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Sunday, 17 January 2016

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and the movements

The last week in British politics has perfectly captured the contradictions of a Corbyn-led Labour Party.

We are currently seeing real breakthroughs opened up by the left turn in the Labour Party's leadership, but also the ongoing obstacles to radically transforming Labour politics. The hostility of scores of Labour MPs to Jeremy Corbyn's left-wing politics remains a huge problem, generating constant pressure for compromise.

Corbyn's speech to the Fabian Society on Saturday was well-received, earning praise even from those who are sceptical about his leadership. It outlined a set of economic and social policies that marked a clean break from Ed Miliband's painfully moderate approach. There were no surprises - it was all in line with Corbyn's platform in the leadership election - but it did indicate that the Labour leader is determined to push through his domestic agenda: rail renationalisation, increasing the minimum wage, capping bosses' pay, creating a lifelong education service, delivering universal childcare, and so on.

There is also a sense of individual policies being framed by a broader commitment to equality. Labour's own internal review of why it lost the May 2015 general election - overseen by Margaret Beckett - was this week leaked to the press. It apparently notes the lack of a coherent political outlook, despite some appealing individual policies, in the run up to last May's election. This is hardly news to many of us, but it underscores the need for Corbyn to present a coherent worldview not merely a disparate collection of policies.

A recent newspaper column by Corbyn did an excellent job of outlining a coherent agenda, built around what he termed 'three pillars': economic policy focused on investment and reducing inequality, ground-up democratisation, and an independent foreign policy geared towards peace. The speech to the Fabians can be seen as providing some flesh on those bones, but that doesn't mean that shifting Labour policy leftwards is straightforward.

War and weapons

It's in the field of foreign policy that more rightwards-leaning elements of the Labour Party have been most hostile, at times virulent, towards the new leader and the direction he is mapping out for the party. Corbyn felt obliged to grant a 'free vote' on bombing Syria, such was the resistance to an anti-war position inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. This decision was regrettable - as it undoubtedly weakened parliamentary opposition to David Cameron's plans - but primary responsibility for it lies with those elements of the PLP that remain dedicated to an interventionist foreign policy (the kind of foreign policy that drove so many members out of the Labour Party around the war in Iraq).

The other major issue where divisions inside Labour run deep is Trident replacement. This is a foreign policy issue, but also closely connected the battle of ideas around austerity: campaigners repeatedly point out that the vast sums required for sustaining Britain's nuclear capability could instead be devoted to public services and job creation. Scrapping Trident is a key alternative to austerity - and this explains why the People's Assembly Against Austerity is backing CND's national demonstration, calling for abolition of Trident replacement, on 27 February.

Two leaders of major trade unions - the GMB's Paul Kenny and Unite's Len McCluskey - have both made interventions designed to undermine Corbyn's anti-Trident position. Their arguments are based entirely on an appeal to protect jobs in the defence industry, despite Corbyn making it clear that he wants public investment to guarantee new jobs for the workers who would be affected, ensuring they do socially useful and climate-friendly jobs instead of producing weapons of mass destruction.

Kenny and McCluskey betray a lack of political imagination or foresight, sticking unthinkingly to a narrow sectional agenda. But this issue is far from resolved inside those unions, especially in Unite (where anti-Trident arguments have a strong base of support). There is potential for anti-Trident campaigning to win widespread support in the labour movement. The national demonstration will be the first test of this.

Striking back

Trident isn't the only way that the relationship between Labour and trade unions has hit the headlines this week. Strike action by junior doctors on Tuesday had a huge media and public impact, offering hope for anyone wanting a wider defence of the NHS and an increase in resistance by public sector unions.

But the response from Labour was mixed. Left-wing shadow chancellor John McDonnell - Corbyn's closest ally and a reliable friend of striking unions - turned up on a picket line. Yet this generated controversy because Heidi Alexander, shadow health secretary, had insisted the party took a neutral stance on the strike action.

Labour has historically never supported strikes. This might seem surprising, but the Labour Party was founded on the separation between parliamentary politics (Labour Party business) and workplace-based resistance (leave it to the unions). The party's failure to publicly support Tuesday's strike - despite polls suggesting it was popular - indicated the continuing limitations in spite of Corbyn and McDonnell's place at the helm. This doesn't mean nothing has changed - it was noteworthy that Alexander addressed last Saturday's London rally for student nurses - but support for strikes remains a contentious subject.

Nonetheless, Corbyn is definitely pushing for Labour to have a very different approach to trade unions, and strikes in particular, to the rather guilty, shamefaced embarrassment associated with previous leaders Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, none of whom championed the restoration of workers' rights removed by Margaret Thatcher's governments in the 1980s.

Corbyn, by contrast, told viewers of the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning that he wants radical changes to legislation on strikes, saying: “Sympathy action is legal in most other countries. It should also be legal here.” This is combined with strong opposition to the Trade Union Bill which the Tories are currently trying to force through parliament.

That Bill is, in turn, a key component of a far-reaching Tory strategy for weakening democracy and especially undermining Labour and the unions. The strategy also includes proposed boundary changes, alterations to voter registration, cuts to funding for research by the Opposition, and a ban on local councils taking action to practically support human rights elsewhere in the world (primarily a response to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement in solidarity with Palestine). It is to Corbyn's credit that he recognises this bigger picture and opposes the various measures in full.

Beyond Westminster

The examples of the junior doctors and Trident illustrate a couple of important points about Labour and the challenges for defeating Tory policies. One important point is that these (and other) causes now have a degree of support in mainstream politics that until recently was unimaginable. Having a left-wing Leader of the Opposition and shadow chancellor - and now an anti-Trident, anti-air strikes shadow defence secretary - makes a difference.

The second point is that Labour alone cannot be relied on to fight for what we need, whether that's junior doctors' pay and conditions or the scrapping of Trident. There is a constant struggle inside Labour between left and right, with two parties effectively co-existing (one which is strong in the PLP, one whose power is based in a combination of the leadership and the grassroots).

The left is more likely to prevail in these battles when there are powerful movements outside the realm of parliamentary politics, and involving many thousands of people beyond the Labour Party. Around the Syria vote, we saw how campaigning led by Stop the War Coalition could combine with an anti-war Labour leadership to deliver a substantial body of votes against air strikes (and increase the pressure on the government).

