A method, not a tendency: building the base dialectically.

By Carson Rainham

The Moment

We are living in interesting times. Times in which the conditions for revolution have seemingly not been as ripe for decades and yet the international proletariat, with very few exceptions, remain once more ill equipped to seize the moment. 

Here, in the UK, where revolution has almost always been a fantasy, the contradictions inherent within British capitalism are rapidly rising to the surface. Take, for example, the new herald of the British bourgeoisie, Boris Johnson who on entry into the premiership told how climate change would be at the ‘absolute core’ of his new party. He proposed a future of renewable energies controlled by private companies while the taxpayer continues to pay £10.5bn a year in fossil fuel subsidies. While the UK faces the threat of having to return the measly £3.5m of EU money set aside to tackle child poverty, now completely unspent for five years, £100m has been allocated for a propaganda campaign to prepare the country for a seemingly inevitable no-deal brexit. Recently, a series of leaked documents, otherwise hidden from the public for fear that it might cause righteous panic, detail the likely outcomes for the most vulnerable including food shortages in schools.

It is unsurprising then that in almost the same breath, Johnson, as if dangling a thread of reparation to a police force disillusioned by the cuts of his charmless predecessor should pledge new funding for the recruitment of 20,000 more police, restoring them to pre-2010 levels. Simultaneously, the new Home Secretary, Priti Patel repositions the Conservative party as the party of law and order, a party with plans to make the criminalized ‘literally feel terror’. Johnson’s new cabinet is preparing for a war by rebuilding the repressive state apparatus, in place of a social safety net debilitated by austerity, needed to uphold the class and property relations in a period of accelerated crisis of the Tories own making.

In Marx’s historical account of the bourgeois revolutions in France, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, he says at the time of writing:

[t]he period we have before us embraces the motliest jumble of crying contradictions: constitutionalists who openly conspire against the constitution; revolutionists, who admittedly are constitutional[...] unions, whose first clause is disunion, struggles, whose first law is indecision; in the name of peace, barren and hollow agitation; in the name of revolution, solemn sermonizing on peace; passions without truth; truths without passion; heroes without heroism; history without events, development, whose only moving force seems to be the calendar, and tiresome by constant reiteration of the same tensions and relaxes; contrasts, that seem to intensify themselves periodically, only in order to wear themselves off and collapse without a solution. [Emphasis mine]

And like the second Bonaparte, the shill of the bourgeoisie who secured power by paying for it on one hand with millions of stolen francs and on the other with nothing but drink and sausages, Johnson seeks his support in pledging money to the police, to schools, and to the NHS. With the NHS, Johnson has pledged a one-time £1.8bn cash injection, hardly enough to keep it alive until after a no-deal Brexit would open the doors for it to be carved away by the vultures of disaster capitalism already circling above our heads.

The social democratic opposition in the Labour party bickers amongst itself, each year losing the sway of its agenda of lifesaving, albeit nostalgic, reforms within its 2017 manifesto. Attempts to diminish the threat of Corbyn’s political power comes from the reactionaries within his own party as they cosy up to the centre-right, abdicate as independents, and denounce Corbyn as either a communist or a Marxist. This tactic hearkens straight back to Marx and Engels' own observation in the opening paragraphs of their Manifesto which asks 'where is the party of opposition that is not decried communist?' and announces once more a substanceless spectre of communism conjured up by the ruling classes to defeat even the most piecemeal of changes for the proletariat.

The limits of the Corbynist project, are made explicit in Dan Evans’ The Struggle That Lies Ahead, which outlines a realistic and damning portrait of what, based on a fine analysis of history, might arise from a Labour electoral victory. In it he states:

It is absolutely vital that Labour and Corbyn’s supporters understand what they are up against politically before they take power. They must learn from the huge mistakes made by previous Labour administrations and the plights of other socialist governments worldwide. A movement which understands the limitations that the capitalist system places on them will be better equipped to overcome them. Socialists therefore have to plan not to just take power (i.e., to win the next election) but how to exercise and hold onto it.

Dissecting the tragic coup against the socialist Allende government in Chile, [Ralph] Miliband gravely noted “it is by way of electoral victory that the forces of the Left will find themselves in office. The really important question is what happens then.”

