Fashionable Incongruity: Economism, Anti-Politics, and Reductionism

Ian Hinson and Donald Parkinson take a stab at critiquing the notion of anti-political Marxism. 

Marx was not unique in being a socialist; he lived in an era where utopian communalism was actually fairly common. The social question of how best to organize society had been raised and addressed, with arguments for a classless, levelled social order having been made long before Marx. The ideas of socialist  revolution can be found in Babeuf. What made Marx and Engels different from all the utopians and “crude socialists” was that they believed the working class must take political action to organize as a class to take power. It must organize to win a better position both economically and politically within capitalism, and eventually strengthen this organization to raise the question of political, or state power, as a whole. Marx took from the Chartists just as much as the Utopian socialists; he recognized that the working class must politically organize. When French “Marxists” argued against fighting for political demands and engaging in elections, he responded by saying “if this is Marxism, I am not a Marxist”.

Despite these historical realities, some Marxists today argue for a form of “anti-political Marxism”. This is found in various ultra left currents like communization, autonomism, and the Gramscians at the blog Left-Flank. What these calls for Marxist “anti-politics” have in common is an argument centered around the notion of “the real movement,” which is based off a quote in the German Ideology. While for Marx the concept was meant to describe that the class struggle comes out of imperfect conditions set by capitalism, for the bloggers at Left Flank the real movement is some “anti-political” movement that arises from civil society against the political sphere itself. Essentially, it is wrong to try and build a socialist  movement, but rather one must wait for, and follow the “real movement” with organic ties to civil society. What this approach argues for is essentially what can be understood as economism.

Lenin’s 1901 polemic against the Russian Social Democrats laid bare the theoretical and tactical pitfalls of so called “economism”, a centering of the material elements of the workers movement over the conscious elements. In this article Lenin states:

“In order truly to give “consideration to the material elements of the movement”, one must view them critically, one must be able to point out the dangers and defects of spontaneity and to elevate it to the level of consciousness, To say, however, that ideologists (i.e., politically conscious leaders) cannot divert the movement from the path determined by the interaction of environment and elements is to ignore the simple truth that the conscious element participates in this interaction and in the determination of the path.”

Lenin’s deconstruction of this vulgarized interpretation of the relationship between the material and abstract components of a budding workers movement is useful precisely because it exposes the false dichotomy of the “spontaneous” and “premeditated.” It breaks down the bifurcation of socialist participation, and allows for a synthesis of the working class to respond to the material conditions it grapples with, while recognizing the position that consciousness plays in the direction that a revolution moves. Thus, the position of the socialist in respect to the workers movement is not to internalize a millenarian political armageddon, but to respond to the spontaneous movement of the workers, to augment the movement to one which situates itself in opposition to capital and towards the goal of a post-capitalist, socialist epoch.

Lenin grasps that the class struggle is inherently a political struggle, because it is a struggle for social power. The question of power and what class holds political domination, and in turn the balance of power of these classes and their strength through organization, is what can never be ignored. Economism instead puts the withdrawal of labor at the core of socialist activity, or at least the formation of economic resistance to capital. It sees the political development of socialist organization as reliant on the spontaneous struggle that occurs beforehand, with programme developing from the nature of struggle itself. The programme instead, is logically derived by the objective interests of classes that are always expressed politically when they’re able to have coherence.

Economism presents a narrative where organization is produced through spontaneous action, that first a labor movement must develop, and then socialists will try to merge with it to produce a party. The argument that then follows is that in lack of a labor movement, any kind of socialist political activity is simply going to be channeled into activism and sub-political spectacle. What this doesn’t take into account is that socialism, as a political movement, has historically played an integral role in the labor movement. It was first through socialist political campaigns and concentrated unionization drives that the working class developed a sense of itself as a class, and hence the kind of solidarity that would make large scale strikes possible. It is not necessarily from spontaneous mass strikes that a socialist consciousness develops, but from common association as a class in party. The core myth of economism is that the working class derives its power from the ability to withdraw labor, which is a trade unionist, rather than Marxist notion. Rather, the Marxist theory of class is that the working class develops because it is compelled to commonly politically associate beyond its divisions by its common position of dependence on the general wage fund. The working class derives its power from its need for collective, and therefore mass political solutions.

