On the Questions of Socialist Offensive and Agency in Beyond Capital*

On the Questions of Socialist Offensive and Agency in Beyond Capital*

This is not a synopsis of Beyond Capital. That task in itself would require a whole new book. This is merely an attempt to raise some questions and perhaps, if only partially, to address some issues raised in Beyond Capital on the questions of ‘Agency’ and the ‘Socialist Offensive’. Such questions are related to questions of the sustainability and the evolution of revolutionary agency in accordance with the demands of changing conditions in the course of the transition in which the capital relation is being eradicated from the ‘social metabolic process’. Meszaros’s important work needs to be studied and explored in depth in order to address a whole range of questions and problems concerning this period of transition.

The Historical Precedence and Significance of the Question of Agency

Let us begin with an earlier work in which he writes

“no socialist strategy can hope to succeed unless its general principles of orientation are adequately translated into socio-historically specific, dynamic and flexible, instruments and institutions capable of restructuring the whole of society, in accordance with the constantly changing realities of world-situation”. [Meszaros, I., Marx’s Theory of Alienation, Merlin Press, 4th Edition (1975) p.287]

and on the next page…

“It is, therefore, inconceivable to achieve this radical restructuring of society in one sweep, however broad and elemental it might be. One can realistically set out only from the available instruments and institutions which must be restructured en route, through manifold transitions and mediations. To pretend otherwise is nothing but dangerous, self-disarming “maximalism” which in reality turns out to be not only “minimalism” but, more often than not, also directly responsible for disarray and defeat” [Ibid, p.288]

What we have presented here is a conception of institutions of transition which are not only “socio-historically specific” and “dynamic and flexible” but must, necessarily, not become ossified but liable to “restructuring en route” according to the “changing realities of world-situation”. We set out from the “available instruments and institutions” and proceed, proteus-like, to develop the forms of transition according to the arising and disappearing demands and conditions of the “world-situation”. The existence of a single fixed ‘institution’ would, implicitly, be incapable of tackling the constantly changing demands arising out of the unfolding period of transition. Sooner or later, it would clamp the fetters on this process of transition. The dangers of ‘institutionalisation’ would come more to the fore with such an institution, thereby raising the possibility of the re-creation and re-trenchment of alienated structures, confronting the class as organisational expressions of the continued existence and dominance of capital. The dangers of “institutionalisation” [Ibid, p 286] imply the re-establishment of structures which stand in opposition to further development so that, for example, a workers’ council could then – if posited as the institution of transition – start to turn into its opposite. The fate of the soviets comes to mind which became organs of bureaucratic power i.e. organs through which the party and state bureaucracy transmitted its power and dominance over the proletariat. Hence the importance to guard against this in the development of ‘institutions’ i.e. against the retrenchment of alienated structures which confront the producers as “hostile powers of their own making”. Such a retrenchment would become a prelude to the restoration of the state power of capital. The course of development after 1989 in the Soviet system is the real historic testament to this overall conception.

Meszaros states categorically that the “The real target of emancipatory transformation is the complete eradication of capital as a totalising mode of control from the social reproductive metabolism itself, and not simply the displacement of the capitalists as the historically specific ‘personifications of capital’ ” [p.369, Beyond Capital] This process is “not conceivable without the painful enterprise of an all-embracing material restructuring of society’s productive and distributive intercourse . And the latter in its turn involves the practical establishment of the necessary forms of material mediation through which capital’s eradication from the social metabolic process becomes feasible in due course” [p.369]

However, such a “real target” of “complete eradication” cannot be remotely considered in practice as long as the political power of capital remains firmly entrenched on the historical scene. How does the proletariat start to “materially restructure society’s productive and distributive intercourse” in the violent presence of the state power of global capital? The simple truth stares us in the face that the process of destruction of the capitalist state as a global phenomenon and the “expropriation of the expropriators” must commence prior to or at least in the early stages of the actual wholesale “material restructuring” and progressive realisation of the “complete eradication of capital” by the “necessary forms of material mediation”. This is not to assert that such “material restructuring” cannot begin prior to destroying the political power of capital. However, socialist theory has not, as yet, put forward a comprehensive conception of how the whole social metabolism can be “materially restructured”, unhindered with an open historical horizon, without the supersedence of the political power of global capital. To do so would be, in itself, an epoch-making theoretical achievement which would rank on a par with the achievements of Marx himself. However, the various struggles, in that they must strive to defend the natural and socio-cultural conditions of human life which are necessary for the development of the future society, must become oriented towards the formation of the necessary forms of agency which start to address this question of “material restructuring” in actual historical practice. But to “completely restructure” is another, totally and qualitatively different, question altogether. For it implies the historical roadblock of the state power of capital has been broken up and dispersed.

Thus, although it is absolutely vital to stress that “The principal impediment for embarking on the realisation of the socialist project, and the strategic lever that must be firmly held in order to break the vicious circle of capital’s organic system, is not the repressive power of the state – which can be overthrown under favourable conditions – but the defensive or offensive posture of labour towards capital” [p.790], it is likewise crucial to stress that where we stand now, the primary pre-occupation and focus must be on the formation of the adequate forms of agency which can, indeed, not only orientate towards commencing the “restructuring” but must simultaneously also target the state power of capital as a “principal impediment” to its full and unhindered realisation.
And yet, at the same time, what is asserted here by Meszaros is surely one of the most historically vital lessons i.e. that postcapitalist societies emerged after breaking the state power of capital but labour did not fully and completely break the power of capital as a mode of social metabolic control. This, in itself, provided the ground for the restoration of capitalism in Russia, China, Eastern Europe, etc.

Accordingly, the most urgent and concrete tasks at hand are to address the question of those forms of “mediation” and agency through which the struggle against the socio-economic and political power of capital will be conducted in the unfolding crisis. In other words, on this immediate question of ‘agency’, how will the proletariat in its present global situation and changed occupational structure move to revolution and eradicate the capital relation from the social metabolism as a whole?

