27 March 2013

The two errors of Ultra-Leftism

Marxism is a powerful explanatory tool, but it can be abused by its own supporters.

Classical Marxism teaches us the most important lesson in macro-political analysis, a lesson which can be simply stated through the following chain of argument. The ownership of capital (in production, distribution and exchange) is concentrated in a few hands and is used for private enrichment. Those who own capital (plus those who earn high salaries in the service to capital, e.g. some lawyers, accountants, etc) have a vested class interest in the existing state of political and economic affairs; and, on account of their wealth, capital owners and their supporters are in a powerful position to get what they want, both economically and politically.

The macro-analysis of politics centrally concerns power; and, as argued above, power relations are determined by the operation of capitalism Thus, any serious socialist project must focus on capitalism and its political power system. And it is precisely because New Labour embraces, rather than challenges, that system that we stand opposed to Labour on its left flank.

However, in the history of Marxist socialist politics, there have been two recurring errors, and it worth looking at these. We can call them the two errors of ultra-leftism.

First, ultra-leftists argue that those political issues which do not bear on anti-capitalist struggle are irrelevant. So long as capitalism is in existence, they argue, it makes little difference what kind of political, legal and other institutional arrangements exist. Politics, they say, should only be judged by the revolutionary calculus of how capitalism can be overthrown. In an extreme version of this view, reforms benefiting working people under capitalism can even be seen as counter-productive as they ‘patch up’ the system and delay its overthrow.

Second, ultra-leftists tend to believe that the overthrow of capitalism and the existing state and legal system will, of itself, herald in a better world. To that end, all political action is subordinated to this almost magical act of revolution, thus creating a politics which is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, who see such revolutionary politics as both undesirable and unrealistic. The ‘phoenix out of the ashes’ Marxists of this kind seem to me akin to the prophets of a religious cult in which the “promised land” emerges after a period of maximum suffering.

The philosopher, Karl Popper, undertook the task of ‘strengthening’ Marxian propositions with the purpose of rendering them suitable for refutation. The ultra-leftists seem to be helping him along.