Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tagged under: ,

Undoing The Conquest

Lately, I have found myself reading more Marxist literature than I am inclined to. Familiar enough with it from back in the prison day when I was at ease with the Marxist label, post Marx’s own writings, I have read less of Lenin and Trotsky, not finding persuasive answers in the deification of the party. There was more to be mined in Poulantzas, Althusser, Milliband and Gramsci. Once on the right side of the prison wall the Marxist dog tag ended up no longer on my chest but in a chest of dusty drawers.

It was not that Marxist ideas ever came to repel me. I have long viewed them as probably the most efficient and insightful model of political economy making explicable the economic system the world labours under. It was the Marxists that I encountered that turned me off and brought to mind Marx’s own comment that had stayed with me from jail days: when socialism is in the hands of the sects and cults there is no longer socialism. In my view Marxism is at core an economic system of thought which political slogans, no matter how loudly or passionately chanted, simply fail to express the essence of.

When asked to review Undoing The Conquest I didn’t relish the task but agreed to do it as a favour for a friend. I didn’t expect it to be as good as Francis Wheen’s uplifting Karl Marx nor did I dread it being as dry as Louis Althusser’s For Marx, both of which I had been reading at the same time.

The short book is the culmination of a series of seminar papers delivered in Dublin in 2012 and commissioned by the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, a body pulled together by Irish socialists concerned at the economic malaise afflicting the country and determined not to allow the architects of austerity to go unchallenged. Its accessible lay out and structure meant that bite size chunks would make a reading manageable and considerably less daunting than trying to hold on to some difficult to grasp meta-narrative that winded its way through a series of complex concepts.

The book is thematically organised in three sections: democracy, the state and imperialism and from the outset the editors are keen to dispel the conceptual usefulness of ‘betrayal’. They are keen to make the point that the prism of betrayal offers a very opaque view of strategic orientation. Political forces do what they do not because of personal appetite but out of class interest.

‘Betrayal’ is a word often flung around political discourse, there is always somebody backsliding, selling short or behaving treacherously. One of the more significant but less memorable moments in our recent history was when Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness accused physical force republicans of betrayal. The irony of what one Sinn Fein member described as ‘company and context’ seemed to escape McGuinness as he made his ‘traitors’ denunciation while standing alongside both the leader of political unionism and the leader of the British police in Ireland. It sort of meant the word could mean anything while at the same time meaning absolutely nothing.

In seeking to devalue the explanatory power of the betrayal concept Gareth Murphy's paper asked the question Who are Ireland’s Ruling Class and in whose Interest does it Rule? In a paper so short I, with a sense of relief, did not anticipate anything as dense or as theoretical as Goran Therborn’s What does the Ruling Class do when it Rules?

He takes the view that feeling 'betrayal' is pointless, concluding that somebody like William Martin Murphy was not guilty of betrayal of his nation when national freedom meant something different to him that it would to a socialist.

To Murphy freedom meant the freedom for him to expand his business empire and grow at the expense of British industries. His was a freedom in relation to the freedom of British business and a freedom to exploit the Irish working class to enrich himself.

That he chose William Martin Murphy rather than a more recent example probably deprives the author’s contention of added ballast and the certain resonance it would have gained. For if this is William Martin Murphy’s nationalism then its spirit very much guided Tom McFeely, whose profit before people ethic was the moving force behind the debacle of Priory Hall which resulted in the great Dublin lock out of residents from their homes.

Gareth Murphy’s contribution contends that the accusation of betrayal is often a misnomer for what is in fact class interest. The Irish national bourgeoisie rather than betraying people is simply being loyal to profit and it would be unwise for socialists to ever expect anything else from it.

Tommy McKearney, one of the moving forces behind the Forum, in his paper The Politics of Class in a Divided Society, warned of the serious limitations of an ultra leftist response to the problems posed by reformism, economism or ‘gas and water’ socialism. McKearney would see this very much as Lenin did those who were waving  ‘little red flags’ while at the same time waiving any serious socialist strategic orientation. His paper called for class to displace community in the North. But he is aware that this objective has eluded every socialist strategist who has yet applied their mind to the matter.

