Solidarity leader, spring 1983

“0ne, two, three, four, we don’t want a nuclear war!”, chant the CND marchers, expressing a sentiment shared by every sane human being. “Two, three, four, five, we just want to stay alive!”

There is no doubt that being alive is generally better than being dead. But there are limits to the desirability of “just staying alive”. It isn’t necessary to be an admirer of heroic martyrdom to think that death fighting for liberation might have been preferable to submitting to the barbarity of the Nazi concentration camps or Pol Pot’s Cambodia; but if there is a choice between merely “staying alive” and something more, to opt for the former shows a depressing lack of audacity.

Yet just staying alive is the desire of a large part of the CND marchers. For them there is nothing better on the horizon; the horror of nuclear war looms so large in their imaginations that all concern for the content of future life has been eclipsed by fear for the very existence of a future life. Political thought has been replaced by an almost animal lust for self-preservation.

It is of course dangerous to interpret a movement through only one of its slogans. All the same, the blinding effects of fear are all too noticeable in the resurgent peace movement – nowhere more so than in the attitude of much of that movement to the Soviet Union. Here the problem is not so much that of outright pro-Sovietism; the overt Stalinist and Trotskyist defenders of the “workers’ bomb” are a dying breed exercising little direct influence. Many of their excuses for Soviet militarism have, however, survived their decline. The peace movement is riddled with people who claim, more or less sincerely, that the USSR is the innocent, encircled victim of Yankee imperialism, that Russia is justified in arming because of the vast number of Soviet deaths in the second world war, or that the Russians are just keeping pace in the arms race.

Such claims are naive and dangerous. They ignore the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the crushing of the free workers’ movement and dissident opinion inside the USSR, and the tentacles of Soviet military aid in the Third World. They overlook the massive build-up of conventional arms in the last decade. The suffering of the Russian people in the last war is no more valid an excuse for these activities of their rulers than the Holocaust is an excuse for systematic racial discrimination and expansionism by the state of Israel.

Yet much of the peace movement remains soft on the Soviet Union. Last year a quarter of a million people turned out on the spring CND demonstration in Hyde Park; a week later a demonstration called to mark six months of martial law in Poland drew only 2,000 to Trafalgar Square, most of them Polish emigrés. Not that demonstrating is any paradigm of political activity; but the point should be clear.

There are some in the peace movement who are not completely blind to the nature of the USSR. Edward Thompson and others around European Nuclear Disarmament have made a point of emphasising the responsibility of both sides in the arms race, calling for the formation of independent peace movements both sides of the Iron Curtain. But END too have been the victims of wishful thinking – hoping that the political system of the Eastern bloc could allow an independent, reformist, pressure-group type peace movement to exist in competition with the state-run official peace committees. They have not grasped that any admission of pluralism by the Soviet-bloc states undermines the institutional and ideological foundations of those states’ power – that, in short, the eastern-bloc states cannot be politically liberalised.


