Monday, January 15, 2007

On the side of the Engels

That old timey socialist Fred Engels described class struggle as taking place in three spheres. The ideological, industrial and political (although we'll take these terms loosely). I think this is a useful way of looking at things.

Whilst these spheres are related to each other, just because one sector is in firmament does not mean other areas of struggle will also be high.

I suppose the obvious example of this is the period immediately before the invasion of Iraq. World wide there was the largest upsurge the world has ever seen against an imperial adventure. Record breaking demonstrations were mobilised from the centre of the Western Powers to the fringes of their influence and beyond.

Were these demonstrations parallelled by mass strikes or equally impressive anti-war political parties springing up? Not one bit of it. In the UK the industrial struggle even suffered a set back as FBU leaders wobbled in the face of criticism that they were undermining the war effort, with one charming Tory MP describing fire fighters as Saddam's minions.

In the political institutions across the globe the main benefactors have been already existing left of centre parties that were able to tap into the ideals of those opposing the war without the inconvenient requirement to make any actual break with imperialism. The Socialist Party in Spain, Prodi's coalition in Italy and the Democrats in the US have all gained at the ballot box by garnering anti-war votes without going through the boring process of being genuine anti-war parties.

Whilst the separation between these spheres is obvious their connectivity is far less plain. On an abstract level its easy to claim these areas are all connected at root by capital. But how far does this get us?

It's clear the struggle against the Iraq invasion in the UK would have been that much more effective had it been able to mobilise significant industrial action or produce a shattering split in the Labour Party. But it was the very absence of an already existing solid opposition in these areas that made those events unlikely.

Whilst it's theoretically possible to re-energise a union branch with anti-war activity you can only build a solid branch through proper industrial work. Only a Muppet would join UNISON on the basis of opposing the war, and even then they would hardly hold the promise of being an effective trade union militant.

So where does this place pro-union work in the anti-war movement, anti-war work in the electoral field and electoral work in the unions? In a grey area frankly. Each sector is part of one struggle and defeats and victories in one place will have an indirect but important knock on effect. Different fronts in one war if you will. But each front has its own contours, logic and battles to be fought which cannot be won elsewhere.

Just as the defeat of Nazi Germany bore an ill wind for Imperial Japan, it did not negate the need to fight the war in the East for the Allies to win. Likewise anti-war slogans are not a substitute for serious trade union work, no matter how scientifically exact they may be.

8 comments:

AN said...

Look I kow yu are going to hate me saying this, becasue it is exactly the sort of thing that i say that winds you up.

But do you think the defeat of germany had much impact on the war in the east? I am not sure it made much diffrence in terms of freeing up troops or materiel. The japansese had already lst the battle of the midway, and were therefore militarily incapable of winning the war.

And the possible decisive blow of the Soviet union joining the war against japan was precipitayed only becasue they didn't want to be left out of the peace settlement,Stalin was desperate to join the war before Japan surrendred I don't believe that the Red Army on the eastern front were boosted in numbers by the victory in Europe - Stalin was gambling on the fact Japan was already licked.

Jack Ray said...

I think that actually your example shows how the ideological, industrial and political are inseparable.

Class societies are marked by the constant re-negotiation of power relations. The current state of that struggle was reflected in the anti-war movement, that lacked the capacity to mobilise any significant social force to directly challenge preparations for war.

Hence they got their war, but fought it "not in our name" (which is not actual opposition to war at all, but a backhanded permission slip. I wrote about this here). The ideology and activity of that campaign reflected the powerlessness of the participants and the current state of our society (as it did elsewhere).

I don't think it's question of being unable to function by addressing only one of Engels' 3 spheres, but of building class power per se (in workplace, community and all the rest), and thus completely changing the composition of society.

AN said...

No you are wrong Jack.

There hasn't been enough discussion of how we did in the anti-war movement, but there was a determined effort to organisse practical direct actioon, strikes, etc shoudl war break out. And there actualy was quite a lot, but beuried under the healdlines of the war.