The 27 February national demonstration will be a decisive moment for everyone seeking to end Britain's ludicrous and wasteful addiction to nuclear weapons - and a chance to articulate alternatives to both austerity and war. With a Commons vote on Trident replacement expected this year - and perhaps as early as spring - the demonstration, combined with lobbying of MPs, will be very important.

The junior doctors will be emboldened if Labour politicians voice their support, especially if left-wing arguments linking their specific dispute with a broader fight for the NHS are at the fore, but victory will ultimately depend on their collective resolve - through the British Medical Association - to persist with the strike action, marches and rallies needed to force a Tory climbdown. It will also help if other health unions step up their practical support, and if close links are pursued with other groups involved in disputes (like the student nurses campaigning to keep bursaries). Similarly, the Trade Union Bill is a winnable battle for its opponents, but only if there is serious, sustained and co-ordinated action by unions complementing Labour's opposition at Westminster.

Finally, this week saw the People's Assembly's announcement of a national demonstration 'for health, homes, jobs and education' in London on 16 April. This can be a rallying point for everyone wanting to resist the Tories, pulling together disparate issues and the different strands of resistance. In the immediate run up to May's Scottish, Welsh, London and local elections, it is very timely for making maximum political impact. It will also have the by-product of demonstrating support for Corbyn's drive to make Labour a consistently anti-austerity party.

This was originally published on Counterfire.

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Friday, 1 January 2016

My predictions for 2016

Goldsmith vs Khan: who will be next mayor of London? 
It's time for my annual predictions for politics in the year ahead. I've published a set of predictions on New Year's Day for the last few years. 

As usual, this is intended as an attempt at accurate forecasting, rather than being a wish list for what I'd like to happen. I have opted this year to focus almost entirely on British politics, as it is what I follow closely and feel well-placed to comment on. 

This is of course an exercise that risks embarrassment at a later date: a quick glance at last year's predictions will indicate the potential for getting things badly wrong. But, with the recklessness of such an exercise in mind, here goes...


1. Labour's Sadiq Khan will very narrowly win May's election for London Mayor, defeating Tory candidate Zac Goldsmith by a tiny margin. 

2. The SNP will win an even bigger majority at Holyrood than it possesses already, going from 69 seats won in 2011 to 75 in May's elections to the Scottish Parliament. Scottish Labour will fail to make any recovery from its polling lows. New left-wing formation RISE will fail to win any regional list seats, but the Green Party will win six regional list seats. 

3. Labour will lose around 120 of the 1200 seats it is defending in May's local council elections. 

4. Jeremy Corbyn will survive a fresh wave of internal Party attacks in May, continuing to be Labour leader throughout 2016. He will be assisted by Labour victory in the election for London mayor, compensating for less heartening news in the Scottish and local elections. 

5. The EU referendum will be held in the autumn and the IN campaign will win, with over 55% of the vote share. 

6. Labour Party membership will stabilise at around 400,000 members. Labour will make a little progress in opinion polling, being almost level with the Tories on vote share by the end of 2016. 

7. The Lib Dems will fail to make any recovery in its polling or electoral fortunes, continuing to be the irrelevant footnote to British politics that it has been since last May's Westminster wipeout. 

8. The Green Party of England and Wales will struggle to appear politically relevant, its right wing will become stronger, and the party will fare badly in London's elections in May. There will be a small decline in its membership.

9. Ukip's slow decline will continue, with the divisions between leader Nigel Farage and sole MP Douglas Carswell becoming so acute that the latter leaves Ukip altogether before the EU referendum takes place. Funding will dry up almost entirely and membership will fall slightly. 


10. Jeremy Corbyn will undertake a minor reshuffle of his shadow cabinet in January. It won't involve changes quite as drastic as widely predicted. Hilary Benn, Maria Eagle and Michael Dugher will be removed from the shadow cabinet, though Angela Eagle will remain, and Rosie Winterton will be removed as Chief Whip.

11. Momentum will establish itself as a significant grouping for the Labour left, but will struggle to find a meaningful cause to galvanise left-wing party members into action, while being overly focused on internal party matters and repeatedly subjected to attacks in the media. 

12. By the end of 2016 George Osborne will emerge as clear frontrunner in the race to be next Tory leader, ahead of Boris Johnson and Theresa May. Osborne will gain from the fact that there will be no fresh economic crisis, either in Britain or in any other major economy, despite underlying problems. Inflation in Britain will remain low and there will be a slight fall in unemployment. 

13. The Chilcot report will be published in the autumn and be damning about Tony Blair and other senior government figures of the time.

14. Junior doctors will take strike action and win their dispute with the government, though there will otherwise be no significant national strike action by public sector unions on pay, pensions or any other issue. 

15. Hillary Clinton will be selected as the Democratic nominee for US president. Donald Trump will be selected as the Republican nominee. Clinton will go on to comfortably defeat Trump in November's election, winning around 55% of the vote share. 


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Thursday, 31 December 2015

8 important trends in British politics

The end of one year, and the start of another, is a good time for reflection. So I thought I'd step back from the day-to-day churn of British politics and think about the underlying trends we have seen illuminated in 2015. 

It is easy to miss many of these due to a focus on the everyday or short-term, or because of the news media's habit of exaggerating some things while overlooking others. 

What, then, are the big current trends in British politics that we can discern from events in 2015? In no particular order...

1. The Tories are steady but going nowhere. 

There was a lot of exaggeration in the responses to the Tories' general election victory. The fact that nearly everyone had forecast a hung parliament meant that a tiny Tory majority appeared to be a spectacular triumph, rather than a very narrow win helped by the electoral system. The long-term trend for the Tories has been one of decline: compare its vote share from anywhere between the 1950s and 1992 with its results since 1997 and this is clear. It is also reflected in falling membership. 

It is unlikely that the Tories will ever again reach 40% in a UK-wide general election (if Scotland gains independence, it might be a different matter). There is no particular reason to believe that the Tories will improve on its 2015 vote share. They can form a majority government on no more than 37% of the votes - as we've seen - and the likely boundary changes means this will certainly be possible in future. But I don't see how the Tory Party can restore the dominance it had in the 1980s (conversely, I don't see any reason to predict a significant fall in its support).

2. The Lib Dems have collapsed. 

The Lib Dems and its predecessor parties have historically had a small core voting base. But at times this has been boosted as a result of careful positioning - or opportunism - allowing the party to pick up votes from those disaffected with other parties. The 2010 election was a peak in this respect, with the Lib Dems benefiting from widespread disillusionment with 13 years of Labour government (but also the fact that the Tories had not entirely 'detoxified' after the experiences of the 1980s and 1990s). 

