Sunday, 19 June 2016

David Pavett: Labour's Travails

Labour's travails: what might Marx have said?

It is possible that one response to the title question might be “Who cares what Marx thought? He lived in different times.” Those reacting in this way should read the title as “Who thinks that social theories matter?”

Empiricism rules OK?

Our discussions on the left tend to be virtually theory-free. Our national empiricist traditions have set hard and are so much a part of our mental furniture that it has all the force of the blindingly obvious. Questioning the concepts and categories we use rarely features in discussion because no need for this is felt. Right and left Labour speak of “evidence-based” theories as if “evidence” alone could determine policy outcomes. They are unaware that facts never speak to us directly but only through interpreters.

There is no shortage of examples of this theoretical stunting on the left. Generally, the Labour left (to speak only of that) invests very little effort in theoretical effort. All too many feel that a vibrant hatred of inequality and of the ways of the exploiting class is a good enough basis for commentary across the range of political problems we want to deal with by some form of direct insight.

This negligence is why we end up dealing with absurdities that a reasonably motivated twelve yearold would see through. Thus we hear accusations of racism on no other grounds than that the accused individual has opposed someone who happens to be a member of a minority group. When challenged the accuser's defence can be as feeble as saying “surely it can't just be a coincidence that the person opposed happens to be a member of a minority group”. This is debate that has not even got to the first rung of rational exchange.

Add to that negligence of careful theoretical work the traditional anti-intellectualism of British (and perhaps especially English) culture. In that culture “intellectual” itself can become a term of abuse. Questioning actions generally agreed or accepted is all too often dismissed as coming from people sitting in their “ivory towers” and the like. Our movement adopts such anti-intellectual and anti-theoretical reflexes at its peril.

Marx as an anti-philosophical activist

A prominent left Labour NEC member recently advised me recently that we should heed Marx's famous statement that “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it” (eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach) in the belief that we should engage in political action as opposed to what he described as “sitting around” making comments. He added that Marx's concern was scientific and not philosophical. If he tried “sitting around” a little and actually read Marx he might have second thoughts.

No one taking Marx's thesis on Feuerbach seriously could propose this absurd interpretation since, taken as a whole, they propose a series of far-reaching philosophical judgements. Besides, the whole of Marx's work is an eloquent demonstration of his view of the fundamental need for philosophical and theoretical work.

Most social scientists, whatever their political and theoretical orientation, know that there are philosophical issues that have to be resolved in order to conduct their scientific work. Marx explained this at an early stage (in 1846) in a detailed letter to Annekov on the basis of his work and how it involved a critique of concepts normally taken for granted. He explained it again in his famous Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. And there are his voluminous notes for Capital (the Grundrisse) which are full of methodological and philosophical points Marx found he had to deal with to develop his scientific ideas.

Although Marx was caustic about the philosophers of his day he never doubted that scientific work involves the use of philosophical categories and that these must be constantly subjected to a thorough critique. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Marx's own conclusions we still have much to learn from him. A mindless activist who posed activity against theory he was not. Our debates are crying out for theoretical clarity.

Debating in the wilderness - examples

We discuss nationality and nationalism with generally very little or no idea of the work done on these concepts in the last four or five decades. The work of such people as Eric Hobsbawm, Tom Nairn, Ernst Gellner and many others might just as well have not put pen to paper. Most participants in debate clearly feel that the concepts involved can be intuitively grasped with no special theoretical effort. If only.

We discuss monetary policy, problems of capital and use words like “value” all with a calm confidence that they have an evident meaning which enables us to jump straight into debates about the required political stance. If only.

We debate issues like mass migration as if support for uncontrolled immigration marks out the good from the bad guy (generic). We want planned social services and have little or nothing to say about the impact of mass migration on that provision and the sections of the population most likely to feel the impact of it. Sometimes there is even more than a hint that being concerned about such a connection is itself racist.

