‘Can A Marxist Be A Patriot?’ asked The Week magazine back on October 11th


I just wanted to use that as a feeble excuse to put this picture up, which was on The Week’s front page, drawn by Neil Davies. For many people this will have the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ written all over it!

‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.’– Tom Nairn (1981) The Break-Up of Britain  Second, Expanded Edition (London: Verso), p.329.

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A Spectre Is Haunting Wigan Pier? A Quickish Note.



At long last I’ve managed to blog something apart from glorified apologies! It was hard work, and I think my mind is a bit rusty. Furthermore, this post is definitely not an attempt  at a final be all and end all on the subject. I’m prepared to be rectified! However, as promised a while back, I am finally getting the blog back together!  So without any more ado…

During 1935 George Orwell lived at 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town with Rayner Heppenstall and Michael Sayers. (I’m not sure about the building itself, but the street, which Sayers said had ‘an air of decay about it’, still exists). [1] Among many other topics, Orwell and Sayers talked about The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels. They both agreed that the Manifesto was:

‘one of the most powerful and beautifully written political documents imaginable…an epic poem in the magnificence of its vocabulary and passion. [2]

At this point Orwell was not a socialist, but rather a Tory Anarchist  and Tory anti-Imperialist. It was only after his trip to northern England in 1936 (immortalised in The Road to Wigan Pier) and his participation in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-7 (the subject of Homage to Catalonia) that he became a self-professed writer for  ‘democratic Socialism’. [3]

Now it is easy to compare the first part of Wigan Pier with the subject matter of Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England– basically how much of the working class in northern England got screwed over by capitalist industrialisation. (These days any similar work would concentrate on how the working class in northern England suffers from de-industrialisation.) However, did Orwell ever read Engels’ work before or after he went in search of Wigan Pier? (I honestly do not know. Any enlightenment out from anyone out there would be appreciated!)

However, did The Communist Manifesto (which stylistically he obviously appreciated) influence Orwell’s writing? I would say there is some evidence of this in Part 2 of Wigan Pier. Subject of Part III of the Manifesto is ‘Socialist and Communist Literature’ in 1840s Europe. In it Marx and Engel attack ‘Reactionary Socialism’, ‘Petit-Bourgeois Socialism’, ‘German, or True, Socialism, ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’ and ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism’. [4] In a similar manner Orwell spends much of Part II of Wigan Pier attacking self-professed socialists in 1930s England. [5] Did he get the idea to criticise the socialists of his day from the Manifesto?

Furthermore, there is one part of Wigan Pier which stylistically comes very close to the Manifesto in criticising some socialists. Discussing ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois Socialism’, which ‘wish[es] for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat’ the Manifesto states:

A part of the bourgeoisie is desirous of redressing social grievances, in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society.

To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers of every imaginable kind. [6]

In Wigan Pier Orwell claims ‘Socialism in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle class’, with the typical socialist often being ‘a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaller [but not a ‘temperance fanatic’?!] and often with vegetarian leanings’. Like the Manifesto’s ‘Conservative Socialist’, this sort of socialist  has a ‘social position which he has no intention of forfeiting.’ If the Manifesto implicitly worries about the sort of people who are attracted to socialism in the 1840s, Orwell is blunt in Wigan Pier about his horror about those attracted to the idea in the 1930s:

…there is the horrible and really disquieting- prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England. [7]

From the Manifesto, Orwell appears to have taken the idea that there are certain ‘types’ who give the sort of socialism he wants a bad name. I should think Marx and Engels would have appreciated Orwell’s comment in Wigan Pier that ‘As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.’

