The title was suggested by the last Forum discussion and has caused me to ask: who we think our audience is? Who we believe we are addressing our arguments to, in our struggles (if I may call them that); and who would be attracted to our ideas and beliefs? The short answer I would like to suggest is, that most of the political groupings on the left and much of their activity is aimed at an audience that is no longer there and has not been present for a considerable period of time. By this I am suggesting that much of what we (I’m including myself) argue and campaign for and how we go about that – the methods we use to communicate with people – misses and goes over the heads of most people.
We need to ask why and how this is happening. In this, we need to re-examine the views we have of the society we think we are addressing. That should include the nature and character of the audience now and the other ideological messages it is subjected to. We also need to decide whether we are addressing the entire audience-society or a part of it; and if the latter, which part do we hope to attract? This in itself brings other questions: what filters (even barriers) exist between what we believe and attempt to communicate and what message is received? How are we perceived, and what and how does that perception influence the message communicated?. Clearly, any communication that is taking place between Marxists and the Great British public is minimal and I’m sorry to tell you, they’re not coming forth in droves. Perhaps it is time to ask: is there anyone out there and what do we need to do or change in our ‘praxas’ to persuade them to step forth?
Before further comment a disclaimer: I still regard myself as an adherent of Marx to some extent and I hope my friends and comrades will correct me where they find my analysis goes awry. The suggestions I am about to present below are intended as just that and in a comradely sense. We really all have to learn some self discipline where this medium is concerned and not write-send before we think. The discussions these last few months – as well as the political actions – have been divisive and nobody has achieved anything. We need to learn to treat each other as comrades and grasp that no grouping or individual on the Left, that I can see has found the ‘tablets’. If they believe they have, then I suggest they need to think again.
To the longer answer. We are essentially talking about ‘class’ here. For Marx, a class is a group whose members share a common relationship to the distribution of the ‘means of production’, they either have them or they have to do something for them. If you substitute the word, ‘life’ for the word, ‘production’ to make ‘means of life’ their common interests should become clearer. Classes then, for Marx arise out of the relations that men and women enter into in order to produce the means for their survival. In Britain, over four fifths, 84% of the means of life are privately owned. 7% of the population own this giant share leaving 16%, which does go around the rest of us but how much is the 84% worth. How rich are the rich? A question seldom asked and that takes me to Marx and Engels second condition when considering society. Class consciousness, how each member of a class becomes conscious of their common interests and acquires an understanding and willingness to support actions which serve their class interests. This can be understood more clearly if we consider the situation of the owning or dominant class in any historical period where, by the advantage of their position, they consciously act together to protect their own class interests. The English ‘Establishment’ is an example of such a class, with their state apparatus, legal system, private schools, heritage, language, all of which buttress their world view to some extent; yea even democracy and the ‘mother of parliaments’ is defined and managed to serve and sustain their power and privilege; while that which we see and hear each day and what is mistakenly called ‘the news’ is little more than an expression of a ruling class taking action to manage and protect its shared interests.
However, when we come to the subject or non owning classes, the process of their conscious recognition of a common interest is neither as direct, nor as simple and this is where the problems we have with communicating our own ideas, to which I have referred to above, have to be applied. For Marx and Engels, particularly in the earlier texts eg, the manifesto, the subject or non-owning class, or ‘working class’ would acquire a class consciousness through their struggles with the capitalist, owning class and by this, would acquire the political will to support a communist party which would overthrow their masters. This has not happened and they were wrong about this. Before criticising Marx we should remember the times he lived in and the society he will have witnessed, where the great majority were manual labourers and will have appeared as a dispossessed, ‘ragged-trousered’ army, and who will have seemed a homogenous crowd with a common interest in ending the cause of their misery. But they didn’t
So, Marx and Engels identified a persons ‘class position’ as being defined by the place they occupied in the economic structure. However, they also suggested that to act effectively as a ‘class for itself’ they had to become conscious of their common interest as opposed to the capitalist owning class. If we can agree with that premise and there are arguments to be made against it, we can proceed. What other factors are at play here; what prevents the subject classes from developing a conscious under- standing of their situation, and in turn, from acting in their own class interest?
We need to consider the effects of how the ‘development of the forces of production’
across the globe during the last hundred years or so, have impacted and changed the ‘relations of production’ and the class struggle. That is for a later discussion and referred to here only to flag up the wider argument. Marx’s views in regard to these,
are described in the ‘Preface to the ‘Critique Political Economy 1852. What concerns us here is the statement from that text: “no social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed.” We have to ask ourselves if we really believe capitalism is in its death throes? I don’t.
We also need to consider the role of ideology in the context of the technical developments in communications and what power these lend to a dominant class.
Gramsci’s contribution here is relevant. The ruling class dominates other classes by a combination of force and consent. Force is exercised mainly by the coercive appara- tuses of the state, the armed forces, police, law courts, prisons; and also through paramilitary groups such as ‘Mussolini’s squads’, the ‘Nazi Black Shirts’ and what the National Front aspire to. More important for Gramsci was how a ruling class secured the consent of subordinate classes through the exercise of political, moral and intellectual leadership. Gramsci used the term ‘hegemony’ to describe the exercise of national leadership, for which the building of alliances was central to his concept:
“A hegemonic class is one that maintains a position of national leadership by
gaining the consent of other classes and social groups through creating a system
of alliances and continually adapting it to changing circumstances”.
