Rebuilding the left among young people

Submitted by AWL on 15 July, 2014 - 5:27

Ben Hillier, editor of the Australian socialist paper Red Flag, has written a reasoned and balanced article discussing the extent to which neo-liberalism has wormed its way into our daily lives and our thinking as well as into evil government policies (Red Flag, October 2013).

Socialist Worker increasingly tells us week after week that people everywhere are "angry", that the ruling classes are losing their grip, and that mobilisations are "brilliant".

Against that "one more heave" school of socialist thinking, Hillier makes a strong case for sobriety. He does it without lapsing into defeatism or collapse.

In some ways his argument could be strengthened. World-market competition has sharpened since the mid-60s, and weighs down on each worker now more than it used to.

In the old industrial countries, though not in such places as China or Indonesia, workplaces have become somewhat smaller, and more likely to include different groups of workers employed by different bosses or working under different terms and conditions. Each worker's pay is more likely to depend on her or his individual "performance management".

More and more everyday transactions go through market or pseudo-market mechanisms. As we make our job, housing, pension, or education "choices", we are drawn into constructing parts of the neo-liberal social web, as well as just submitting to it as something enforced.

A longstanding comrade once remarked that the crucial blow to solidarity and organisation in the steelworks where he used to work was very simple. The bosses stopped the workers taking their breaks at the same time. That blow has been struck in more workplaces.

We should, however, check our discussions against very similar discussions of half a century ago.

In the 1960s, too, writers argued that the working class had become atomised, or even "embourgeoisified".

Then, too, they could point to real trends. The old social-democratic and Stalinist-becoming-social-democratic parties had decayed "culturally" as well as in activism; so had trade unions, even though they were still militant.

More workers were commuting, living in suburbs with little community life, spending much time watching TV, and interested in acquiring the consumer durables (washing machines, fridges, cars, and so on) now within their reach.

A famous study in the 1960s of The Affluent Worker (seen as typefied by car workers in Luton) concluded that workers were largely content with the basic structure of industry and converted to "instrumental" attitudes (calculating things in terms of individual advantage).

Then in 1968 those same car workers launched a militant strike which included seizing their management building and flying the red flag above it.

Many other workers' struggles followed in 1968 and 1970s, and writers shelved the studies on atomisation and "embourgeoisement".

But the "affluent worker" study was not a right-wing hatchet-job. The authors were emphatic in rejecting the full "embourgeoisement" thesis.

There had been a real growth of individualism, mostly market-oriented individualism, and a real decay of the old left.

The big radicalisations of 1968 and the 1970s did not show that individualism within the working class was a myth. They showed that it was by no means rigidly fixed into being a pro-capitalist influence. Market-oriented individualism can segue into a working-class culture which values individual autonomy and critical thinking within solidarity and collective effort.

As Trotsky once wrote, under capitalism the working class generally suffers from too little rather than too much individualism. The Russian working class which made the revolution of 1917 was a class led by young workers, many moved recently to the city from the countryside rather being embedded in the tradition-bound working-class communities which are too often romanticised with hindsight. The USA's great revolutionary workers' movement of pre-1914, the IWW, was built by footloose workers.

The new left after 1968 became infected by many of the same diseases as the old Stalinist and social-democratic left, and now is in its turn becoming an old, dying left. That was avoidable. Without that setback, and without the working-class defeats of the 1980s, I think the neo-liberal restructuring of work and social life would have met different responses.

Hillier is right about the need for cohesive revolutionary socialist organisation. But that need exists in all phases of working-class struggle. Can we say some more specific about the socialist response to today's specific neo-liberal restructured capitalism?

In the 1960s revolutionary socialists tended to assume that there was already a widespread will to socialism in the working class, thwarted by the misleadership of the Stalinists and social democrats. The revolutionaries would triumph by exposing the misleaders in the big struggles which would in due course be triggered by capitalist crisis; and the workers would then turn to the revolutionaries to win the socialism they already wanted.