The Intensifying Necessity for Offensive Forms of Organisation

Up to the present, workers’ organisations have been formed “under defensive historical circumstances” and therefore they have tended to adopt a defensive posture in times of crisis. These methods of struggle are “anchored to the old conditions” and cannot serve the proletariat in the emerging struggles. Trade unionism, in its present organisational form, must be radically altered into an offensive, debureaucratised, workers’ democratic form or it will sink into the quicksand of history under the “weight of its own inertia”. “Socialist strategy badly needs restructuring in accordance with the new conditions” [p.673]. These “defensively structured” strategies continue to determine the “margins of action” of the trade unionised proletariat which will highly circumscribe its activity in the unfolding structural crisis. Within this context, the trade union bureaucracy itself can be conceptualised as a body created by labour which fundamentally opposes the historic interests of labour (alienation) because it is tied to the continuation of the capitalist system and has linked the current form of trade unionism into the capital system, e.g. through its financial connections and dependencies on the capital order. This bureaucracy remains standing as an agency of capital in the labour movement. Of course its leading figures deny this. The Soviet bureaucracy denied the characterisation that it was essentially anti-socialist. 1989 and after has demonstrated the truth of this.

The burden of history on the shoulders of the proletariat means that “since the changes required are so drastic, the probability is that people will follow the ‘line of least resistance’ for a considerable time, even if it means suffering significant defeats and imposing major sacrifices upon themselves, rather than readily accepting the ‘leap into the unknown’. Only when the options of the prevailing order are exhausted, only then may one expect a spontaneous move towards a radically different solution. (The complete breakdown of the social order in the course of a lost war and the ensuing revolutionary upheavals known from past history well illustrate this point)” [p.674]. And later “For the truth is that there is a limit beyond which forced accommodation and newly imposed sacrifices become intolerable not only subjectively for the individuals concerned, but objectively as well for the continued functioning of the still dominant social/economic framework. In this sense, and none other, the historical actuality of the socialist offensive (…) is bound to assert itself in the longer run. To assert itself both in the required form of social consciousness and in its strategic/instrumental mediation” [p.674] Furthermore, in regard to the radical socialist transformation and the necessarily accompanying production of a “communist consciousness on a mass scale”, only “When the objective conditions implicit in such an aim are in the process of unfolding on a global scale, only then may one realistically envisage the practical articulation of the required organs of socialist offensive” [p.675]. Hmmm….well….yes….hmm….but…..??!!­

I think [perhaps I am incorrect in thinking so?] some of this is problematic because it conveys, despite our regard for Meszaros’s conception as a whole, the impression of an almost stoical contemplation and disarming fatalism. Elements of fatalism and, of course, scepticism are preserved (not absolutely annihilated) within dialectical thinking in so far as the former reflects a certain recognition of the general trend of development which a formation must necessarily follow once its general principles of development have been discovered and the latter, scepticism, the conception that how this trend of development will turn out in its concrete particulars and detail expression cannot be fully known. And, of course, there are “limits”, but the assertion that the offensive is bound to assert itself in the long run and in the required forms of social consciousness could easily have the praxis-inertia effect of simply waiting around for the fruit to ripen in order to pick it up when it drops from the tree. Like standing at a bus stop. You only have to wait long enough and it will come along. Meanwhile you are waiting there, enduring the freezing winter weather and wondering where the hell it’s gone and a car unexpectedly pulls up and tells you that the service is no longer operative. You then realise that it would have been quicker to briskly walk to your destination.

Without a doubt, the conditions necessary for the emergence of the “required forms of social consciousness” and the “strategic/instrumental mediations” will not “fall from the sky” fully developed tomorrow but these conditions are now in the process of emerging (for the simple reason that history is a dialectical process and not simply a joined-up series of concatenated events) and it is necessary to start both in theoretical orienation and in praxis now with this presupposition in regard to activities within and through the “available instruments and institutions”.

Thus, the necessity to embark on “the socialist offensive under the conditions of its new historical actuality…..implies also the necessity to face up to the major challenge of being compelled to embark on such an offensive within the framework of the existing institutions of the working class, which happened to be defensively constituted, under very different historical conditions, in the past. Both going beyond capital and envisaging a socialist offensive are paradigm issues of a transition to socialism” [pp.937-38].

Meszaros writes that the ‘necessity and historical actuality of the socialist offensive’ as “a process of transformation – as arising from manifold, uneven/conflicting determinations of an objective historical tendency – refers to the historical phase in its entirety, with all its complications and potential lapses, and not to some sudden event that produces an unproblematical linear development”. It is not “the advocacy of some facile, naively optimistic, immediate agitational perspective” [p.940]. It is “the emergence and unfolding actualisation of a trend in all its historical complexity, embracing a whole historical era or epoch and delimiting its strategic parameters – for better or worse as the case might be under the changing circumstances – and ultimately asserting the fundamental tendency of the epoch in question, notwithstanding all fluctuations, unevenness, and even relapses” [p.940]
The ‘socialist offensive’ is a ‘process of transformation’, an unfolding, complex ‘historical phase’ arising out of the contradictions and conflicts of the capitalist epoch which is neither a ‘sudden event’ nor a ‘linear’ progression (like a graphical illustration by a bourgeois vulgarian in a copy of The Economist) but contains the potential for setbacks, reverses, ‘lapses’, etc. It is the ‘unfolding actualisation of a trend’, the major, characteristic tendency of historical development of the epoch regardless of ‘all fluctuations, unevenness and even relapses’.

Labour’s Growing Crisis of Organisation Under the Unfolding Conditions of Capital’s Structural Crisis

We have to start with the prevailing conditions, organisations and forms of consciousness as they exist today in the proletariat in the midst of the growing structural crisis of capital. This, of course, is not easy in the current situation. Socialists would, indeed, be forgiven for being overwhelmed. And yet, the ‘socialist offensive’ is potentiated in the crisis of capital itself but there is an absence of the ‘necessary agency’ to translate this potential into a broader reality. Where is the level of consciousness of the proletariat at the moment? In Britain, it is still with its bureaucratised trade unions and, to a certain extent, with the Labour Party but the disaffection with Labour is widespread and deepening. At the last European election in 2009, over one million voted for the fascist British National Party (BNP). It may not be described as a “trend” but this vote certainly reflects the widespread disenchantment of the proletariat with its traditional party; a party which it formed through the agency of its trade unions and co-operative organisations. It was, if anything, a vote against New Labour and also against the other ‘constitutional’ parties i.e. against the political system as a whole of capital’s governance in Britain.