Kevin McCorry in his paper The State: Republicanism and Democracy, claimed that capitalism is a history of wars, and socialism a history of mistakes. Socialism has not been without its wars either or its war criminals and one wonders if a socialist world could ever be war free. Despite the Marxist belief in the ultimate withering away of the state, politics is never going to wither away: and politics always implies conflict. To believe that it will be non-antagonistic conflict is wish being father to the thought. The alarm sounded by Marx that our future will be either socialism or barbarism in itself does not act as a guarantor that socialism itself will not resort to barbarism. The word gulag always conjures up a haunting image of the type of spectre that has stalked the world of socialism.

There are a number of other papers in this book that catch the eye including contributions from Eddie Glacken, Eugene McCartan and Gareth Mackle. None are dull.

In spite of class remaining for Marxists, the defining societal cleavage, the motor force of history without which society will never be understood, nor corrective strategy developed, I have tended to find class more complex than Marxists often make out. Recalling the focus of both Erik Olin Wright and Nicos Poulantzas the binary classification employed always seemed a truism that did little to inform serious socialist strategy. As economic categories there is capital, and there is labour but, as Poulantzas suggested, to read politics off from this like some registration plate on a car is strategically dubious. In response to Engels’ insistence that the economy only determines the political structure in the last instance Althusser maintained that ‘from the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the “last instance” never comes.'  A Marxist politics not shackled by economic reductionism which at the same time is mindful of Ellen Meiksins Wood’s rejoinder to those who would Retreat From Class, is a project to which more Marxist time should be afforded. 

Critics might take the view that the collection of essays is standard fare for old style Marxism and that there is no serious advance on what passed for Marxist thinking within the Irish radical left in the '70s and '80s. While there is nothing of a serious strategic nature that leaps out from its 89 pages, this would be to ignore what its purpose is. This book makes no grand claim to be a socialist blueprint. It is basic, pretends to be nothing else and is pitched at familiarising people with ideas at their first point of contact. In some ways it has a feel of socialism for beginners, outlining and breaking down key ideas in some instances through case studies as with Eddie Molloy’s paper on the North of Ireland. Rather than presenting initiates with the tablets of stone, it aims to get people talking in Marxist language which in turn might act as a discursive gateway leading to a more analytical engagement with Marxist ideas.

The Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum, 2013. Undoing The Conquest: Renewing the Struggle.


AM said...

Material from the COPI touching on many of the issues raised in this book.

Rory said...

Nice summary of several important books Anthony.
Have the flu and am in a rush.
I will certainly return to read this article more carefully later.

sean bres said...

Marxism and all that will never apply to this country until you remove the British presence. That's the freedom we need to allow us to pursue the other freedom's Marxists hold dear

sean bres said...

Still sounds like an interesting and relevant book I meant to add and certainly one I'd find helpful

Fionnuala Perry said...

Yesterday, when I was rushing through the town partaking in all the hustle and bustle of the Xmas shopping I was stopped and asked to sign a petition against the privatisation of nursing homes.
In the midst of the Christmas buzz, hype and stress, these young people from the Socialist Party were setting out their stall and sending out a clear message there is a better way.
To what extent they were drowned out or overshadowed by the blatant capitalist format that is Christmas I don't know. I just know, it was good to see them even if it does cause a tingling of guilt.

I think anything that makes people stop and think if only momentarily is never wasted.
This Peadar O Donnell group have published some interesting stuff.
However, some of this stuff needs to be made more simplistic for the average woman and man.

AM said...

Thought provoking piece

Wolfsbane said...

Anthony, Yes, a thought-provoking piece.

I'm amazed that so many of my American friends hold to an unchecked capitalism as almost an article of faith.

The Reformed Faith has always held that man is innately evil - that all he does needs to be restrained or it will degenerate into abuse.

Reformed Christians (I'm one) ought to be the first to insist that capitalism be moderated by social concern. Naked capitalism and naked socialism will always end up oppressing the masses.