These same entanglements which cause economism to tail behind the workers movement are the same obstacles that plague so called “anti-politics.” While what is said to be “anti-politics” is rather enigmatic and elusive, the political blog “Left-Flank” breaks them down into essentially 3 points:

  1. A widespread mood among ordinary people related to Gramsci’s description of “detachment”. This can manifest in spontaneous popular outbursts or be reflected in volatile electoral results, but tends to peter out if not given some kind of direction.
  2. A political strategy by sections (or aspiring sections) of the political class, drawing on this mood for support. There are lots of variants on this, not confined to Left or Right:
  3. A consistent strategy of social revolution, which seeks to concretely intervene on the effective terrain in order to build a movement that overcomes politics by overcoming the state.

What is outlined in the above 3 points, though, is not a wave of “anti-politics,” but a reaction to the failure of the neoliberal project, which still takes place explicitly in the space of the political. What then follows is an attempt to extrapolate a wider trend towards populism as a retrogression into an aggregate depoliticization, or worse, to credit politically incoherent populist waves with a “consistent strategy of social revolution.” Not only is this malapropism a misreading of the current state of global politics, but it leads to prescriptive measures in the vein of a mass political exodus into strictly “social” forms of organization and anti-capital based action. This rejection of participation in the political spheres of influence, and the focalization of a specific demesne leaves open a vacuum which bourgeois politics are able to occupy. It’s this analysis of the ontology of the working class as not operating within the political or ideological sphere, and only the social(in relation to anti-politics) or the  material(in relation to economism) which causes these one-dimensional tactical modes to ultimately preclude any sort of influence throughout the movement, and to lag behind the workers movement as less of a participator, or a co-conspirator, but as solely a spectator.

The consistent strategy of social revolution that Left-Flank sees developing, which seeks to overcome politics and overcome the state, is a reference to the types of “movements without ideologies or demands” that spontaneously rise against the state. The Arab Spring is touted as a model for these “movements of squares” that arose in Greece, Spain, Turkey and Ukraine. There is a tendency to see the refusal of these movements to pose concrete political solutions as something liberatory in itself, and imagines a society in a state of permanent mobilization tearing down mediations that cannot be realistically continued to a conclusion. These movements of course are not “anti-political” regardless of what they claim because ultimately they feed into the machinery of the existing political forces. The hope of a movement against politics itself is an anarchist fantasy that was wiped away with the Paris Commune, which showed that the working class could only address the social question by achieving political dominance.

The truth is that this strategy reflects the ideological dominance of the petty-bourgeoisie, who are against the state but do not represent a positive class interest as an alternative. The nature of these movements, as amorphous and non-political, speaks to their class incoherence and their ability to “negate” the existing order, but not actually change it. They are simple screams in public for change from the petty-bourgeoisie, but tend to organize around a demand of anti-corruption. Anti-corruption demands are very dangerous, and can very easily play into an in-group/out-group mentality of the “good citizen” against “corrupt outsiders” that deforms class reproduction. Left-Flank deny that anti-political tendencies will lead to right wing outcomes, when there really is no reason to think this. Anti-politics has no coherence; it only stands against the state and negates its authority, but ultimately takes for granted its existence.