Central in the political activity at present in Britain (however difficult and dispiriting at times that may be) must be work with the trade unionised proletariat but there are various other movements like the “environmentalist” organisations, anti-war groups, groups fighting the destruction of Nature in all its forms, organisations which support workers in Africa, Asia and South America, groups fighting health care and education cuts, etc. The left-wing sectarian “vanguard” parties are as outmoded as bureaucratised trade unionism but it would surely be a mistake to completely dismiss their membership, to refuse to enter a dialogue despite the fact that many still remain entrenched in their sectarian existence each with its own tabloid sheet and ready-made programme to hand. Meszaros briefly looks at the “self-defensively closed structure of the Vanguard Party”[p.675] and reveals its historical roots in the police state conditions of Tsarist autocracy. He compares this Vanguardism with “Marx’s original idea of producing ‘communist consciousness on a mass scale’ – with its necessary implication of an inherently open organisational structure” which gives the measure of the “fundamental difference between a defensive and an offensive posture”.[p.675]
Trade unionism is heading towards a deep crisis which will drive it towards a radicalised re-foundation or it is heading towards the swamp and quicksand. Trade unionism and social democracy served to defend gains made in social provision since the end of the last world war under conditions in which global capital had temporarily displaced its contradictions as it underwent a final period of global expansion prior to the onset of its structural crisis. They could operate, under such conditions, where concessions made by capital actually were not so much sacrificial but rather served the purpose of augmenting the valorisation and accumulation process in the course of capital’s global expansion and the displacement of its contradictions after the second world war.

However, since the 1970’s, we have witnessed a steady intensification in the structural crisis of global capital. The trade union militancy in Britain in the 70’s and 80’s can be traced as an active, though unconscious, response to this growing structural crisis as articulated in the defensive struggles against the attempts of the capitalist state to impose its consequences on the shoulders of labour. Thatcherism and the mission of New Labour (Blairite Thatcherism) have developed this political course of capital in the process of closedowns, privatisations, casualisations, anti-labour legislation, etc, because such actions correspond to the needs of capital as it struggles for breath in its structural crisis.

New Labour has, accordingly, openly shed any pretensions to be a ‘party of labour’ and the trade union bureaucracy has, on the whole, followed. The left-wing of the trade union bureaucracy has attempted but completely failed to establish more radical versions of the old social democracy. Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party (SLP) is the archetype, or prototype, in this regard but lately we have had other attempted configurations as well and more are and will be in the offing. From its inception, democratic discussion in the SLP, openness and transparency were rapidly constricted and closed down. With the help of lawyers a ‘constitution’ was imposed without discussion and democratic participation. Anybody who failed to tow the party line was expelled. The unexorcised ghost of Stalin and placemen haunted party meetings. These were also political methods which served the needs of capital, however contradictory it may seem in a party (now diminished to a fanclub of a few hundred at the most) led by one of the ‘heroes of organised labour’. In relation to the ‘Lords of Labour’ (as opposed to its ‘heroes’), we only have to witness how frictionless it has become for a trade union leader to readily make the profitable transition to the post of government minister, peerage or even a governor on the board of the Bank of England. Serve the lords of capital well and the trade union leader will always be amply rewarded.

Indeed, the interests of the trade union bureaucracy are so closely interwoven with the continuation of the capital system that it will be impossible for organised labour to take to the offensive against capital and its state power without simultaneously coming into direct conflict with this bureaucracy which stands as an agency of capital within the trade unionised workers’ movement. Trade unionists coming into collision with this state power will also mean, sooner or later, settling accounts with the present form of organisation and structure of trade unionism itself. Otherwise, the deathly embrace of the quicksand of history awaits.

This structural crisis of the capital order therefore brings in its wake a crisis for labour as regards the forms of organisation through which it will not only have to conduct its defensive struggles but will necessarily have to go onto the ‘socialist offensive’ in order to do so. Fundamentally, the old ways of organising trade unionism are absolutely unfit for purpose and outmoded. Some may say that was always the case but let us not digress at this moment into the historical reasons for their top-down form of organisation through this period.
They are already in decline as a consequence of being battered by crisis, legislation and straitjacketed within the old bureaucratised forms. Membership has fallen precipitously over the period of the last quarter of a century. In the early 1980s there were approximately 14 million individual trade unionists. If we include spouses, children, relatives, etc, this is well over half the population of the country at the time either directly involved in or indirectly associated with trade unionism. Currently, April 2014, there are, according to government figures, approximately 6.2 million members in total. Membership will undoubtedly continue to decline unless a fundamental process of transformation is initiated by the deepening crisis of the capitalist order.
Only a complete debureaucratisation and turning upside down and inside out of trade unionism, in which open and transparent workers’ democracy is the prevailing principle and dominant watchword of organisation, will prepare trade unionised labour for the emerging conditions of capital’s crisis which are conditions necessitating ‘offensive’ and not purely ‘defensive’ struggle. This radicalised trade unionism in itself will only be adequate within the context of the formation of broader, ‘communal’ organisations of the proletariat which will form the bulwark and provide the historical forces for the prosecution of such an ‘offensive’ against global capital. Without this, and despite any aberrant and temporary “victories” in strikes, etc, the historical trajectory for trade unionism will continue to be downwards towards vestigiality and a totally integrated corporatism in which the trade union leadership/bureaucracy acts more directly and uncompromisingly as capital’s police force in the proletariat for the crumbs it receives off the table of capital.
Of course, counter tendencies moving upwards from the struggles of the proletariat will assert themselves but, taken as a totality, the tendency will be increasingly towards a more pronounced prostration before the historical requirements of capital. We cannot discount the possibility of the actual termination of trade unionism. Considering it to be a default form of organisation of the proetariat under the rule of capital must now be increasingly questioned. We have to consider the possibility that the unfolding, deepening and intensifying of capital’s crisis may well witness trade unionism per se sinking into the quicksand and disappearing in all but name. A capital order without trade unionism is entirely possible.

