From International Socialism, No.30 (1st series), Autumn 1967, pp.1-3.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
When a broad movement of the working class declines, active socialists look and are odd. For they are left with the general theory generated by the broad movement after the movement has gone. Thus, the theory the socialists claim to believe seems remotely related to what they do. It portrays society as a whole, and presumes vast active forces like classes, when in the post-movement reality, such forces seem entirely absent. Indeed, the very existence of active classes can easily be called into question.
Socialists do try and close the gap between theory and reality, sometimes by amending or abandoning the theory altogether (and some, necessarily a minority, ‘reinterpret’ reality). Two methods of approaching the problem are to identify some major force elsewhere as the real agency of change, say, the peasantry in the underdeveloped countries (or ‘the accomplished socialist fact’ of the Soviet Union, or latterly, China), or to leave theory in suspense and identify completely with a particular small group of people and its immediate problems – whether the group be a political sect, a group of workers in a factory, tenants on an estate, students in a University, and so on. The second solution, for the dilemma does mean people remain active in the real world of real problems and may thereby locate new general perspectives in practice, rather than, in the first, sharing vicariously in faraway victories. But both forms of substitute can have their dangers in isolation.
For if identification with faraway forces on its own is merely a pious gesture to hide a failure to grapple with real problems with the here-and-now problems, grappling with those problems to the exclusion of any generalised theory, getting lost ‘in the fragments‘, can be the high road to reformism. Sooner or later, without a general perspective, on will tailor one’s demands to marginal concessions, the ‘practical’ and ‘realistic‘. Ultimately, in the absence of a revolutionary movement, preserving the status quo is the most practical and realistic strategy of all. The backbenches of the Parliamentary Labour Party are filled with eminently practical men who offered up their hopes as a sacrifice to an unchangeable Tory reality.
The lynch pin of socialist strategy in the past was the working class, real industrial and urban workers, rather than idealised fictions, empty concepts, and it was in the context of the working class that the struggles of peasants and also immediate conflicts assumed their significance. Although this industrial dispute or that rent strike were rightly fought as honestly as possible and to the limit’s of the socialists ability, they were not isolated ends in themselves, but contributory elements in the creation of a movement of educated and conscious workers. For theory is not a once and for all definition of aims and reality, it is part of a process of development, of becoming, only the final phase of which closely fit’s the whole world, classes in motion and societies divided. Thus those who reject the theory because it seems remote from actual reality, thereby reject also the possibility of changing reality towards the theory: we are back with a conservative perspective.
Yet it is precisely the idea of the industrial working class which has come under heaviest fire. People sustained a belief in that class so long as the institutions it had created in the process of struggle – the trade unions, the Labour and Communist parties – survived and retained some semblance of radicalism. When the institutions decayed, it was presumed that the class had disappeared. It had become a middle class, once and for all committed to the defence of things as they are. Yet the institutions of the labour movement had survived for a long time without the active participation of a majority of workers, so that the class must have ceased to exist much earlier than the decay of labour institutions – sometime around 1926, perhaps, long before ‘affluence’ bribed people into ‘affluence.’ Thus, the people who have recently ‘abandoned the working class,’ must all along have believed in a myth, a substitute. For them, history is cast in unequivocal and final categories, and, like conservatives, they agree that history has ended with a total victory for the ruling class. All we can do, is keep our powder dry, hoping one day for relief from abroad.
But if we ignore the crudities of believing that history is directed by mass bribery, what were the characteristics of the industrial working class which made it crucial in analysing the world for socialists, made it the context in which one could se the importance of the struggle of other classes? Wss it merely the poverty of workers? On the contrary, it was not their poverty at all, but their place in society. For the proletariat was the force which created industry and development, which survived by reason of its participation in the most advanced technology, was centralised and organised, at the heart of urban civilisation where it acquired the education, discipline, experience and conviction required to run the whole of society in the interests of all. It alone had the power to seize society unaided and the incentive to emancipate itself, and thereby all other classes. If workers themselves did not know this, then this was the challenge for socialists: to prove it in practice.
