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Mick Hume

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 get lost.

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 elite.

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 flush'.

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 society.

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 alternative?

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

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