Indeed, Meszaros stresses that as the structural crisis of capital deepens, major changes will be necessitated in the “instruments and institutions of socialist struggle” in order to “bring to fruition the historical tendency in question” (i.e the fullest development of the actuality of the socialist offensive). This is because these institutions have been formed in different times and under different conditions and circumstances (“at a qualitatively different historical conjuncture”). They have established themselves “in opposition to capitalism (not to capital as such) and in a fundamentally defensive way…..” [pp.940-41]. In its origins and development, trade unionism and its reformist corollary (Social Democracy, Labourism) have always taken for granted – either explicitly or implicitly – the continuing existence of that which it is seeking to reform i.e. the notion that capitalism can be reformed but not out of existence and that capital itself – the cube root of capitalism – remains the fundamental, controlling social relation of production. This conception corresponds to a definite historical phase of development where the structural crisis of capital had not yet set in and to the integration of the trade union and labour bureaucracy with the structures of imperialist capitalism. In Britain, this process of ‘integration’ has deep roots which reach downwards into the substratum of history when British capital still “ruled the waves” and the first forms of organised labour to be established were craft unions of the skilled ‘aristocracy’ of labour. The “craft idiocy” of skilled labour vis-a-vis unskilled labour originates in this period of development. The unionisation of unskilled labour arrived in the latter half of the nineteeth and early twentieth century. The ideological legacies of this division between ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ labour remain and are refracted within trade unionism itself despite the tendency towards ‘de-skilling’ (the proletarian as a superintendant of the production process based on a continuously increasing component of constant capital in this process) and the widespread levelling of wages and conditions.

The epoch where this labour bureaucracy could feed off the fruits of labour and imperialist exploitation is now rapidly passing through the hour glass of history and hence we are now entering an epoch where “the increasing difficulty and ultimate impossibility of obtaining defensive gains – on the model of the past – through the existing defensive institutions (…..) and the objective pressure for radically restructuring the existing institutions of socialist struggle so as to be able to meet the new historical challenge on an organisational basis which proves itself adequate to the growing need for a strategic offensive” increasingly and imperatively assert themselves [p.941].

Fundamentally “What is at stake, then, is the constitution of an organisational framework capable not only of negating the ruling order but simultaneously also of exercising the vital positive functions of control, in the new form of self-activity and self-management, if the socialist forces are to break the vicious circle of capital’s social control and their own negative/defensive dependency on it” [p.941].
Labour’s growing crisis of organisation therefore arises out of the unfolding and intensifying structural crisis of global capital itself.

Capital’s Offensive against Public Provision

The gains made by the proletariat by means of defensive institutions (in Britain, the trade unions and Labour Party) were “a necessary and positive constituent of the inner dynamic of capital’s self-expansion itself ” [p.941] and, to a certain extent, continue to provide an outlet for the realisation of value. Capital, in this regard, faces a contradiction as the structural crisis deepens. It must progressively withdraw the funding and continuation of social provision (health, education, housing, social services, etc). However, at the same time, if it runs these down it must, at the same time, necessarily constrict an arena in which it finds an important outlet for the realisation of value. The only way capital can seek to resolve this contradiction is through the transfer of all public provision and assets into the domain of capital exploitation so that all these services operate exclusively on a profit-only basis. But this is potentially explosive and will/must feed into the absolute necessity for the proletariat to re-constitute itself offensively in the form of new, more broad-based, social bodies to open up the front against capital and its state powers. If, under conditions when it is effectively being decimated as a class and, for whatever reasons, the proletariat is unable to rise to this challenge then a historical disaster of unprecedented proportions awaits humanity. This age of the structural crisis of global capital cannot continue without the most intense and severe repercussions for humanity and its natural and socio-cultural conditions of life : “barbarism if we’re lucky” (Meszaros).

This process of capital seeking to resolve the current contradictions it faces in the management of social provision is effectively under way which, as the structural crisis deepens, moves increasingly onto the short road towards “public provision” for profit. For example, in healthcare, the institution of certain regulatory bodies such as the sardonically, ironically and mis-named NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) whose fundamental purpose is to look at healthcare and medication through “cost/benefit” calculations and decide whether a dying person’s life is worth prolonging on the basis of such hideous formulae. The local PCTs (Primary Care Trusts), now up for abolition, are also employing the same methods. The undoubtable implication of these continuing developments would be, for example in healthcare, that if a vital treatment or use of a specific medication cannot yield a profit then it will not be made available and people will be left to die. If, for example, the purchase of equipment for schools digs into the profits of the agency running them, then the schools must do without. This is the immovable logic of capital itself : hospitals and schools run on the basis of the holy principle of “production for profit”. No profit. No service.

This transfer en masse of the public services into the clutches of capital is already pre-figured in, for example, the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) in which private capital not only owns many hospitals and health centres but continues to reap a very fat interest from the ‘public purse’ for investing the capital to construct them. It is perfectly feasible to envisage a situation where conditions alter to such a degree that the requirements of capital are not met and so, under such conditions, hospitals would be closed or sold off to land or property speculators, etc.

Such developments, in themselves, arise out of and are animated by the deepening of the structural crisis of capital which eyes every area for capture and expansion. The extension of capital’s domain is complemented by the progressive and most crippling increase in the intensity of its exploitation of acquired resources. Nothing is excluded. Nothing is sacred. The self-valorisation of capital is the highest, most sacred principle to which everything else is subservient and subordinate, including (especially!) human life and well-being. And in the course of the unfolding of its structural crisis, this principle must be multiplied many times over with its devastating impact on Nature and the life of humanity.