The scheme was not always so crude. You can find in the writings of our own tendency, right back to the 1960s, sharp criticisms of the crude scheme. Moreover, there was a widespread vague sentiment for a sort of socialism in many working classes, in Europe at least - it hasn't entirely disappeared even today - and it was right to seek to build on that.

Today the scheme has stopped working. We must face the fact that our tasks include re-doing much of what the Second International did in its good days from the 1880s - grass-roots agitation, education, and organisation to build up a socialist culture in a working class previously atomised or hegemonised by bourgeois politics.

The "hyper-agitationalism" which dominates so much of the left today, the subordination of everything to the search for the catchy and militant-sounding slogan, should not be flipped over into a passive lecturers' socialism uninterested in struggles; but it must be replaced by a serious attention to education and explanation.

The German working class in which the Social Democratic Party built a socialist culture in its great days, over a hundred years ago, was a young class. Over 40% of blue-collar workers in those days were under 25, and the SPD was over 90% a party of blue-collar workers.

The Bolsheviks in Russia were overwhelmingly a party of young workers. In Germany when the SPD became conservative during after World War One its age profile shifted (by the early 1930s a majority of its members were over 40) and the Communist Party in its revolutionary days recruited hugely among young workers.

In building new socialist awareness today, young workers are again central.

But we do not have factories with hundreds of apprentices fresh from school as the SPD had. Instead the biggest concentrations of young people are in universities and colleges. Their campuses represent an exception to the rule of increased atomisation and fragmentation. They contain more people in one space than almost all workplaces, and with easy communication between them.

That mandates a priority for socialist activity - and socialist activity, not just militant student unionism - on those campuses. It has to be socialist activity which educates young people to become lifelong builders of socialist political culture in workplaces and communities, not just to be militant while at college and then lapse into NGO-ism or careerism.

Hillier’s “neo-liberalism of the soul”

Hillier cites atomisation:

"In our largest cities... the sprawl creates satellite suburban wastelands kilometres from amenities and often more than an hour’s drive from the CBD... people today have, on average, fewer friends, fewer relations with neighbours and fewer connections to community organisations. The latter is particularly true of young people...

"People are absorbed in TV (for three hours on average per night) or interacting through social media...

"It has become fashionable to link social media to greater social engagement and events like the Arab revolutions. But the rise in usage is also linked to this broader trend to atomisation that has transformed the way many people experience the world".

He also cites the content of the culture circulated through those TVs and computers and smartphones.

"Neoliberal culture... counsels us to turn our back on the world, and the future, to turn inward as individuals and unearth 'who we really are'.

"A whole generation judges its inner worth by its capacity to match the artificial forms of fashion models or the carefully cultivated images or skill sets of superstar athletes and singers... Human existence and intimacy [are transformed] into marketable goods".

The cultural turning inwards is coupled with a shrivelling of democracy.

"The parties historically associated with the labour movement have become indistinguishable in many respects from the conservative parties of the rich... Governments have either ceded power to or had their democratic mandate undermined by unelected capitalist institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum, the European Central Bank [and national central banks, commissions...] etc.

This trend "reinforces the retreat into private lives as people attempt to escape perceived injustice, rather than challenge it. On the other, it can lead to profoundly anti-democratic conclusions... In Australia... only 39 percent of people 18 to 29 years old consider democracy 'preferable to any other form of government'. (The figure is 74% for those over the age of 60.)"

Hillier is sceptical of "clicktivism":

"The clicktivism rank and file of organisations such as Get Up! [a big Australian lobby group] generally remain as disengaged from any real world struggle as ever. They lend their identity and delegate their cash to unelected and unaccountable professional 'campaigners'. The success or otherwise of the campaign seems to be judged only by how much advertising is created".

Hillier, however, notes that "the working class can... break out of its passivity, identify the enemy and start swinging" again very quickly. "The basic structures and dynamics of the capitalist system remain".

On-the-hoof radicalisation-through-struggle is not enough by itself. So Hillier concludes by emphasising the ideological tasks of socialists: "Being able to explain convincingly the hows and whys of the failures of Stalinism and social democracy is as crucial to re-establishing a genuine revolutionary Marxist tradition as being able to explain the hows and whys of the failure of capitalism".

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