Posted in China, World Politics

China and the “End of History”

In the summer of 1989 we were told that “anti-communist protests” were sweeping across the Soviet Union. This was of course a bare faced lie, typical right wing propaganda. The vast majority of Soviet citizens wanted to preserve the Soviet Union (depending on the region that number was in the high 90% of the populace in the referendum). The people, as usual, were betrayed by the rich and powerful who not only totally ignored the wishes of the vast majority of the working people but then lied to the world and claimed to speak for the majority. (As a side note, another lie they told us was that the Soviet Union was broke because of communism. Yeah, well where did all these Russian oligarchs get their money from then? By stealing public resources and funds. The Soviet Union was bankrupted by corruption on an industrial scale which created the Russian oligarchy, not by any communist policies).

So the people were told that communism had failed. Liberal democracy had apparently triumphed against all other ideologies. Fukuyama famously called it “the end of history”, borrowing a phrase that had been used many times before by the likes of Thomas More (Utopia) and even Hegel and Marx.

That we have just lived through a uni-polar ideological age is probably true. Neo-liberalism has been pretty hegemonic for the last 25 years. So the right wing claiming victory is unsurprising. What needs further thought and scrutiny is why the left have bought into this “end of history” type of thinking.

When I was a kid the working class were fighting a ferocious battle against Thatcher and her ilk (mine is the generation that Thatcher stole the milk from). But then Thatcher gave way to Major and a supposedly new way of doing things; Major’s ‘back to basics” when he ordered the Tories to concentrate less on ideology and more on things that actually mattered to people in their daily lives. This was of course just a sham. Ideology never went away. Neo-liberalism just learned to disguise itself as a sort of pragmatism, but it kept doing what neo-liberalism is ideologically driven to do – privatise, privatise and privatise.

After Major came Blair who was supposedly “beyond left and right”, and more recently we’ve had Obama who called for a “declaration of independence from ideology”. And of course, neo-liberalism survived during these two all the while doing what neo-liberalism does – stealing our resources and our wealth. And as that is what the right want they’ve only been to happy to repeat this “end of history” and “end of ideology” nonsense.

While declaring that the old polarities no longer pertain, all the main parties have shifted to the right. In such a political environment it is the left that loses – which is why “left wing” groups like RISE are so dangerous, with their candidates who proudly announce that they’ve never read any political theory “ ‘cos politics is just old men “ (an actual quote from one of their candidates at the last Holyrood election). When parties like RISE reduce politics to single issue campaigns and internet petitions (not that I’m suggesting there isn’t any room for these) it greatly harms the potential for a genuine organised opposition to the status quo.

I’m not advocating getting angry with RISE types, they are just the result of a wider problem of the Western left – its current intellectual bankruptcy. With the exception of perhaps some French Marxists there has been no real attempt recently by the Western left to produce a unified alternative theory to neo-liberalism. They’ve not done this in part because that would be an ideology, or ideologically informed, and they’ve bought into this “end of ideology” rubbish.

Its worth remembering that Fukuyama, unlike say Daniel Bell before him, didn’t actually mean that there was to be no more ideology. For Fukuyama “the end of history” meant the victory of one particular ideology – Western liberal democracy. (For Marx the “end of history” meant the victory of communism). While the likes of Blair and Major may have used the “end of ideology” type rhetoric of Bell, examining their policies highlights that they were more in the Fukuyama camp – that the one true ideology forevermore was to be Western liberal democracy, which to these people is synonymous with free markets and capitalism. And while Western lefties continue to use “end of ideology” or “end of history” type rhetoric the right will continue to dominate – because that type of rhetoric only solidifies the right wing myth that the current neo-liberal inspired policies such as austerity are somehow beyond ideology, as if they are just prudent responses to “natural economic and market conditions”.

While all this has been going on in the West, on the other side of the world an alternative has gradually been gathering strength. Western lefties tend to dismiss China – but that’s just because they’ve unthinkingly swallowed another piece of right wing propaganda, namely that China is just capitalist now. This piece of propaganda relies on Western left wing ignorance of what is actually happening in China, as well on the Western lefties ignorance of their own ideologies, which results in them failing to appreciate that China is still a very Marxist country. Indeed, within in the last few months the Chinese leadership have vowed to continue Mao Zedong’s revolution until the end. But that is sadly a message that is lost on Western “lefties” who lack any understanding of Marxism, economics or ideology.

Is China still Marxist? The answer is an unequivocal yes. They have famously allowed limited capitalism within their borders, but it is very highly regulated and government directed. Make no mistake about it, in China business is subservient to the people via the CPC. Businesses of course have the right to operate, but they have very strict social and environmental responsibilities. Neglect those responsibilities and they lose their right to operate. Attempts by the rich to buy political influence is punishable by jail terms – unlike in the West where that kind of interference in the political process is encouraged by politicians trying to line their own pockets.

We should also remember that the Chinese intellectuals who initially sought Westernisation gave up on this idea a long time ago in favour of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Wang Meng is just one example, an author and former Culture Minister who was once labelled a “rightist” because at the beginning of the opening up period he couldn’t wait to see radical change and Westernisation. “In the 1990s, most of us abandoned the illusion of total Westernisation as we saw the social system was moving forward smoothly,” explained Wang. “We began to think about how we could benefit society and people under the current system. In other words, we became reconciled, at least partly, with the social system. Most intellectuals didn’t stand in opposition to socialism with Chinese characteristics.” So in the words of one of China’s most famous “rightists”, most Chinese intellectuals are not in opposition to socialism – contrary to what you’ll hear in Western propaganda mindlessly repeated by Western “lefties”.

But does this “limited capitalism” mean that technically China is no longer Marxist despite the government, people and intellectuals identifying as Marxist? That’s a firm no, but this one’s a little trickier to explain as it requires some knowledge of Marxist theory.

Let’s start with Hegel and dialectics. Hegel, when putting forward an alternative to Aristotelian logic (analytics), gave us the triad of thesis – antithesis – synthesis (dialectics). In admittedly over-simplistic terms we can explain dialectics like this: the thesis is the original idea, the antithesis is an alternative idea and the synthesis is a sort of compromise between the two – we can say it takes the best of both.

While Hegel used dialectics to explain ideas or arguments (i.e. logic), Marx and Engels took the basics of Hegelian dialectics and applied it to the real physical conditions of the world. This is what we call dialectical materialism and it is used to explain the evolution of societies. Lenin stated that “development is the “struggle” of opposites”. In other words, development and progress is the struggle between the thesis and the antithesis. The thesis represents the way the society currently is, the antithesis represents the way we want it to be, and the synthesis (the new condition of the society that we progress to) is a combination of the two – it contains elements of both the thesis and the antithesis. The synthesis now becomes the new thesis, a new antithesis emerges and the conflict between thesis and antithesis begins again. Those who benefit from the status quo will defend the thesis while those who do not will struggle for the antithesis.