For the proletariat, the emphasis must be on the perspective that the deepening of the structural crisis – where “even the bare maintenance of the acquired standard of living” as well as defence of past gains and any attempts to acquire new ones – will necessitate major changes in strategy and organisation in “accordance with the historical actuality of the socialist offensive” [p.941]. The introduction of anti-labour legislation and its maintenance and development by New Labour demonstrates the necessity for such changes in strategy and organisation. And the continued prostration of the trade union bureaucracy to New Labour’s refusal to remove the anti-union laws from the statute book must mean that both this bureaucracy and New Labour must be thrown overboard and forced under. We can expect more anti-labour legislation in due course from “our democratic representatives” sitting in their clapped-out, corrupted parliamentary system

Provisional Character of Parliamentarism

According to an old conception, the Labour Party was created by the trade unions in order to “represent the interests of labour in parliament”. Ultimately, of course, the historical interests of labour are not representable through institutions of the capitalist state. Elementary theoretical principles as well as the most cruel and bitter experience is testimony to this ultimate unrepresentability. By implication, the transcendence of the political power of capital will mean, eventually, the dissolution of the parliaments and national assemblies of the capitalist order. On this question, Meszaros writes “Parliament, in particular, has been the target of many a justified criticism, and up to the present time there is no satisfactory socialist theory as to what to do with it beyond the conquest of power….” [pp.678-79]. But Parliament is an institution of the capitalist state and, although it can be utilised by the proletariat in its struggle for socialism, it is likely to retain that character in conditions of crisis. The transfer of power to the agency of revolution will necessarily render parliament obsolete as an outmoded bourgeois institution. Whether such a transfer takes place through Parliament itself (which would probably precipitate a massive political crisis and conflict between the state organs of the bourgeois class and the newly established organs of the proletariat; a dual power situation) or the parliamentary system itself had become so discredited and outmoded prior to this transfer which, accordingly, will simply sweep it into the bin where it belongs, is neither here nor there. When the time is judged to be right, the organised proletariat will know how to discard it as a necessary, transient act in the unfolding of an overall revolutionary strategy.

The implication here is that the proletariat requires organs of socialist offensive which rival the parliamentary system in its legislative, judicial and executive capacities and powers and that these must be established and in place prior to any major offensive. Parliament itself must be abolished as soon as is politically feasible; it remains in existence only in so far as it is politically necessary and expedient. For example, we do not call for its abolition whilst we are using it to further the aims of socialism but once the pursuit of those aims have been irreversibly transferred to the organisations of transition and we are confident that it is no longer of any use then it effectively becomes politically and culturally vestigial; the parliamentary system becomes redundant and can be safely left behind.

Suffice it to say that Parliament in Britain was always historically associated with the bourgeoisie. First as a regally appointed chamber in which the nascent bourgeois class in the feudal order could make its representations to the crown and the crown could issue its directives to the “commons”; secondly as a organisation through which the revolutionary bourgeoisie could organise and conduct its struggle for supremacy against the crown and thirdly as a means of the “commons” asserting that won supremacy over the crown in a “constitutional” arrangement. Perhaps its final and, historically, most useful (revolutionary?) function will be as a means to abolish the rule of the bourgeois class itself once and for all.

Meszaros also refers to a possibly very lengthy ‘intermediary stage’ which “retains at least some important features of the inherited parliamentary framework while the long-drawn-out process of radical restructuring is accomplished on the required comprehensive scale” [p.679]. This is, of course, debatable. What “important features of the inherited parliamentary framework” would this “intermediary stage” retain? Surely, one of the earliest casualties of the actualisation of the “socialist offensive” and the “long-drawn-out process of radical restructuring” would be the whole bourgeois parliamentary system itself in the wake of the unfolding of the “necessary political restructuring”?
Also – and this is historically related to the role of parliamentarism – that Marx in a speech in September 1872 mentions the possibility of working people “achieving their goal by peaceful means”. But nearly 140 years of experience of how the capitalist state proceeds in crises is testimony to the overoptimistic (“naively optimistic”) character of Marx’s “aside” not to mention the bloody history of the ascendancy of the bourgeois class in England and elsewhere over a prior period of five centuries. Waiting patiently behind the apparent ‘quaintness, civility and eccentricity’ of English political custom, institutions and government lies the axeman and executioners. Parliament is a form of political rule of capital – not the only one – which can be put aside if necessary and re-instituted at the convenience of the capitalist state when a crisis passes. However, what we are witnessing today is a crisis in the whole traditional system of political governance of the bourgeois order, a crisis arising out of and mediated by the structural crisis of global capital. This starts to generate trends in the ruling class which see the parliamentary system as an obstacle which must be discarded rather than conserved.

Historical experience has eclipsed (sublated) Marx’s “aside” (raised in a speech in 1872) that the transition to a global socialist society could be possibly a peaceful one. Quite the contrary, we must expect storm after storm (‘So foul a sky clears not without a storm’ -Shakespeare) before we can even see dry land, never mind set foot on it. The capitalist state formations have to be globally pursued, run down and destroyed by all means available and necessary with an absolute determination and ruthlessness if the social revolution to take humankind beyond capital is to succeed.

Workers’ Councils?

We can now develop this question of ‘agency’. We are not, at the moment, pre-occupied with the conception that “the social form which defines itself through the (….) ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ (….) could not be considered a truly self-sustaining form, because of the contradictions arising from its continued dependency on the negated object” [p.371]. We take it as given, on grounds of dialectics alone, that the further resolution of these “contradictions arising from its continued dependency on the negated object” will lead on towards more ” truly self-sustaining forms”. However, what is not taken as given is the nature of that “social form” in the present global situation i.e the form of agency through which the proletariat will conduct the struggle for the destruction of the political power of global capital in the course of the political revolution whose success will be an absolute historical pre-requisite for the ensuing socio-cultural transformation in which capital will be “completely eradicated as a totalising mode of control from the social metabolism itself”. Of course, this “social form” of agency “which defines itself through the ‘expropriation of the expropriators’ “, in all its specific detail and social complexity, can only be practically decided in reality, definitively and concretely, when the actual conditions for its formation have emerged or, at least, are in the process of formation.

