Monday, July 27, 2009

A cool reflection

The heatwave is over. It is a cloudy day and the temperature has dropped to a pleasant 28C. A good time to write the first of a couple of posts about recent deaths.

Leszek Kolakowski was a significant figure. There are good links worth reading here, but it was Norm's discussion that raised my interest, taking on the too eager simplifications of many commentators. Kolakowski is celebrated for arguing that Stalinism was not an aberration, but inherent in Marx's thought. Of course, he wasn't the first. The same critique was made contemporaneously with Marx, initially by Proudhon and then by Bakunin.

Norm acknowledges what he sees as the weaknesses in Marx's position:
What precise weight of responsibility the original ideas, as put forward by Karl Marx himself, bear for the political disaster that was Stalinism may be a matter of debate; but only the most blinkered of Marxists will today deny that central deficiencies of classical Marxism played a role in the developments that led ultimately to the Gulag. Two central deficiencies in particular: the lack of an adequate theory of democratic political institutions; and the tendency to mock and diminish the importance of ethical argument (despite the fact that Marxism itself, and in Marx's hands, contained a moral vision and a commitment to principles of justice).
He also puts them into context, especially Marx's insistence of the continuing existence of the state.
Marx projected an end to the state, but that was the state in the meaning instrument of class rule. With no classes there could be no state in this sense; but there would be a 'public power', Marx held, and one subject to democratic control from below.
This was precisely the basis of the objections of the Anarchists. They felt that the state, even if it ceased to be an instrument of the rule of a particular class, would still be an instrument of rule by a new, and often capriciously cruel, elite, the state functionary. Thus they rejected the state per se. All rule, they argued, was in the interests solely of the rulers.

In his dispute with Bakunin, Marx ridiculed this position, yet I think that there is merit in it. However, the total rejection of the state does not mean the end of organisation for the achievement of collective ends. Anarcho-communists, like Kropotkin, thought this could be achieved without public power through revolutionary spontaneity and the instinct for mutual aid. His critical friend, Errico Malatesta, was more cautious seeing a need for preparation for freedom through the educative process of building working class solidarity. Individualists relied on models of robust autonomy within collaborative networks.

However, even outside the state, authority permeates many aspects of our lives and seems certain not to disappear. Autonomous organisations can be positively totalitarian, whilst many of us still spend the bulk of our lives in autocracies, more commonly known as the workplace, subject to the whims of the latest managerial fad. And if you want to see the effect of such little tyrannies, look at the management style at Royal Bank of Scotland. Thus the emphasis Norm puts on the need to think more deeply about democratic political institutions is one that applies to all human institutions and relations and is important for all left perspectives, whether statist or not.

To think about institutions that are subject to "democratic control from below", means more than self-congratulatory peans to western liberal democracies, for all their manifest advantages. It means a rejection of the cruelties, inequities and dysfunctions of everyday life, wherever they occur. It requires a consistent moral stance against exploitation and barbarity. It is about control and ownership, not just consumer choice. If we are setting out on a democratic journey, we have a long way yet to go.

But now, with the clouds still overhead, it is time for me to abandon idle speculation and cut back the bamboo that invades from the neighbours' windbreak.

1 comment:

John said...

erm . . . correct!