Finally, Orwell  uses the Manifesto’s ending to inspire his rallying call at the end of Wigan Pier for the English middle classes (those who aren’t fruit-juice drinkers sandal-wearers, nudists, sex-maniacs etc) to be won over to Socialism. While Marx and Engels declare ‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains’, [8] Orwell says ‘we of the sinking middle class…

…may sink without further struggle into the working class where we belong, and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for after all we having nothing to lose but our aitches.’ [9]


1. Gordon Bowker (2004) George Orwell (London: Abacus), p.173.

2. Ibid, p.174.

3. Orwell as Tory Anarchist, Bernard Crick (1992) George Orwell: A Life, p.254. In Politics vs Literature, his 1945 essay on Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell described Jonathan Swift as a Tory Anarchist: ‘despising authority while disbelieving in liberty, and preserving the aristocratic outlook while seeing clearly that the existing aristocracy is degenerate and contemptible’ (George Orwell: Essays, 1994, London: Penguin, p.380). Orwell as Tory anti-Imperialist Crick, op cit, p.174).  Only after his experiences in the Spanish Civil War ‘and other events in 1936-7’ could Orwell say that ‘Every line of serious work I have written since…has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.’ (‘Why I Write’, Essays, op cit, p.5)

4. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in David McLellan (1988) Karl Marx: Selected Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press), pp.221-247. Part III, pp.238-245.

5. George Orwell ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in Peter Davison, ed., (2001) Orwell’s England, pp.57-216. Part II starts at p.139, with Orwell’s criticisms of Socialists starting around p. 165.

6.  Marx and Engels, op cit, p.242

7.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.175.

8. Marx and Engels, op cit, p.246

9.  ‘Wigan Pier’, op cit, p.216.

Radicalism and Conservatism: Thinking Aloud

Posted this originally on November 1st 2008. If you find the ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ tone of many political (and other) quizzes annoying, you may find Kevin Carson’s thoughts on the matter of interest!

‘Radicalism’ and ‘Conservatism’ are words that are used in politics to pretty much describe anything. Not as bad as, say, using ‘Socialism’ or ‘Fascism’ as political swear words, but not far off. However, ‘radicals’ can be described as people who want to change things politically, while ‘conservatives’ want to conserve things. I call myself an ‘English Radical’, but not an ‘English radical’, as ‘English Radicalism’ is recognised as a phrase encompassing a number of ideas and historical figures/movements ie the idea of a post-1066 ‘Norman Yoke’; the Levellers; Tom Paine; the Chartists; William Morris; GDH Cole. An ‘English radical’, on the other hand, is just an English person who happens to be ‘radical’.

However, most people would associate political ‘Radicalism’ with ‘the Left’ (don’t get me started…) and/or Socialism, while Conservatism is associated with ‘the Right’ and/or Capitalism. However, is that the right way to look at politics? I am reminded of a John Le Carre quote I posted up a few months back:

‘The mere fact that communism didn’t work doesn’t mean that capitalism does. In many parts of the globe it’s a wrecking, terrible force, displacing people, ruining lifestyles, traditions, ecologies and stable systems with the same ruthlessness as communism.’ (Times Higher Educational Supplement, 20/6/97, p.11.)

If Conservatism = Capitalism, surely it should not be ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ (to use a good phrase from the English Civil Wars) in the same way Communism promised to? Then I think of the Communist Manifesto: the capitalism and capitalists Charlie and Fred describe are hardly ‘forces of conservatism’ (to use a Blairism- Tony not Lionel):

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ (David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.224.)

From a different perspective then, Capitalism (or the corporate, globalising version) can be considered to be dangerously ‘radical’, not ‘conservative’. At the same time, I think a lot of ‘Left/Socialist’ political activity can be seen as ‘conservative’. That is, it is activity that(usually rightly) tries to conserve jobs, health and social services, educational institutions, the environment etc from rapacious corporations and financial institutions.

So I think it is quite respectable to be both a political ‘radical’ and a political ‘conservative’. Better than being a corporate frontperson, that’s for sure! A lot of the current unease about the crisis in the global financial system stems from the wish of individuals to see their savings/job/home protected and/or conserved from the rapaciousness of institutions that wish to turn all that is solid for individuals into air.

