|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 230 July-August 2019
Socialism or pessimism
An answer to Paul Mason
Clear Bright Future: a radical defence of the human being
By Paul Mason
Published by Allen Lane, 2019, £20
These are complicated, contradictory times. The capitalist system is in crisis, unable to recover fully from the decade-long great recession. Mass revolt has erupted – the ‘Arab’ spring, protests in Latin America, Sudan, Algeria and Hong Kong, movements around women’s oppression and the environment – yet the organised working class has not generally taken the lead. Meanwhile, advances in information technology run at breakneck speed. This combination can lead to confused, pessimistic conclusions, and PETER TAAFFE reviews one of its latest incarnations.
Paul Mason’s new book covers much of the ground he dealt with in PostCapitalism published in 2015. He then wrote: “The long-term prospects of capitalism are bleak” and the era of neoliberalism is ultimately doomed. Moreover, claims Mason, human beings face increased competition and even extinction through the introduction of artificial intelligence.
We said at the time that PostCapitalism was well worth reading if only for the devastating description and facts illustrating the failure of ‘modern’ capitalism (see Socialism: Past or Present? Socialism Today No.191, September 2015). However, we completely rejected his conclusions, which effectively discounted a seriously weakened working class as the main agent of socialist change. Mason argued that new technology, particularly information technology, opened up a new route to struggle and, eventually, power through spontaneous mass action, which would replace structured, democratic political parties of the working class. Indeed, in a TV discussion with me he flourished his mobile as an example of the increased ‘popular power’ that would be more effective than active mobilisation in political parties.
We pointed out that, while social media networks using information technology including mobiles could play some role in helping to mobilise for big events, even revolutions – as witnessed in the so-called Arab spring in North Africa and the Middle East – they were peripheral. They were not as effective or durable as the formation of independent mass workers’ parties, the potential of which has recently been glimpsed in the movements around Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, and with Podemos in Spain. Unfortunately, the full development of these and other parties and formations as fighting mass workers’ parties has not yet been realised because of the deficiencies of their programmes and forms of organisation: the top-down leaderships of Podemos and La France Insoumise, and the incomplete Corbyn ‘revolution’.
The conclusion Paul Mason draws is that the working class has failed to seize the opportunities created by the deep-seated crisis of capitalism evident since 2008. He asserts: “We need a new theory of ‘humanism’.” According to Mason, this means that “the attacks on human choice and freedom are merging into a single project: technologically empowered anti-humanism”. In short, artificial intelligence will take over from human beings unless it is “carefully designed”.
Nonetheless, he partly answers his own arguments: “But if deployed into socially useful applications under meaningful, ethical human control, AI could be the tool that liberates humanity. Get it right and it not only fulfils Aristotle’s fantasy of using ‘machines that know what their job is’ to abolish class divisions: a safe, socially controlled AI becomes the safety net against the development of dangerous AIs controlled by states and unreliable private companies”. This is only possible, however, on the basis of fighting for and establishing socialism.
We agree with Mason’s many stark facts and figures, illustrating the incapacity of capitalism to solve the accumulated horrendous problems of the world today. In fact, the current situation is immeasurably worse than when he wrote his first book, with the enduring crisis of world capitalism still evident and, moreover, on the eve of another devastating economic crash.
Trump and capitalist reaction
Yet Paul Mason has drawn deeply pessimistic conclusions. One chapter, headed ‘A General Theory of Trump’, raises the prospect of fascism in the US and a “rerun of the American civil war with AR-15 rifles”. He applies this not just to the US but as a threat to the world. This is in response to the emergence of right-wing populism, which has not only affected the US but has also significantly impacted on Europe: the far right in France, Italy, eastern Europe and Turkey (through Recep Tayyip Erdogan), and elsewhere. Even Patrick Cockburn – who in his analysis of the Syrian civil war for the Independent newspaper has been consistently one of the best informed and balanced commentators – now seems to agree with Mason. Cockburn recently argued that the “fascist leaders and fascism itself in the 1920s and 1930s were similar in many respects to Trump and Trumpism”.