We can see now what China has consciously chosen to do. They were a very hard line Marxist state. But the international community of which they wished to take part in was predominately capitalist. This created a conflict in China between the thesis (those who defended a sort of dogmatic adherence to Marxism) and the antithesis (those who wished to Westernise the country).

If Fukuyama was correct about the “end of history”, China should have become simply another liberal democracy. On the other hand, if the dogmatic Marxists were correct in their understanding of “the end of history” China should have remained as a sort of copy of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Instead, something else has happened. China has found a different way of doing things – a Marxist path to the end of the revolution, but one which has found room for the less insidious aspects of Western capitalism. What they have also shown is that there is no “end of history”. Every new synthesis becomes a thesis, which in turn comes into conflict with its antithesis. Understanding this is, in my humble opinion, key to understanding both Marxism and also why there can be no “end of history”.

Posted in China, World Politics

China puts “People First”

The first official meeting between President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida reconfirmed the long-standing normal relationship between the world’s two largest economies, thus dispelling the previous concerns about the possible confrontation of the two powers.

As Xi put it, “There are a thousand reasons to make the China-U.S. relationship a success, and not a single reason to break it.”

China and the U.S. must cooperate, but the cooperation will never be easy, as the two countries have different ideas about governance and development.

China adheres to the principle of People First while Trump advocates America First. The two slogans sound similar, but they are different in essence.

To the rest of the world, America First means America Only.

At the annual meeting of G20 finance ministers that ended March 13 in Germany, no concrete agreement on free trade and climate change was reached after the U.S. blocked any language that encouraged past commitments on the open flow of goods and services.

Trump  has vulgarised his America First policy as “buy American and hire Americans,” typical ideas of parochialism and protectionism.

But within the USA, America First does not necessarily mean benefits for the majority of the people. Trump proposed repealing ObamaCare. If successful, this would leave millions of Americans without health care again. He has increased military spending dramatically while slashing expenditures on education and scientific research. He even drastically cut down on food stamps for children.

As for China’s People First, in a nutshell, the Communist Party of China represents and serves the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people, rather than that of certain groups.

In a recent speech, a chief Party official warned against some businesspersons’ attempts to acquire political influence and power. The involvement of businesspersons in politics is a global phenomenon except in China.

The CPC is a genuine party of the people, born out of the people, consisting of the people, and working for the people. The nature of the CPC partly explains why China can achieve sustainable development.

Before the founding of the CPC, there had been a number of political parties or forces that attempted to change the miserable fate of China, but none succeeded, because they did not represent the fundamental interests of the majority. Nor did they have the political will or abilities to carry through the arduous task of seeking the liberation and independence of the nation and the people.

A basic knowledge of China’s modern history displays the truth that without the extraordinary leadership of the CPC, China could not have won independence from the grips of foreign invaders and control of foreign powers, not to mention the building of a strong nation.

It was with the support of the people, especially the grass-roots masses, that the CPC, with a will of steel, and solidarity of rock, achieved seemingly impossible feats one after another. It was under the leadership of the CPC that the Chinese people have acquired an unprecedented national sense of cohesion and pride.

The people are to the CPC what water is to fish. That’s the secret of China’s success and that’s a unique political advantage that China possesses over the West.

With the top leadership’s policies and popular will in unison, China is the only country in the world able to implement long-term and short-term plans with high efficiency and little interference and opposition.

That’s why China has lifted the largest population out of poverty within a mere three decades. That’s also why China has morphed from an agricultural society into an industrial one with the best high-speed railways, super highways and mobile payment systems.

Western doctrines define popular election to be the only way to legitimise a government. But the “universal value” has failed to explain what has happened in China. China’s epic achievements in economic and social development have endowed the CPC with indisputable legitimacy.

China’s People First is also an inclusive policy internationally; China seeks shared development and prosperity with other countries.

Posted in China

China is committed to Marxism

(I’m now in China! Being on the other side of the Great Firewall means that Facebook and Twitter are now not an option for me, so I’ll be making more regular use of this blog. I’ve decided to use it to share stories (mostly political) that I come across in China. Happy reading.)

I felt compelled to share this story, mostly because of the lazy lie that we hear in the West that “China is a capitalist country now”. Explaining the differences between capitalism and communism would be a lengthy, and boring, rant. So I’ve decided to tell you all about a speech made by the Chinese President recently. The content of his speech makes it clear that they intend on pursuing a Marxist agenda.

I came across this in an article published by Outlook Weekly. The article recounts an important speech delivered by CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping at a recent seminar for provincial and ministerial officials. Outlook Weekly is regarded as the most authoritative political periodical in China and is dubbed “China’s Time Magazine.”

The article starts with a quote from Xi’s speech: “History indicates that, as a Marxist political party, our Party must have a clear-cut political stance, and conduct intraparty political activities seriously. A clear-cut political stance is the fundamental guarantee for our Party to stay strong. It is also the fundamental way for our Party to improve itself and enhance the Party’s immunity.” Xi Jinping has given the first lecture for the annual seminar for ministerial and provincial officials at the Central Party School at the beginning of each year since the 18th National Congress of the CPC. At this year’s seminar opening ceremony, Xi Jinping expounded on the importance of implementing the spirits of the Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of the CPC, and answered important questions on standardizing intraparty political life and strengthening intraparty supervision. The article revealed that Xi Jinping pointed out prominent problems existing in the Party, gave in-depth analysis of the essence of the problems and their harms, and put forward solutions to the problems.

Every political party has set its political stance since the inception of modern political parties, whether in the West or in the East, the article says. Marxist parties make their political stance most prominently. As a Marxist party, the CPC certainly must have a clear-cut political stance and conduct intraparty political life seriously. The article points out that the history of the CPC has shown that whenever the whole Party sticks to its political stance and has a normal and healthy intraparty political life, the Party will be clean, united and full of vitality; otherwise, it will be plagued by prevalent maladies and low morale.

The article stresses that the “Four Consciousnesses” — “consciousnesses of the ideology, the whole, the core and the line” — hold the key to our political stance, in other words, resolutely upholding and safeguarding General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core leadership of the Party is paramount in our political stance. The article further points out that “Four Consciousnesses” should be put into action, and political disciplines and political rules should be strictly abided by. Every Party member should be absolutely loyal to the Party and the Party’s core at any time and under any circumstances. The leadership core is of vital importance to a state and a party. General Secretary Xi Jinping is the core of the Party’s central leadership, and the core of the whole Party. This reflects the common will of the whole Party and the common aspirations of the Party, the armed forces and people of all ethnic groups in the country. The article requires every Party member to take action to uphold General Secretary Xi Jinping’s core leadership, and stay absolutely loyal to the Party’s core. Resolutely upholding the core is the fundamental test of our political stance.

The article especially points out that the whole Party should be loyal only to the central leadership and no other individuals can have unchecked power. It is politically wrong or even harmful for Party cadres at different levels to call for upholding their own authority and demand loyalty to themselves.

