Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The historical philosophy of Dr. John Reid

Home Secretary John Reid is in the news today for launching an attack on 'political correctness gone mad'. As he put it:

'Like the vast majority of people, I'm sick and tired of this sort of mad political correctness that said you can't wear a crucifix on British Airways, or you can't put up decorations for Christmas, or you can't call Christmas 'Christmas'. I think most people just find this completely over the top and I would rather have a bit of what I call PCS - plain common sense - than PC - political correctness.'

Brave words indeed. No doubt he is in imminent danger of being arrested by the evil tyrannical 'Political Correctness' Thought Police that ruin the lives of 'Ordinary British Hard Working Families' (copyright), and is facing the prospect of spending Christmas behind bars for his stand. No doubt he will be demonised by the tabloid press for such heretical words. Histomat therefore urges readers to rush letters of support to the Home Secretary to support him in his lone struggle against the Liberal Elite who run the Blair Regime.

Or perhaps not. Attacking 'political correctness' has become the last refuge of the scoundrel, and so the first resort of the racist and the bigoted. If Reid gave a shit about the bastards who have really ruined Christmas for workers in Britain this year he might attack the rich bosses of Farepak, or lay into the Chief Executive Officers of Corporations in London who are expected to recieve almost £9 billion in 'Christmas bonuses' while they pay their workers the minimum they can get away with, or indeed often far less. Why doesn't this former member of the Communist Party do that, one wonders?

Part of the answer, I believe, lies in John Reid's historical philosophy, his theory of how society works and changes. Those that doubt Reid has such a theory - and is just a reactionary old git who gets his 'ideas' from the editorials of Rupert Murdoch's Sun should know that he has a PhD in Economic History from the University of Stirling, from which he derives the 'Dr' bit of his name. Entitled 'Warrior aristocrats in crisis : the political effects of the transition from the slave trade to palm oil commerce in the nineteenth century Kingdom of Dahomey', this is apparently a Marxist analysis of political economy of part of West Africa in the epoch of imperialism. This is what this intellectual heavy weight of New Labour, the esteemed economic historian, apparently said in a speech to Party activists in Enfield, London, reported in Metro yesterday:

'History is not static, it is a dynamic process. As the world changes, people's perception of the world and their cares and concerns about it change. That very often means the centre of politics can shift from concern about one issue, say, unemployment 15 years ago, to concerns on another issue because people react to the circumstances in which they live, quite sensibly.'

In other words, while things like pay and conditions at work - or even the basic right to work full stop - might once have been an issue (in the dark days under the Tories, perhaps) now under New Labour, everything is sweetness and light for what was once called the working class. In Britain, workers today have no such worries about boring things like pensions, or housing, or economic insecurity - while thanks to New Labour's humanitarian ethical foreign policy, the life expectancy of working people in Third World countries like Iraq and Afghanistan has altered drastically.

The philosophy behind Reid's thinking unsuprisingly owes something to Karl Marx - or at least to some form of materialist understanding of history. As Marx wrote in 1859, in the Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

So therefore, given the transformed material economic base of British society, given things are so much better for workers under New Labour economically, inevitably the ideas, consciousness, concerns of British people will change as well. This is what Reid is getting at. The problem is though, that when explaining historical change, things are much more complicated than this - as Marx and Engels recognised. As Engels wrote to J. Bloch in 1890:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree. We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one.

In other words, the role of politics also plays a crucial role. By simply focusing on how the economic 'base' shapes the political and ideological 'superstructure', Dr. John Reid is guilty of a crude form of economic determinism that has nothing to do with Marxism, and explains very little about the past. It does however, owe rather a lot to Stalinist distortion of historical materialism - something that should not surprise us given Reid's youthful Communist past. In Stalinist Russia, all sorts of intellectuals praised Stalin's declaration of 'the victory of Socialism' in Russia in 1936, despite the fact that Engels had talked about 'the withering away of the State' under Socialism, and Lenin had stressed that any future Workers State under Socialism would a 'Commune-State' where the fullest democratic rights and freedoms would be enjoyed. Stalinist Russia did operate, to be fair, on a system of 'One Man, One Vote' - Stalin's - but Show Trials, GULAGs and a Police State was not quite what Marx, Engels or Lenin had envisaged.

Reid's Stalinist economic determinism is now the historical philosophy underpinning Blairism. Basically, as long as the system is 'developing the productive forces' and leading to economic development and 'progress', then people not only do not need to worry about things such as unemployment - they no longer need to worry about nuclear proliferation or civil liberties. Our rulers know best - let them govern. 'L'Etat, c'est moi' said King Louis XIV of France, justifying his autocratic powers. 'The State?' - that is our business, not yours.

Louis XIV was echoed by Stalin - and now John Reid is essentially saying the same. The only difference is that, unlike Louis XIV, Stalin and Reid claim to have a magical umbilical cord linking them to the historic needs of the 'working class' - in other words, they know what workers want better than the workers themselves. Both Stalinists and Blairites claim their mandate to do so from their position of state power - so if Reid argues that Britain is in need of a purge of 'political correctness' rather than say, an end to our imperialist and racist foreign policy or a restoration of trade union rights and an increase in the minimum wage, then that is what is wanted. It is only an accident that such an argument also fits with the needs and interests of the richest and most powerful in society as well.

In conclusion, the distinction made by Gramsci between traditional 'state intellectuals' and 'organic intellectuals' might be worth noting. Reid is the archetypal 'state intellectual' - the only difference is that where once he used his 'intellect' to serve the Russian State, now he uses it to serve the British State. As a result, he is playing his noble role in ensuring that, as Marx put it, 'the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class'. What Reid calls 'plain common sense' is merely what Gramsci called 'the day to day ideology of the bourgeoisie'. How very politically correct.

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