The left, as a force that represents something in society, no longer exists. To be sure, a fair few individual left-wing activists have survived the events of the past decade. They are invariably refugees from the past with no political connections to the present. That is why their activities resemble the politics of exile. An inordinate amount of time is devoted to inventing new names and new images. Every communist party attached to the old Stalinist movement is experimenting with a new name. Other left-wing veterans are looking for new ideas to reinforce their eroding sense of political identity. There are half-hearted attempts to pick up on issues such as environmentalism, to project a sensible and inoffensive image. The more radical activists are waiting for the sort of class struggles which occurred in the Seventies to make a comeback, in the hope that their day will come.
The decline and defeat of the left is often blamed on real changes in the way that society works and the lives which people lead. The word ‘post’ has become a regular prefix used to substantiate this idea of objective change; ‘post-industrial’, ‘post-Fordist’, ‘postmodern’, to name a few. In Britain, the left produced the theory of Thatcherism to show how changing material circumstances led to the ascendancy of the right. Yet the multiplicity of these explanations based on objective circumstances calls into question their arguments. It is far from clear why change as such should always benefit one side and not the other. And if the issue was so self-evident, there would surely be no need for so many conflicting points of view.
It seems to us that the attempt to hold the decline of the cloth-capped proletariat, or the growth of information technology and the service sector, responsible for the present state of politics is an evasion of the problem. The key difference between today and the past has little to do with the objective reality of capitalism; that is still a crisis-ridden, exploitative system. The difference has a lot to do with subjective political factors; primarily, the defeat of the working class. This defeat was consolidated through the political, ideological and ultimately moral collapse of what was publicly considered to be the left. The irrelevance of old-fashioned left-wing ideas has been discussed at length in previous issues of Living Marxism. It is worth adding here that today, perhaps for the first time in the two centuries since the French Revolution, even the bulk of the intelligentsia has become estranged from the left.
Same old crap
The experience of working-class defeat and the ideological collapse of the left have become the decisive theme of the present conjuncture. This theme, and this theme alone, is responsible for boosting the image which capitalism has of itself. It is important to emphasise that, in the sphere of art, culture, ideas or morality, capitalism is at an impasse. There is no big idea mobilising millions, and certainly nothing to inspire the youth of today. In every respect, capitalist thinking remains, as Marx would have said, the same old crap.
The only positive claim which capitalism can make is that it works better than the disintegrating societies of the old Stalinist world. Those seeking a plausible justification for capitalism now have to fall back on the idea that it is the only alternative. It has no special merits other than the ability to survive. In this way, capitalism becomes eternalised into a kind of crypto-religious human fate that we have to put up with, rather than a way of life with promising connotations.
In such a bleak political landscape only irrationalism, apathy and fear can flourish. The new subjective outlook which has developed out of the experience of defeat immobilises those with the potential to change the world. A new mood of resignation pervades the whole world, from Brazil to South Africa through to France, Germany and the Soviet Union. It is a mood which owes more to the collapse of the left than to any positive triumph for the right. Nevertheless, the capitalist class enjoys the initiative against its opponents. Or, we should say, potential opponents; for the time being at least, the working class has no political existence.
Recent events have destroyed the traditions and organisations that gave the working class coherence. That is why even major events which provoke important class struggles are leading nowhere at the moment. The poor state of class politics means that, when workers do struggle, they do so as a collection of individuals. They will almost certainly draw conservative, atomised conclusions from that experience. Thus in East Europe, the grim reality of the new market economies has not led to a questioning of capitalism. Instead workers are blaming the old Stalinist regimes even more for the situation produced by market economies.
Parallel to the atomisation and fragmentation of the working class runs the collapse of the radical intelligentsia. There is now little to distinguish the different wings of the intelligentsia from each other. They have all resigned from playing a role in society, and sought temporary relief by escaping into their narrow sphere of specialisation. They tend to view the future with the conviction of the cynic and to treat any manifestation of optimism with contempt. Beneath this ostentatious cynicism, the underlying dynamic points towards the mass reconciliation of the intelligentsia with the status quo. In their own way, the obscurantist, aristocratic and introspective fragments of intellectual work being produced today correspond to the system’s need for encouraging an end to reasoned, critical thought.
To put matters bluntly, it seems that the prospects for human progress are worse than at any time this century. Not even in the dark days of fascist triumphs did the prospects for social transformation and the creation of a new society appear so remote. Marxism and working-class politics are temporarily of no consequence to the flow of history. The first task of those wishing to uphold the principle of human emancipation is to understand the cause of this irrelevance.
There are, of course, many previous examples of setbacks suffered by the left. In the Thirties, the showtrials in the Soviet Union and the many other sordid actions of the Stalinist and social-democratic parties caused a major crisis on the left. The mood of the moment was captured in the title of a novel by revolutionary Russian writer Victor Serge: Midnight in the Century. However, this malaise of the left did not directly boost the position of capitalism. In the Thirties, the deradicalisation of the working-class movement coexisted with a crisis of confidence in the capitalist class.
Even Stalin’s showtrials could not reaffirm the legitimacy of capitalism. Many of those who were repelled by Stalinism dropped out of political life altogether rather than switching to the side of the capitalist system. Indeed, even the capitalist class had little faith in its own society, and conservative politicians were known to speak out against the free market. The traditional values of laissez-faire capitalism were in disrepute and the demand for curbing the market was near-universal. Even the Economist, the traditional promoter of free enterprise, was forced to concede that ‘market forces’ alone could not restructure industry, and that ‘a very wide measure of public control will be necessary if the badly needed work of rationalisation is ever to make any real progress’ (24 August 1934).