Being the junior partner in a Tory-led coalition for five years led to collapse and only 8 Lib Dem MPs were elected in May. There are no indications of any Lib Dem revival, not any reason to expect one as the party has no obvious purpose. It has returned to being a party that derives votes largely from a core base of mainly middle class and centre-ground voters, polling below 10%. 

3. The SNP dominates Scottish politics.

The SNP landslide in May - taking 56 out of 59 Scottish seats at Westminster - was a genuine political earthquake. There is every reason to expect another SNP landslide in May's Holyrood elections, with the party forecast to increase its majority in the devolved Scottish parliament still further. 

This has been a long-term process and the independence referendum accelerated Scottish Labour's decline and the SNP's ascendancy. Many people on the Labour left simply don't grasp how much Scottish politics has been transformed, and naively think that Labour can win back lost support. This involves under-estimating how discredited Labour has become, how strong the SNP's support base now is, and how important the questions of independence and (more immediately) home rule, or increased powers, are for left-leaning Scottish voters. 

4. Ukip is past its peak, while the far right is defunct.

I've been saying this for over a year: Ukip has already reached its peak. It took roughly one in eight votes nationally in May and there's simply no reason to expect it to improve on this in future local or general elections. It has a fairly settled voter base and is incapable of getting people elected in first-past-the-post elections. The fact that its sole MP, Douglas Carswell, is in open conflict with party leader Nigel Farage gives a strong sense of the problems it faces. Whatever happens in the EU referendum, it is likely to damage Ukip: once it's taken place, Ukip's core aim has been removed from the political landscape. 

The rise of Ukip is one reason, of course, why the traditional far right is absolutely nowhere. Dedicated anti-fascist campaigning also played its part, as did the far right's propensity (especially when under pressure and suffering defeats) for in-fighting. The British National Party imploded a little while ago and has not been replaced.  

5. Labour is shifting leftwards. 

For those of us on the left, the most important - and hopeful- trend is what's happening in the Labour Party. This is one that has taken everyone by surprise: 2015 has been a real game-changer for Labour. It was widely assumed that general election defeat would be followed by a consensus around moving Labour somewhat to the right. Jeremy Corbyn's huge popular success in the leadership race, galvanising a mushrooming of Labour Party membership and a renaissance for the left, changed everything.

What we are seeing is the widespread disaffection with a hollowed-out social democracy finding expression - in a unique way - through the established, and largely discredited, social democratic party itself. This results from a combination of factors and has led to a fierce conflict within the Labour Party. How this plays out is not yet settled, but Corbyn and the left do have some distinct advantages. The 'moderates' in the Parliamentary Labour Party are reconciling themselves to it being near-impossible to challenge Corbyn's position. 

6. The Green Surge is a fading memory. 

The Green Surge began in summer 2014 and continued until the general election in May 2015. There was a huge increase in membership combined with a small tilt leftwards in its profile and composition. This demonstrated - together with the SNP's triumphs - that Labour can indeed leak votes to its left, and suggested there is significant electoral space for a party positioned (in however ambiguous and tricky a manner) to the left of the neoliberal mainstream. 

Corbyn's rise to the Labour leadership has changed all that. Apparently, there has been little direct effect on Green Party membership. But there's no doubt that the whole dynamic underpinning the Green Surge - disillusionment with a rightwards-leaning Labour Party sending people to the Greens - has simply gone. This will surely be reflected, in the next year or two, in membership figures, the composition of the party and the votes it receives, most likely starting with disappointing votes in London and local council elections in May. 

7. The independent left is marginalised electorally. 

While Labour's left turn may have damaged the Greens' prospects, it has wiped out any chance of explicitly socialist organisations like TUSC or Left Unity making any progress (assuming Corbyn continues as Labour leader). These outfits were already achieving miserable results in elections - and that was before a socialist was elected to lead the Labour Party. 

I also expect the new Scottish left formation RISE to do badly in May's Holyrood elections, though I wish them well. I'm not sure there is space for something new - resting on a relatively small layer of activists, with no existing profile - when the field is already crowded with SNP, Labour and Greens. I hope to be proved wrong - we will see. 

8. Strikes remain a rarity, but unions and movements are important political players. 

Since the early 1990s there hasn't been a single year when more than two million strike days have been recorded - a sustained period of low trade union combativity like never before. This is a crucial and highly significant long-term trend for the left to register. It continues to be a major weakness on our side - and the effects of the historic defeat of the unions can be seen, for example, in the downwards trend in real-terms pay for the last seven years. 

Nonetheless, trade unions and protest movements alike have played an influential role in recent years. Street protest has been, for many years and across a wide range of issues, a central part of opposition to government policies. This year, the People's Assembly's national demonstration in June was a particular high point, while Stop the War Coalition has repeatedly made the news, especially around the Commons vote to bomb Syria. It will again play an important role in 2016 around the issue of Trident replacement as well as Syria. The connection between protest movements and Corbyn's rise to the Labour leadership has in some ways amplified the impact campaigners can make. 

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Monday, 28 December 2015

2016: how can the left advance?

Photo: Steve Eason. Via Red Pepper. 
2015 was the worst of years and the best of years in British politics. 

The cementing of Tory rule, thanks to the Tories' somewhat unexpected general election victory in May, was the bad news. The good news was the upheaval in the Labour Party: since September we have had a Labour Party leader who actively and consistently opposes the Tories, signalling a renaissance for left-wing politics.

Which of these major developments - May's bleak milestone or September's more hopeful milestone - signposts a long-term epochal shift is not yet settled. British politics is at a crossroads. The long-term trajectory largely depends on what we do in 2016 – on whether we can successfully shift the political balance to the left.

Breakthrough for the left

Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour leadership election was the biggest breakthrough for this country's left in decades. It was a breakthrough for all of us, regardless of organisational affiliation. It represents a profound political shift in the labour movement and a defeat for the old neo-liberal orthodoxy in Westminster politics.

The Corbyn victory has been combined with a rapid growth in Labour Party membership (which has nearly doubled since May's general election) and a leftwards shift in the Labour Party grassroots. This provides an opening for left-wing politics and for advancing the social and political struggles that socialists care about.

There are undoubtedly obstacles to such advances: from the marginalisation of the left within the Parliamentary Labour Party to the Tory government's attacks on democracy and workers' rights, from the continuing low level of trade union struggle to the relatively unorganised, disparate character of Labour's burgeoning left wing.