What of the peasantry in underdeveloped countries? It is poor indeed, but also isolated much of the time in villages and on the land, and ignorant of the processes by which society as a whole can develop. Indeed, it does not see society as a whole, only its locality, and thus it sees only the possibilities of change which exist in its locality. The central aim of the peasant becomes: to achieve enough land to support a family by independent, not interdependent, work. This is not to say that peasants cannot be revolutionary – at least two thousand years of history demonstrate the continuous smouldering anger of the peasant, occasionally bursting into revolt. But the peasant’s enemy is the local landlord, the moneylender and their agent, the policeman, not the ruling class of which he can have only the haziest conception, for it inhabits the cities. He does not, see the potential involved in a co-operative and complex division of labour, in industry; his communism is to achieve a just sharing of poverty or the austerity which he knows first hand, not infinite riches for all with the growth of industrial production (it is thus natural that anarchism, with its stress on individual independence, has so often been the creed of politicised peasants). Inevitably, the peasant’s revolutionary attempts must fail unless they can be linked to other districts in a way his own life does not promote. For, to him, those other districts are inhabited by foreigners. Without that link, a national ruling class can always isolate and defeat the peasant. The link comes from the cities, or from those who are part of urbanised culture, part of a national culture that conceives of society as a whole. In some contemporary situations, the link has been provided by a handful of disaffected urban intellectuals and the effect has been electric in co-ordinating an agrarian movement that has proved its ability to withstand and sometimes defeat imperialism in important sectors. But it is of the nature of peasant life that the co-ordinating and directing intellectuals cannot be controlled form below. The handful at the top are the national consciousness of a fragmented peasant movement, and the peasants are entirely dependent upon that handful once they leave the district they know. Degeneration of the movement can mean, as it sometimes did in imperial China, merely the creation of a new imperial dynasty by the peasant movement.
If a national peasant consciousness is scarcely conceivable without the major directing role being played by outsiders, how much less likely, without urban influence is an international peasant consciousness? Without the proletariat, the peasant movement is at best nationalist under the guidance of its national leadership; and at worst, no more than a populist springboard for a dedicated few to clamber to power and impose the ruthless logic of industrialisation which will make the springboard expendable. Thus, revolution is possible with a peasant movement (provided its upper echelons are not themselves peasants), important national tasks can be fulfilled and great victories won against imperialism (as in China, Cuba and Vietnam), but the self-emancipation of the proletariat, socialism, and thereby the emancipation of mankind, is impossible without an international proletarian leadership. The synchronisation of the struggle in the cities and on the countryside, in the advanced and the underdeveloped, is crucial for the achievement of socialism, and alone, the peasants cannot be a substitute.
No juggling with words about the ‘ideology’ being proletarian, or industrialisation being the creation of a proletariat (therefore the peasantry is really ‘proletarian’) can alter the issue. In pursuing the peasantry of the backward countries in isolation, socialists exchange proletarian internationalism for the nationalism of a middle class clique, self-emancipation for an attempt at forced industrialisation in the worst possible conditions, socialism for any kind of immediate social change. The history of Stalinism shows one example of what happens when the industrial proletariat is ousted from power by a clique.
Just as the emancipation of the peasantry must be linked directly to the proletarian perspective in order to make it an attempt at socialism, so also the immediate issues socialists face in day-to-day experience must be linked to a wider view appropriate to the industrial working class as a whole. Activity by particular groups of workers, tenants, youth and so on, is only a means towards the end of self-activity of productive workers, the core of capitalism and the creators of surplus value on which the rest of society is more or less parasitic. Unless the industrial working class is the leading agency for the creation of socialism, then Marxism is nonsense, and each particular immediate struggle makes no sense: it is merely the disgruntled on the make, and of no particular significance at all. The process of linkage outwards is the process of generalising, and generalising means that each particular conflict must be spread. This industrial dispute becomes part of an area struggle or one spanning an industry, from one shop steward committee to an area committee or a Combine Committee. One street tenants’ group moves outwards to cover a district, to cover all Council or private tenants, to cover both. Ultimately, the generalising process itself must bring the reality to the theory, but it can only do so if socialists know the theory towards which they are seeking to generalise their activity. In each conflict there is a built in tendency to generalise, for the more general the support, the greater the chance of victory, but this generalisation needs to be pursued consciously, appraised at each stage in relationship to the final perspective. Without it, localised defeats will mean the end for some socialists, for they will have forgotten how they became socialists and begun to identify the immediate demand as socialism itself.
Unless the general perspective is stated clearly and kept in mind at each stage, then socialists will lose their way. There are no easy gimmicks to ensure success, no formulae that will act as substitute for real practice, but it is still essential to keep hold of the final aim. For the historic landmarks are disappearing and old maps have been found to be faulty. Even with a clear aim, people may also lose their way, but with no general aim at all, there is no way to lose: being as clear as one can is an elementary precondition for trying at all.
Last updated on 31.12.2007