The ideas of the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács offer insights into Labour‘s recent quandaries, finds David Moyles
While thousands across the country have been attending rallies for Corbyn, and while the Labour establishment is in unprecedented disarray, some "thoughtful" and prominent former supporters of Corbyn have succumbed to self doubt and pessimism. This article will argue that the arguments they use reflect a way of thinking that has - throughout the last century - meant that many movements with the objective strength to defeat the right have floundered and failed. We will call this way of thinking vertigo and we will show how the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs identified the cure for vertigo at the heart of Lenin's thought.
The waverers typically make two key points. First that when they backed Corbyn for leader last year they never expected him to win, but rather to "shift the terms of debate".
Second, now that he has won, they argue, we are teetering on the edge of a precipice. The wave of enthusiasm could easily turn to despair. Just as defeat of Michael Foot laid the groundwork for Tony Blair (in a very telescoped, teleological view of history) so will this success be followed by defeat that could see the whole left destroyed. And the cliff on which we are standing is crumbling in the face of attacks from the media, the PLP and the Tories. Be afraid, be very afraid.
Both statements are reasonably close to being statements of fact. Most did not dare to dream Corbyn might win. Even the most optimistic Corbyn supporters right now recognise the stakes, recognise the consequences of failure and are desperate not to fall off that cliff. The difference is in how to interpret and respond to these facts. As Jonny Gaunt argued in an earlier article on Counterfire, these vertiginous souls are choosing flight over fight. This is not a matter of personal cowardice, it is a consequence of political myopia.
Sure, we didn't expect Corbyn to win. But did we not want him to? And have we not achieved so much more in the past year than the "shift in the terms of debate" these people were hoping for?
On any measure - from stopping Tory cuts and resisting Blairite sabotage, to the hundreds of thousands entering political activity, we have risen far higher than we expected. Everybody knows that the higher you rise the further you have to fall - and the more it hurts when you do. The question is whether, faced with the fact we have scaled these new heights, we think about how we can climb further. About a Corbyn government, about what it could do, about the mobilisation necessary to support it. Or whether we look down and either freeze like a cat up a tree or dream up ways for the movement to slide back down on its arse without causing an avalanche and a rout.
And here the question really is one of worldview.
There are those who think the world is fundamentally pretty stable, that despite moments of madness, wars, crises and revolutions, things generally return more or less to the status quo, or at least move progressively at a more or less pre determined speed. Those leftists with this worldview are prone to vertigo.
Then there are those who think that however static and stable things may seem, capitalist society is fundamentally pretty chaotic. Long booms can hide a slow brewing financial crisis, political institutions - at least on a historical timeframe - come and go, war seems pretty central to the system. And in the end, without something major happening, climate change means we're all fucked anyway. This worldview makes it somewhat harder to catch vertigo because there is no predetermined ground level, no normality to which we expect things to return.
The difference is whether we can really expect to win something more than a few reforms, to transform society, to define and create socialism in an era of the Internet and globalisation, to tackle rising inequality, create a world without war and climate chaos. Or whether the most we can hope for is a rise in the top rate of income tax, some curtailing of crony capitalism and, if we are lucky, some more houses (surely all worth aiming for, but are they really the maximum, the end goal, the inspiration). Are we nudging the Overton window or smashing through it?
A history of vertigo
Once understood this way it is clear that these pangs of vertigo are not isolated incidents and that they in fact follow from the worldview we are all encouraged to hold from birth (and that is reinforced by the daily drudgery of life, whether you work in a sweatshop or at the Guardian). There are plenty of examples from the history of our movement in which vertigo has led to self inflicted defeat. We discuss one of the starkest.
The year was 1919. The Russian Revoution had inspired mass movements around the world that had finally put an end to the First World War and left much of Western Europe on the brink of revolution. The railway, mining and transport unions were planning a mass strike for nationalisation of the mines. The heads of the triple alliance were invited to meet Prime Minister David Lloyd George in Downing Street. Aneurin Bevan remembered being told about the meeting by the general secretary of the miners federation, Robert Smillie. The Prime Minister told them:
"In these circumstances if you carry out your threat and strike, then you will defeat us.
“‘But if you do so,’ went on Mr Lloyd George, ‘have you weighed the consequences? The strike will be in defiance of the government of the country and by its very success will precipitate a constitutional crisis of the first importance. For if a force arises in the state that is stronger than the state itself, then it must be ready to take on the functions of the state, or withdraw and accept the authority of the state. Gentlemen,’ asked the Prime Minister quietly, ‘have you considered, and if you have, are you ready?’ From that moment on,” said Robert Smillie, “we were beaten and we knew we were.”
Vertigo. Strikes were good, nationalisation a fair demand. But winning? That would be a step too far.
But note again here the real problem with vertigo. It doesn't just stop you from rising high, it stops you from winning at all. Perhaps the strikes could have won nationalisation without a revolution - but all Lloyd George needed to do was raise the spectre of total victory in order to inflict total defeat.
And if everyone on the left were this scared of heights, the Blairites could have won by letting us win. You want to shift the window of debate do you? Well how about we call your bluff and let you run the show for a while? Then you'll see, then you'll be smashed, fragmented and defeated. You cannot win if you are afraid to win.
But it is right to be afraid of heights: there is a long way to fall. The stakes do get higher. So if we want to keep winning, what can we do? Is the antidote to vertigo simply to hope that enthusiasm and momentum mean that people never look down? This would be a pretty unstable state of affairs. Our movement cannot win if it cannot be honest with itself. Luckily there is a better cure for vertigo. There is a worldview that understands we need to fight with total victory in mind even when engaging in defensive battles or celebrating small victories along the way.