Nonetheless, these recent breakthroughs should be treated as a boost to our struggles against austerity, racism and war, and in pursuit of greater democracy, equality and social justice. The question of how to advance our aims is up for debate, but it seems obvious that relying solely on electoral politics is a non-starter.

The next general election isn't until 2020. Local elections provide a barometer of public opinion, but in the wake of massive cuts to local government nobody could claim that councils possess the means to radically affect people's lives. It is almost inevitable that Labour will fare badly in May's Scottish parliament elections, as the Scottish political landscape has been transformed by the independence referendum and the SNP's growing dominance.

The London mayoralty is winnable for Labour, but the election for it in May is hardly a UK-wide focus. The EU referendum, whenever it happens, will see Labour campaigning for the same outcome as the Tories, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens. For those socialists who are Labour members, these electoral battles will naturally be part of their activity in 2016, but making electoral politics the primary focus is barely even an option.

This is a paradox because the main form of recent advance for the left has been the Labour left membership surge and Corbyn's rise to the leadership. Labour, for a great many, appears to be the obvious vehicle for left-wing politics and the obvious site of political struggle. But if the surge is to be turned into anything durable it surely means a huge focus on wider movements, avoiding the traps of being narrowly focused on elections or becoming preoccupied with internal party battles.

Building the movements 

The left can therefore move forward in 2016 through sustained and serious campaigning on the biggest political issues of the day. This includes mobilising to stop the bombing of Syria and to scrap Trident, putting the case for investing in public services not wasting vast sums on weapons of mass destruction. It also means striving to turn the tide against Islamophobia and putting the arguments for welcoming refugees. 

In the field of economic policy, Labour's left turn is a boost to all those opposing austerity. We should take this as encouragement to our efforts to prevent further cuts to public services, social security, pay and pensions. It also creates greater space for putting alternatives to austerity, from the million climate jobs agenda to increasing taxes on the rich. A particular challenge for the unions is blocking the Trade Union Bill's assault on workers' rights, which is part of a wider anti-democratic offensive. 

It is sometimes said that the Labour Right's power currently resides inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, while Corbyn's power is in the party grassroots. There's much truth in this, but Corbyn's base extends way beyond the Labour Party itself - and his strength depends as much on what happens in the movements and the unions as on the Labour Party's internal battles. An excessive focus on internal party politics is, as Corbyn himself appears to recognise, no way to win arguments in the country at large. 

The fate of Corbyn's Labour won't be determined purely by what does or doesn't happen inside the Labour Party. Furthermore, the advancing of the left won't simply happen through the Labour Party, especially as the focus of most political and social struggle shifts decisively away from the electoral field.

Pursuing our aims will depend on movements that unite Labour Party members and thousands of people outside Labour. It means going way beyond the limits of parliamentary politics: building mass movements of protest and re-building the power of trade unions.

Socialist politics - so long derided in the mainstream, yet now firmly part of the political conversation - must be at the core of these movements. It is through the power of protest, allied to the dramatic shift in mainstream Labour politics, that the left can demonstrate its relevance. This is how we can win real victories and pull the whole centre of political gravity to the left.

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Shelley: poet and revolutionary

This was originally published on Counterfire.

Jacqueline Mulhallen’s political biography of the revolutionary Shelley begins by noting the cinematic release, earlier this year, of a film documenting the great global anti-war protests of 15 February, 2003 and the mass movement surrounding them. Amir Amirani’s superb ‘We Are Many’ took its title from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s furious response to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

The lengthy poem concludes with these lines (also used earlier in the poem):

‘Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.’

Described by Mulhallen as ‘the most famous political protest poem in English’ (p.91), it was a ferociously passionate attack on those ruling Britain and the system they perpetuated. Shelley, by then living in Italy, had heard the news that demonstrators for democratic reform had been attacked (and eleven of them killed) in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The title of an anti-war documentary in 2015 (which, as has often happened, adapts ‘ye are many’ to ‘we are many’ for obvious rhetorical reasons) is just one example of the dynamic afterlife of Shelley’s poetry.

A radical, political Shelley

Shelley’s fame rests largely upon his poetry, and his contribution to the English poetic canon, but he was also a polemicist, playwright and radical activist. This biography is packed with fascinating insights into Shelley’s times, which enriches the compelling story of his short life (he died in a boating accident, aged just 29, in 1822) and discussion of his very varied work.

It is part of Pluto’s invaluable ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series, which features introductory political biographies of a range of historical figures. As with other volumes in the series, the main focus is on the evolving politics of the subject and on providing the relevant context which shaped their development. It’s a lively, well-paced and highly readable introduction which charts Shelley’s life chronologically, allowing a clear sense of the development of Shelley’s political commitments.

Mulhallen is a socialist activist who has previously written a book, The Theatre of Shelley, focusing on Shelley's plays, a generally neglected aspect of his output (his plays – ‘The Cenci’, ‘Hellas’, ‘Swellfoot the Tyrant’, ‘Prometheus Unbound’ and ‘Charles The First’ – have either never been performed or only rarely staged). She has long fused the artistic and political worlds, with experience of writing (and performing in) plays as well as political campaigning. The chapter about Shelley’s theatrical work draws on the author’s own earlier research, while other parts of the book concisely synthesise the work of researchers in addition to returning afresh to Shelley’s own writings.

Mulhallen acknowledges earlier accounts of Shelley’s politics, most notably Paul Foot’s very illuminating 1980 biography Red Shelley, but she also incorporates more recent research. A good example is the discovery in 2013 of a copy of Shelley’s major poem ‘Laon and Cythna’. It had notes by Shelley’s friend Thomas Love Peacock of the changes Shelley was obliged to make (to make it less radical) before it could be published. Although the changes had been known about before, finding what appears to be Peacock’s own copy confirmed the radicalism of the original.

Mulhallen points out that much biographical writing and literary criticism about Shelley has either downplayed his politics or caricatured it. This new contribution to the field is entirely different. The wider social and political contexts – the legacy of the French Revolution, women’s subjugation, the turbulent politics of Ireland, social unrest, the war with France – are all threads woven into the life story. Their impact on Shelley, a profoundly political creature from a young age, is taken seriously.

This volume is dedicated to establishing Shelley’s place as not only a major poet but also a notable figure in the history of English radicalism: a revolutionary writer and activist who contributed to radical literature (as poet, playwright and political pamphleteer) and to struggles for equality and social justice.