The article explains that the “Four Consciousnesses” and advocation of Xi Jinping’s core leadership are essential now given the current complicated, changing international environment and more difficult tasks for reform and development. This is an inevitable choice for the country to realize the Chinese Dream and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. This is also an essential prerequisite for the Party to solve outstanding problems and strengthen the central leadership. The article points out that as the Party and the country are now at a crucial stage of development, the Party’s unity and advocation of the authority of the central leadership and the party’s core are more necessary than at any time before. Therefore, party organizations at all levels should unswervingly implement the decisions by the party’s central leadership, uphold its authority and keep in line with the central leadership with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core.

The article unequivocally points out that the advocation of a clear-cut political stance is pointedly relevant to reality. The article says that some cadres still regard a political stance as “outdated.” Party members and cadres in some places pay lip service to or play tricks on the implementation of Party disciplines and political rules, using “special circumstances” as an excuse. Some take no action when a few cadres talk irresponsibly about or even smear the central leadership, sowing the seeds of grave incidents. The article states that the essence of the problem lies in the fact that a murky political stance will lead to political mistakes being committed knowingly or unknowingly. The fundamental reason for the corruption of some senior officials lies in the absence of a correct political stance, the article revealed.

The article states that political ability refers to the ability to grasp the direction, learn the trend and overall situation, stay politically committed, and prevent political risks. It urges cadres at all levels to study Xi Jinping’s new ideas and strategies in governing the country, gain more knowledge in economic and social management, and pay special attention to the training of political ability. They should conduct self-reflection to see if they have grasped the correct political direction and if they are strictly abiding by political rules. Leaders should enhance self-discipline, and stay loyal, clean and devoted.

At the end of the article, the author quoted what Xi Jinping said at the CPPCC New Year party: “Vigorously carry forward the spirit of carrying on the revolution to the end.” This inspiring sentence is reminiscent of Chairman Mao Zedong’s New Year address titled “Carry on the revolution to the end.” The article points out that General Secretary Xi’s call requires us to strengthen our belief to carry on the great cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics. And it requires every Party organization and every Party member at all levels everywhere to be united around the central leadership with Xi Jinping as the core, to follow the instructions of the central leadership with Xi as the core, and “roll up our sleeves” to take actions to carry on the CPC-led revolution to the end.

 

Posted in Book Reviews

Marxism and Feminism, by Shahrzad Mojab (ed)

As a man I usually get uncomfortable with asking myself the question, “Am I a feminist?”. Certainly in relation to my political activism I have no real right to call myself one – I simply haven’t done enough to earn that title. On the other hand, I do try to be as supportive as I possibly can of comrades who are pushing to further feminist goals, and I do take part in many discussions on the subject where I try to support and spread feminist ideas. So I guess it really depends on how the question is interpreted.

A related issue, one which arises when I take part in these discussions, is which feminist ideas should I try to support and spread? Feminism after all is not some sort of hive mind, there are many different schools of thought represented under the umbrella term “feminism”. I attended a feminist convention in Russia recently, for example, where there were speakers representing liberal feminism, anarchist feminism, socialist feminism, eco-feminism, radical feminism and so on. With such a diverse range of views within the subject, and often mutually exclusive views, which views should I take away with me as the ones to spread within my community of peers? And how do I, as a man, avoid simply picking and choosing the bits that sit most comfortably with me?

Marxism with its emphasis on the scientific method, and therefore objectivity, allows for those of us who are epistemically barred from the relevant lived experience to nevertheless gain insight. Putting any problem under a Marxists microscope will always illuminate more than it will hide. Now of course Marxism and Feminism have had a somewhat rocky relationship. Marxists haven’t always given enough focus to issues of sex or gender within the class struggle – but likewise feminists have often failed to acknowledge the class dimension to instances of oppression based on sex or gender. It is primarily for this reason that Mojab’s Marxism and Feminism is such an important addition to the literature of both Marxists and Feminists; Mojab is here offering a point of departure from the current way of doing Marxism and Feminism (separately) in favour of a unified Marxist Feminism or Feminist Marxism.

This will no doubt sound like blasphemy to many of today’s activists who promote a very middle class version of feminism – one more concerned with the balance of female CEOs to male CEOs and how much each is paid. But such a feminism fails to represent the vast majority of women, it only cares for the few women who are complicit with their male counterparts in the oppression of the vast majority of other women. Mojab is not afraid to say that today’s feminism is inadequate, and critiques Women’s and Gender Studies programmes in academia for failing to see the patriarchy as a political system that is firmly connected to capitalist social relations by seeing gender-inequality as only a ‘cultural’ issue.

The book itself is a step towards a revolution, a form of resistance written and practiced by Shahrzad Mojab and her allies, and a sound example of dialectical-materialism in action. It is split into three parts, the first of which serves as both an introduction to Marxism and Feminism and a sort of autobiography-cum-history of revolutionary leftism. It tracks Mojab’s own history through social and political movements in her native Iran through to her academic career in the USA. This introduction sets a challenge for the remainder of the book: to explain how and why Marxism and Feminism as two emancipatory projects and two political affinities should be converged despite all political and ideological projects that are committed to diverge them.

The book is ultimately successful in this endeavor, not least because in the second part of the book (which comprises three chapters) Mojab’s co-authors, in particular Bannerji in the third of these chapters, take some time to respond to these “political and ideological projects”. Being critiqued here are the likes of identity politics and intersectionality. Intersectional approaches to issues such as race or gender seem to be largely unquestioned outside of academia (where they are far from universally accepted). In a sense this is understandable, as intersectional approaches are very attractive to those who want to explain the oppression of white homosexual males or rich African-American females, for example. Intersectional approaches, by explaining people in terms of the social identities or where these identities “intersect” (their race “identity”, their gender “identity” etc) is able to make sense of homosexual white men or rich African-American women being oppressed: they are oppressed in some ways while being privileged in others. This just looks intuitively correct to most people.

After reading this section of Marxism and Feminism (especially the chapter by Himani Bannerji) I couldn’t help but feel that a convincing argument had been made against intersectional theories. They didn’t reject the conclusion that people can be privileged in one way but oppressed in others; they demonstrated that we don’t need to invoke intersectionality to arrive at that conclusion, a properly understood marxist feminism / feminist marxism can also account for this intuitively correct observation. Moreover, a feminist marxism avoids some of the problems that intersectional theory is plagued by, such as its almost “Lego” or “Mechano” explanation of human psychology as a mere construction of different social identities. It’s not that we shouldn’t de-construct into separate “social identities”, it’s that we can’t. An individual’s component social “identities” do not exist independently of each other, they are intertwined within that individual’s lived experience. To treat them as separable simply paints a false  and misleading picture.

The final section of the book applies a marxist feminism / feminist marxism to a range of issues which are normally discussed by feminists. Readers will decide for themselves which of these discussions of feminists key words resonates most strongly with themselves; I particularly enjoyed reading Sara Carpenter’s chapter on democracy. Other keywords which receive attention in this section include patriarchy, reproduction and revolution.