We discuss racism without debating what biology and social science can or can't tell us about human nature. Some on the left still offer tired old clichés like “racism = power + prejudice” as if this was a serious contribution to discussion. Terms like “multicultural” and “institutional racism” are used as if they had a ready and generally agreed meaning.

Terms like “working class” are used as if they had an evident meaning without discussion despite the vast changes in the workforce of the last fifty years and the consequential changes in social relations. In these circumstances what comes most easily to the surface is a range of impressions and prejudices.

Under-performance on policy

This lack of concern for theoretical and policy work has shown itself this year in the massive underperformance of the left in the preparations for this year's Labour Party Annual Conference. Formally the policy proposals are formulated by the National Policy Forum on the basis of proposals from its Policy Commissions which report to it. The reality is that the whole thing tends to be a massive exercise in manipulation. This leads to many on the left dismissing the NPF and calling for policy to be determined by Conference as if an annual Conference would ever be an adequate way of debating all the policy challenges that arise. The response of the left should be to make sure that the NPF and the Policy Commissions have placed before them well argued and well supported left policies such that they cannot ignore them. They should be left with no choice but to respond, and either accept the left proposals or be required to give reasons for not doing so. The clash of opinions, in other words, should be forced into the open.

The reality is that this year the draft policy statements from the Policy Commissions went out late, many branch and CLP meetings were cancelled on the pretext of election work, and the left has failed to organise a response. The CLPD, for example, has not even offered model motions for the NPF as in previous years. This year's Annual Conference will therefore have before it whatever the right, through the Policy Commissions, chooses to put there. This has been a massive left failure the like of which should not be repeated.

What might Marx have said?

I think he might have said something like this
Most of my life was spent on an immense theoretical effort to understand capitalism. Some of you seem to think of such efforts negatively as“sitting around” commenting on abstruse issues. I knew that capitalism is a subtle enemy which can always call upon the 'wisdom of the age' to justify its nefarious operations. As Engels and I said in the The German Ideology “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. Most in the modern Labour left seems to think that they can pick ideas out of the intellectual ether without any need for a careful critique. No solid movement to overcome capitalism will ever succeed on this naïve basis. Many did not understand why I spent years researching the subtleties of the commodity form and of money. I knew that, without a thoroughly materialist analysis, political debate would constantly revolve on its unduly limited basis. Your debates often seem to confirm that view.

The majority of you seem to think that the sort of critique I engaged in was a personal obsession rather than a necessity for effective opposition to capitalism. This work is not easy. When it was proposed to publish Capital in weekly instalments to make it accessible to working class readers I commended the intention was admirable but warned “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” It is clear that this still needs to be said. I left many areas unexplored but I think that I laid the basis for a genuinely critical and scientific approach to understanding society but now all these years later that work must also be taken into account. This is something which goes well beyond the ability of isolated individuals and needs to be done in an effort of collective research.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn was one of those unpredictable historical events which has opened up the possibility of a real move forward in Britain. That historical opportunity will however ultimately be wasted if there is not a huge effort to raise the theoretical level of at least a significant section of activists working for social change and if this is not used for the careful development of policy on all fronts. I can only hope that you will agree that that theoretical work is not an optional extra. It is not a luxury for those who like just “sitting around”. As the French philosopher Michel Verret put it “Theory provides us with the shortest route to reality”. Ignore it and you will move from one crisis to another with no hope of a resolution.

David Pavett, 15th June 2016

1 comment:

John Walsh said...

Two interrelated themes I take from this, which seem highly pertinent to Labour Roots:

1. There are significant barriers to member involvement, which are deeply ingrained (I think that elsewhere on this blog Tim has argued that (to paraphrase) 'if we build it they will come' - the notion of 'empiricism rules' might suggest otherwise).

2. Raising the level of intellectual debate in the Party is very necessary and will be challenging. I'm constantly amazed at the lack of debate on social media. Meetings have come to be reported by a bunch of photos and the caption 'great meeting last night' - for me, an example of neo-liberal social media squeezing the life out of debate.

In summary, for me a very useful intervention which can help steer the project (too busy today to expand on this but would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further).