However, this and Mason’s reference to the immediate danger from the alt-right in the US is overstated, at this stage. This is not to minimise the dangers posed, ultimately, by the racist far right acting in concert with the capitalists, but the threat of success for them is not likely immediately. The Socialist Party has been to the fore in battling against the small far-right or fascist forces wherever they raise their heads, be that Tommy Robinson and his supporters in Britain, the US alt-right in Charlottesville – effectively encouraged by Trump in his comments that the protests included some “very fine people” – or elsewhere.
But what is involved here is the question of realistic perspectives for the far right, above all, the relationship of class forces in Britain, Europe and the US. It is also necessary to have a sense of proportion. Given the catastrophic outcome for the capitalists following their ceding of power in the interwar period to the fascist gangs of Hitler, Mussolini and, to some extent, Franco – which led to war, the threat of revolution and actual revolution in the post-war world – they would now hesitate many times before sanctioning this option.
Despite his claims to be a Marxist still, Paul Mason has not absorbed fully what were the main features represented in the phenomenon of fascism in the past, or the forms that capitalist reaction is likely to adopt today. Fascism is not just another form of reaction supported by the strategists of capital. It is a product of a desperate capitalist economic and social situation with the ruination not only of the working class but also the middle class – the petty bourgeois of the town and countryside. That occurs when there is no other way out for the bourgeoisie, the capitalist ruling class. It is usually the last card to play before the capitalists face revolution.
Despite the bleak situation in the US and the world painted by Mason – on which he is absolutely correct – the rise of fascism is not posed either in the US or worldwide at the present time. One of the reasons why Leon Trotsky opposed the premature designation of a regime as fascist in Germany was because of what this means for the perspectives of the working-class movement. A fascist regime signifies a decisive defeat involving a long period of defensive, underground struggle for the working class. This was the difference between the various Bonapartist regimes in Germany – semi-dictatorial, ‘rule by the sword’, in character – and Hitler coming to power. There was still a chance under these regimes for the working class to regather its forces and defeat capitalist reaction.
The working class as a whole was never attracted to the demagogic message of Hitler or Mussolini. However, the ruined, deranged middle classes were mobilised as a mass force by these ruthless gangsters, and used to atomise all the organisations and collective power of the working class. In general, today, we are not in such a desperate situation that would allow the ruling class to gamble on giving power to an uncontrolled gangster like Hitler or Mussolini. The social reserves are not there for a mass fascist movement at the moment. Let us recall that Trump lost the last presidential election in the popular vote by three million. It is also true that Hitler lost votes in Germany in the last election before he forcibly seized power. This is not being replicated in the US, where Trump could be defeated in 2020.
Nonetheless, if the US working class fails to create its own mass party and fashion a force to mobilise the majority behind it, even in a ‘democratic’ republic like the US, a reactionary despot with some of the elements of fascism could take power at a certain stage. It would be entirely false to give a panicky impression – as Mason does – that such a moment is posed in the near future, let alone immediately. The mighty American working class will have not only one but a number of opportunities to prepare its forces to take power out of the hands of the plutocracy, represented by the likes of Trump, and refashion the continent along socialist lines.
The collapse of Stalinism
Paul Mason declares that the period of the early 1990s was a defining moment for capitalism and for the prospects for socialism: “The collapse of Soviet communism and the marketization of China had buried the project of the twentieth-century left forever”. This totally pessimistic prognosis has been falsified by the splendid movements of the masses in the neo-colonial world: the North African/Middle Eastern revolution, the present upheavals in Sudan and Algeria, and the mass revolt in Hong Kong against the Chinese regime. This is not to mention the colossal upheavals in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries, with mass movements in Greece (with around 40 general strikes against austerity), Spain, and the US itself, where most millennials are in revolt against capitalism and support some kind of ‘socialism’!
What has been missing in all these movements was a mass party of the working class able to generalise their experience in a programmatic form and raise the prospect of socialist change. This idea is greeted with pessimism and cynicism by Mason. It is true that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the movement towards capitalism in China did strengthen capitalism economically by providing a new source of cheap exploitable labour. It was both an economic process that strengthened world capitalism, and an ideological one, reflected for years in the worldwide shift towards the right within the workers’ organisations.