Looking through my files I found notes I made probably about ten years back from a book I got from the local library by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook called The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism (1993: Vintage). Here’s what I wrote down:

‘…the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed. who had been compelled to change, too much.’ (p.3)

‘…the only radical politics left to us should be based upon resistance, recuperation and remembering.’ (p.4)

‘To talk about the people’s refusal to change has a curious resonance at the end of a period of two hundred years which have seen nothing but incessant, remorseless change. If there is one thing which is obvious to anybody it is that the last two centuries have been a period of unprecedented change.’(p.11)

The conservatism of the people has been stolen by a social and economic system which can never deliver to them the security which is at the heart of their conservative impulse.’
…true radicalism does not consist in tearing up society by its roots…, but on the contrary, returns to those roots in order to nourish their survival and sturdy growth.’ (p.56)

…a true conservatism (preserving what is of value) is seen to be in opposition to its false namesake (maintaining industrial society); just as a true radicalism (fundamental change) stands against its counterfeit (endless uprootings by the industrial system).’ (p.64)

‘To be radical now is to resist the ever more invasive intrusions of a world system that can afford to leave nothing alone, but that must open up new pathways to profit deep in the still unexploited fastnesses of the heart, the secret depths of the psyche, even when it goes about its global privatisations…To be radical now is to say we want to be left alone to determine our lives, to say that our needs are more important than the system’s necessities.’

‘The radicals and true conservatives both know that there are things that are beyond price, and that this precious inheritance sustains us all. A conservatism that has thrown in its lot with universal market forces has lost its roots; and a radicalism that accepts the gratuitious tearing up of all that is rooted in human experience could have no idea where it is going.’(pp.95-6).

‘In the existing order, the apparent oppostion of conservatism and radicalism conceals their common subordination. Both tend solely to a conserving of profit; and the means whereby this is attained is through continuous change and upheaval.’ (p.96)

‘It should be a characteristic of the new radicalism that the people should determine their own role and function in bringing about social change and safeguarding human activities.’(p.97)

While typing these extracts out, it did occur to me that while people are often ‘out-radicalised’ politically and culturally (ie ‘I’m more of a socialist/Leninist/Eurosceptic/punk/Muslim than you/thou’)people are rarely ‘out-conserved’. I might try it out at some point:

‘We get our freedoms from Magna Carta.’
‘No, we get them from the Anglo-Saxons, Norman-lover.’

‘It’s traditional to smoke in pubs.’
‘Only in the last four hundred years. By the way, did you know cancer cures smoking?’

‘This is a Christian country.’
‘Tell the Druids that.’

But I digress…

I probably would not have put this post up without this recent one by Chris Dillow:

October 08, 2008: conservatives for revolution

James Delingpole says of Ian Hislop:

I think he’s a bit like Jeremy Paxman — another of those handsomely remunerated, public-school-educated presenters who believes in most of the things a Tory ought to believe in (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, riding to hounds, warm beer, Brief Encounter, probably).

But I too believe in these things – especially as Britain‘s Most Evil Man doesn‘t.

Indeed, I suspect a reverence for English traditions is more common on the Left than amongst the Conservative Party. Neil Clark’s tastes border on the reactionary; Francis Sedgemore is a Morrisman; you’ll struggle to find a Conservative voter at a meeting of CAMRA or at a Martin Carthy gig. [I did leave a comment to this post to say that CAMRA’s public face, Roger Protz, used to be ‘Socialist Worker’ editor in the early 1970s.] And when Shuggy writes that ‘our culture seems incapable of expressing disapproval of something unless it can be shown that someone’s rights have been violated’ he is expressing a conservative view.

Many leftists, then, have Tory sentiments. And many Conservatives do not; David Cameron’s Desert Island Discs are not those of a conservative.

Which raises the point – that the conservative temperament and the Conservative party are two completely different things – indeed, two opposed things.

One reason for this is that the pursuit of profit – which Conservatives support – destroys the traditions loved by conservatives. As Marx and Engels said:
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

Another reason is that the conservative temperament is sceptical of individuals’ new ideas, and of anyone‘s claim to know better. As Oakeshott put it: ‘it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom.’ The conservative prefers the tried and trusted to the new; he prefers to back the field than any particular horse.

But bosses reject all this. Their claim to power – in business or in government – is a claim to an especial expertise. And the Conservative party, at least in my lifetime, has been the party of bosses.