Evans further extrapolates on the historical lessons of the Labour party and the elements of counter-revolution that have pushed back against any reasonably socialist intervention both within and outside of the party during the Attlee years. It is an important piece, which I would urge you to read. It is this type of analysis which, while hopeful and pre-emptive in its tackling of the identified issues, has been generally absent from any critical support for the Labour party since 2015. Labour, with a membership of nearly half a million people, is still unlikely to be able to contend with the concretized power of its opposition but large portions of its base, often reluctantly made up of people from varying political tendencies, could be an indispensable force.  What is clear, however, is that Labour can never become the revolutionary organisation necessary to dismantle the current economic shackles of capitalism.

I remain sceptical of positioning the Labour Party as the preliminary site of class struggle and contend with the arguments, such as Seth Wheeler's recent open letter, that by mapping the centralisation of leftists within a particular organisational base that we can create a political cartography of 'our class'. Placing the Labour party as a campsite for nomadic leftists and expecting its base to be the antagonistic contradiction necessary for class power is as idealist as it is not materialist.

As contradictions rapidly rise up around Brexit,  liberals continue to debate on Leave or Remain, as if convinced of the existence of an emergency stop button. This bolsters the far-right with sanctimonious assertions that they can still turn things around and that a second referendum would help those foolishly deceived by Johnson, Gove and the rest see that they have a chance for redemption. After all, there's power in a union.

This tedious, twee respectability politics often propounded by the liberal petit bourgeois does nothing to assess the contradictions arising from the debate, contradictions related to questions of labour and material living conditions of the entire spectrum of the poor working class and only seeks to quell it before it is resolved. While attempts have been made to mitigate the impacts of a Tory led Brexit, most notably the Lexit campaign prior to the referendum, these were weak, ideologically driven campaigns conducted through micro-party alliances with zero political power. While a need for a left exit now seems the only option, the manner of discourse continues to focus on the aforementioned rigid lines of remaining in the EU being the correct and democratic solution (an absolutist position) despite it being unlikely that a second referendum would a) result in a Remain majority and b) be able to keep Labour's political position to the left of centre. In supporting a second referendum, particularly if they were to campaign to remain in the EU, Labour would most likely make concessions to the right in an attempt to win anti-immigration voters away from supporting the hard Brexit alternatives.

It would be too easy to continue tirading against Johnson, his cabinet and his party. Easier still, to allow such a tirade to travel across the Atlantic and identify the contradictions rising in the United States whereby a protectionist trade war with China seems eerily reminiscent of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 known to have exacerbated the Great Depression and increased unemployment levels. In the United States of America, a white supremacist is seated in the Oval office and the main contender poised to defeat him at the polls, Joe Biden, is nothing more than another establishment lackey with a ream of sexual misconduct allegations set against him and a record of overseeing three million deportations during his time as Vice President. Should, as predicted, Biden succeed over Bernie Sanders, it would seem that Marx is right once more and that history continues to repeat itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce. 

What seems unequivocal is that capitalism is in crisis and its leaders are intentionally accelerating that crisis for their own ends. While the working classes now have to contend with the psychophenom of climate grief, the anticipatory anxiety of witnessing climate catastrophe in their lifetime, the deadline for a chance to reverse climate change diminishes. The capitalist boasts about the exciting new trade routes freed up through softer seas in the Arctic. School children, exasperated by the inertia of older generations, feel compelled to engage in climate strike actions and are scalded and ridiculed by MPs and reactionary talking heads. 

This is the soulless reality of our times, crisis laden capitalism churning the earth into a place that will be unliveable for large swathes of the population before the end of the century; where demagogues are elected through a minority or by disenfranchisement; where the seeds of fascism germinate in detention centres, on the streets and in government; where truth and history are inverted so that the great masses of people who, if only they had the means of consciousness, could overrun a minority, which makes up far less than the rhetorical one percent, rather than themselves. 

With all of this terror, one might, and wrongly so, assume that we are living in a revolutionary moment. But what is a moment without a knowledge of its history? A revolution cannot sustain itself on spontaneity alone, with no direction, lacking the conscious awareness of its reaction: counter-revolution. 