Overall, this is a book that deserves to be read. It strikes a good balance between established respected experts and exciting new voices. Shortly the Scottish Socialist Party will seek to put into place conference’s decision to create a political education for the party. I encourage those who will take responsibility for actualising this conference’s decision to consider this book as part of that political education. The ideas advanced in this book have the potential to lead both Feminism and Marxism into a (in this reader’s humble opinion) much needed revival; a revival that I hope the SSP can play a part in.  

 

Posted in Inverclyde Politics, Scottish Politics

John MacLean and Inverclyde

On Friday 30th November 1923 a stunned working class population of Scotland read in their newspapers that their great leader, John MacLean, was dead. He was only 44, but years of selfless toil in the service of the people coupled with the hardships he had suffered during successive terms of imprisonment had seriously undermined MacLean’s health. MacLean’s death was a blow to the working class movement, not only in Scotland, but throughout the world. The esteem in which he was held was reflected at his funeral which was attended by over 10,000 people. The poet Hugh MacDiarmid recalled MacLean with the following words, “Scotland has had few men whose names matter, or should matter, to intelligent people. But of these MacLean, next to Burns, was the greatest, and it should be of him with every Scotsman and Scotswoman to the end of time, as it was of Lenin in Russia. When you might talk to a woman who had been a young girl in 1917 and find that the name of Stalin lit no fires, but when you asked her if she had seen Lenin her eyes lit up and her reply was the Russian word which means both beautiful and red. Lenin, she said, was “krassivy, krassivy”. John MacLean too was “krassivy, krassivy”, a description no other Scot has ever deserved”.

At times it seems like everyone in Scotland claims to be following in the footsteps of MacLean, from the Communist Party on the left to the SNP on the right. This has led many to ask the question, was MacLean a socialist or a nationalist? To those who have studied the man, it is obvious he wasn’t a nationalist. His desire to see Scotland independent was not based on a narrow parochialism, but on a much broader understanding of the necessary eventual failure of the British capitalist class and on a belief in internationalism. In fact, the stand that MacLean took on the topic of Scottish independence in the first few decades of the 20th century are remarkably similar to the stance that the Scottish Socialist Party takes now in the first few decades of the 21st century. While this is now regarded as the obvious moral position of any true socialist, in MacLean’s day it was the opposite and led to many criticisms of the man from people who should really have stood by him. As the referendum has shown, history has proven MacLean to be correct, and so we see many people who were always dismissive of MacLean’s politics on independence (such as the ultra London centric Socialist Workers Party) now try to claim MacLean’s name.

While John MacLean’s legacy belongs to the whole of Scotland, he did of course have a special relationship with Inverclyde, and Greenock in particular. Early in 1908 MacLean issued his first pamphlet, The Greenock Jungle. In this early piece of writing MacLean displayed his characteristic concern for the plight of the working classes and anger at the selfishness and insidiousness of the profit chasing classes. The pamphlet itself was a strong indictment of the slaughterhouse methods and trade in diseased meats that was being carried out in Greenock at the time. This pamphlet was a result of the tireless campaigning MacLean did in Greenock. He could often be found at the gates of the slaughterhouse in what used to be Crown Street, addressing the workers as they arrived for or left work. One such worker is prominent in MacLean’s pamphlet, and I’m certainly interested in finding out more about the person.

The Greenock worker who featured so heavily in Maclean’s pamphlet was a Mr Houston. He plays a central role due to the fact that he was the one who exposed many of the practices being carried out by the owners of the slaughterhouses, which included selling diseased meat for human food. It was a practice that targeted poor people, as any diseased meat would be made into “cheap sausages” for being sold to the working classes. MacLean argued that this was a direct cause of tuberculosis among the working class, and as a result of his campaigning a government inspector was appointed to investigate the slaughterhouse conditions.   

Mr Houston deserves further mention for his role in these events. As a socialist, he was fully aware that he was risking his own job by exposing the practices of the slaughter house owners, but he did so anyway as he was driven on by a desire to protect his own class from disease and death. Mr Houston, after 31 years of service, was forced out of work as a result of his whistleblowing. His employer was a broker, who the owners of the slaughterhouses boycotted until they got rid of Mr Houston. When the pamphlet was published, Mr Houston had already been unemployed for 8 months, and MacLean makes an appeal in it to the good people of Greenock to assist in finding Mr Houston new employment. They certainly owed much to him, given his selfless defence of their health to his own detriment. So while the guilty owners continued to enjoy the profits of their enterprises, for only protecting others Mr Houston ended up in poverty. MacLean commented, “Why should the guilty one enjoy such a great privilege, while the innocent one must suffer the worries of unemployment, and the fears and forebodings accompanying the prospect of immediate financial ruin”. MacLean is commenting here on a theme that continues to this day, when we think about the persecution of the likes of Snowden and Manning. I don’t know what eventually became of Mr Houston, if anyone does know I would be delighted to hear from you.

Of course, this affair was not the only time MacLean would visit these parts. We find many references in the history books to MacLean coming here to address the working class. One such reference captures perfectly MacLean’s attitude and enthusiasm for politics. A member of the Scottish District Council recorded, “I stayed with John MacLean and I must say he is the most earnest worker for socialism I have ever met. He has just spent his seven weeks’ holiday preaching socialism in the North of England and Scotland. On my last day he arranged a sail down the Clyde, getting back to Greenock in time to give my last address. After I had left to catch my train to London, MacLean stepped onto the platform and went on with the meeting.”

MacLean also gave up much of his free time to give education to working men and women, and was often giving evening classes in Greenock on the topic of Marxist economics.  

For many though, MacLean will always be remembered as a great anti-war hero, and it is probably for this reason more than any that his memory is so dangerous to the British ruling class, to the extent that his name doesn’t even appear in the approved school text books from which our children learn about the first world war. There is as much a need today for MacLean’s message as there was during that terrible war. As we see our country drift closer and closer to militarism, we need those voices who speak out, those who see the working class as more than mere cannon fodder to be used by our imperialist masters in their illegal wars. The poppy, once a symbol of remembrance of all those wasted lives is now being used by right wing politicians as a symbol of British exceptionalism. We have TV adverts from companies such as Sainsbury’s portraying the First World War as a rather pleasant experience. And now we even have the Royal British Legion attempting to sanitise the war by releasing heavily edited versions of an anti war song, The Green Fields of France, which omits any criticism of the war.

What MacLean knew was that, despite the jingoism and propaganda from the British state, the First World War was not fought to keep us safe. It was a war for colonies, for spheres of influence, for markets. In other words, it was a war for profits. A great Scot and contemporary of MacLean said: “If these men must die, would it not be better to die in their own country fighting for freedom for their class, and for the abolition of war, than to go forth to strange countries and die slaughtering and slaughtered by their brothers that tyrants and profiteers might live?” These sentiments were shared by MacLean.

In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, Britain had seen a great deal of left wing activity, and MacLean was certainly recognised as one of the stalwarts of the left. Between 1911 and 1914 trade union membership had doubled, and Brits were increasingly active in the internationalist socialist circles as well. At the Internationalist Socialist Congress in Copenhagen British socialists were amongst those who agreed that “should war break out, their duty is to intervene to promptly bring it to an end and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination”.