Shelley sought to link specific movements against injustice and oppression, especially when they actively involved the poor and oppressed, with a broader critique of a vastly unequal capitalist society that was crystallising into the social classes later analysed by Karl Marx (a process of class formation documented by E. P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class). Shelley articulated an alternative vision of equality and liberation that prefigured the socialist literature – in Utopian, communist and other varieties - which emerged not long after his death.

Shelley’s life and ideas offer insight into the early development of socialism in this country. His ideas were a bridge between the generation of the French Revolution and, later, the Utopian Socialists, Chartists and early Marxists (also feeding in to early critiques of women’s oppression under capitalism). Shelley’s most politically engaged writings expressed great social themes and a yearning for a better world, characterised by economic, social and sexual equality, with emotional force as well as political clarity.

Much of Shelley’s more overtly political verse has been deployed as rhetorical weaponry in working-class and progressive struggles from the Chartists, via the suffragettes and striking garment workers, through to the modern anti-war movement, even surfacing in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Shelley’s life, writing and politics are all bound together; they retain relevance as part of a radical, anti-capitalist tradition of mobilising from below to reshape the world.

Shelley's development

Mulhallen outlines Shelley’s privileged background (including what might loosely be termed an ‘education’ at Eton) and the politics of his family, moving on to early indications of his questioning of the values with which he was brought up. She tells the story of his premature departure from Oxford University after he and another undergraduate scandalously wrote and published ‘The Necessity of Atheism’, which in turn created a rift between Shelley and his father, and traces the development of an increasingly coherent and anti-systemic set of political ideas. This is interwoven with personal biography and his earliest writings (patchy in quality, but containing the seeds of his later literary and political achievements).

This is followed by chapters which discuss Shelley’s major writings, his political ideas and the practical movements in which he was involved. He travelled widely and moved home many times: while this was often driven by avoidance of his creditors, it brought the virtue of experiencing the world and interacting with people from very different backgrounds to his own, including those on the forefront of struggles against the British state (from Irish activists to persecuted radical journalists).

The political centre of the biography is a chapter on what Shelley scholar Stuart Curran dubbed Shelley’s annus mirabilis, 1819, which included ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, shorter political poems and the radical political critique ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ (not published until 1920). The summary of Shelley’s ideas in ‘A Philosophical View of Reform’ is especially lucid; these ideas are examined in connection with the political climate of the time, revealing a vivid sense of their freshness and subversive power.

Shelley polemicized and campaigned for parliamentary reform – at a time when very few had the vote – and for a free press, rights to assembly and protest, and civil liberties. These rights and reforms were all viewed as a means to an end: they could enable working people to shift the balance of wealth and power in society.

He emphasised what Marx would later term self-emancipation, people taking action for themselves through collective resistance, not relying on well-meaning middle-class reformers. This was at a time when workers’ strikes were an increasingly important strategy for the early trade-union movement; an era of Luddite destruction of machinery and large demonstrations for democracy. His thoughts on violence and its relationship to popular movements were complex, but in essence he believed a small amount of revolutionary force could be justified in opposition to the large-scale, systematic violence of an exploitative class society.

Shelley was also an early champion of sexual liberation in a deeply patriarchal, hypocritical and restrictive society – a topic explored thoughtfully at a number of stages in the book, both at an ideological level and as a commitment woven into his own life and relationships. He was a proponent of religious toleration against the Anglican establishment, espousing atheism but also sensitive to the need for defending religious minorities irrespective of whether he agreed with their beliefs. He was a steadfast opponent of British colonialism in Ireland; the section on this is insightful about Shelley’s attempts at political agitation, soberly assessing the problems and limitations as well as celebrating his activist commitment. He supported revolutionary uprisings and national liberation movements abroad, especially in later years after he left England.

The poetry, of course, is well worth reading in its own right; Shelley is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished of Romantic poets. He was famously one of a loose grouping of second-generation Romantic poets which also included Byron and Keats among others (Shelley became close to the former in later years). They followed in the wake of earlier Romantics like Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge – poets who had been inspired by the French Revolution but whose youthful radicalism had long since cooled by the time Shelley and his contemporaries came of age.

Shelley married Mary Godwin (daughter of progressive thinkers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) whose novel Frankenstein was itself an influential contribution to the literature of the age. The Shelleys’ complex relationship is an important strand of the book.

One of the most illuminating features of this book, though, is how its author traces the influence of a much wider array of writers, journalists, intellectuals and campaigners on Shelley, who is consistently considered as part of an evolving milieu – personally, intellectually, politically – with his ideas examined in relation to others. Those who influenced him included Godwin, Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, who all made major contributions to radical political literature after the American and French revolutions, but also Thomas Spence, Robert Owen, William Cobbett and others.

He took ideas from the Quakers, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and political currents inspired by the French Revolution. Mulhallen brings to life the radical intellectual climate of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, repeatedly demonstrating how Shelley was shaped by that climate and how he made significant, sometimes original, contributions to it.

Shelley's legacy

Shelley influenced a range of literary and political figures. He was cited as an inspiration by later writers including Robert Browning, Edgar Allen Poe and Thomas Hardy. He was subsequently admired by twentieth-century cultural and intellectual figures of the European left such as Walter Benjamin, Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno. However, Shelley was also read by working-class audiences in his own time and afterwards. There are numerous references in the book to examples of his writing, both poetry and prose, being disseminated through the widely-read radical press (often in defiance of state repression). Most of his poems would also have been shared through oral recitation, thus reaching a larger audience.

Shelley also made his mark on the early socialists. Marx described him as ‘essentially a revolutionist’, remarking that he ‘would always have been one of the advanced guard of socialism’. Frederick Engels, speaking to Eleanor Marx in the 1880s, recalled how ‘we all knew Shelley by heart then’, referring to the 1840s. At that time ‘Queen Mab’, one of Shelley’s major poems, was sometimes called ‘the Chartists’ Bible’. Mulhallen informs us there had been at least a dozen pirated editions already in the 1820s, reaching working-class audiences, so it was well-established by the time Chartism emerged.

Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling gave a lecture on Shelley’s socialism in 1888, nearly seventy years after his death. Suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst decorated a hall with quotations from Shelley’s poetry (the suffragette motto ‘deeds not words’ derived from ‘The Mask of Anarchy’). For much of the twentieth century he was out of respectable critical fashion, a state of affairs influenced by disapproval from the poet T. S. Eliot and the conservative but highly influential literary critic F. R. Leavis. Nonetheless, his work lived on in the suffragette movement, miners’ libraries, workers’ education classes and the like.