The conservative temperament gave us mutual building societies, with their local roots and long traditions. The Conservative party gave us the demutualized societies, which blew up spectacularly.

The conservative disposition, then, to use Oakeshott’s phrase, is opposed to Conservative politics. Bryan is right: socialism is ‘certainly not in conflict with true conservatism.’

I’d go further. One reason why I have revolutionary sympathies is precisely that I have a conservative disposition.

For one thing, in replacing hierarchy with co-ops is one way (the only way?) to assert the wisdom of crowds and the tacit knowledge embodied by professional and craft traditions over the spurious rationalism of managerialist ideology.
And for another, institutions – in the long-run – shape character. And the conservative temperament sees much to bemoan in the modern character: the saccharine displays of public emotion; the supine expectation of ‘leadership’ from those above us; the inability to stand on one’s own two feet and face the responsibility of one’s own actions; the demise of virtue and rise of priggish rule-following; the pursuit of external rather than internal goods ; and the demand that we ‘respect’ others’ sensibilities regardless of their imbecility.

If such widespread failings of character are to be reversed, we might need radical institutional change.

In this sense, revolution and conservatism are compatible.

The reference to public schools at the start reminds me of the description of old Etonian George Orwell as being conservative in everything except politics. I’ve been struck by the similarities in his personal tastes with those of a proper cultural and political conservative, J.R.R. Tolkien. George:

‘Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening. I like English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea, strong tobacco, coal fires, candlelight and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating and ‘modern’ furniture.’ (Gordon Bowker, George Orwell, Abacus, 2004, p.263).


I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands. I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking…I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour…;I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.’ Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien , Harper Collins, 1995, pp.288-9.

(BTW For a few years I have somewhere in my mind a plan to write a ‘compare/contrast’ piece on Orwell and Tolkien, but I have a feeling it might never be started. Apart from their major differences on Catholicism and politics, I think they would have got on, especially with their respective interests in the nature of power and language, as well as their love of English nature. Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, read English at Oxford, and one of her teachers was Tolkien (Bowker, op cit, p.167.)

Now this post has ended up at Tolkien, another set of notes I’ve found this evening are on Meredith Veldman’s 1994 book (Cambridge University Press) Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protest, 1945-1980 which I first came aware of via Patrick Wright’s review in the Guardian on St.George’s Day aka Shakespeare’s Birthday/Death called ‘How the Hobbits saved the world’. I eventually got around to reading it (and making notes) a few years later. The inspiration for Veldman’s book was when she was reading both The Lord of the Rings and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class while working as an academic in Chicago and finding them extremely similar in tone. In her book Veldman traces the roots of romantic revolt in the British Isles against industrialism from the late Eighteenth Century through to the anti-nuclear protests of the post-1945 period. Some of these ‘romantic protests’ have extremely dodgy politics (the Soil Association, worthwhile organisation that it is now, was part-founded by people with pro-Fascist/Nazi ties (Veldman, p.202) but there were also very democratic ones, in both political and economic terms (ie G.D.H. Cole and ‘Guild Socialism’; G.K. Chesterton and ‘Distributism’). I intend to discuss them, and other themes from Veldman’s book, sooner rather than later.

I think I’ve strayed a bit in this post away from discussing radicalism and conservatism. That’s thinking aloud, I guess. I hate writing conclusions, but I would say that I think there is room for democratic ‘radicals’ that don’t hold onto Big Business or Big Government (including those who think quoting Lenin makes Big Government better for ordinary people) and democratic ‘conservatives’ who don’t cheerlead for the Corporations (and aren’t obsessed with Race and/or Religion) to get together, discuss things and work together. Perhaps I haven’t persuaded people so, but I hope that you’ve found this post interesting, one way or another!