Solidarity leader, autumn 1982

“Without the development of revolutionary theory there can be no development of revolutionary practice.” Cornelius Castoriadis, Socialisme ou Barbarie, 1949
Solidarity was formed in 1959 and the group developed its perspectives for the most part during the 1960s. Probably the greatest single influence on this development was the work of the French thinker Cornelius Castoriadias (who also wrote as Paul Cardan) which appeared in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie between 1949 and 1965.
Over the years Solidarity published a significant selection of Castoriadis’ and other S ou B texts in a series or pamphlets, and these, far more than the programmatic statements As We See It and As We Don’t See It, came to characterise the group’s orientation towards the world.
In many respects Castoriadis’ S ou B writings have stood the test of time very well; they certainly demand the continued attention of all those concerned with socialist theory and practice. Much has changed since the S ou B period, however, both in society at large and in the realm of ideas, and, unsurprisingly, certain aspects of Castoriadis’  ideas are beginning to show their age.
This is perhaps most notable in the economic analysis put forward in the essay “Modern Capitalism and Revolution”, published as a Solidarity book. Written in 1959, at the height of the unprecedentedly sustained economic boom that followed the second world war, it presents us with both a continuingly relevant critique of the scientistic categories of classical Marxist political economy and a projection of trends within modern capitalism that has been somewhat overtaken by events.
Specifically, it seems from the vantage point of 1982 that “Modern Capitalism and Revolution” over-estimates the stability of the western ruling class’s success in “controlling the general level of economic activity” and “preventing major crises of the classical type”. Today almost every national economy in the industrialised west is gripped by a profound and prolonged recession. Unemployment has risen to levels inconceivable twenty, fifteen or even ten years ago, industrial output is stagnating and the Keynesian consensus that lay behind government policies in the boom years appears to be in tatters. Quite obviously, these changed conditions demand that Castoriadis’ account be brought up to date and significantly revised.
Castoriadis’ economic projections are not the only parts of his S ou B work to have become problematic with the passing of time: there are also difficulties to be faced in his rejection of Marxism as a whole and in his espousal of a councilist paradigm of revolutionary practice. When Castoriadis asked in 1964: “Where since 1923 (when Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness was published) has anything been produced which has advanced Marxism?”, he was taking a stance which, though provocative (since it effectively dismissed the work of such writers as Gramsci, Korsch, Pannekoek, Marcuse and Sartre), was certainly defensible (since whatever good had come from Reich, Gramsci et al had been almost totally submerged in the appalling idiocies of Marxist orthodoxy). In other words, it was possible in 1964 to take “Marxism” to mean Marx-Engels-Kautsky-Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin thought.
Today such an identification is less easy. The submerged unofficial Marxist tradition has been rediscovered, and there has been a dramatic growth of new Marxist theory, at least some of which cannot be dismissed with a casual gesture. Of course, the rediscovery of the unorthodox Marxists of the past has led to much sterile fetishisation of sacred texts, and most new Marxist theory has been execrable – particularly in Britain, where the Althusserian poison administered in massive doses by New Left Review paralysed the minds (though not unfortunately the writing hands) of a large section of the left intelligentsia for more than a decade. Moreover, any advances in Marxist theory have been effectively ignored by the majority of the activist Marxist left, who remain imprisoned by a conceptual framework that is beneath contempt.
Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that it is now far more difficult to argue an informed rejection of the content of Marxism than it was twenty years ago. For such a critique to be rigourous, it would have to contend not only with the dire orthodoxy Castoriadis so efficiently laid to waste, but also with the far more sophisticated work of both the unorthodox Marxists of old and such contemporary theorists as Habermas, Lefebvre, Gorz, Thompson, the Italian autonomists and the many Marxist feminists.
This is not to claim that a critique of Marxism going beyond an assault on vulgar Marxism is impossible. Nor is it to deny the contributions made by Castoriadis to such a project, particularly in his post-S ou B writings. Neither is it to argue that a rejection of the Marxist label on grounds other than a critique of the content of self-professed Marxists’ work cannot be justified; a strong case can be made for refusing the mantle of Marxism because its assumption serves to reinforce the faith of the crudest Leninist in the fundamental correctness of his or her idiotic and dangerous beliefs. All the same, the fact remains that many of the developments in Marxist theory over the past two decades deserve our critical attention: one of the tasks of this new series of Solidaritymagazine will be to attempt to assess their worth.
If developments in the realm of ideas have been massive since S ou B, so too have changes in oppositional social practice. The developing general tendencies of the latter – towards the adoption of new forms of workplace struggle in the face of the changing character of work and the continued degeneration of traditional working-class organisations, and towards the opening up of new areas of contestation outside the conventional limits of the class struggle – were grasped by S ou B with a remarkable prescience. Perhaps unsurprisingly  S ou B had, however, little to say on the possibility of this “new movement” being integrated and effectively neutralised by adapting capitalism. And today, when workers’ self-management (albeit in a hideously distorted form) is advocated by every established political party, the youth revolt has become the passive consumption of the products of the entertainment industry, and feminism is as much the ideology of the upwardly mobile career woman as it is the basis for a genuinely oppositional movement, this silence is clearly inadequate.
Moreover, Castoriadis and S ou B retained a vision of a post-revolutionary society run by workers’ councils, the usefulness of which has been seriously brought into question by precisely the growth of contestation outside the sphere of production which they predicted. Workers’ councils are perhaps a crucially necessary part of any self-managed socialist society: but to consider them as the organisational basis of such a society – as Castoriadis and with him Solidarity have tended to suggest – is to fall prey to the productivist illusion that characterises so much crude Marxist theory and practice.
The increasingly apparent outdatedness of certain parts of our inherited worldview does not in itself justify our beginning a new series of Solidarity magazine. Indeed it could be – and has been – used as an argument for disbanding it. Quite obviously we believe the obsolescence of certain elements of our thinking is less a cause for despair than an invigorating challenge. But why?
Well, firstly and most importantly, we do not think that those of our ideas made questionable by the passage of time are anything like the totality of our perspective, nor do we see them as the foundations of our politics. Although our critique of existing society and of traditional programmes for changing it needs to be further developed, it remains essentially sound enough to set as a springboard for such development.

There is not the space here to elaborate upon this assertion. We can only state our convictions that the current world recession does not invalidate our critique of classical Marxist crisis theory; that the sophistication of some modern Marxism cannot relegitimate the tired old platitudes of Marxist orthodoxy; that the fate of the new social movements does not necessitate a retreat from our emphasis on contestation outside the traditional politico-economic sphere; that the inappropriateness of councilism to modern conditions does not undermine either our critique of the tendencies towards bureaucratisation deeply embedded in the theory and practice of traditional working class organisations and parties of the left, or our emphasis on self-activity in struggle.

