Barry Biddulph reviews, Beyond Capitalism by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy (Zero Books 2012) ,£11.99.
Luke and Simon’s starting point is the observation that the “dramatic growth of the radical left after 1968 and the much more modest gains made after the mass movements of 2011, underlie the fact Marxism has lost its position as the natural ‘go to’ in politics” (1). Speaking from experience of 1968 and 2011 this is certainly a correct assessment. It’s also, a revealing conclusion. What does it say about the record of the Leninist left since 1968 ? They dodge this question. Instead, they side step any criticism of the Bolshevik heritage by simply declaring that the common perception of Leninism as top down organisational control and sectarian splitting “does not accord with the totality of the Russian experience” (2). Explicit Leninism is placed on one side for flexibility and popular appeal.
As Luke and Simon argue, young anti-capitalists value social struggle from below rather than relying on bureaucratic hierarchies. Trade union officialdom is a good example of bureaucracy and hierarchy, yet for Simon and Luke, “this should be the time when the unions come forward to do their job as defensive organisations” (3). But are the trade unions fit for purpose: can they defend their members pensions, jobs and conditions? Even before the onset of Thatcherism and the anti-union laws, trade unions accepted capitalist realism. Trade union leaders are not just mediators between the bosses and the workers in the factories, and offices, they often enforce the requirements of the state and capitalism. It was the rank and file workers who went outside the official trade union structures in the 1960’s, and 1970’s to force up living standards by unofficial action. The recent successful wild cat strikes by the Sparks was a throw back to this tradition.
Before Neo-Liberalism, the trade union leaders still helped to manage capitalism and police their own members. But as Will Hutton notes “they could not deliver their members to agreed policies,” (4) or a pay freeze, and wage restraint. So trade union officialdom had to be strengthened by the rule of law. Now, as Simon and Luke describe it, most of the anti-trade union laws today are implemented by the trade Unions themselves: the appointed regional official will tell workers they cannot strike. But does the trade union bureaucracy have an organic connection with the working class? And did this bureaucratic link, in turn, give old Labour an organic connection with the working class ? These are not questions Simon, and Luke raise. They still cling to old Trotskyist tactics, which are not consistent with the values of struggle from below.
The authors believe there is a qualitative difference between Old and New Labour. They declare that New Labour opened up a “radically different era in the history of the Labour Party” (5 ). New Labour was modern: it was cool Britannia, technocratic, and vaguely ethical. But there is nothing new about this; Harold Wilson was a modern leader with a vision of the white heat of the technological revolution. For Ramsay MacDonald, socialism was all about an ethical community. They go on to assert that, “New Labour broke with the politics of class” (6). New Labour’s crime was in “dismantling a mass pole of opposition to Neo-Liberalism that was based on the working class movement” (7). They even claim Old Labour was “never overtly pro-capitalist in its message” (8). All this tired ‘thinking’ is wrong and a distortion of history. The Labour party originated, not as a party of a class, hence the label Labour not Socialist, but as a one nation party. Keir Hardie won the vote against those who argued that the Labour party should be based on the class struggle and socialism.
The parliamentary Labour Party has had a pro capitalist message throughout its history. It was against the General Strike, opposed miners strikes, sent in troops against dockers on strike, blamed workers for any economic crisis, appealed for the suspension of the class struggle to work for the election of a Labour Government, called for workers to make a sacrifice for the national interest, and pioneered Neo-Liberalism in 1976. Public ownership was never about democratic control. Mass council house building was based on the capitalist market and the private sector. The Attlee government revived failing capitalist enterprise with nationalisation, but still championed private capitalism for most of the so-called mixed economy.
They write that to resolve the austerity crisis is to solve the central antagonism between a government and Neo-Liberal accumulation at the base. To put this another way, “its contradictions can arguably only find their resolution at the level of politics” (9). In plain English, the crisis will be resolved at a parliamentary level. This is why they are critical supporters of Syriza, despite the reformist programme of its leadership. Electoralism is central to their outlook. They write, “it is quite wrong as some international supporters of Antarsya have argued that strikes and the streets are where the struggle will be decided” . (10), This opinion is wrong. In a profound crisis solutions tend to by-pass parliaments which cannot take the strain. In Germany, in the 1930’s, Social Democracy taught the workers high parliamentary politics, but the fascists imposed their will on the streets.
Their strategic stress on electoralism is clear in their comments that for the great majority of working class people, politics will still be limited to the electoral terrain (11). Underlying this electoralism is the stale old formulas of the Communist International in the 1920’s, which were a variation of the strategy of left-wing social democracy: a parliamentary government resting on the capitalist state, but simultaneously representing the workers outside parliament. In other words, the strategy of a so-called Workers Government. The extra parliamentary dimension is a rhetorical fig leaf since the transition is understood to be through winning a parliamentary majority and looking at the state as a route to a post capitalist society.
In an attempt to theoretically back up their strategy, they refer to Rosa Luxembourg’s, Reform or Revolution, to buttress their discussion about betwixt and between a sect and a mass reformist movement. But their understanding is skewed. Luxemburg was talking about steering between two reefs of the mass character of the movement and the final aim. There was already a mass social democratic workers movement which was losing its sight of the final goal after a period of social stability. Luxemburg was alerting the movement to the growing contradictions of capitalism which pointed to its overthrow. Rosa was calling on a mass party with a formal adherence to Marxism to attenuate the contradictions, not seek reform in parliament or look to the state to ameliorate the crisis.
Luke and Simon’s focus is not so much on going beyond capitalism as going beyond Neo-Liberalism. They describe the current economic situation as the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich, which they regard as the central feature of policy making and the economic motor of the financial crisis. This hints at a underconsumptionist view of the economic crisis. But there is no discussion of crisis theory; they do not examine the depth or nature of the current great recession. Nor do they rule out a Keynesian solution as a transition to socialism, even for the short-term. Given their emphasis on elections, this is a big omission, among many other gaps in their analysis. At the end of the book we are still left with the question: how do we move beyond Capitalism?
1 Luke Cooper, Simon Hardy,Beyond Capitalism, p6 ( Zero Books 2012)
2 ibid, p.5
3 ibid, p.72
4 Will Hutton, Observer, 14 April 2013
5 Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy,Beyond Capitalism,p40
6 ibid p.42
7 ibid, p.41
8 ibid, p.40
9 ibid, p.11
10 ibid p.151
11 ibid p.141