We Marxists, however, in opposition to superficial sceptics, kept a sense of proportion and pointed to the inevitable upheavals to come once the glitter of a new revitalised capitalism had run its course. We also emphasised that, while an increased pool of cheap labour would boost capitalism, the increased labour force would expand the working class and its potential power, and this would come to the fore eventually. To some extent, this has been shown in the recent upheavals in Latin America, particularly Argentina, and Hong Kong with possibly huge repercussions in China.
Moreover, a new period of mass upheaval looms given the unprecedented levels of poverty and deprivation which abound in the most developed capitalist countries, including the US. The crisis of 2007-08 represented a turning point, preparing the ground for the unleashing of mass movements that will shake capitalism to its foundations and pose the need for a socialist alternative worldwide.
The figures Mason gives on the doubling of the capitalist world labour force following the economic and social counter-revolution in the former USSR and eastern Europe were commented on by us during the development of the process in the 1990s. Its immediate effect was to strengthen capitalism, but using Karl Marx’s ‘dialectic’ – disparaged by Mason – we pointed out that reality always has two sides. The other side of this development was the enormously increased potential power of the working class, which has already been glimpsed but will be shown dramatically in the mass upheavals to come.
Paul Mason counterposes to this class struggle scenario an intensification of the reactionary ‘culture wars’ ruthlessly pursued by the Trump regime. He writes exaggeratedly: “The emergence of widespread, popular anti-humanism does not just hold open the door for some fascists with stupid flags. It opens the door for our surrender to machine control – and, in the face of it, the ordinary humanism of the liberal mainstream has begun to falter”. He counterposes ‘culture’ wars to combat this in place of the class struggle.
Culture signified a ploughed, cultivated field as opposed to untouched forests and virgin lands. Culture is all that has been created and achieved by humanity throughout the course of its entire history, in contrast with what has been given by nature, including the natural history of humankind itself as an animal species. So the rise in culture is linked, ultimately, to economics and the development of the productive forces. Marx pointed out that the historical justification for capitalism was that it would develop science, technique and the organisation of labour to such a level that, for the first time in history, want and poverty could be abolished and humankind would rule itself in a self-governing, democratic commune.
The essence of the current economic situation is that capitalism can no longer qualitatively develop the productive forces – it has outlived its original mission. The task now is to remove it from the scene and lay the basis for a society that would not only further sustainably develop the productive forces but, in the process, also lay the basis for the complete freedom of humankind on a national and international scale.
Mason maintained at his book launch that he is still “a Marxist but not a Bolshevik”. Yet the title of his book, Clear Bright Future, is taken from Trotsky, who associated this with the establishment of a socialist world. Moreover, no one was more consistently a Bolshevik than Trotsky, as Lenin underlined during the Russian revolution of 1917 and its aftermath. In a completely ahistorical sense, Mason wishes to retain what is ‘good’ from the Russian revolution and discount and oppose the ‘bad’ ideas of Lenin. Yet without Lenin and Trotsky the Russian revolution would not have taken place. To bolster his case against Lenin he drags in the hoary old myths of ultra-left groups – Mason used to be a member of one such organisation, Workers Power – that neither understood Lenin nor the Russian revolution and its place in history.
He writes: “Leninism was premised on the idea that on its own the working class could achieve only ‘trade union consciousness’. To trigger the revolution, an elite of intellectuals and educated workers formed into a hierarchical party was needed”. It is true that Lenin did once wrongly make a point like this in answer to the ‘Economists’ (reformists) – in the pamphlet, What Is to Be Done? (1901/02). The Economists wanted to restrict the struggles of the working class to basic tasks in the trade unions and elsewhere, which Lenin and the Bolsheviks opposed. However, he quickly abandoned this formulation, after criticisms from others including Trotsky. Lenin emphasised that he was ‘bending the stick’ one way in order to answer the proponents of ‘spontaneity’, tacitly admitting he was wrong. You will not find anything similar in any of Lenin’s subsequent writings.
Paul Mason’s analysis is, in effect, an eclectic hotchpotch of different ideas, including an attack on the ideas of Marx, promising to give him a “good kicking”, theoretically of course. He fails in this task because of his lack of understanding of what Marx’s real ideas represented, particularly their correct historical context. For instance, Mason misunderstands Marx’s ideas when he supports a version of ‘identity politics’, of sectional struggles of women and other oppressed layers not connected to the general struggles of the working class. He argues that “every form of capitalism, every workers’ state and every progressive movement has reproduced women’s oppression”. According to Mason, this invalidates Marxism.