Those revolutions which failed before they really began often missed this important ingredient. In 1919, the conditions of revolution arose among the German masses who sought to seize control while the revolutionary party was still very much in its infancy and ill prepared for the organized counter-revolution. While it lasted for four years, it lacked any serious direction or theoretical base and revolutionaries such as Rosa Luxemburg were brutally tortured and murdered by the volunteer militia of the Noske Garde, barbarous protectors of the capitalist state acting on the orders of the M-SPD. This was the right wing incumbent faction of the social democrat party who expelled Luxemburg and the rest of those opposed to the party's imperialist policies in January 1917. Luxemburg had both long predicted such an intervention and, always critical of the reformists within the SPD, spoke decisively on the necessity of a revolutionary socialist organisation actively enmeshed within the masses.

History tells us that the revolution must be organized. Many of the critiques of the current mode of organisation in the UK can be found here at the Lever already and it is not the aim of this to repeat those again. Instead, faced with the gargantuan task of living and revolting through crisis, a framework must be set for this new organisation, one which constantly seeks to identify the contradictions as they arise and understand the very conditions of revolution.

Lenin set out his four conditions of revolution to provide such a framework, which may be summarised as follows:

  1. The regime is split; there is a crisis in the regime.

  2. The middle class is wavering between the revolutionary forces and the ruling class.

  3. The working class is ready to fight and make the greatest sacrifices.

  4. The existence of a revolutionary party and leadership

By and large, it is difficult to recognise more than one revolutionary condition present in the UK today despite the significant and sustained attacks against the proletariat . And yet, the regimes are split. With Brexit, consensus within even the same parties is difficult to discover. Each party is internally divided along the lines of allegiance to either national or international capital. The liberal middle classes continue to bicker, yearning to remain close to Europe, still beholden to that post-war ideal which romanticises the greater good of two imperialist world wars yet remain steadfast in their commitment to the false notion that history could never repeat itself. Class consciousness, the tincture and remedy of the working class reduced out of the abstraction of anger which itself forms from the subjugation and alienation required to exist under capitalism, is absent in part because there is no revolutionary organisation in this country. 

With such organisation, the correct analysis of material conditions and the social relations which produce them can register clearly among the masses. Membership of such an organisation requires Marxism to realise itself as the material force required to destroy capitalism. It is therefore an effort in producing and preserving class consciousness. The caveat to this of course is to recognise that an organisation, merely by its own existence, does not get to dictate its revolutionary status without evidence. Nor does it get to organise in isolation from the masses, a predominant feature of the academic, and often bourgeois, left who stifle their own movements through knowledge accumulation rather than dissemination, who hoard knowledge like wealth, and refuse to turn the theories they consume and produce into a material force.

The method and the obsolescence of tendency.


One common thread I particularly find ironic in this is the posthumous sanctification of Mark Fisher whose theory of Capitalist Realism, the notion that society functions on the predication that there is no alternative to capitalism, is often referenced ad infinitum as a critical lens to otherwise envision communism. If many who follow Fisher’s ideas believed this to be true, they would not be organising in an illusory fashion - not organising beyond festivals, parties and colourful A-B marches, but instead interacting in class struggle. The repetition compulsion of such activism provides no sound alternative to capitalism (as if the very same capitalist realism had infiltrated the movement) and makes only transitional demands within a countercultural rather than revolutionary framework.  It is the purpose of a dedicated cadre organisation to build class consciousness by being at the level of the grassroots and formulating an understanding of material conditions together. That means, of course, going to the people with a method - dialectical materialism.

In an interview from last year, Kali Okunu of Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, discusses his views of the Leninist vanguard party:

Obviously looking at history, I would argue, that you can’t wait until some party claiming to be revolutionary seizes power to try to start ushering in the social transformation. It has to be done, I would argue, long before those forces make a real contest for power. But that contest is going to have to be made [...] That said, one of the key things in my thinking and evolution has always been to really look at how various traditions have sought to do the self-organizing of the class: to both seize the means of productions but also usher in new ways to socially reproduce ourselves and to make ourselves into better humans who live in harmony with the environment. And for that I think we have to draw upon the many varied traditions of the left – anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, the ecology movement and it’s different threads.