Instead, and much to MacLean’s dismay, when war did indeed break out, many of these same socialists entered their national governments to help the war effort. Leading British socialists, such as Hyndman, actively and enthusiastically supported the war – including speaking on recruitment platforms. While a majority of socialists in the country didn’t sink this low, many did argue that the war could be supported on grounds of defence, to keep us safe from supposed German aggression.

MacLean had no time for either position. He argued right from the start that the war couldn’t be defended on any terms. “Plunderers versus plunderers with the workers as pawns. It is our business as socialists to develop class patriotism, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism”. MacLean was clear that only socialists could bring about an acceptable end to the war. He insisted that a capitalist settlement of the war could only lead to further wars between the capitalist powers. His position stood out like a sore thumb at the time, but has proven to be correct as the settlement reached at the end of that war lead directly to that other great war of the 20th century – the second world war.

When we look back at the First World War through the eyes of the British state and its propaganda machine, the main stream corporate media, we would be forgiven for believing that there was universal and enthusiastic support for the war in the country. We’re told that “conscientious objectors” were widely hated and considered to be cowards. This of course is a complete misrepresentation of history. The war was in fact deeply unpopular with the population, and there were massive anti-war demonstrations all over the country. In fact, the anti-war movement during the First World War was even larger than what greeted New Labour when they made the despicable and illegal decision to take us to war in Iraq. The greatest threat to Lloyd George’s terrorist regime in London was not the German troops, but the anger of the British working class, which in Scotland was lead by MacLean. In order to impose their will and ensure their monarch got his war with his German cousin, the London government had to enact a series of emergency draconian laws to control the workers, which included suspending many civil liberties and making it illegal to strike.

To MacLean they were even more severe. For speaking out against their war, the British ruling class twice had MacLean jailed in Peterhead. The treatment he received while he was locked up was horrendous, he was drugged and force fed, and this time inside had such an adverse affect on his health that it contributed to his early death in 1923. That the ruling class would turn on MacLean is no surprise. He was after all, according to their own head of military intelligence Basil Thompson, the most dangerous man in Britain. Basil Thompson, we now know from declassified documents was involved in a deliberate campaign to smear MacLean by spreading rumours about his sanity.

The British State knew fine well that MacLean was sane, but the British left were only too keen to jump on this particular bandwagon. MacLean stood for an independent Scotland, which has earned him an everlasting vilification by the British left. All the British writing about MacLean declare him to be insane. Even today, the Socialist Workers Party continues to vilify MacLean due to his stance on independence.  Their reasoning is easy to understand, as due to their own political bigotry they are unable to view any Scot who does not want to be ruled by London as anything other than insane or fascist or racist. Any slander will do.

While the British left vilified MacLean, to the Scottish left he was a hero. Beyond this island he was held in the highest regard by international socialists. In recognition of his principled stand against the mass slaughter of ordinary people in the First World War the Bolsheviks elected MacLean an Honorary President of the First All Russian Congress of Soviets, along with Lenin, Trotsky, Liebknecht, Adler, and Spiridonova, which was ecstatically received on his beloved Clyde; an area which had become known as Red Clydeside due to the likes of MacLean and many others. He became Lenin’s man in Scotland when the Soviet leader ordered that the Russian Consul be handed over to him. He was refused a visa to visit Russia; he could have travelled illegally but decided not to.

It was a tactical error on MacLean’s part and one which only increased his isolation in British politics. As it transpired, a certain Willie Gallagher took the opportunity to meet Lenin which MacLean had passed up. Like other revolutionaries of the period, MacLean hadn’t fully grasped the significance of the Bolshevik Party, even after the October revolution. With the encouragement of Lenin, Gallagher became instrumental in setting up the Communist Party of Great Britain, largely funded by Moscow wealth. The Bolsheviks regarded MacLean as the authentic voice of the revolution in Britain but he never joined the new party, although he remained a convinced revolutionary and supporter of Lenin.

His own party would never enjoy the success that MacLean’s popularity seemed to indicate it should. Party membership never amounted to more than a few hundred, and votes never more than a few thousand. His tactical errors in failing to meet with Lenin or secure funding from the Soviets were fatal to his political career. He continued to campaign for the Scottish working class right up to his death, but sadly left nothing behind in way of a Bolshevik style political organisation.

Rather than fade into political obscurity, however, MacLean remains every bit as relevant today as he was to those countless working class men who were sent to their unnecessary deaths during the Great War, or to Mr Houston whom he personally campaigned for when the bosses turned on him. Today, MacLean’s message about the necessity of revolution appeals to a new generation who are clamouring for real political change.

In May 1918, when facing jail for inciting the workers to transform war into revolution, he made his famous speech from the dock:

“I am not here as the accused – I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot. In the next five years there is going to be a great world trade depression and the respective governments must turn more and more to the markets of the world to get rid of their produce. And in fifteen years time from the close of this war we are into the next war – if capitalism lasts we cannot escape it. My appeal is to the working class. I appeal exclusively to them because they, and they alone, can bring about the time when the whole world will be in one brotherhood, on a sound economic foundation. That, and that alone, can be the means of bringing about a reorganisation of society. That can only be obtained when the people of the world get the world and retain the world.”

MacLean stood for internationalism, socialism and independence. That message is relevant now more than ever. We must keep the memory of MacLean alive, to ensure that the message did not die with the man.

Posted in Political Philosophy

On Arguing About Racism

My purpose in writing this piece is to try to offer a way to move beyond a current impasse in anti-racism dialogue. The problem arises when the question of whether or not white people can experience racism is asked. On one side are those who argue that white people can not experience racism because racism involves “power plus privilege”, and as we live in a “global white supremacist hegemony” then by definition it is impossible for white people to suffer racism. On the other side we have people pointing out fairly regular occurrences of white people being targeted for abuse simply for being white, which to them is ample evidence of white people actually suffering from racism. The two sides are locked in disagreement, which often descends into nonsensical arguments and accusations of the other side “being part of the problem” of racism. As a result, genuine action against racism is almost zero while student types control the discourse demanding that everyone else accept their definition of a word and verbally abusing anyone who disagrees with them.

I’ve experienced the arrogance of these (usually) white middle class anti-racists recently. The type who with no sense of irony demand that we adopt the definitions they learned on sociology degrees at white middle class first world universities, while simultaneously accusing anyone who rejects these definitions as being part of the “global white supremacist hegemony” problem. For full disclosure, I think white people can suffer from ‘racism’, but that is just because I recognise a rather mundane aspect of the English language – words can have more than one definition. So when we say a black person in America suffered from racism and then also say a white person in Scotland suffered racism, although we have used the same word (racism) we are not equating the two situations. Unfortunately this is not enough for some. I was previously told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome in either the SSP or RISE because I identify as a Marxist. That has now been followed up with me being told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome because I don’t share the stance that the “power plus privilege” definition of racism is the only acceptable definition. So as it stands I am currently in a state of limbo, I don’t actually know whether I’ve been expelled from SSP and/or RISE for not thinking in the way dictated that I should. I await an official communication from them to settle this one way or the other.