On the contrary, however, the Russian revolution – which took place in an economically underdeveloped country – made heroic efforts not just ‘theoretically’ but practically – as Trotsky explains in the tremendous little pamphlet, Problems of Everyday Life (1923) – to assist in the material liberation of women, lifting the burden of housework, childrearing, etc, off them. These efforts were limited primarily because of the cultural level – in terms of the economy, which undermined and in cases nullified the efforts made by the Bolsheviks – enormously aggravated by the civil war and imperialist military intervention.
Mason goes on to make the incredible claim that “for Marx, the working class were the bearers of an implicit need to attack private property and destroy class domination, and at the same time bearers of the fate of capitalism: its gravediggers. Throughout the entire history of the industrial working class, this proved false… At no stage did the majority of working-class people consistently and effectively support a project for abolishing private property”.
It is incredible that an alleged Marxist does not see the difference between abolishing ‘private property’ in the means of production – factories, etc – and what this phrase means in terms of personal possessions. Real Marxists have never raised the demand for the expropriation of the latter. However, the labour movement has demanded that ‘private property’ – the means of production – be taken away from a handful of capitalist monopolists and placed in the hands of a democratic workers’ state. What was Clause IV Part 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution – abolished by right-wing Blairism but likely to be restored if Labour is to be transformed into a mass socialist workers’ party under a Corbyn leadership – if not this!
A pessimistic view
Undaunted, Paul Mason is completely pessimistic about the future for the working class and its organisations: “Having destroyed and dispersed the industrial proletariat, neoliberal capitalism has reincarnated its gravedigger in a new form: the networked individual. The networked individual ‘bears’ the characteristics of future liberated humanity much more clearly than the coal miners of my grandfather’s generation. If they do overthrow capitalism, networked individuals will do it consciously and gradually, not as the unconscious puppets of historical forces. And they have the collective interest to do so”.
Mason elaborates on this, writing that “information technology creates the opportunity to build islands of abundance and self-control inside capitalism, bypassing the stages of scarcity, planning, rationing and centralised control”. However, this is just a ‘new form’ of reformism, the ‘gradual’ road to change society or establish socialism! Mason suggests co-ops, etc, along the lines of what Robert Owen proposed at the dawn of the labour movement. And what will the ruthless capitalists do while this gradual elimination of their power is enacted, particularly as Mason argues they are already threatening us with a possible fascist takeover?
The truth is that they will resort to the most drastic measures if we follow the advice of Mason to ‘gradually’ take economic power away from them. They certainly won’t roll over and play dead! Even George Brown, a right-wing cabinet minister in Harold Wilson’s Labour government of the 1960s, conceded: “No privileged group disappears from history without a struggle, and usually it is without any holds barred”. This was after Wilson threatened merely to introduce a wealth tax, not take away the whole economic power of the capitalists.
It is not an accident that John McTernan – an unreconciled Blairite and enemy of the Labour left – has seized on Paul Mason’s use of Marx’s statements from A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). In this Marx argued that “no social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed… Mankind sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve”. McTernan obviously sees in this some hope for capitalism and, therefore, for Blairism. This was a correct formulation for the mid-nineteenth century but events – particularly the first world war – showed that capitalism was ready for its overthrow.
Now, from being a relative fetter on economic growth, the capitalist system is an absolute obstacle to further progress. It is completely false to use this quote to suggest that further qualitative growth in capitalism is possible – clearly, McTernan’s argument. Capitalism has reached a decisive stage where it can no longer qualitatively develop the productive forces, and this will be underlined by the next crisis. It is incapable of solving all the accumulated problems of humankind, economically, environmentally, and in the quality of life. The consciousness of the working class will catch up with the objective situation resulting in revolution.
Capitalism must make way for the new society. This will be socialist and thoroughly democratic, with management and control exercised by the mass of working people. Paul Mason’s book, unfortunately, does not show the way to achieve this task. Only Marxism, linked to the mass movement of the working class worldwide, is capable of doing so.