Our mistake was in underestimating the significance of the parliamentary vote (March 18th???). We should have organised the civil disobedience not for the say war broke out, but the day parliamnet approved it - and at the same time STW spent insufficient effort lobbying Labour MPs in the lead up to that vote (Galloway for example was hardly in westminster at that crucial time)

AN said...

BTW - Javk, I am referring to your article )(that you link to) not specifically to what you have posted as a comment here, sorry if that is confusing.

Jack Ray said...

A few things on your post:

First off, the significant attempts to organise direct action against war emerged from outside the mainstream of the antiwar movement, rather than being the main emphasis of it.

Secondly, I think the direct action that did occur further emphasises my point about how ineffective any protest would be, outside a wider resurgence of class power. The definition of direct action for me is not whether or not it physically challenges the prerogatives of the state, but the relationship of those actions to power. Mediated action looks to persuade power to altar course, direct action forces it do so. It meant, disrupting the war effort until the state gave up, and there wasn't the capacity for that kind of action, even had the will existed (which it didn't, but that too is intertwined with the capacity).

Thirdly - I think your perspective that if only we'd lobbied harder is utterly ridiculous. With the Tories on board the swing against the government would have had to have absolutely massive, given their majority at the time. To pin our homes on the mass ranks of Blairite careerists, given the imperviousness to the general hostility to the war and the massive Feb '03 march in particular, just seems intensely outlandish to me.

And I say that in the knowledge that a general strike to stop the war was also impossible, what I'm talking about is wider strategies in terms of building a more authentically democratic society, and their potential impact on how this country conducts itself abroad. Most of all, on the impossibility of building a successful anti-war movement on the basis of a passionate whim and an ethical outrage, rather than generalised struggle

Jim Jay said...

AN: first point: I think it did but as you say the difference in terms of troops (certainly for the allies, not sure about the USSR) was not decisive.

If Germany had been seen to be making gains, or at least holding out I think the Japanese could well have made significantly different decisions - although perhaps the atomic bomb put paid to all of tat.

At the end of the day my argument is that the fighting had to continue in order to defeat Japan, which is what happened - so i feel secure in that assertion.

JR: there is an old bit of jargon from the dialectic about the difference between unity and identity - these arenas of struggle are conected but are not the same and I think my examples show how very different things can be taking place in different areas at the same time - even if there is a connectivity there.

The idea for instance that the industrial struggle is "inseperable" from political struggle I think glosses over the important ways in which we have to negotiate different terrains in different ways.

In fact I think this discussion seems to be using "direct action" to interchangably refer to strikes, sit downs, breaking into military bases etc - and I want to argue that's wrong.

Demonstrations with a strong element of direct action are still one day events. As with the poll tax riot it demonstrated the strenth of feeling but it was the non-payment that really broke it.

Strikes, with their unparellelled ability to strike at capital's economic heart are qualitatively different from taking a hammer to nuclear sub or throwing rocks at cops.

Which are still disruptive but not as socially dangerous, in my view.

where I agree with you Jack is that being successful in one arena alone will not cut the mustard and we should strive to build the connectivity and ensure we can fight on all fronts effectively.

Jack Ray said...

I would use direct action as a category distinct from mediated action. As such would regard the non-payment campaign as DA.

As such riot, or smashing up a B52 can be either DA or mediating action depending on context and effect. They are sometimes an exercise in forcing change, sometimes an attempt to articulate something that may place change on the agenda.

As such, I wouldn't regard any of the anti-war protests as examples of DA, as we currently lack the capacity to intervene directly in the political process in this country. It's what makes our democracy so inauthentic (not that I would regard any representative democracy as that, but there are differences of degree IMO).

And I wouldn't say that an industrial dispute is the same thing as a "political" one, just that they are continuous, and our capacity to intervene in one sphere, will be mirrored by our capacity in another. They reflect the negotiation of class power in our society.

Jim Jay said...

I'm not sure what you mean by mediating action... sorry to be slow.

I think you mean something that perhaps expresses the anger without directly touching the thing it wants to stop - a show of force, which could be fluffy (sending letters) or less fluffy (sending letter bombs) but still does not directly get in the way of the bull dozer.

...in which case I think that's a good point and a useful category.