Historically, it may be argued that the most advanced form of agency which the proletariat has actually created under conditions of crisis is the workers’ council. Meszaros refers to Lukacs’s analysis of workers’ councils as examples of institutions which “in the situation after the dictatorship ought to overcome the bourgeois separation of legislative, executive and judiciary” and “in the struggle for power it is called upon to end the spatio-temporal fragmentation of the proletariat, and also to bring together economics and politics in the true unity of proletarian activity, and in this way to help reconcile the dialectical opposition of immediate interests and ultimate aim” [p.287, Marx’s Theory of Alienation, quote taken from Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein, ed. cit., p.93. Berlin, 1923. Quotation translated by G.H.R. Parkinson].
Note the phrase ‘in the situation after the dictatorship’. Is it not the work of this ‘dictatorship’ to ‘overcome this bourgeois separation…’? How is it overcome only ‘after the dictatorship’? So what is the purpose of this ‘dictatorship’? Is not the passing of the ‘dictatorship’ indicative that this ‘bourgeois separation’ has effectively been ‘overcome’ and, accordingly, the need for workers’ councils?
We shall leave readers to grapple with the paradox of this puzzle. The author of this article would welcome any enlightenment or correspondence on this matter.
This reconciliation of “immediate interest and ultimate aim” and unifying the “political arm” and “industrial arm” of labour are also recurring themes in Meszaros. Clearly, with Lukacs in History and Class Consciousness, the workers’ council “after the dictatorship ought” to be capable, at least partially, of commencing the “material restructuring” of the socio-economic order from one in which capital is dominant to one in which it is disappearing. However, in his critique of Lukacs in Beyond Capital, Meszaros looks at Lukacs’s ‘changing evaluation of the workers’ councils’ [see Beyond Capital, section 9.2, p.371 ff]. Meszaros writes that Lukacs later dismissed “the idea of self-management through the collective agency of Workers’ Councils (….), without attempting to put anything historically concrete and institutionally safeguarded in the place of the criticised material complexes”, falling into “an idealist substitute for the necessary and feasible organs of participatory social control” [p.375]. Accordingly, Lukacs himself contradicted his earlier conception in History and Class Consciousness that workers’ councils were essentially fit for the previously ascribed purpose. The workers’ council, of course, cannot be excluded as the first line of the offensive against the capitalist state but it cannot be axiomatically asserted as such. The wheel, so to speak, is still in spin. Referring to Lukacs’s description of workers’ councils, Meszaros writes that it is an example of such an institution but “only one example, however important it is in a strategic sense”. [Marx’s Theory of Alienation, p.287].

Just because workers’ councils have been formed by the proletariat historically in times of intense crisis does not necessarily imply that they must always be formed as such. We have to bear in mind the changed global conditions and that these developments, in themselves, may necessitate new types of organisations for the ‘socialist offensive’. We have to perhaps look at the question of workers’ councils as immediate, preliminary responses of the class as a whole in times of intense crisis i.e. serving as initial political gathering and organising centres for the class whilst also considering their possible limitations as organs of transition for the wholesale “material restructuring of the social metabolism”. That is, are they modifiable/flexible enough to serve as enduring bodies for this process of restructuring or are they, because of possible limitations, to be superseded into a higher form of organisation when their contingent/provisional ‘gathering and organising’ role has been performed? Indeed, bearing in mind the altered global conditions, it may well be that the ‘historical time’ of the workers’ council has now passed and such new conditions now call out for a different type of proletarian organisation. This is where a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat (over 150 years old!) may bear fruit.

Whatever the nature of those organisations which are predominant in commencing the struggle to break the socio-economic power of capital (to “restructure the social metabolism”), such institutions will have to, sooner or later, take on a largely and directly political role in the revolutionary struggle against the state power of capital itself [political revolution]. The adaptation or modification of these initial organs of restructuring for the role of political transformation will be decided by “mass activity” and prosecuted according to the conditions prevailing at the time.
The constant ‘self-criticism’ to which revolutions subject themselves must necessarily involve the constant “restructuring en route” of their own means and forms of agency i.e. the criticism is not merely a “critical criticism” but a revolutionary criticism which provides for, and actually organises, the real process of “material restructuring en route” and political transformation. The capacity of the masses to proceed with these ongoing processes of organisational restructuring, when the time comes to move on, illustrates that it is they who are “in charge” and not an alienated party machine or ossified state structures like bureaucratised soviets.
Were workers’ councils, as we witnessed their structure and operation in the past, modified or not, capable of starting to restructure the socio-economic landscape beyond capital – even in the menacing presence of the state power – or were they simply and exclusively organs of political struggle against the same state power of capital? i.e. the highest political expression of proletarian organisation at the time? I would tend towards the latter. The harbingers of a more comprehensive type of proletarian organisation now made necessary by the deepening of capital’s structural crisis. That is, they were creatures of the conjuncturality of the crises of capital and not of the structurality of its terminal crisis. For this final stage, a totally new form of proletarian agency is necessary. Even initially, a form of agency is required which cannot only commence the process of the restructuring of the social metabolism beyond capital in the menacing and violent presence of the state power of capital but can also, at the same time, prepare the proletariat for political mobilisation against that state power, to fight fire with fire, to assert the power of the class against that state power and work decidedly and unquestionably for its dissolution in every way possible and necessary.
Needless to say, whatever form these agencies of revolution may take, a worked conception of the historical tenure of such agencies would be required in order to adequately gauge the historical moment when they could be safely superseded (left behind) and replaced, or not, with higher forms. The prime consideration here, of course, would be any tendencies of threat towards restoration or its elements but also, at the same time, to drive the impetus of the social transformation forward beyond its current stage to the next. To take society further beyond the age of capital. To look back and see it receding further and further into the abyss of historical time.

We need to guard against dogmatism and doctrinairism and to study and evaluate the real living historical process as it unfolds. To proclaim from the rooftops, as the sectarian groups do, the institution of workers’ councils as the only agency (led, of course, by their own specific tiny sectarian group) necessary for the proletarian struggle to overthrow the rule of capital is an example of this dogmatism and doctrinairism. The dogmatic unequivocal assertion that the agency of revolution is the workers’ councils is usually found as an intrinsic part of the well-worn formulae and programme of the sectarian grouplet: workers’ councils delivered specially for the revolution! And ‘we’ as its leading influence!