Capitalism was so discredited that, to many liberal thinkers, even Stalin’s Soviet Union looked like a legitimate alternative. Leading British Labour thinkers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, notwithstanding their deeply held anti-Marxist prejudices, became supporters of the Soviet system after a visit there in 1932. The Soviet bureaucracy, they argued, was ‘the unavoidable apparatus of any highly developed industrial community’ (Soviet Communism, 1937, p805). Since capitalism seemed to be associated with depression, mass unemployment and, in certain quarters, with fascism, it faced a crisis of confidence. This crisis of confidence was so profound that it could not really benefit from the deradicalisation of the working class movement. Ironically it could not even dismiss the Stalinist Soviet Union as an irrelevant developmental model.
An example of the defensiveness of Western thinkers was the ‘convergence theories’ they developed, which suggested that both the United States and the Soviet Union would converge and adopt a similar social structure due to the exigencies of industrial society. Even in the period of capitalist boom after the Second World War, Western intellectuals lacked the confidence to mount a full-blooded defence of the free market against alternative models. Symptomatic of this lack of belief in the virtues of capitalism is the view held by the conservative sociologist Raymond Aron that ‘doctrinal disputes’ were a thing of the past. In an article published in 1961, Aron argued that all ‘regimes are imperfect’ and that neither the USA nor the USSR was all that bad:
‘The most fervent opponents of communism do not deny the rapid growth of the Soviet economy and the rise of the standard of living of the masses. The most fervent opponents of the liberal West or of capitalism admit that there has been no serious economic crisis since 1945 and that the exploited proletariat live better than ever before.’ (Politics and History, 1958, p228)
‘Live and let live’ was about as far as many bourgeois thinkers were able to go in defending their way of life.
Today, the situation is entirely different. Whereas in the past the free market was a source of embarrassment, today it is celebrated as an inspiration. Superficially, the capitalist class is more confident about itself than at any time this century. It has succeeded in portraying the market economy as the source of prosperity, and in separating the system from responsibility for mass unemployment and impoverishment.
Even parties which were habitually associated with the left, such as Labour, are now firm converts to the spirit of free enterprise. Market economics and capitalist ideas have also won intellectual respectability. And for the first time this century, the radical, critical intellectual has become an endangered species.
The new capitalist confidence is built on the failure of alternative ideologies. It is the beneficiary of the slow decline of the credibility of social-democratic welfare capitalism. As piecemeal, pinchpenny welfare reforms have lost the power to enthuse, so the left has become less able to evolve an alternative to the more conservative variants of capitalism. Capitalism has also gained moral authority from the collapse of the Stalinist system. The speed with which East Europe is searching for market solutions for its problems appears to endow capitalism with a sense of mission. For the first time this century capitalism faces neither intellectual nor practical alternatives. In a similar vein, for the first time this century the establishment is not particularly worried about the working class. It is as if the ruling class is enjoying the benefits of a successful counter-revolution without having fired a shot in anger.
Not for long
Having made a realistic appraisal of the state of politics today, it would be easy to draw extremely negative conclusions about the prospects for change. But that would be somewhat premature. The present conjuncture is a temporary one. The confidence of the ruling class cannot endure indefinitely, especially not as the economy moves into recession. As far as the fundamentals of the system are concerned, nothing has changed. Capitalism remains a system that can develop the forces of production only through a cycle of upturns and downturns. It is no less out of control today than before. Nor is it any less destructive. It is only a matter of time before reality punctures the puffed-up bluster of the ruling class.
Things cannot go on as they are for long because the ruling class has been unable to transform its present confident mood into a dynamic new vision or perspective. It is unlikely that confidence in capitalism can be developed further. There are no new ideas or even new variants of old ideas which promote the capitalist system. The poverty of capitalist thought is illustrated by the fact that it is always the same old handful of thinkers - Karl Popper, Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, etc - who are summoned to defend the capitalist cause.
Ruling-class ideology is exhausted. It has nothing new to offer. Their momentary confidence is not deep enough to form the foundations of a relevant, modern defence of their system.
Intellectually, morally and politically the times approximate a sort of hi-tech dark age. Reason, rationality, progress and science have been driven to the intellectual margins. The project of human emancipation through working-class revolution has been discredited by the experience of Stalinism. The situation seems immune to the forces of change. So what can we do?
Traditional left-wing ideas and activities make little sense today. Such outdated methods can have little appeal, and can easily be isolated and contained. Instead, we need to set about developing a coherent critique of capitalism in its most contemporary forms, an analysis adequate to expose the modern-day myths which the ruling class perpetuates about its own system. Given the exhaustion of bourgeois ideas, the powers that be are particularly weak on this front. They lack the distinctive themes and objectives necessary to construct a sturdy, dominant ideology.
The challenge of evolving a coherent anti-capitalist critique is not merely an intellectual matter. This ambition can only be realised through attempting to assist the reconstruction of the working class as a political force. The intellectual tasks are inseparable from the practical matters. The first step is to account for the experience of defeat. The second is to grasp how this experience influences class relations today. Only then can the battle to evolve a practical, anti-capitalist, intellectual alternative be joined in earnest.
To pursue such an approach will require bringing together those who are prepared to take risks and challenge prevailing conventions and prejudice. In the present climate, when the pressure to conform is palpable, only a small minority can be expected to stand up and fight. Such a minority will no doubt be tempted merely to keep the flame flickering in our dark age. But that is not enough. It is not enough to be right. To be right must involve challenging the myths perpetuated by the system, and reposing the problems of the moment. By so doing, our minority can start to shape the pre-history of the future politics of class.
Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.