‘Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels came to the checkout at the 7/11…

…Marx was skint- but he had sense/Engels lent him the necessary pence’ (The Clash ‘The Magnificent Seven’)

Two pieces I’ve seen in recent days have just increased by admiration for Karl Marx. As the man himself said ‘I am not a Marxist’, in quite possibly the same way c.30AD Jesus said ‘I am not a Christian’ (for all the subsequent good it did on both occasions!). You don’t have to be a ‘Marxist’, let alone a dogmatic one, to see that Charlie Heindrich was a class act. The fact that he had some  numbskull self-declared followers, who carried through innumerable crimes during the last century or so (often against fellow ‘Marxists’)  doesn’t invalidate his way of looking at the world, any more than the actions of millions of self-proclaimed ‘Christians’ in the last two thousand years invalidates everything Jesus is supposed to have said and stood for.

Exhibit One: Dan Hind in last Friday’s Evening Standard magazine, discussing the revival of radical politics in London. He notes that:

Karl Marx was a notorious toper. He was particularly fond of a pub crawl (or ‘beer trip’) from Oxford Street to the Hampstead Road. And on his jaunts away from The British Library Reading Room he wasn’t averse to childish disorder of the kind we now associate with the pampered sons of rock aristocracy. His friend Wilhelm Liebknecht tells how, when their friend Edgar Bauer threw a stone at a gas lantern, the greatest socialist intellectual of all time and one of the founders of German social democracy both joined in. Together they ended up smashing five street lamps. Liebknecht remarks in his description of the evening that ‘madness is contagious’, something for Dave Gilmour’s son Charlie to bear in mind next time he tries a spot of protesting.

The Museum Tavern opposite the British Museum: a regular Marx watering hole. George Orwell also used to drink in there, so there must be something in the water!

If you can’t face the full rigours of a Marxist beer trip you can, instead, raise a glass to dialectical materialism at The Museum Tavern on Great Russell Street, Marx’s local when he was working on Das Kapital. Coincidentally, urban legend has it that Lenin and Stalin used to drink together at The Crown and Anchor, now The Crown Tavern, on Clerkenwell Green. As far as we know neither of them went in for Marx’s brand of high jinks – maybe a bad sign, in retrospect.

I think I’ve been here. However, all other things being equal, I would rather drink where Marx and Orwell used to go, rather than the establishment Lenin (abstainer)and Stalin (partial to the vodka) frequented!

Exhibit Two: Terry Eagleton’s review in the London Review of Books of Eric Hobsbawm’s How to Change the World.  In it Eagleton notes:

Marx…was an artist of sorts. It is often forgotten how staggeringly well read he was, and what painstaking labour he invested in the literary style of his works. He was eager, he remarked, to get shot of the ‘economic crap’ of Capital and get down to his big book on Balzac. Marxism is about leisure, not labour. It is a project that should be eagerly supported by all those who dislike having to work. It holds that the most precious activities are those done simply for the hell of it, and that art is in this sense the paradigm of authentic human activity.

Following on from that (apart from observing that Marx was also a ‘piss artist of sorts’ when the occasion demanded it) it seems to me that if there is to be any worthwhile ‘socialism’ or ‘leftism’ for the 21st Century, it needs to inspire people who want to escape ‘the dull compulsion of labour’ we have now and which characterised the societies of ‘Actual Existing Socialism’ until they collapsed through (as much as anything else) terminal boredom. The only socialism that will get anywhere now is one that proclaims:


Socialism- the s-word…

Just a thought…

I really wish I could be either enthused or appalled by the fact that Ed Miliband is now leader of the Labour Party. I know the ultra-Blairites, with their fellow travellers in the BBC and on the Murdoch Death Star, who rallied around his brother David as the next best thing to The World’s Favourite Money Grabbing War Monger, are shocked that their cunning plan failed (‘if it hadn’t been for you meddlin’ trade unions…’) Best make the best of a bad job chaps… and go and join the Conservative Party- Education Secretary Michael Gove for one seems pretty keen on embracing the Blair Legacy.