The experience of the history of proletarian struggle – in different parts of the world and at different times – does indeed reveal the workers’ council as an historical leitmotif of proletarian struggle, i.e. its spontaneous springing into existence and universal character, in times of intense class struggle. But how are we to approach this historical experience today in the present changed global conditions and changed occupational structure of the proletariat?
On pages 978-986 of Beyond Capital is a transcript of an interview which Meszaros gave to ‘Marxism Today’ in April 1992. The last question in the interview raises the problem of how the differential rate of exploitation across the globe can serve as an impediment to the development of proletarian internationalism. Meszaros acknowledges this problem but also says that this is where “a critique of Marx has to be indicated, because the working class is fragmented, is divided, and there are so many contradictions” (p.986 Beyond Capital). But if a critique of Marx is indicated here in relation to our conception of the proletariat, then perhaps also a critique of the workers’ council is also likewise indicated as the traditional organisation of mobilisation against the political power of capital? Therefore, such a critique of workers’ councils might possibly arise out of a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat which is over 150 years old. For if there have been historically significant changes in the structure/nature of the class itself since Marx developed his conception – as manifest in its current global situation and changed occupational structure – then does this not indicate a critique of those organisations through which the class has traditionally conducted its struggles, be they defensive or offensive?
Such a critique would not, of course, call for their supersedence but may call for a supersedence of their present form, for example, the currently bureaucratised form of trade unionism. Likewise, the critique of the workers’ council may indicate it to be inadequate in its old forms and that the new ‘workers’ council’ would not really be recognised as such as a “workers” council but more a social union of the proletariat as a whole. The workers’ council would be transcended into a higher form which incorporates its most positive aspects but leaves behind more outmoded, redundant aspects associated with its operation under older conditions. What is required is a comprehensive critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat in order to engender and inform a critique of the workers’ council (and of trade unionism). In truth, they would merely constitute different sides of the same critique. The change in historical conditions since Marx elaborated his conception of the proletariat now gravitates towards such a critique. The resulting conception would be pivotal in informing our perspectives and practical orientation in the current global situation.

The Importance of the Concept of “Socialist Pluralism” in regard to the Question of Agency

So are there any general indications in Beyond Capital as to what type of organisations these first forms of offensive may be? In Beyond Capital, we find the elaboration of a conception which is crucial for this question of agency, latent with possibilities, namely the conception of socialist pluralism. Here are some important excerpts on this conception…

“the elementary condition of success of the socialist project is its inherent pluralism. It sets out from the acknowledgement of the existing differences and inequalities; not to preserve them (which is a necessary concomitant of all fictitious and arbitrarily enforced ‘unity’) but to supersede them in the only viable form: by securing the active involvement of all those concerned” [p.699].

This is “impossible without the elaboration of specific strategies and ‘mediations’, arising from the particular determinations of changing needs and circumstances, which represent the greatest challenge to contemporary Marxist theory” [p.699].

This pluralism is fundamental since “the socialist enterprise is structurally unrealisable without its full articulation in the manifold autonomous (‘self-managing’), and thus irrepressibly pluralist projects of the ongoing social revolution” [p.699].

The “meaning of socialist pluralism – the active engagement in common action, without compromising but constantly renewing the socialist principles which inspire the overall concerns – arises precisely from the ability of the participating forces to combine into a coherent whole, with ultimately inescapable socialist implications, a great variety of demands and partial strategies which in and by themselves need not have anything specifically socialist about them at all” [p.700].

Meszaros then makes the important point that “the most urgent demands of our times, directly corresponding to the vital needs of a great variety of social groups – (…..) – are, without one single exception such that, in principle, every genuine liberal could wholeheartedly embrace them. It is rather different, though, when we consider them not as single issues, in isolation, but jointly, as parts of the overall complex that constantly reproduces them as unrealised and systematically unrealisable demands” [p.700].

….”it is the condition of their realisation that ultimately decides the issue, (defining them in their plurality as conjointly socialist demands) and not their character considered separately. Consequently, what is at stake is not the elusive ‘politicisation’ of these separate concerns through which they might in the end fulfil a direct political function in a socialist strategy, but the effectiveness of asserting and sustaining such largely self-motivating ‘non-socialist’ demands on the broadest possible front” [pp.700-01].

Attempts at politically controlling such a movement (e.g. as with the sectarian groups in past campaigns, strikes, etc) will be counterproductive and undermine its “autonomy and effectiveness”. These urgent demands and the forces behind them can no longer be “incorporated into capital’s objective dynamics of self-expansion” i.e. they must be opposed and subjected to the repression of capital’s state power. Hence, they must and will motivate the struggles “for the foreseeable future”.

The notion of the creation of “a genuinely pluralist framework of common action” [p.702] perhaps indicates the direction in which we have to move, to actively engage for the purpose of establishing the necessary forms of agency in the opening of the ‘socialist offensive’.

It is paramount to note that the historically defensive conditions of the past meant that Marxists had a tendency to focus “on the general principles of the socialist alternative”. Under the changing conditions which are necessitating an increasingly offensive posture, this “declaration of faith… in the abstract…. is completely out of place” [pp.702-03]. The need to integrate the “totality of social demands, from the most immediate ‘non-socialist’ everyday concerns to those openly questioning capital’s social order as such, into a theoretically coherent as well as instrumentally/organisationally viable strategic alternative” [p.703] now comes into view on the historical horizon as a most urgent task. “Thus, the real issue is how to set firmly an overall direction to follow while fully acknowledging the constraining circumstances and the power of immediacy opposed to ideal shortcuts” [p.703]

Social Unions Against Capital?

