Awakening the Slumbering Giant By William Bowles

6 October 2005

Maybe it’s a sign of old age creeping up on me but I keep getting drawn back to the past, at least insofar as the culture within which I have spent my entire life – the Left, the progressive movement – is concerned.

Back around 1991 I was in London for a short visit and I hung out with a South African comrade then living in exile in London. Over (at least) two bottles of wine in a bar on Islington High Street, we commiserated on the demise of the Left, which following the end of the Soviet Union had also led to the end of the Left as we then knew it pretty much everywhere, and he made the comment that the worst aspect of the entire depressing affair was the fact that in the ‘Left’s’ haste to dissociate itself from the former socialist projects lest they get ‘tainted’, it had also ditched the most important aspect – our culture, our history.

This observation has stuck with me ever since, a sort of reminder, a sign that to forget one’s roots is to end up washed up and isolated.

The culture of the Left is not only one of politics and activism but even more importantly, of an entire tradition of thinking and relationships extending unbroken, for more than 150 years that embraced momentous events, events that ushered in the modern age. More than this even, a tradition that has shaped the modern age, right up to the times we live in now.

Hence central to the current dilemma the Left confronts is the shedding of its past. Worse still, in shedding its past the Left can no longer learn from its past, its history and experiences, perhaps the worst crime of all.

And we wonder why we thrash about, lost and essentially without direction. And just in case you misunderstand me, this is no mere academic issue of history as it is writ in books, but a living, breathing dilemma that is central to the future, perhaps even the survival of planet, at least as we know it.

Industrial capitalism gave birth to the ‘modern’ idea of socialism borne out of the struggles of an urban proletariat, first trade unions and then political parties that could defend its interests which then extended its remit to include the struggle for the franchise and finally, advance the idea that the urban, industrial working class – as it was then – represented the most advanced, the most developed element of working people, those whose physical and intellectual labours produced the wealth of society that by rights, it should and could, own and control. This was the core of the socialist project.

Through this process, a body of theoretical and practical knowledge and experience was accumulated, but even more than the development of an alternate political economy to capitalism, it consisted of an entire universe of creativity, in the arts in the sciences and indeed, up until WWII, the Left, in all its diverse expressions, was the avant garde in every sense of the phrase as even the most perfunctory list of contributors quite amply demonstrates.

Are we to accept that well over a century and a half of continuous struggle, learning and innovation was a waste of time? Even our enemies when pressed would be forced to concede that it is our inheritance, our accumulated experience that is intrinsic to the present, that it still shapes and dictates the nature of the current struggle, even though they would have us believe that it is ‘the end of history’, that the ‘market’ has triumphed (doth the lady protest too much?).

If so, why the centrality of the struggle for ‘hearts and minds’? Never mind that it is hidden inside the slogan ‘defending Western civilisation’, nor that the excuse is the ‘war on terror’. For as with the ‘war on Communism’, the struggle is first and foremost about the control of resources, about who possesses our labour and its products, within which is embedded two opposing and mutually exclusive philosophies. Lose sight of this, and we lose sight of what it’s all about.

Thus the struggle has to be about reconnecting to our discarded past, a struggle that is organically connected to our ability to communicate what we have learned and apply it to our present predicament. Failing to do this is to diss all those who sacrificed their lives and continue to sacrifice them, to deny them their achievements.

I for one, am not ashamed of my legacy, my inheritance, indeed I am proud of its achievements, for in spite of the distortions, the errors even our crimes, there exists a core of truth, of universal values that we created, that belong to us by virtue of our sacrifices as well as our achievements. Our crimes were, in any case not the product of our philosophy but rather in the lack of it.

How else can we justify our claim to oppose the imperium, to fight the depredations of capital, that today are no different than they were one hundred, two hundred years ago? Perhaps even worse today because we have forgotten where we come from, what made us what we are now.

Okay, the times have changed, there is no doubt that we have suffered a setback, a setback that didn’t start in 1990 but one that has its roots in the 1970s with the Reagan/Thatcher ‘neo-liberal’ project, itself both a reaction to the defeat in Vietnam and the underlying contradictions of the capitalist economy, over-production/under-consumption, the falling rate of profit. But with the passing of time, these core contradictions have gotten worse as new actors have entered the scene, China, India, Brazil, competing for the same markets in a world less able to consume the products of increasingly efficient production processes.

Couple to this has been the disappearance of the traditional industrial working class in the developed world, now dispersed across the planet. A working class that lacks trade unions and organised opposition to what is now a global capitalist class, led by the US.

Yet, it is true to say that the logic of capitalism has not changed since first revealed in the 19th century, if anything its contradictions are more apparent now than at any time since then.

It is also true to say that the major opposition to global capitalism is still found in the developing world but without a comparable centre of support in the developed world such as we had in the past, for example centred on the war in Vietnam and the other liberation struggles of the post-war period.

Without any kind of organised opposition to an imperialism once more unleashed in all its fury, it must surely be obvious that the reasons lie in the failure of the Left to produce a coherent analysis not of capitalism itself – there are no shortages of these – but of a strategy that takes into account the changes that have taken place over the past thirty-plus years.

Instead, we remain trapped in a time warp, regurgitating the same stale arguments that have paralysed us for the better part of fifty years, if not longer. The failure lies not in the theoretical understanding that Marx and others supplied, but in our ability to interpret them to fit the new situation.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this ‘new’ situation is the nature and composition at least in the developed countries, of the opposition to the rule of capital and its subsequent implications for political, economic and social change.

There are so many questions to be asked on this that perhaps at this point it’s best to simply flag them for future exploration in these columns, but chief amongst them are:

  • The notion of the industrial working class (RIP) as the most developed expression of industrial capitalism and if not this vanishing species, who then are the working class and what kinds of alliances and configurations need to be developed?
  • The idea of a single, revolutionary party that leads them?
  • The idea of revolutionary struggle confined to a single country in an age of globalised capital?
  • The overwhelming reality of potential climate catastrophe that could perhaps overshadow the struggle, or could it be a major catalyst for change?
  • Or is it the impetus to a more generalised war that the US seems to be urging in the name of ‘defending civilisation’ that could trigger a re-awakening of the revolutionary impulse?
  • How to rekindle political participation in a period of cynicism and apathy regarding our ability to influence the political process?

These may well be questions that many readers will regard as belonging to a previous age and simply not relevant to our times but surely it must be apparent that for example, ‘single issue politics’ is ultimately a dead end, even if useful as an an introduction to participation in the political process. So too the issue of ‘green politics’ which again, needs to be included in an all-embracing vision of a future without capitalism if it is to be translated into reality. The other fundamental issues that need to be incorporated into the bedrock of a revolutionary programme are race and gender, not as ‘add-ons’ or afterthoughts, to be utilised often in an opportunist manner.

I could add that as capitalism has undermined the very nature of the ‘traditional’ social forms it was instrumental in creating, for example the family, it forces us to re-examine at the most fundamental level, the very identity of male and female roles, something that the Left has failed miserably to address. This is a subject that has remained essentially a secret story as it goes to the very heart of the birth and triumph of capitalism, a story that I have referred to before (see ‘Caliban and the Witch’).

Whatever the configuration, it seems to me that these are questions that are not being asked let alone explored. No doubt there are other issues that need to be incorporated but until we do, it strikes me that we are like lambs being led to the slaughter, content for the most part to surrender our autonomy and ability to think as independent beings to a desperate and vicious ruling class that would, in the name of power and profit, consume us all.

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