Anyway, ‘Red Ed’? Do me a favour! You may have heard the comment that his father Ralph Miliband claimed that socialism could not come through Parliamentary means and his two sons have gone around proving it in practice. Only in a country where most mainstream politicians are in such awe of a handful of  mindlessly Thatcherite newspapers with declining circulations could someone like Ed Miliband be called a ‘Red’.  It is a bit like Business Secretary Vince ‘privatise the Post Office’ Cable being called a ‘Marxist’ for criticising the City of  London. If there is any sort of ‘Marxist’ class war in this country it is the City of London and its patsies in the mainstream media and the main political parties  against the rest of us…

Now if Vince had walked  around the Square Mile with this placard…

Anyway, socialism is a real political swear word isn’t it? Sometimes I try and think if anything has not been tagged with the ‘s-word’ at some point. I realise that for a lot of people, ‘socialism’ is any form of state intervention in the economy. Sometimes this is expanded to include any state intervention in wider social life or state interventions abroad. I then wonder how it got to this. After all, most of the original socialists were often extremely anti-state…

Every couple of years or so I seem to repost this blogpost written in 2006 by Larry Gambone, a Canadian evolutionary anarchist who now lives in Nanaimo (that’s right isn’t it, Larry?), largely as a quick refresher for those who automatically think socialism = the state:

The Myth Of Socialism As Statism [May 6th 2006]

What did the original socialists envision to be the owner and controller of the economy? Did they think it ought to be the state? Did they favor nationalization? Or did they want something else entirely? Let’s have a look, going right back to the late 18th Century, through the 19th and into the 20th, and see what important socialists and socialist organizations thought.

*Thomas Spence – farm land and industry owned by join stock companies, all farmers and workers as voting shareholders.
* St. Simon – a system of voluntary corporations
* Ricardian Socialists – worker coops
* Owen – industrial coops and cooperative intentional communities
* Fourier – the Phlanistery – an intentional community
* Cabet – industry owned by the municipality (‘commune’ in French, hence commune-ism)
* Flora Tristan – worker coops
* Proudhon – worker coops financed by Peoples Bank – a kind of credit union that issued money.
* Greene – mutualist banking system allowing farmers and workers to own means of production.
* Lasalle – worker coops financed by the state – for which he was excoriated by Marx as a ‘state socialist’
* Marx – a ‘national system of cooperative production’

Would that sound better on ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘The Dragon’s Den’, Karl?

* Tucker – mutualist banking system allowing farmers and workers to own means of production.
* Dietzgen – cooperative production
* Knights of Labor – worker coops
* Parsons – workers ownership and control of production
* Vanderveldt – socialist society as a ‘giant cooperative’
* Socialist Labor Party – industry owned and run democratically through the Socialist Industrial Unions
* Socialist Party USA – until late 1920’s emphasized workers control of production.
* CGT France, 1919 Program – mixed economy with large industry owned by stakeholder coops.
* IWW – democratically run through the industrial unions.
* Socialist Party of Canada, Socialist Party of Great Britain, 1904-05 program – common ownership, democratically run – both parties, to this very day, bitterly opposed to nationalization.
* SDP – Erfurt Program 1892 – Minimum program includes a mixed economy of state, cooperative and municipal industries. While often considered a state socialist document, in reality it does not give predominance to state ownership.

Well? Where’s the statism? All these socialisms have one thing in common, a desire to create an economy where everyone has a share and a say.

Why The Confusion

The state did play a role in the Marxist parties of the Second International. But its role was not to nationalize industry and create a vast bureaucratic state socialist economy. Put simply, the workers parties were to be elected to the national government, and backed by the trade unions, cooperative movement and other popular organizations, would expropriate the big capitalist enterprises. Three things would then happen:

1. The expropriated enterprises handed over to the workers organizations, coops and municipalities.

2.The army and police disbanded and replaced by worker and municipal militias.

3. Political power decentralized to the cantonal and municipal level and direct democracy and federalism introduced.

These three aspects are the famous ‘withering away of the state’ that Marx and Engels talked about.