Ideology for Gramsci was the social cement that binded the system of alliances and which in turn, required constant attention to popular needs and interests and the ability to combine these with the long term interests of the ruling class. Think Labour Governments going out of power here.
Gramsci’s ideas also need greater consideration than space here (or I will be writing a book). but central to his argument is how a ruling class maintains its class interests
by dividing those below. The ideological struggle is central to this. Marx and Engels were certainly aware of this to some extent. The phrase that comes to mind from the ‘German Ideology’ “the ruling ideas of any society are those of the ruling class” or “the class which is the ruling material force is at the same time, its ruling intellectual force”. Marx was not suggesting that the only ideas in a society were those of the rich or dominant class, but that a struggle or contest took place and that the ideas and values, eg, the laws that dealt with property were more likely to be the ones which favoured the interests of the rich, due to the advantage of their position. Similarly, the class struggle between the wage slaves and their capitalist employers was rigged in favour of the latter; but for Marx and Engels, they also believed that to be a life and death struggle and they described the working class or proletariat or proles as Orwell later joked as the ‘gravediggers of capitalism’. And that is why their view of the role of ideology only went so far: they were very optimistic about the dispossessed.
This has a major bearing on our own political activity because if you are hoping to recruit a cadre force from an ever increasingly conscious proletariat who you believe, will then lead them over the rainbow, think again: they are not listening, do not know who you are, who they are or more important, do not have any collective ideas with regard to the political process and how that effects their continued existence. We need to grasp this quickly when we consider people’s consciousness: in an alienated, individuated and fragmenting society where the rich are increasing invisible and where power wears the mantle of celebrity, we inhabit the world of the joker and the court jesters. Do we even take ourselves seriously?
The first condition, a persons class position. In Europe and advanced capitalist nations, though we still live in a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, of an owning and non owning classes, that society, the one that Marx described and lived in has changed beyond that which he perceived: the great mass of unwashed, unfed, unrepresented and unprotected are no longer as homogenous as that which he hoped would soon take up their cudgels. Nor are they working in large centres of production, or waiting for us to lead them over some rainbow. Therefore, the second and third conditions in his model-consciousness and action- must also be amended and re-assessed in the light of the changes to peoples existence’ in these parts of the world. (Elsewhere eg, South America, the older view may still apply: I don’t know but I doubt it even there). The conditions of people’s existence, their relationship to the ‘means of production’ and therefore, their conscious understanding and willingness or inability to act for themselves have shifted into new and more complex ways of control and disorganisation or fragmentation, if you prefer Comrades, we need to address this, quickly, if we wish to survive as we are living in dangerous times.
Certainly, a person’s class position exerts a powerful influence upon their beliefs and values but in the world we are in, so do a range of other factors. We need to examine what these are in the context of where we are failing to communicate our message and why a larger number of people are not attracted to our banners. I am going to try and begin an answer to some by positing more questions and statements. A response is certainly hoped for.
1. People are disengaged from the political process. By that I mean they are almost without any conscious involvement or understanding of the society they exist in. Can this be changed and if so, how?
2. A growing number of people are not apathetic and do have certain views but on what are their these based? Think rise of BNP here. What and how are they formed? What are the influences and who/what determines ‘class conscious- ness’ in this respect?
3. Working Class. What does the term mean now? Where would you find them? Among the dispossessed victims eg, migrants, asylum seekers, welfare recipients? Are these the people of the coming revolution or have they already been beaten?
4. A large section of the British white population are well off. Certainly so in comparison with some other parts of the world. When working people own large pots of capital how does that effect Marx’s view of class struggle?
5. British capitalism is not in its death throes, so is it necessary to prepare to lead the workers revolution? if not, what then is our role?
6. How and what is stopping us getting our message for a better world across, a world based upon sharing and non violence and sustaining our beautiful planet?
Remember, I have been dealing with only one aspect of Marx’s philosophy – namely the social class structure or model he used to account for social change. I should add that Marx was essentially an economic historian and much of his methodology is better used to describe historical periods and structures. In this respect, we have been using an historical tool as a piece of sociology which Marx will not have intended. More simply, he was not writing road maps for future revolutionaries to follow. The next important point to make is that central to his methodology are dialectics, ‘dialectical materialism’ where forces and ideas interact and which I have attempted to show above in the passage that refers to how the ruling ideas of any society are panned out.
To finish with a final question which I dearly hope someone can find an answer to. What does capitalist society have to offer people with all of its inequality, violence and anomie; that facilitates people’s disengagement with the political process and which allows them to accept the above ills without question; to accept the inequality of 7:84 or £billions spent on armaments or the drug induced neurosis of their neighbours. What is this power that makes a hell on earth palliative, while I can only retch?
Paul Baker. July 2009