As I said above, I think white people can suffer racism. What usually happens when I say that is I’m then challenged to explain how this can be so, when white people have the privilege. This response misses the point, I tell them, I’m speaking from a different definition of racism. Call the “power plus privilege” definition racism-Φ, and call white people being abused for being white racism-Ψ. We can then see the mistake more clearly: I say “white people can suffer racism-Ψ”, to which it is argued “white people have privilege so can’t suffer racism-Φ”. It misses the point, they are talking passed what I said. When I point this out, that there is more than one definition in play here, they challenge me to explain why my definition should be used instead of theirs. Again, this misses the point. Words can have more than one meaning. These meanings don’t compete with each other, neither is independently more valid than the other. Competent users of a language can more often than not easily deduce what meaning of a word is being used based on the context. If we are talking about a black person in America we are using the racism-Φ meaning; the power plus privilege meaning. If we are talking about a white person in Scotland we are using the racism-Ψ meaning.

My hope here is that we can start to make progress, and get beyond this artificial barrier created by an inability of certain people to accept that others use language differently. Neither side is right or wrong in their usage of the language, they are just different. Certainly, if someone interrupts a discussion about police racism against the African-American population of the USA by saying something like, “yeah, but white people also suffer racism”, then that person is mistaken. Their mistake, however, was in the use of the word ‘also’ not in the use of the word ‘racism’. The word ‘also’ here conflates the different meanings of the word racism, it deliberately equivocates racism-Φ with racism-Ψ in order to shut down a discussion. These people need to be challenged, but it does not follow from this that every person who says that white people can suffer from racism also need to be challenged. To do so just leads to a situation where various injustices are competing with each other to demand our attention, with certain people claiming that only the genuinely ‘racist’ injustices should be tackled. We should reject this position, and to paraphrase Che, we should shake with indignation at EVERY injustice, not try to be clever about which ones deserve our attention and which ones don’t.

This problem finds it roots in the identity politics which currently infects most of the left. As with many modern feminists, the modern anti-racist movement has also lost any sense of class consciousness. This common problem between the two is most visible in the question of domestic labour, which is now largely understood in terms of “unpaid labour” and income for housework. Income is a matter of consumption; class is a question of production. Rarely do modern feminists or anti-racists struggle against the existing labour relations based on the hegemony of global capital. The few exceptions were the historical-materialist feminists and anti-racists of the 70’s and 80’s, who engaged the class consciousness of gender, race and sexuality. Unfortunately this work has largely been abandoned and cut off by the modern feminists and anti-racists due to the rise of identity politics amongst the left.

Racism, contrary to Foucauldian theory, is not simply a matter of asymmetrical power relations. Nor is gender, nor is sexuality. Racism (even understood as only racism-Φ) is not simply oppression, it is not simply the exercise of power by whites over blacks. There is a lot more going on here than simply white versus black. Power is the social and political manifestation of the ownership of the means of production. Clearly the means of production are overwhelmingly owned by whites, but it is a failure of logic to conclude from this that all white people are therefore part of the “global hegemony”. The vast majority of whites don’t own the means of production either. This gives the modern anti-racist a problem if they get this far: it appears that if they are intent on demanding the “power plus privilege” definition of racism be the only one permitted then they are going to have to accept that the vast majority of whites can not be racist, as they have neither the power nor the privilege that comes with ownership of the means of production.

At this stage they play what they believe to be their trump card. All dialogue, they claim, is created by the “global white hegemony” to protect itself, so by taking part in this dialogue all white people are in fact talking from a position of power and privilege as they are talking from the position of the white supremacists. Now I’m no stranger to the argument that the media and politicians use language in a certain way to protect the power of the ruling class, I made that very argument in a previous contribution to this site. However, in claiming that it’s not only the media and politicians but the population at large who take part in this sort of power preserving dialogue, the ‘white middle class-ness’ of these sorts is painfully apparent. Remember, the people I’m talking about here include EC members of the SSP and prominent members of RISE (Scotland’s Left Alliance). They are supposed to represent Scotland’s working class, but comments like these create the impression that they have never actually conversed with anyone from the lower classes. Our language in no way whatsoever resembles the language of the ruling class. If a Rupert Murdoch or Prince Charles were to find themselves in a housing estate in Glasgow or Inverclyde or Dundee they would find the locals totally incomprehensible. The language used by the working class has often evolved through conflict with the ruling class, not to protect it. The language of the working class is rooted in our working class communities, not in some hidden conspiracy to protect the capitalists. And this language which evolved independently and in conflict with the capital hegemony also includes the way many working class people use the term racism (i.e. racism-Ψ). Nothing could be more hegemony protecting than demanding we drop our working class usage of the language in favour of a usage supplied by first world white middle class university students.

Posted in Political Philosophy

Marxism, the Proletariat and the Working Class

“The proletariat is not the working class. All of Marxism has misinterpreted Marx in confusing the two”. (Bernard Steigler, 2010)

“The lower strata of the middle class – the small trades-people, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and peasants – all these sink gradually into the proletariat…  Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

Marxism has a problem, and while many have noticed it Steigler addresses it in his 2010 work For a New Political Economy as part of his project of applying the Marxist method to the modern economy. Those who have held the mistaken belief that the proletariat is synonymous with the working class will be surprised by some of the conclusions Steigler (begins) to draw. In the short piece that follows I will try to sketch out the correct way to understand the proletariat, and think about what that means in today’s economic and social reality.

Now I don’t want to suggest that the entire history of Marxism is somehow redundant because of this common misunderstanding. It’s not. But to truly understand our reality it’s important to correct this misunderstanding. There are of course very good reasons why people have historically misinterpreted Marx in this way. Marx did at least two things. He gave us a scientific method with which to critique our society, and he applied that method to his own time and place. In Marx’s time and place, at the early stages of capitalism, it could have been correct that the proletariat was limited to the working class. That is just an observation, a snap shot if you will, of that particular moment in history. It should not mean that we forever use the terms working class and proletariat interchangeably. To do so would be to confuse Marx’s method with the particular results gained from that method at an arbitrary point in history. When we apply the Marxist method to the economies of today’s world we find that the processes of proletarianisation, the processes which act upon members of the proletariat, have acted upon a wider range of the society than in Marx’s day. This points to the simple fact that the proletariat is wider than merely the working class.

A very simple Marxist definition of “proletariat” is those who do not have ownership of the means of production and whose only means of subsistence is to sell their labour. There are some well known objections to this definition, such as pointing out certain groups of people who don’t seem to fit into either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. I am of the opinion that this simple definition is indeed inadequate, but can be salvaged by in some way making reference to the processes of proletarianisation. That is an intuitive feeling I have, I don’t pretend to have found an unproblematic way to solve the problem. Needless to say the existence of the proletariat is not in any doubt, the history of class struggle is ample evidence that the proletariat is a real aspect of our society. Although for the sake of philosophical completeness I would like to see a definition that truly captures the essence of the proletariat, and that is where I find the simple definition above to be lacking.

