-mindedly revelling in your own origins and lifestyle. And
that amounts to little more than reconciling yourself to what you are stuck
with, and celebrating the powerlessness of the individual in capitalist
These are some of the considerable problems that we face as we try to win
support for revolutionary ideas today. So what is the solution? In the context
of 1995 and beyond, how can we best present the case for an anti-capitalist
Too often in the past few years, discussions of how to advance radical politics
have proved wasted opportunities. Those trying to come to terms with complex
new realities have tended merely to flip-flop and apologise for their pasts,
instead of tackling the more difficult job of working out some creative
ways for critics of capitalism to engage with the present.
It would certainly be worse than useless for us to restate what Karl Marx
or anybody else said in the past. Revolutionary ideas will mean nothing
to a new audience unless they can give a clear insight into current developments,
and demonstrate their relevance to people's contemporary experience. To
do that properly will require a whole new political vocabulary, and an attitude
that rejects safe and familiar formulations in favour of bold experimentation.
The discussion we are launching in Living Marxism will aim to clarify
the real problems facing society today, and work out an appropriate response
for our times. This will be a central theme of the magazine in the months
ahead. Your involvement in that debate is not only welcome, but vital; if
the discussion is to succeed in its aims it will have to consider and reflect
the widest possible range of experiences.
Although we are surrounded on all sides by evidence of capitalist stagnation
and decay, there is a palpable silence on the possibilities for change and
revolution. Too many people seem to be trying to evade thinking through
this problem. In a sense that is understandable, since developing a contemporary
argument for revolution is a difficult nut to crack. But that is also what
makes clarifying anti-capitalist politics such an important and worthwhile
project for our times.
There are pressing questions that need to be addressed. The answers, as
they say, will be printed in future issues.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 81, July/August 1995