I agree that
Not everything that purports to be a critique of capitalism is actually a critique of capitalism. An analysis based on the separation of the greedy, neoliberal ‘1%’ from the innocent ‘99%’ might make for a powerful slogan, but it is not a critique of capitalism, and certainly has nothing to do with Marxism.
But I wonder about a great deal of the rest of Matt Bolton’s (MB) analysis.
Marx, class and contradiction
Matt B’s interpretation of Marx seems to me to rely on traditional notions which need to be questioned. First there is the idea that Marx’s famous 1859 preface developed a mechanical theory in which neutral forces of production (good) come into conflict with the existing relations of production (bad). Moreover MB adopt the view that the contradiction between the forces and relations of production gradually come into contradiction thus confusing contradiction with overt conflict. There is nothing to justify this view in Marx and this should be clear as soon as one understands that for him relations of production and forces of production form a unity within a given mode of production. That unity for Marx was a dialectical one including both identity and difference. Thus for him the forces of production were for him not neutral technology but represented a choice based on class interest. Not only that but the most important force of production was human labour in a specifically class form. The forces of production were therefore for him also relations of production. Similarly the relations of production were directly a force of production in for example the organisation of a factory workshop. The “third term” of this contradictory unity between relations and forces of production was the technical division of labour which is both a force of production and a relation of production (as Marx explains at length in Capital).
I found the idea that Marx’s preface veered in the direction of a “personalised critique” of capitalism truly bizarre. Marx could hardly have been more explicit in emphasising the impersonal social nature of the forces he was discussing. Anyone doubting this should just read the text — it is only a few pages. I also found strange the suggestions that for Marx “the ‘proletariat’ and the ‘capitalist class’ are conceived of two externally related social groups”. How could they be externally related if they are constituted by their position in the same set of production relations?
The idea of capitalism being “irrational” and it being “self-evidently rational” to move beyond capitalist social relations appears nowhere in Marx. Indeed if he thought it so self-evident it would be hard to understand the long-term efforts he made to penetrate capitalisms inner secrets.
And what could possibly be the basis for the claim that “… by the time he wrote Capital, Marx was on the verge of abandoning the ‘two campist’ conception of class”. Not only do some of the most quoted passages in Capital say with complete clarity that capitalism increasingly divides the population into two great classes but Marx continued to repeat this to his last breath. Thus in 1879 he and Engels wrote
For almost forty years we have emphasised that class struggle is the immediate driving power of history and in particular that the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is the great level of the modern social revolution: we, therefore, cannot possibly cooperate with eople who wish to expunge this class struggle from the movement.
But enough of Marxist theory. I just wanted to indicated that there are good reasons for questioning Matt B’s views on Marx’s analysis of capitalism. The upshot of his discussion is that he takes a position which it seems to warn against any idea of using the Labour Party for a project with ambitions beyond the capitalist framework. Whatever else Marx might have said it is difficult to imagine him coming to such a conclusion.
I agree that membership of the working class offers no direct root to understanding society or of taking a progressive position with regard to its problems. But then I wonder who, apart from a few headbanging leftists, ever thought that. It almost seems that MB is struggling to convince himself about this. Has he read the comments of the Communist Manifeto about the recruitment of sections of the working class by reactionary forces?
That Corbyn has not identified the social basis of a movement to change capitalism, and has relied on generalised and rather waffly humanistic rhetoric is clear and I think MB is right about that. I would only add that this is a general characteristic of Labour politics (right and left) in that its claims and assertions have generally a zero theoretical content or basis. I also agree about the shallowness of a movement which is almost entirely focussed on support for one person rather than on a political programme or at least a clear set of policies (Jeremy Corbyn’s 10 pledges, drummed up for the leadership election, cannot be considered such). Finally I agree that the casting of the soft-left in the role of Blairite plotters is based on nothing but their lack of support for Corbyn. There has been almost no consideration on the Corbyn supporting side of how it was possible to alienate 80% of the PLP. Instead it is all put down to their moral and political failings. This approach reveals the evangelical edge of much Corbynism and should worry anyone who genuinely believes in putting Labour Party members in charge of the party — as opposed to showing their adoration for the chosen leader.
But I don’t think any of this has anything to do with a “two campist mindset”. It is perfectly possible to believe that society is overwhelmingly divided into two classes with incompatible interest and to accept that getting others to agree will involved many stages, subtlety and compromise. Neither is it necessary to believe that two camps are to be found wherever there is disagreement.
Informed criticism of Corbyn is one thing (and there needs to be more of it) but the assertion that the project to change the Labour Party into a genuinely radical part i.e. accepting that the right will always be dominent is quote another. That is what MB does when he says
The Labour Party’s … exists to win gains which are immediately limited by their reliance on the very forms of exploitation which necessitated them in the first place. There is no way the party can avoid this. (Emphasis added)
The left inspired revolts against declining social democratic parties has been seen across Europe. The peculiarity of the UK case is that that revolt has taken place within the party and not against it. The collapse of Labour politics into and institutional framework based on parliamentarianism is one of the valid criticisms made by Corbyn supporters. That criticism, however, in no way implies
The pretence that it is only those institutions which lie in the way of the glorious post-capitalist future …[and that] that Corbynism is on the verge of … singlehandedly defeat[ing] neoliberalism ….
The point eventually reached by MB is that economic stimuli and clamping down on the banks is all very well but it fails to recognise
… how deeply integrated each of these phenomena are to the successful reproduction of ordinary people’s lives. Like it or not, the billions of pounds that flit around the City of London each day do not constitute some unfortunate cancerous growth attached to the side of a self-sustaining ‘real economy’ which can be neatly lopped off — they are fundamental to the way that economy functions.
This point is later reinforced with
If Corbynism not only goes down to a disastrous election defeat, but takes the Labour Party with it, a working class without guarantees will be divested of its last means of parliamentary self-protection, however flawed, too.
This is really strange stuff from a self-proclaimed Marxist. We cannot, apparently, attack the mode of operation or the institutions of capitalism because, well, our jobs depend on it! This reminds me of the old quip that we could never have a revolution because the bourgeoisie wouldn’t allow it.
The upshot of the whole analysis appears to be that those supporting Corbyn would be well advised to make their peace with capitalism because it is the only show in town and gearing up the Labour Party to point to a feature going beyond capitalism will probably end in a disaster leaving ordinary people without even the mild level of protection afforded by supping Labour governments. Most of the PLP would no doubt say “amen” to that but they would have done so with absolutely no need to read Marx. Moreover following this line of reasoning we would end up with the same supine Labour Party which was the cause of the Corbyn upsurge in the first place.