The first problem with this scenario was that the workers parties never got a majority in parliament. So they began to water-down their program and adopt a lot of the statist reformism of the liberal reformers. Due to the Iron Law of Oligarchy the parties themselves became sclerotic and conservative. Then WW1 intervened, splitting the workers parties into hostile factions. Finally, under the baleful influence of the Fabians, the Bolsheviks and the ‘success’ of state capitalism in the belligerent nations, the definition of socialism began to change from one of democratic and worker ownership and control to nationalization and statism. The new post-war social democracy began to pretend that state ownership/control was economic democracy since the state was democratic. This, as we see from the list above, was not anything like the economic democracy envisaged by the previous generations of socialists and labor militants.

So there are ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ forms of socialism. I definitely identify with the latter type, while the former attracts the power hungry ‘socialist’, whatever his or her professed stripe (notice how many erstwhile ‘Bennites’ in the Labour Party thirty years ago became evangelicals for ‘Blairism’?). ‘Top-down’ socialists who identify with the Big State are a bit like ‘free marketeers’ who excuse Big Business rather than support independent trades people and the self-employed because, to use Kevin Carson’s mocking phrase, ‘Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get.’ (Kevin A. Carson Studies in Mutualist Politcal Economyi, p.116)

Of course, to talk about a Non-Statist or Libertarian form of  Socialism throws a lot of people. Well, here another phrase to throw about: ‘market collectivism.’ That is:

a community of producer cooperatives. Each cooperative is owned and run by the workers themselves. Their products are sold on a market. They purchase the required raw materials themselves. There is little or no central planning….a market collectivist society is not capitalist because….workers are self-managed; they do not work under the direct or indirect control of a capitalist. In addition the workers (collectively) own the product of their labour, which they bring to the market for sale.’ Geoff Hodgson The Democratic Economy, p.177.

The nearest to a ‘market collectivist’ economy any of us have seen is Yugoslavia under Tito. Now that eventually collapsed in the wars of the 1990s but how much did market collectivism have to do with it? I suspect the lack of political freedom and the plunging of the whole country into deep debt during the 1970s and 1980s had a much more profound effect in bringing about the death of Yugoslavia.

The main theorist of market collectivism is Jaroslav Vanek. An interview with him from the early 1990s, in which he says why it has been hard for co-operatives to take off in the West, can be found here.

So what is a pore ole Market Collectivist to do? I cannot think of a British political party that is opposed to co-operatives per se. However, are any of them likely to say in the foreseeable future that co-operatives should be the dominant enterprise model for the economy? I doubt it. Even the Co-operative Party is hobbled by its links to the Labour Party. Perhaps one should just keep plugging away and things will change.  It is worth noting that the economic situation in recent years seems to have encouraged the growth of co-operatives in the US. This ‘bottom-up socialism’  is definitely better than the top-down ‘War Socialism’ which is encouraged by the Republican Party in the US:

The U.S. economy increasingly resembles the dual economy of the Soviet Union, with an overfunded military sector and a chronically weak, dysfunctional civilian sector. Like the Soviet Union in its decline, we are bogged down in an unwinnable conflict in Afghanistan. The Soviet system was supported to the end, however, by Soviet military and intelligence personnel and defense factory workers and managers. Their equivalents exist in America. Conservatives are not being irrational, when they ignore the civilian economy while fostering the military economy that provides orders and jobs to many of their constituents. Theirs is the logic of Soviet-style conservatism.

‘Watch what we say, not what we do,’ Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell famously remarked. Out of power, the Republican Party preaches Ron Paul-style libertarianism. In power, the party practices Martin Feldstein-style military Keynesianism and military socialism — and Hank Paulson-style financial sector Keynesianism and socialism.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there. I do not expect to quickly change the minds of those who think socialism must always = the state, but I’ll give it a go!

Update: Suzanne Moore goes down memory lane with Da Brudders:

I have vague recollections of the Milibands thousands of years ago when I worked at Marxism Today. There were many young men around who made the tran­sition from Communist Party backgrounds to New Labour without much trouble. It ­simply required a degree of faith and opportunism.

There is still to be a good book written on how a load of erstwhile self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ (whether from a Communist or Trotskyite background) and/or ‘Hard Left’ activists (Freud would have a field day) ended up supporting the largely pro-City of London/Big Business agenda of New Labour. They took on different ideals and goals but used the similar methods to achieve them. Discuss.