Another Left-Flank piece titled, “Why Better Politics Can’t Make Anti-Politics Go Away,” attempts to critique a “Spiked!” article, which criticizes anti-politics for its teleological emptiness. The author of the Left-Flank article in question responds by saying that:

“Furedi argues: “The radical supporters of anti-politics overlook that the flipside of anti-politics is TINA — an acceptance of the world as it is. For without politics people are reduced to passive objects, shaped by fate.” He gives no sense that social forces are needed to profoundly change society, and that political activity underpinned by social passivity simply reproduces the current malaise. Hence he collapses into a tired and unconvincing call for a “battle of ideas” for the values he prefers. More bizarrely he claims that the deadweight of institutions like “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” is more powerful than the countercultural populist surge. Perhaps that argument would’ve rung true 30 years ago, but if the Brexit and Trump votes showed anything it was a lack of deference to the expertise and cultural authority of “schools, universities, popular culture, the media” that was in operation — a fact Furedi acknowledges but quickly forgets.”

While a lot of this is true, that social deference to expertise has been declining, and that political activity predicated on passivity simply reproduces the problematics of the current social order, it attempts to disassociate participation in the social and political realms, as if they function in mutually exclusive domains. The functional goal of participation in politics for the revolutionary is specifically to bring to light the utter ineptitude of bourgeois politics, and in turn present an alternative towards liberation. In this sense we can defer back to US Marxist Hal Draper on the role that politics play within the movement:

“The working class (unlike the bourgeoisie) cannot inseminate its own system of economic power within the old one, thereby establishing a plateau of power from which to gain the political heights. The order necessarily is the reverse. The working class–through the organization of its political movement, like every other aspiring class–must first conquer political power and then begin the process of socio economic transformation. For the bourgeoisie, political power was finally plucked as the ripe or overripe fruit of its socio economic power, its power as a possessing class. For the working class, political power is needed as the engine with which to bring a new social order into existence.”

This delineation of the role that working class politics play in overcoming capitalism is important in that it stresses the interwoven relationship of the base and superstructure. Contrary to Gramsci’s (who Left-Flank seems to take much inspiration from) conception of a “cultural hegemony,” Draper demonstrates the bottleneck that bourgeois politics play in supplementing and monopolizing a more universal hegemony, and it is only through the working class seizure and occupation of the political, social, and economic strata that this monopolization can be reversed. Hegemony is fought through counter-hegemony, which for the working class must be collective and in its highest form proposes an alternative form of governance, and therefore grasp with the political.

The dangers of this sort of fetishization for purely “social” forms of organizing/movementism, is that the real world application of its praxis has historically resulted in a spontaneous, unorganized, and premature causatum of failure. Despite romantic nostalgias for outbursts such as May 68, these “purely social” spasms aren’t able to structure or restructure themselves into an organized movement with a coherent purpose, and are either absorbed and subsumed back into the bourgeois spectacle or crushed underneath the boot of capital.  The reason for this is not because of the interminability of capitalism, but because peripheral strategic forms are unable to capture the totalization that the bourgeoisie has over the structures of social power. Only the patient construction of social and political force, the working class and its party, can come to challenge the totalizing domination that the bourgeois holds over society, not just economically, but politically and ideologically.

The social conditions that created “anti-politics” as a widespread force amongst the working class are a product of material circumstances. However, the argument of Marxism is that our material circumstances are rooted in socially and historically defined conditions that are based on social relations which result from the processes of collective human action. By acting collectively, humans can change these material circumstances, and therefore develop a new mode of production itself, socialism. So rather than tailing anti-political sentiment that spontaneously develops from an atomized existence in neo-liberal capitalism, we must go against the spontaneous consciousness, as Lenin urges us in What Is To Be Done. We must fight collectively against the material conditions that make anti-politics dominant.

The development of revolutionary strategy grounded in the material conditions of today is a much needed task that all socialists should be willing to partake in, but the process of this conceptualization has to take into account the forces of all spheres of power and influence, as the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is not simply confined to the material, or social, but to life in its totality. This doesn’t mean that we indulge in the “tagtail” of bourgeois parties, as Engels said, but what it does mean is that we take a principled universalist approach to overcoming the universalist system of oppression and exploitation of capitalism and bourgeois society as whole.



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