Benjamin Zephaniah is quoted on the back cover as saying: ‘The world needs more Shelley, the world needs this book’. He is right on both counts. Shelley is fascinating as a way in to a world of radical ideas, debate and struggle around two centuries ago; he should be valued as part of our history of resistance and dissent. But he is also a source of inspiration today. This gem of a book recaptures Shelley’s world and demonstrates the revolutionary poet’s relevance for our own world.

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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Why Remembrance is a political issue


The officially-approved politicisation of Remembrance Sunday has much in common with Help for Heroes, Armed Forces Day and the whole patriotic sanitisation of World War One that surrounds the ongoing centenary of that industrial-scale nightmare.
Together with state-led Islamophobia (like the 'Prevent' programme) and the 'British values' agenda in schools, these are the main planks of a concerted offensive in recent years to roll back the growth in anti-war sentiment that accompanied the 'War on Terror', especially the mass demonstrations against war in Iraq.

Public opinion, especially from 2001, has historically shifted in an anti-war direction. This has inevitably meant increased public scepticism about the role of the military, and of the British state in its actions abroad. (By the way, see the recent Guardian profile of novelist John le Carre for a great personal illustration of this shift).
The response from right-wing media, successive governments, the military top brass and the wider British state has taken the various forms noted above. It is a battle for hearts and minds, a battle of ideas, where the goal is to shore up support for militarism, nationalism and war. They want to regain lost ground.

This battle for hearts and minds is essential if the British state is to pursue its ambitions in the future: more wars, yes, but also more covert or smaller-scale forms of intervention. History becomes a weapon in shaping what kind of world we live in.
It's also about the militarisation of 'domestic security' - the way the police function, the massive increase in surveillance, the way public space is policed and managed, and so on. It is even reflected in the shifting language – notice, for example, the obsession with ‘security’ in today’s political language, and the way that can justify almost anything.

So, this is the significance of Remembrance Sunday, of the way it is cynically exploited, and of the debates around it. It is why it matters that almost everyone appearing on BBC TV for weeks in advance must wear a poppy, that there is hysterical denunciation of anyone who dares to dissent (from Jeremy Corbyn to a footballer from Derry), and that poppy selling is ubiquitous in high streets.
The now-dominant approach is hypocritical because it co-exists with pursuing yet more war in today's world. It promotes the idea that war's victims are 'heroes', which makes it all seem justified (this is the main reason I include Help for Heroes in the list above). It substitutes empty symbols and rituals for genuinely seeking to understand what happened. It cheerleads for nationalism. It focuses overwhelmingly on those who served in armed forces, neatly obscuring the reality that nowadays most of those killed in wars are civilians.

The antidote is to tell the truth about what really happened in the wars of the past and about what is going on today. It is to promote a message of peace, not endless war. It is to expose as hypocrites those who sanction wars, arms sales and state repression while wearing the red poppy and uttering platitudes. It is to share the literature and art that expresses uncomfortable, complex truths about World War One and the history of war.
It is to commemorate all those - of all countries, and civilians as well as soldiers - killed in wars. It is to, politely but firmly, say no to the obligatory wearing of a red poppy (and to explain why). It might mean wearing a white poppy instead. It is to defend those who are attacked for not complying with the enforced style of ‘commemoration’.

It also means campaigning and mobilising for policies that can shape a better – more peaceful, egalitarian and genuinely secure - world: from scrapping nuclear weapons to rolling back the militarisation of domestic law enforcement and public space, from protecting civil liberties to taking a stand against bombing of Syria, from stopping arms trading with Israel and the Gulf states to ditching the repressive 'Prevent' programme.
In so many ways, Remembrance is about the present and the future not just the past. Those who rule over us know it all too well. Their fetishisation of the whole business is in many ways a symptom of their weakness. We should be clear and unambiguous in offering an alternative vision of the past, present and future.


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Reconstructing Lenin: an intellectual biography


I hope that ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ by Tamas Krausz becomes established as a major reference in writing and discussion about Lenin and the Bolsheviks: not simply in academic circles, but (more importantly) among modern-day revolutionary activists. It deserves to become an integral part of the study of Lenin, Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution – a growing and sizeable field of study since the end of the Cold War - due to the author’s excellent political judgement, the wealth of relevant contextual material and the way if illuminates the coherence and continuity in Lenin’s political thought over time (and its relationship to Lenin and his comrades’ political actions).
It is a very substantial book, a work of exceptional scholarship accurately subtitled ‘an intellectual biography’ because the focus is largely on Lenin’s ideas and their development. To call it ‘exhaustively researched’ is an understatement: its ‘Notes’ contain well over 1000 references, drawing on an extraordinarily wide range of sources.

Originally written in Hungarian, the English translation will hopefully influence discussion about its subject in the English-speaking world. This translation, by Balint Bethlenfalvy with Mario Fenyo, is published by US-based left-wing publishers Monthly Review Press.


The author, Tamas Krausz, is a professor of Russian history in Budapest. He is long established as a leading Marxist intellectual in Hungary. The earliest reference to his own writing on Lenin that I spotted in the bibliography was from 1980, so this book has had a long gestation (it is described as ‘four decades in the making’ on the back cover).
The author’s location in a former Eastern Bloc state means he is acutely conscious of the massive and violent distortion done to Lenin’s ideas, reputation and legacy by Stalinism. He is determined to uncover the real Lenin, via close attention to Lenin’s own writings and a sensitive project of re-discovering the intellectual, political and social world that shaped him.
This is not, it should be noted, an introduction to Lenin, the Bolsheviks, or the times in which they lived. A certain amount of familiarity with the field is generally assumed, while much of the language is reasonably specialised. It is nonetheless accessible and readable, and I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to explore the field in some depth.

Although the focus is primarily on Lenin’s intellectual and political development, the opening (and long) chapter is biographical, from Lenin’s family background through his entire life. I thought this was excellent – genuinely insightful even for those of us familiar with Lenin and his life story, rooting the man in his time and place. It includes some fascinating, less well-known, details while recapitulating the essentials, giving a vivid sense of Lenin’s compelling personality as well as tracing the events of his life and how they intersected with wider political and social contexts.
It’s also worth noting here that two extensive appendices complement the main text perfectly. One of them is an extremely thorough series of brief biographical details of scores of socialists, political figures and so on relevant to a biography of Lenin. The other is a detailed time line of events between the revolutionary year of 1917 and Lenin’s death in 1924.Both of these are useful resources.