Secondly, we believe that whatever development is required is well within our capacity. This is not to pre-empt the necessary process of discussion: we have no magic formulae up our sleeves, nor would we wish to have. It is, however, to state that, unlike too many on the British libertarian left, we are not afraid of critical thinking.
This said, abstract theory is by no means all we plan to publish. At present there is no British periodical that habitually carries detailed and accurate critical reports of actual struggles – a situation which stems largely from the left’s quite innocent (though harmful) preoccupation with forcing the complexities of real life into simplistic and outmoded interpretative frameworks, but which is also the product of a predilection for tactical distortions of reality. We aim to do all we can to rectify this state of affairs, by publishing in-depth second-hand accounts and first-hand testimonies of contemporary social conflicts, in industry and elsewhere.
Our older readers will recognise our twin priorities of interrogating radical social theory and investigating the practice of oppositional social movements as being very much those of the old Solidarity for Workers’ Power journal published by London Solidarity from 1959 to 1977, when Solidarity fused with the group Social Revolution. It must be emphasised that the similarity of objectives does not mean that we are motivated by some escapist nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. Even though Solidarity for Workers’ Power was a more incisive publication than its successor Solidarity for Social Revolution, it was hardly perfect even in its time and its time has now passed. We are prepared to learn from our history, but we have no desire to use it as an emotional crutch.

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Solidarity, summer 1981

Review of Marxism and Class Theory: A bourgeois critique by Frank Parkin (Tavistock, £4.95); Urban Politics by Peter Saunders (Pelican, £2.95); and The Dominant Ideology Thesisby Nicholas Abercrombie, Bryan Turner and Stephen Hill (Allen and Unwin, £12.50)

Frank Parkin is one of Britain’s foremost stratification theorists, and readers of Solidarity might be familiar with his Class Inequality and Political Order, which is available as a mass-market paperback. Marxism and Class Theory is a more abstract work, but it just as readable and far more provocative. “Given what now passes for Marxist theory,” he says in his introduction, “almost any imaginable bourgeois alternative seems preferable” – and this remark sets the tone for what follows. Parkin takes an almost sadistic delight in demolishing the attempts of even “sophisticated” Marxists such as Poulantzas, Barran and Wright to deal with the realities of the class structure in modern capitalist societies.
Marxist class theory, for all the changes it has undergone in the hands of the academic Marxists who sprang to prominence in the sixties higher education boom, has proved itself unable to cope with phenomena such as the growth of white-collar employment, the shift to managerial control of enterprises, the expansion of the state sector or the importance of ethnic changes in society, says Parkin.
As a result, Parkin believes it should be abandoned. He puts forward an alternative that draws heavily on the sociology of Max Weber. Class, for Parkin, is a matter of “social closure” or “the monopolisation of specific, usually economic opportunities” so as to exclude outsiders: it is based on power rather than “relationship to the means of production” as Marxists would have it. 
There is not the space here to go into details, but it seems to me that Parkin’s schema, although flowing from a social democratic perspective that claims trade unions and polit­ical parties to be agents pure and simple of the working class in the class struggle – they’re not – could form the nucleus of a radical alternative to the Marx­ist orthodoxy the left has been flogging for so many years.
One aspect of stratification that Parkin does not discuss at length is housing, although there is nothing in his approach to rule out its application in this area. Here it’s worth turning to another new sociological work, Peter Saunders’s Urban Politics, the first half of which is  a useful summary of recent thinking on the relationship between housing and class, the latter being conceived of in traditional Marxist terms. 
This is an important topic for the left, because it brings up the thorny problem of how community struggles stand next to workplace struggles, something Solidarity has had little to say about lately. Saunders’ politics are too concerned with the need for leadership to inspire many readers of Solidarity, but his book is a good starting point in spite of the rather long empirical study that occupies its second half.
Finally, on a different but related subject that has received scant attention of late, there is The Dominant Ideology Thesis by Abercrombie, Turner and Hill, unfortunately ridiculously overpriced at £12.50 in hardback. After noting the similarity of the cases put forward for the existence of a dominant ideology by certain Marxists (Gramsci, Althusser and Habermas) and various bourgeois sociolog­ists, the  authors argue that “ideology” is hardly the major tool of social control it has been claimed to be.
What social theorists have identified as the dominant ideology of modern capitalism is in fact incoherent and contradictory, and (most important­ly) remains largely uninternalised by subordinate groups in society, even though the methods of ideological transmission developed under modern capitalism are potentially  far more efficient than ever before, It is not ideology but the “dull compulsion of economic relations”, backed up by the threat of state violence, which keeps society in check, according to Aber­crombie et al, and to claim otherwise is to drift dangerously close towards disregarding the degree to which conflict does exist in our society.
I’m unsure about their analysis on certain points – nationalism, for example, would seem to be quite important as a “dominant ideology”, as would certain ideas about sexual roles. But The Dominant Ideology Thesis does a good demolition job on what is now orthodoxy. The issue is, moreover, of the greatest importance for the libertarian left. The all-pervading influence of the dominant ideology has been dragged up time and again, from Kautsky to the Situationists, as justification for the direction of political activity by elites with “correct” political ideas. Any ammunition against them is more than welcome.