So what are these processes of proletarianisation? Most of us who have been taught Marxist thought (sadly not nearly enough of us) will probably have been taught about alienation. It’s quite a simple avenue by which to gain access to Marxism. Simply put, alienation is a sort of estrangement of people from aspects of their humanity. This is usually taught in regards a worker’s relation to his own labour.  In capitalist society each worker becomes an instrument or a thing, not a person. The advent of Fordian or “assembly line” production took this further. Each part of the production process was identified and delegated to different workers, with none of the workers knowing the full “beginning to end” of the production. In Steigler’s terminology, the workers had become separated from savoir-faire; literally “knowledge of how to do” although better understood as “skills”. The craftsmen of old had owned their own labour, had known their endeavours intimately and made a living by selling the products of those endeavours. Not so with the newly emerged working class. They didn’t own their own labour; they sold it to the capitalist class in return for just enough money to survive. Further, another process was becoming evident, one that removed knowledge from the workers and placed it in systems out with their control. The result is alienation, the processes that result in alienation can be thought of as proletarianisation. The proletariat are those upon whom the processes of proletarianisation act, regardless of whether or not they have resulted in some form of alienation yet.

That is the account of proletarianisation or alienation that is typically taught at schools and colleges. It is one very much rooted in Marx’s own experience of life in the Industrial Age. When we consider modern times, the Information Age, we see the same processes in action – but now in different ways. In the Industrial Age it was skilled workers who became estranged from their labour, in the Information Age we see this occurring with knowledgeable workers. Information technology has reached a stage whereby anything we could want to know is easily available at the touch of a few buttons (or a touchscreen). When we phone a company for specialist advice, often we find ourselves talking to someone in a call centre somewhere who merely inputs information you give them into a computer and then respond to you by following the on screen prompts. We no longer speak to experts. Once again, knowledge has been removed from the worker and placed in external systems (literally into the computer systems in this case). The result being workers who are estranged from the knowledge they are working with.

This is isn’t restricted to workers either. It extends into our lives away from work. How many of us shop online now? This probably involves simply buying whatever recommendation the system makes. I’m certainly not immune to this. I just bought flights to Russia. It was as simple as typing “Glasgow to St Petersburg” into Google on my iPhone, then purchasing one of the (cheaper) results. My knowledge of making travel arrangements is now reduced to knowledge of how to use my phone. All other aspects of that knowledge (such as knowledge of routes, which airlines fly where, etc) are contained in the IT systems. Knowledge of how to get myself from here to there has begun to be removed from me and put into the modern information systems. It’s not only travel arrangements where this is happening either. As more of our consumerist habits take place online, so more of our savoir-vivre (“knowledge of how to live”, to borrow another of Steigler’s phrases) is lost to us and relocated to external systems.  (Arguably this proletarianisation of consumers actually started with the advent of supermarkets.)The result, and one which Marx could not have predicted, is that it’s not just as workers that we find ourselves in the proletariat, it is also as consumers.

It is not just among members of the bourgeoisie that we find evidence of the spread of proletarianisation either. The 2008 economic crash suggests that these processes are now working on those many of us would consider to be the elites. Just think of the confusion when the crash happened. Many of the so called experts just didn’t see it coming. And in hindsight why would they have? Far from being experts, they are simply the assembly line equivalents of the financial industry. They may know their own little part of the gig inside out, but they lack that “beginning to end” knowledge that assembly line production removed from the factory worker. The financial elites, or at least the lower strata of those elites, have been deprived of the knowledge of their own financial industry, and without that bigger picture view they were unable to see the trends careering towards global financial catastrophe. Many bankers, simply responding to data and prompts much like the call centre worker, have become grossly overpaid proles!

Posted in Political Philosophy

Socialist Language (updated version)

I have noticed a rise in the number of articles recently that make an appeal for socialists to stop using socialist jargon. This has coincided with a large number of (mostly younger) socialists demanding that no “old language” be used at all as it (somehow) harms socialism. I have been accused personally of being harmful to the cause because of the language I use. I challenge those making the accusations to go through any of my writing or radio broadcasts, all of which are freely available, and point out to me the harmful language that I use and suggest what I replace it with. So far none of them have taken me up on this offer. I guess that’s because that while I write from a (post-)Marxist perspective I tend to use my normal daily language to do so. Sure I use the occasional “comrade” when greeting party members, but I’ve yet to be given a credible reason why I shouldn’t. If you don’t like it I won’t call you “comrade”, but don’t tell me I can’t use it at all!

This is almost always related to another problem, those who say things like “Marxism is irrelevant today”. It tends to be the same people saying these things. They will tell you quite freely that they don’t understand Marx, but without any sense of the irony will make grand sweeping statements about how irrelevant Marx is anyway. Now while it’s true that not all socialists self-identify as Marxists, since at least the First World War all socialism has to one extent or another been influenced by Marx. We may argue about the degree to which Marx is still relevant (I will do something approaching that below) but it is astounding ignorance to claim the entire history of Marxist thought is now irrelevant.

When writing about what sort of language socialists should be using, there is a risk of setting off quite a heated debate about what at first looks like a fairly mundane topic. There are bigger things to worry about surely? Privatisation of the NHS, low wages, zero hours contracts, illegal wars, nuclear weapons stored on our territory against our will, discrimination, racism, etc. With all of that going on, why worry so much about whether or not the proper way to greet a fellow socialist is a friendly, “Hi comrade”? Looks can be deceiving. Language is incredibly important to all of us; both at a personal level and at the level at which certain groups are able to control society.

At the personal level language is how we ‘interface’ with our environment; it is how we connect the inner workings of our own mind with the outside world. It is how we think, it is how we communicate our own thoughts with other people and it is how we assimilate what is being shared with us. There is of course a need, therefore, to find the best way to express our socialist arguments so that others are able to properly assimilate them into their own understanding of the world. That is the spirit in which the younger socialists I mentioned above have made their appeal that we avoid certain aspects of our socialist language.  We have to be careful, however, not to put up barriers to those who are already totally comfortable using the so-called obscure socialist terminology. If we tell them they are not allowed to use that language we are effectively stopping them from taking part in the debate. We are removing from them their own means of thinking about the issues and communicating their thoughts on those issues.

At the level of social control language is crucial, as those who control the language control the society. George Orwell was perhaps the first to recognise this, and his invented language of Newspeak in the novel 1984 was an attempt to display this thought. Recall that Newspeak consisted solely of jargon in which heretical ideas became impossible to express or even to think. In today’s world, real life examples of Newspeak are rife in the jargon laden languages of politicians, business leaders and media who limit language in order to preserve their own power and privilege. Their demand that any criticisms be translated into their own language before they’ll take them seriously is intended to crush the possibility of articulating ideas dangerous to the status quo. My concern with those on the left who demand that we translate our language in this way is that they have been naively convinced by the demands of these people. Their arguments about why we should change our language usually tend to centre round feelings of embarrassment and a belief that we’ll be taken seriously if our language were to mimic that found in the modern media. The demands of the powerful, however, were designed deliberately to invoke this sort of reaction in the knowledge that if we do give up enough of our language then we have essentially conceded control.