An innovative and coherent thinker


The book has three particular themes which should be flagged up. Firstly, Krausz is keen to root Lenin firmly in the Marxist tradition while grasping the intellectual contributions that made him innovative. He demonstrates, unanswerably, that Lenin made important contributions to the Marxist tradition – a necessary antidote to those who treat him as a purely pragmatic figure. But these contributions are nonetheless rooted in Marxism – Krausz explicitly rejects any suggestion that Lenin originated a new ism that is separate from Marxism, or one that constitutes a variation on Marxism.
Different chapters examine different important contributions – roughly chronologically, though there is inevitably much overlap. These include Lenin’s work on Russian capitalist development, imperialism, the national question, the state and revolution, and the relationship between struggles for democracy and struggles for socialism. Lenin made original contributions that form a vital part of the inheritance of classical Marxism and help us understand history and both understand and change the world we live in.

Secondly, Krausz makes a powerful case for Lenin’s intellectual and political coherence. This is not to underestimate his tactical or organisational flexibility – these are well documented. But his flexibility in practice was deeply rooted in a coherent and consistent worldview and set of ideas.
This is a vital antidote to the idea that Lenin was an opportunistic politician, twisting and turning to suit immediate practical interests with no intellectual compass. Even after 1917, when he repeatedly faced incredibly difficult obstacles as leader of a besieged and fledgling workers’ state, there was a coherent political worldview shaping his responses (whatever political expediency was, admittedly, required).

This, again, does not mean ignoring how Lenin’s ideas developed and evolved. There is no suggestion that he arrived fully formed, so to speak. Quite the opposite: the development of his ideas is traced in close relationship to the history of the society in which he lived. He is rooted historically by Krausz.
There is also a strong sense of interplay between Lenin’s thinking and that of other Marxists: he was ‘first among equals’, the leading figure in a talented and intellectually vibrant generation of radical socialists. There’s a lively sense of the many debates between Lenin and others, and the significance of these debates. It’s also clear that political experiences – above all the 1905 revolution – influenced the direction of Lenin’s thinking.

So Lenin made important political and theoretical contributions to Marxism which analysed a changing world: a world in which capitalism was spreading globally, while its European and north American core was evolving into a constellation of competing imperialist states, with the nation state increasingly intertwined with the capitalist economy. Capitalist development was uneven, with Russia characterised by a complex mix of new industrial methods and traditional (but evolving) agriculture. Classes were being re-shaped: the industrial working class was growing in many countries, but the peasantry was changing too.
Consequently, the prospects for revolution were changing too – new thinking was needed on the potential role of different classes in the revolutionary process, and on the nature and scope of revolution. Lenin’s analysis evolved over time and through debate with other Marxists, but nonetheless formed a coherent worldview that was consistent with the Marxist tradition.

Ideas into action


The third central theme in Krausz’s account concerns the relationship between ideas and action. Lenin was a revolutionary political leader. He didn’t simply develop analysis of the world; that analysis was, profoundly and throughout his adult life, geared towards changing the world. Krausz notes that Marx’s famous thesis – ‘the philosophers have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it’ – has never been more acutely relevant than in the case of Lenin. A single-minded commitment to building an organisation capable of playing a decisive role in historical change dominated Lenin’s life up to 1917.
Krausz carefully traces the relationship between theory and practice, between Lenin’s ideas and the project of social transformation. He provides the big picture here, but also a multitude of specific tactical debates and decisions. He makes an interesting comment, for example, about how all the various factional disputes in the Russian revolutionary movement (over many years) had a strategic or tactical dimension. They were often influenced by theoretical issues, but there was only ever really a serious dispute if there were tactical implications (there were no splits over purely philosophical debates).

Krausz is attentive to the different aspects of debates and to what was going on at key turning points, e.g. the 1905 revolution, the ‘April Theses’ in April 1917, on the eve of insurrection in October 1917, etc. He expresses the theoretical underpinnings without reducing everything to them; concrete tactical disagreements can only be understood with attention to the concrete situation.
Lenin’s practical achievements – incomparable in the history of Marxism – were threefold: he had the leading role in building a revolutionary party in Russia before 1917, he was the principal leader in the ‘second revolution’ of 1917, i.e. that which led to the overthrow of the entire political and social order in October, and he was subsequently the head of government in a fledgling Russian workers’ state for several years (this last one remains a unique role in the history of revolutionary socialism). He was therefore, in turn, party builder, revolutionary leader and statesman.

Krausz is good at illustrating the continuity in Lenin’s personality, political qualities and ideas through all these periods, while also focusing on the distinctiveness of each context. The period of building revolutionary organisation, at varying stages from the 1890s until 1917, was the bulk of Lenin’s political life, and it proves especially fascinating in terms of potential implications for activists today. 
In addition to these central themes, ‘Reconstructing Lenin’ is a goldmine of details – biographical, political and historical. Although Lenin is at the centre throughout, it brings various other political figures of the time (Plekhanov, Kautsky, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bogdanov and many more) into focus, showing how they influenced Lenin or how he debated with them. It in some senses serves as a collective biography of the Bolsheviks, a compelling study of a revolutionary organisation that evolved enormously in changing circumstances.

I have just three very small criticisms. Firstly, although Krausz is brutally honest about the enormous problems faced after October 1917 - and indeed the mistakes he believes were made by Lenin and his government during this period - he refers very little to the actual positive achievements of revolutionary Russia (which were considerable). This makes his sketching of the context of Russia in the several years following the October Revolution a little unbalanced.

Secondly, I think he underestimates the possibilities for successful revolution in a number of European countries, especially Germany, during the same period, appearing to be rather mechanical and deterministic about the apparently near-inevitable failure of the European movements. Thirdly, I think he is guilty of somewhat understating Trotsky's achievements and stature as a political leader and thinker - not drastically so, but this is a minor problem of emphasis for me.
These minor points should not distract, however, from the larger achievement. Crucially, the question of how ideas interacted with efforts to change the world is a thread running through the whole book. The issue of what lessons revolutionary socialist activists can learn for today is not my main focus in this short appreciation, but the book provides a solid historical basis for that project.
Note: I recommend Chris Nineham's Counterfire review of the book.


