Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, February 08, 2008

There may be trouble ahead...

Whenever an economic crisis beckons, and politicians either blame 'global economic trends' or unforeseen developments, or perhaps in a racist fashion desperately look around for scapegoats to blame, it is always worth reminding oneself of the arrogance of the self same politicians before the crisis hit. For the last ten years, while Chancellor of the Exchequer in Britain, Gordon Brown was always stressing how it was his skilled helmsmanship which was solely and entirely responsible for economic stability and success - and so he should therefore quite fairly take full credit for the fact. 'I may be boring and miserable, but judge me on my record as chancellor', Brown would seem to say, while he and New Labour steadily accumulated political and moral capital in the process from the media and commentators as people who supposedly knew what the hell it was they was doing with respect to the economy. Brown's 'prudency' and 'genius' was widely heralded by economists. In the latest Socialist Review, Chris Harman has a quick look at what Brown actually was up to:

Gordon Brown's policy over the past 11 years has been to compensate for the continued destruction of industrial jobs by trying to make London the centre of the world's financial system. As a result the financial crisis can have a proportionately bigger direct effect on jobs here than elsewhere. At the same time, he has less room for manoeuvre than the US government when it comes to trying to keep the economy up by substituting government spending for private borrowing. He began increasing government spending six years ago (after cutting it to the bone in the previous four years), as a way of trying to sustain electoral support and limiting the impact of the last US recession. He is now under pressure to cut spending.

His response so far has been based on his faith that the market can work wonders providing he can keep capitalists happy. Hence his offer of vast amounts of money for a "public private" solution to the Northern Rock disaster. Hence too his insistence on holding down public sector pay.

Such measures are not going to be sufficient to protect British capitalism if the storm brewing in the US comes to a head this year. But they are going to deepen discontent with his government. They can also open many people up to arguments about the insanity of an economic system driven forward by the drive for profit.

The last point is crucial. In general, 'the economy' tends to be portrayed as something above the rest of society, somehow removed, reified and supposedly beyond the comprehension of all except the 'experts' and 'managers'. Trust in the likes of Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling who look suitably serious and dull in grey-suits and all will be well. Bow down to those in power - they know what they are doing.

In a more general sense however, what is striking is that if you have an anarchic system like capitalism, driven solely by competition to relentlessly accumulate profits, then really no political party or politician can take either credit for when capitalism is doing well or blame when capitalism goes into crisis. The free market system is ultimately about luck - Blair and Brown were lucky for ten years or so - but like gamblers ultimately their luck was always going to run out. This is not an argument to say that revolutionary socialists shouldn't fight for social democratic reforms in the face of capitalist crisis, for nationalisation and for democratic public ownership over failing banks like Northern Rock for example - of course we should. Nor should we not hold the likes of New Labour to account for steadily removing the few democratic controls over the economy that did exist and handing them over to unelected central bankers. Rather it is to say that there is no point whatsoever in the politics of social democracy and reformism in general - trying to make capitalism work - we need instead to fight for a completely new way of organising society based on collective democratic planning by those who produce all the wealth in society. And in fighting for such a socialist society we should remember that 'the economy' is always what we as human beings choose to make it - there is nothing that makes capitalism 'eternal' or the free market 'natural'.

To change the subject completely, I would also like to quickly celebrate two facts - firstly, Ipswich Town's historic first away league win of the season, and secondly, the fact that someone has finally come out and said something I have long believed - that the Super NES is the greatest computer console of all time...

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At 11:15 am, Blogger paddington said...

Quite so. Reformism is an end in itself, whereas revolution is a means to fundamental change - I believe I've just cribbed that from Rosa Luxembourg. Although reformism is seen as the more realistic, practical, pragmatic form of progressive politics, actually it is doomed. Even the most radical social reform policy in the history of the UK - the NHS - is steadily being chipped away. As I am about to explain in my next post...

At 6:59 pm, Anonymous mike ely said...

The Kasama site has recently posted the pdf of historical analysis of early communist theory and practice that has previously been unavailable.

It is called
Slipping Into Darkness: “Left” Economism, the CPUSA and the Trade Union Unity League (1929-1935)


This analysis by Mike Ely examines the period considered by some the “good years” (i.e. the revolutionary period) of the Communist Party of the U.S. The piece was originally written in 1980 right after he left the coalfields. It was based on both detailed research into this history and the RCP's own experience of trying to develop revolutionary organization among workers using a left-economist approach.

The article was originally published in Revolution, which was then the theoretical journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party,USA.

This is offered online because it think it raises important questions about how does revolutionary consciousness develop among the oppressed and because it speaks to issues around trade union organizing that have re-emerged among a new generation of revolutionaries.

I look forward to correspondence and discussion with any of you who would like to explore these historical and political questions with me.


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