Before Orwell, Marx himself had understood that the “bourgeoisie” language had evolved in such a way as to obscure the realities of “real life” (although he never made the connection to social control that Orwell later would). During his engagement with the problem of democracy, Marx tackled the larger issue that he called “bourgeoisie categories of thought”, which are essentially ways in which the new capitalist states categorised their ideas of freedom, equality and liberty. In The German Ideology he explores how these categories actually obscure our understanding of the realities of social conditions and relations. The “bourgeoisie” language (or “modern” language in today’s debate) was therefore unsuitable for an account of life as it is actually lived under capitalism (Marx uses the term ‘civil society’ to refer to this reality).

So this debate about the language we use is not new; it has been hotly debated by socialists for well over one hundred years now. In the current incarnation of the debate it’s argued, “It’s not that we should attempt to “dumb down” our arguments so much as that we should be trying to make these arguments relevant to the day to day struggles of the working person.” When framed in this way the argument certainly has a sort of intuitive appeal to it, although it completely misses the point that this is exactly why socialists (Marxists in particular) have historically wanted to avoid the bourgeoisie/modern jargon (again, think of Marx and ‘civil society’). If we want people to agree with and accept our message then of course we have to present it to them in a way that they will understand it. However, I think this type of argument is in danger of becoming elitist and extremely dismissive of the working class. It is the type of argument made by champagne socialists, the sort who think they are superior to the “poor workers”. The working class do not generally struggle to understand complex ideas or language. Just go into Tesco, pick up a “hobby” magazine (about fishing or photography as an example) and look at the language in there. It is incredibly technical and complicated at times, but that’s no barrier to us down here in the working class from understanding it. If we don’t need to constantly translate fishing and photography magazines into a simpler language, why the constant demand we do so for our socialist arguments? The claim, I guess, is that by using language that is obscure we are behaving in a rather self defeating way. Our “obscure socialist language”, some have said, alienates us from the people we are trying to reach because it is just irrelevant to their day to day struggles.

The difference of opinion that this issue generates could be due to the issue is not actually being as straightforward as it first appears. Is the problem that socialist language is irrelevant, or is the problem that it is obscure? These are clearly two different problems, but I believe that most appeals to change our socialist language are guilty of conflating the two. If there are two different issues here, it could well be the case that they require two different solutions.

Consider for a moment an unrelated example: phlogiston. In the past, students of chemistry would talk of grand and complicated theories about phlogiston, which was believed to be an element stored in physical objects and that was released during combustion. Of course, talk of phlogiston must sound extremely obscure. How many people have ever heard it mentioned? It is also completely irrelevant as we now know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. The correct thing to do with regards phlogiston language was to stop using it.

The question seems to be, how much does socialist language resemble phlogiston language? Phlogiston language was both obscure and irrelevant. This does not seem to be the case with socialist language. No doubt contained within the millions of words written about socialism we will come across some aspects which are both obscure and irrelevant. The correct thing to do with those aspects is to stop using them (if anyone still does). That seems like an obvious truth, one that doesn’t really need to be argued for. The vast majority of socialist language is clearly not of this sort. It may be obscure, or it may be irrelevant, but it is rarely both.

Some famous quotes from Marx might help illuminate this point. Let’s start with, “In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety” as found in Das Kapital. If you were to give this quote to people and ask them to explain it, most I’m sure would be extremely puzzled by it. Its meaning is quite obscure, at least to those not familiar with Marxist economics. Marx is talking about what today we would call Ponzi schemes. In fact, even putting it in today’s language and calling it a Ponzi scheme rather than stockjobbing doesn’t really make it any less obscure. It is however totally relevant. It is exactly these sorts of economic practices that can wreck national or global economies, and as such exactly the sort of thing socialists should be trying to warn the working class about. Its obscurity does not seem to translate into a reason to stop talking about it, and no-one seems to be suggesting that we stop using the phrase “Ponzi scheme”.

Contrast this with, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, the famous line found in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), although first used as a slogan by Louis Blanc in 1851. There is no obscurity here; the meaning is blatantly obvious (hence why it makes a good slogan). It is, however, a slogan that we should probably stop using. If we are aiming to make life better for the masses then this quote is totally irrelevant, as a real life implementation of this would be no Utopia. Arguably the Soviet Gulags were organised on this principle, where prisoners were given the basic minimum of their needs while it was demanded that each work to their maximum ability, until such time as death intervened. A state of affairs that in no way would make the life of the masses any better were it to be implemented generally!

Even if we were to be generous to Marx, and grant that this principle would not result in an über-Gulag type society, it is still not clear that this principle bears any relevance to the modern worker. While Marx gave us a scientific critique of capitalism, which enabled him to predict many subsequent developments, one thing which he failed to predict was the rise of consumerism. Today workers do not work just to meet their needs. They also work to satisfy their desires, such as a holiday abroad every year, the latest gadgets, a nicer car, etc. (Without going into the details, Marx was of course aware of a difference between needs and desires. In fact, his account of the development of culture was based on desires. This sort of desire however has a different psychological explanation than consumerist desires.  Some post-Marxists differentiate between desires and drives to make a distinction.) While combating the excesses of consumerism is of course a battle that socialists should take on, to only promise people that their needs will be met in a socialist society seems to fundamentally misunderstand the psychology of the modern worker and is very unlikely to win much support. This seems like the sort of thing we should stop saying despite it not being obscure in the slightest, and despite it not being the type of language that those suggesting we make changes have in mind.

I don’t suggest that any of the above is conclusive. I do hope that it highlights that the issue is not as straight forward or as obvious as some have claimed. There does certainly seem to be a case to demand that we drop all “irrelevant” language from our discourse. It is not always obvious, however, which aspects of our socialist language are irrelevant, and when it is irrelevant its irrelevance is usually unrelated to whether or not it is obscure.

Now, after saying all that and after expressing how important I think this debate is, I want to suggest that we don’t overstate the importance of saving particular words from those who are intent on trimming our socialist vocabulary. Marxism is not akin to a religious doctrine, it is not something whose specific content is to be taken as a universal truth. Instead, Marxism is a method for understanding our social-economic reality. It is the tools rather than the finished product. So in this sense at least we don’t need to worry about saving every piece of jargon, so long as we have another ready to take its place. We should be wary, however, that nothing quite captures the meaning of a word like that word itself. When we stop ourselves from using certain words, we are left with words which only give us an approximation of the meaning we are trying to convey. If we use too many approximations it is unclear whether we can actually claim to be conveying our message at all. So if we are to make any changes to our socialist language, we had better be damn sure that the Marxist method can be properly understood and learned in our “new” language, whatever that may be.