The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs identified the cure to vertigo as the core uniting principle behind Lenin's thought: the actuality of the revolution.
The actuality of the revolution
Genius, argues Georg Lukacs, lies in the ability to connect the macro and the micro. Newton could see in an apple falling on his head the force that governs the motion of the planets, Darwin could see all of evolution in the shape of a finch's beak. And Marx could see, in an analysis of early factories in England, the dynamics of the capitalist system as a whole.
Lenin lived two generations after Marx and the world had changed. His contribution was to see in each struggle the potential for the creation of a new and better world. When Marx wrote, capitalism was young and still developing, but by Lenin's time empires had divided up the world and capital had become concentrated and centralised into large conglomerates. What Lenin understood was that the objective potential for a better world already existed - we already produce enough for the whole of humanity to live healthy fulfilled lives. But his genius was to see how this fact can and should inform day to day political activity. It was this inter-connection between the objective potential for transformative change and the subjective actions of socialists that lay at the heart of Lenin's thought, a concept labelled by Lukacs as the actuality of the revolution.
None of this is to say that Lenin thought that each and every struggle should aim to overthrow parliament - many worthwhile struggles are localised and have limited aims. But the point is that in this world, where capitalism is an objectively reactionary force and transformation necessary and possible, nothing is fully isolated. One day strikes can spill over into mass strikes, protests over police brutality can become generalised riots, no national liberation struggle happens absent the forces of imperialism in the wider world. And while this generalisation may not (will not) always happen the general inability of capitalism to solve its own problems means that we can be sure that at points it will happen. And socialist activity should be organised accordingly. Socialist strategy is directed not just at this goal or that goal but at furthering the prospects of the overthrow of capitalism by the mass of exploited and oppressed people.
Now reassess those who with much thought and hand wringing flake away from Corbyn. They wanted to see the movement succeed, to see it climb higher. But they cannot see past the next ridge. For them it is a question of this poll or that poll, elderly voters and media management. These questions do matter. But seen in isolation the answer to one of them might be for a semi-slick chancer to become labour leader.
But seen from the perspective of the actuality of the revolution, the question is how do we maximise the level of political organisation, confidence and radicalism across the mass of ordinary people; how do we turn what has traditionally been the second party of British capitalism into a transformative force; how do we weaken the power of the British state to resist this movement. Then the answer is very clearly Corbyn - and the mass rallies, mass membership, organisation of resistance to the PLP that is going on as part of the Corbyn movement. Then a question like Scotland is easy to answer - don't be so blinkered as to worry about numbers in Westminster - the Scottish question is about fundamentally weakening the British state.
Seen from this perspective, the line of march is clear, the heights scaled so far are a reason to be very cheerful. The distance to fall is of course something to worry about - but the idea that we would not fall if and only if we had a better media strategy (or pretended to support trident or want to "do something" about immigration) can be seen as absurd.
There are organisational consequences that flow from the idea of the actuality of the revolution. Clearly not everyone involved in a struggle is a revolutionary (more true the more mass the struggle becomes). But there will clearly be twists and turns where the right worldview will help inform the right decision. And even when people's gut instinct is with the right worldview, the wrong worldview can act as a block, can lead people to step back from the brink, worry about stability, worry that they are demanding too much.
So the better organised, the bigger and stronger, the side in each struggle that can connect that struggle to the whole big picture, the more likely that struggle is to succeed (both on its own terms and in terms of contribution to the wider struggle). We don't want the Corbyn movement to succumb to vertigo when people look down - so we had better convince as many as possible of our worldview and its implications for activity, we had better immunise the movement against vertigo.
Before Lenin many socialists had organised on a 'Sunday school socialism' kind of model. They would take part in limited struggles - for better wages, lower rents and the like - during the week and then spread the socialist word at weekend meetings. Lenin's organisational insight was that socialists need to approach each and every struggle as revolutionaries, showing how political theory and practice are intertwined. And that means grouping the socialists in an organisation that can discuss and implement revolutionary strategy - of necessity a different kind of organisation to one that just discusses theory. And of necessity something more than, supplementary to, an electoral party such as Labour or a mass movement such as People's Assembly.
Counterfire today argues for its members to be at the heart of the movements at the same time as focusing on the big picture - and we ask our members to discuss and debate the best strategy for these movements. Our website and our paper connect the struggle and point to a socialist strategy within them. But it is clear an organisation of the sort Lenin envisaged would have to be far bigger and incorporate many activists who today are part of no organisation - as well as some who are currently part of other organisations. We will need this if the energy and desire for change captured by the Corbyn movement is going to be able to keep rising and achieve real transformative change.
In the (non socialist) Sunday schools they teach the Old Testament parable of the Tower of Babel. People all spoke the same language meaning they could harness all of the human intellect and build a tower to get closer to the heavens - angry at their ambition, God smashed the tower and scattered the peoples to the corners of the earth, creating the divisions and wars we see today. Some think the prospect of building a tower is too dangerous and we should restrict ourselves to a few earthly demands. Lukacs and Lenin teach us to be more ambitious - we should be storming the gates of heaven.
More articles from this author
- At war with the powers that be
- Navigating the Zeitgeist: A Story of the Cold War, the New Left, Irish Republicanism, and International Communism - book review
- Londoners defy the XR ban to defend the right to protest
- Ecuador: victory for the popular protest
- US workers strike back: General Motors and Chicago teachers
- Royal Mail: huge turnout and overwhelming majority vote for strike
- Police ban on Extinction Rebellion is an attack on our civil liberties