It is our task in building any new revolutionary organisation to take these lessons and not engage in a relentless diatribe on what was "right" then but learn in collective struggle what is correct now.

That which is dogmatic refuses to be dialectical. The British anarchist and marxist left has been consumed for time immemorial by reverting back to the same debates, rehashing old splits and taking sides on historical events such as Kronstadt or the Trostky/Stalin divide, all of which is mostly irrelevant to any political discussion any longer. Commitment to a tendency based on what feels correct rather than what is materially correct places the left on the backfoot against forces much more solidly organised. While everybody should be welcome to their personal politics, the common struggle has little need for the kind of politics (the blind adherence to a tendency) persistently used as a proverbial sabot. Malcolm Harris, is somewhat helpful in this regard:

The refusal of Marxists and anarchists to plot out some unified strategy does more than reduce our numbers. The division separates us like a personality test, leaving both sides lacking in particular necessary energies. Marxists without anarchists have too much respect for law and authority, leaving them susceptible to co-optation by liberals. Anarchists without Marxists can be self-righteous about compromise and getting their hands dirty by interacting with existing power structures. Marxists without anarchists can lack flexibility and imagination, while anarchists without Marxists can lack discipline. Anarchists put on aesthetic performances that captivate and amuse the culture without convincing it, while Marxists craft airtight logical theories that are culturally irrelevant. Marxists don’t know shit about tactics and anarchists can’t strategize. Anarchists are too quick to act, Marxists too reluctant. There are plenty of exceptions to these rules, but they help determine who gravitates to which side, which only increases the problem: anarchists get the artists and tacticians, Marxists get the theorists and politicians.
— Left Behind: Why Marxists Need Anarchists, and Vice Versa

If there is a disunity between the two major tendencies amongst the radical British left right now then that gives us a clear contradiction to resolve, and, honestly, it is beyond belief that this hasn’t happened yet. As we move towards new crises, the left should not suicidally collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions but face them head on. Paramount to this is to approach the future with an iconoclastic fervour, holding the theory of past revolutionaries to rigorous scrutiny and apply the lessons of history to the moments we live in now where they fit but never to use them to square a circle. 

It is important to recognise the base building efforts of the Marxist Center who last year brought together upwards of twenty revolutionary communist organisations within the United States together to join along so-called ‘points of unity’ related but not limited to socialism, decolonization, climate change as an existential threat, prison abolition and armed self-defence. In a heartening reflection, Alyson Escalante reflects:

Delegates from 24 organizations were present, representing a wide variety of tendencies and ideologies, and somehow managed to come together to unite around 11 points of unity. This level of unity among revolutionary socialists from different tendencies is almost unheard of and represents a serious commitment to centering revolutionary praxis above leftist infighting and bickering.

Base building acts as a new method born out of the synthesis of long since redundant methods utilised by the 'micro-parties' such as the UK Socialist Worker's Party or the recently collapsed International Socialist Organisation (ISO) in the US, whose mode of organisation determines, undialectically, that it is the true revolutionary organisation without building a mass base or a mass line, and without organising labour. It is necessary then to build strong channels of communication internationally with the Marxist Center and other basebuilding groups such as Left Roots, who organise along lines of race and class in contradistinction to the methods of the failed ISO. 

While it is inspiring to see new movements grow in the United States, it is criminal that the UK left has allowed itself to remain catatonic during one of the most protracted periods of crisis in recent history. Like Hamlet, contemplating his own self-murder, the British left needs to relinquish its grasp on the ‘too too solid flesh’ of historical moments in which they are trapped and allow a new movement and a new moment to thaw and resolve itself. It is unlikely that, as the contradictions we are faced with presently escalate, we will be organised enough to combat them. We will have to allow them to fall back without resolution and lay in wait for a new moment. Now is the time to prepare, to build so that when these conditions resurface, abhorrent to the core of every proletariat, we will know them, we will know the time, we will know the place and we will have the revolutionary membership to win.

If you found this essay useful, and would like to support us producing more work like this, please set up a monthly donation by becoming a patron at https://www.patreon.com/theleverorguk