There is a ‘preliminary notion’ contained here, in this conception of socialist pluralism, of a mass body which is and must be broader, more comprehensive, more embracing and complex enough – in comparison to the traditional trade unions and workers’ councils – to accommodate the multiplicity of the varying interests of different sections of the proletariat in its more complex and more demanding present global situation and changed occupational structure. Rather than being a trade union or a workers’ council, it would be more of a Social Union against Capital – Humanity against Capital which would be a higher, more complex development of the workers’ council and possibly contain within itself (embrace and integrate) a radicalised trade unionism. They would be “inherently pluralist” organisations in which the constituent cells would preserve their “autonomous, self-managing” character whilst “securing the active involvement of all those concerned” in order to supersede “acknowledged existing differences and inequalities” in practice rather than seeking to preserve them through a “fictitious and arbitrarily enforced ‘unity'”. Such an organisation would “arise precisely from the ability of the participating forces to combine into a coherent whole, with ultimately inescapable socialist implications, a great variety of demands and partial strategies which in and by themselves need not have anything specifically socialist about them at all”. And such an organisation would be “impossible without the elaboration of specific strategies and ‘mediations’, arising from the particular determinations of changing needs and circumstances, which represent the greatest challenge to contemporary Marxist theory”. And, very importantly, they would integrate the “”totality of social demands, from the most immediate ‘non-socialist’ everyday concerns to those openly questioning capital’s social order as such, into a theoretically coherent as well as instrumentally/ organisationally viable strategic alternative” [p.703] They would bring together the proletariat with its “‘non-socialist’ everyday concerns” and the “most enlightened elements of the proletariat” (Marx) which does not mean a collection of self-appointed, internecine, vanguardist, sectarian groupings but may, on the other hand, incorporate individuals from such groupings.

This conception of a Social Union against Capital may also accommodate a changed conception of the proletariat (arising out of a critique of Marx’s conception of the proletariat) in its present global situation and changed occupational structure. The workers’ council was more associated with the organised industrial proletariat i.e. with those workers engaged in productive industrial labour (reproducing the value of the variable capital advanced as well as producing surplus value). In the present global situation, of course, millions work in the “service sector” and there are the so-called “professional” workers like medics, clerical staff, engineers, education sector, etc. who are now proletarianised i.e. they can only survive by selling their capacity to labour (if they are fortunate enough to find work) whether that is simple, unskilled labour or more complex, “compounded”, skilled and highly technicalised labour. Globally there is now a polarisation of “productive” and “unproductive” labour in that the mass transfer of value from the “third world” arises out of the superexploitation of wage labour in these regions and serves to propagate those “consumerist” “service-sector” “industries” in the “first world”. This transfer of value to the ‘metropolitan’ capitalist countries ‘cushions’, to a certain degree, employed and unemployed workers in these countries. The unfolding of the structural crisis of global capital tends to remove this ‘cushion’ with the increasing tendency towards the downward equalisation of the rate of exploitation of labour. The rate of exploitation of workers in the major capitalist countries tends to increase towards that of workers in the “third world”. And if, under the changing global conditions of the reproduction of capital, they are not employable (i.e. exploitable), then, increasingly, the pauperisation of the many millions we see in the “third world” awaits them: de te fabula narratur.

This is perhaps why the conception of a Social Union against Capital is a more appropriate, more all-embracing and more “concrete” (greater diversity within the unity) formation than a workers’ council and would reflect the changed global conditions and altered occupational structure of the proletariat and the proletarianisation of wage workers who otherwise in previous times would have been considered to be “middle class” rather than part of the proletariat. In other words, a social union as opposed to a trade union or workers’ council is more embracing, unifies a greater diversity of workers into a single body and transcends traditional lines between “white” and “blue collar”, manual and professional, men and women, industrial and service worker, trade unionised and non-trade unionised worker, local and migrant worker, etc. From where we stand at the moment, at this historical juncture, trade unionism may well become important in the formation and development of such a social union.

A social union would not simply be a body of “organised” workers (although of course it would be just that!) but would be a more embracing unity which would bring together many organisations, including trade unions, environmentalist groups, various campaigns in different spheres, political organisations, individuals, women’s groups, anti-racist groups, etc. In its composition and activity, it would reflect both the immediate partial interests of its component parts and the long term aims and objectives (“reconciliation of immediate interest and long term aim”) of the proletariat in its historic struggle to begin to restructure the socio-economic landscape beyond capital and break the political power of capital in order to consummate this historic process to go beyond it. We could, perhaps, envisage the seeds (embryonic elements) of the formation of such coalition bodies through the creation of alliances between different organisations, campaigns and groups. There would be mutual support for the separate demands of each component of the coalition whilst, at the same time, pressing ahead on discussions and agreement on overarching demands to which all components of the alliance could subscribe. It may only start with a few groups/campaigns but as the benefits of this mutual support alliance were realised by each of the components working together as a whole, then it would possibly attract new groups and individuals to join. A steady growth may see the transition from a mere alliance or coalition of a few groupings towards a larger, umbrella-type organisation and then later, conditions permitting, towards a more-embracing, wider, social union against capital. Allliances could be provisional at first but the advantage afforded to each member component by such a mutual support system of organisation could attract more groups and individuals into a larger, more permanent cohesive totality. Each campaign would maintain its autonomy of action whilst, at the same time, receiving support from, and working to support, other component members and the growth of the “social body” as a whole. The structures and procedures of the organisation would be based on, and decided through, a system of open and transparent democracy. The ‘advantages’ and ‘benefits’ gained for all its members by the emergence and ‘evolution’ of this type of organisation would be socially ‘selected’, facilitating its consolidation and further development. Herein the separate “liberal” demands would become “conjointly socialist demands” and later capable of challenging the capital system.

During the last war in Iraq, assemblies and forums were set up in some cities (e.g. Manchester, Leeds and London) but after taking a closer look at these bodies through actual participation in them and examining their composition, it became apparent that they were temporary and mutually expedient, anti-militarist ‘get-togethers’ of left, religious and pacifist sectarian groupings supplemented with some well-meaning individuals and hence were, like the much vaunted Socialist Alliance before them, doomed to fragmentation and dissolution. They had no broad, proletarian class basis to hold them together despite the fact that, at their height, demonstrations against the war attracted between one and two million people. As Meszaros writes, new modes of political activity and “new structures of genuinely mass-oriented and determined social/economic and political interchanges” are needed to ensure a socialist restructuring of economy, the necessary pre-condition for which is a “mass-oriented restructuring of politics itself”. These two have to proceed in the “closest conjunction” with each other.

Shaun May
*All references to page numbers, e.g., [p.700], are from Meszaros, I., Beyond Capital, Merlin Press, London, 1995, unless otherwise stated.

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