Maitiu Connel said...

I often see the Socialist party in town and will always buy their magazine or whatever it is they are selling at the time.
My first huge experience of sheer Capitalism was when I first lived in America and due to the economy, I ended up losing my IT job and working in retail at one of the most well known stores. I was there for $7.25 per hour which is minimum wage in most states in the mid west.
One thing that I was quick to notice was that 95% of the workers were all kept on a monthly minimum of 26 hrs or less per week so the company could avoid having to pay benefits. Near all my co workers were on state funded health care and also on food stamps just to survive.
I would be in work for 3.45am to unload the truck and get shelves tacked. It is of note that after the truck was unloaded, we had a " group huddle". At this daily huddle the manager would read of the previous days takings. Often always in excess of $40,000 per day and way over $150,000 during holiday season. Despite this huge earning, workers were given a yearly pay raise of 5 cents. These raises were stopped from 2009 - unknown as I left after 1 year.
Yet, the CEO walked away with a personal income of $26.7 million that year.
We as workers were suppose to have been fueled with energy in our job to know the store made so much money the day before. As if somehow, my placing the toilet roll on the shelf really did it.
Workers came and went. It was never ending of new faces.
I could not even pay my rent and with a new born baby, it was a very very difficult time and the main reason I joined the military.
I remember once that my baby needed medication and it was $130 for 20 tablets. I went with no lunch for 2 weeks over that and had to go into debt with our gas/ electric bill. Yet we would turn up in work to hear how great it all was for the elite.
There were people working there even worse of than what we were at the time.
As soon as xmas ended, the shelves were stacked straight away with valentines day, then easter, then the next and the next. We living here in Belfast do not have it as harsh as they have it in regards to having materialism just forced upon us none stop. Though it is starting to become more Americanized here.

To me, I hate xmas. Not because of religion or anything. Because it is just pure capitalism in the most crude form. Spend spend spend and go into debt all for one day. My little niece who is ten years old, her little friend wants a £600 iPhone for xmas. We are just consumers and we must consume till we die.

Maitiu Connel said...

Also meant to add.

I love reading Socialist books and at the moment, I am still trying to get through the Communist Manifesto. Some of it is rather confusing and difficult to understand. I get the overall picture but as you said, some concepts are very complex.

Kev O'Higgins said...

Anthony, funnily enough I too have been rereading the Communist Manifesto on the daily bus to wage-slavery. The bit I keep returning to is on family. It hasn't aged well and is pretty offensive to the proletariat who often survive the ravages of unfettered capitalism through it.

Stray Taoist said...

The best thing about the Communist Manifesto was that the original translation had the awesome opening: 'There is a hobgoblin stalking Europe'. All downhill after that. (I suppose I probably shouldn't say I work right in the belly of the Beast, and will likely be the cause of the next financial crash...)

I'll stick with Popper, Friedman and Hayek.

Sean said...

Good review and you are spot on about that 'traitor' and 'sell-out' jibe that you constantly hear from some elements of dissident republicans.

First it highlights a complete lack of any political analysis as the booklet points out.

It is a bit like looking at the failures of the ANC and Mandela and its comprimises with the white power structure, without realising the fact that we should be under no illusions given the movement was never committed in principle to a socialist republic and was a broad populist nationalist movement more than anything else.

From an anarchist/libertarian communist perspective one thing which is always missing from such Leninist writings as you point out is a critical examination of not only the class forces but the organisational structure. The fact that the Provisonal movement was tightly controlled through 'democratic centralism' or bureocratic centralism; helped the Adams leadership led it in a certain direction which may have been more difficult in mass democratic movement.

“With growing success in elections and securing political power they turn more and more conservative and content with existing conditions. Removal from the life and suffering of the working class, living in the atmosphere of the bourgeoisie . . . they have become what they call 'practical'. . . Power and position have gradually stifled their conscience and they have not the strength and honesty to swim against the current. . They have become the strongest bulwark of capitalism."-Alexander Berkman