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Solidarity leader, summer 1981

Ninety-eighty-one has undoubtedly witnessed some dramatic changes on the British party-political scene. On one hand, the Conservative party has shown itself more openly divided than at any time since the war, and on the other, the long-running feud between the right and left of the Labour party has finally resulted in a significant right-wing faction abandoning Labour to form a new party which, in alliance with the Liberals, has been making spectacular advances in the opinion polls.
It is doubtful that all this will have any radical effect on the type of economic policies we can expect to suffer for the next decade. The Labour Party, the SDP-Liberal Alliance and the Tory “wets” are all committed to some form of Keynesian fiscal expansion backed up by wage controls , and although there exist a number of disagreements on the precise form such a policy should take (such as the differences over the EEC, stat­utory incomes control , nationalisation and protectionism) , we can almost certainly look forward to the prospect of a turn to revitalised versions of the sorts of programmes unsuccessfully pursued by governments in the 1970s, whoever takes power after the next general election.
In an important sense, therefore, the realignment of British party politics is little more than cosmetic: on the assumption that the present Conservative government either performs a U-turn or loses office (through an electoral defeat or, improbably, as a result of parliamentary defections), the economic policy die seems well and truly cast. How successful this “new Keynesianism” will be is, of course, another question. There are good reasons to doubt that one of its variants will solve the problems of capitalism. In particular, much depends on the response of the working class to new conditions. What is important here, however, is the similarity of the so-called alternatives put forward by the various parties that stand a chance of succeeding the present Tory government.
Nevertheless, to dismiss the changes on the party-political front simply as a superficial gloss on what is fundamentally a growing consensus among the potential managers of capit­alism would be mistaken.
The realign­ment of British politics might not reflect any significant breaking of the mould in policy terms, but it most certainly does stem from deeply important changes in the relationship between the ways people perceive their positions in the class structure and the party political preferences they express in elections.
Since the war, people who consider themselves as working-class have identified less and less with “their” Labour party at election time. At the same time those who see themselves as middle-class have weakened in their allegiance to the Conservatives. These tendencies have resulted in the steady decline of electoral support for the Conserv­ative and Labour parties: the percent­age of the electorate who voted Labour or Conservative fell from 80 per cent in 1951 to only 60 per cent in 1979, partly because of a long-term growth in abstention (which in fact had reached its zenith in October 1974) and part­ly because of an increase in the percentage of voters backing minor parties.
Simultaneously, there has been a change in the social composition of party membership, particularly that of the Labour party at constituen­cy level. The picture of a Labour party composed of polytechnic lecturers so often put before us by the media is a caricature, but the trend towards an activist grass roots increasingly dominated by those popular usage would define as “middle-class”  is undeniable.
This trend is at once both instrumental in perpetuating the decline of identification with Labour on the part of those who consider themselves working-class and the result of such a decline. What is important here, however, is not the minute workings of the embourgeoisement process going on in local Labour parties but the very fact that it is happening. Labour, long since having ceased to be for the working class, is now less and less of it.
Some people have yet to realise this: one thinks at once of those sincere souls who, while critical of Labour’s programme and organisation, nevertheless join up “to talk to the workers”, oblivious to the fact that the status of the Labour Party as a “mass party” has for a long time been extremely questionable. Others are, however, much shrewder. It is no coincidence that the academics who first charted the development of a disjunction between the ways people saw themselves in class terms, and the way they participated in party politics as voters or activists, are now advising the embryo Social Democratic party. For the SDP is essentially the attempt of a tempor­arily defeated political elite to exploit the weakening identification of class and party in the collective political consciousness for the sake of gaining power.
What is more, the “Gang of Four” played their hand at a singularly opportune moment. By splitting from Labour when it was in opposition to the most unpopular Tory government of modern times, the Social Democrats can now count not only upon their apparent novelty, their democratic rhetoric and the disaffection of many Labour voters, but also on a cadre of ex-Conservative-voting “political virgins”. In alliance with the Liberals, the SDP stand a fair chance of at least holding the balance of power in parliament by 1984.
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