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Friday, 30 October 2015

A world to win: class struggle and the Communist Manifesto


A young Karl Marx
In August I gave a talk on the Communist Manifesto at an event organised by Counterfire in Newcastle. I have just got around to collating my notes into readable form. I built my presentation, which focused especially on themes of history and class struggle in the Manifesto (two other sessions addressed different aspects), around a series of quotations from the original text. Here we go...
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Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a manifesto for the Communist League in late 1847. Economic crisis had affected much of Europe in the previous couple of years. Revolution was in the air. Communists were making connections across borders and beginning to get organised, but were still small in number. The opening line of the Manifesto -  ‘A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.’ – was more wishful thinking than accurate description.

Engels had drafted something in rather dry question-and-answer form, but it was Marx who turned this – in the space of a few weeks at the start of 1848 – into what would become the most widely-read, influential and famous political pamphlet ever published. It was the culmination of several years’ intellectual and political development in Marx’s thinking, an attempt to state clearly what communists stood for.

There was a culture of secret and conspiratorial societies at the time, but Marx and Engels rejected this. If the emancipation of the working class is to be the act of the working class, there is little purpose served by secrecy. Ideas must be stated openly and persuasively.

By the time it was published, revolution had broken out in a number of parts of Europe – 1848 would turn out to be an historic year of revolutionary upheaval, though most of it defeated. The Manifesto in fact turned out to be something quite different to what might be expected. It almost entirely avoided specific policy prescriptions. It contained a broad survey of historical development rather than keeping its attention trained on present politics. It was expressed in often powerful, even poetic, language.

At the core of the Manifesto is a particular conception of history and how change happens: an understanding of society as being divided, fundamentally, into classes, and history as a succession of class societies (and class struggles).  Marx writes:
'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another.’

This is an important starting point: class is the main dividing line in society. This is not unique to capitalism , but rather has been true for thousands of years. It is a division that inevitably engenders conflict too.

Marx then provides a sweeping survey of the development of early capitalism, moving on to the era of industrial capitalism through which he was living:
'Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed. The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie.’

So, capitalism grew out of an earlier feudal society. Merchant capitalism increasingly replaced feudal relations, and in turn this grew into industrial capitalism. A new urban elite developed: the bourgeoisie. Although Marx refers to ‘two great classes’, this shouldn’t be taken to indicate anything about their size: the proletariat, those who do the work, are far greater in number than those who live off the surplus their labour produces. Marx specifically traces the growth of industry:
‘Steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.’

This kind of language is almost celebratory – and the tone often surprises first-time readers, expecting virulent denunciation of capitalism’s evils from the beginning. Of course Marx doesn’t leave it there, but he does take time to extol the progress represented by capitalism’s development. He writes of the revolutionising role played by capitalism, its economically dynamic quality and the way that overturns many established certainties:
‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.’

Marx and Engels had first met a few years earlier (and went on to be lifelong collaborators). In 1844 Engels wrote ‘The Condition of the working class in England’ about the impact of industrial capitalism on the living and working conditions of those drawn into the newly mushrooming cities. It was an ugly and unromantic picture. Marx and Engels had no illusions about the often grim reality of industrial capitalism for the proletariat, the working class.
What they grasped was how capitalism accelerated the pace of technological and economic change, went together with the growth of major cities and created greater opportunities for wealth (largely concentrated, though, among a tiny class of those who owned and controlled the means of production).

The development of the modern nation state went together with the growth of capitalism. This was a deeply contested process. The English, American and French revolutions were all, whatever their differences, about the rising bourgeois class asserting itself against the barriers inherited from late feudalism. Political revolutions, with varying degrees of success, accompanied the economic changes. Marx wrote:
‘Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.’

1848 was itself a year of bourgeois revolution. Although mostly unsuccessful, the uprisings left their mark – and in the decades that followed there was much greater political unification and centralisation in many parts of Europe, (limited) advances in democratic reform, the strengthening of modern state institutions (e.g. police forces), and so on.
But capitalism did something else, something enormously important for Marx, Engels and their comrades in the small Communist League. It created the working class. It brought together large numbers of workers in factories, mills and elsewhere - a process that was dangerous for the capitalists:

‘The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’
There is a lot packed in to this quotation. Firstly, it is identifying that growing industry brought turned people who had previously worked on the land, or perhaps as artisans, into workers - wage-labourers dependent on selling their labour power to the capitalist to make a living. Secondly, proletarianisation (working class formation) is a collective process, bringing workers together in combination. So, too, is proletarian resistance to capitalism a collective matter. Workers’ power is not as individuals, but as a collective force.  Finally, this collective power of workers is so potentially great that it can defeat the bourgeoisie and end capitalism, a system that has paradoxically created its own gravedigger.

Marx’s account of history, specifically the rise and development of capitalism (and the potential for moving from capitalism to socialism), therefore has class division at its heart, but also an awareness of the centrality of class struggle. The division into classes, and the exploitation at the heart of class relationships, inevitably generates conflict over what is produced and how the surplus wealth is allocated.
But Marx also had interesting things to say about the battle of ideas in society, and how that is shaped by material realities. Imagining himself addressing the bourgeois class, he wrote:

‘The selfish misconception that induces you to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.’
This is a brutal warning and a reality check. Every ruling class imagines its own ideas and values to be a kind of ‘common sense’: universal values, taken for granted and seemingly obvious. In fact ideas change over time. The dominant ideology of one age may later seem antiquated. Changing ideas are shaped by material changes in the conditions of society: ‘the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property’.

History moves forward. Material production – the forces and relations of production – changes over time. So, with it, do the dominant ideas change:

‘What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.’
Marx points here to another vital aspect of ideology: it is the ideas of the ruling elite that are universalised as the ideas of a whole society. Whether through control of state religion, or schools and universities, or the media, the ruling class – the tiny elite possessing wealth and power – asserts its own ideas and values.

Yet there is no fatalism in the Manifesto. Running through it is an acute consciousness of historical change – transformation indeed – and the potential for further transformation in the future. The working class, identified as the collective agent of transformation, is not doomed to be tied to the ruling ideology. It is driven to resist by exploitation.
The working class is gathered together in large numbers and can organise collectively. Writing against the backdrop of Chartism, a mass working class movement coming to its end in 1848, Marx and Engels were aware of what was possible. There had been the earliest examples of strike action by the 1840s. There had been early efforts at building trade unions.

The class that can organise and resist collectively, can also set about creating a new world – one characterised by co-operation, equality and democracy, not the rule of the few over the many. There is little detail on what a communist or socialist society might look like, but this is a starting point:
‘In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.’

So communism is, ultimately, to be a classless society. And in that state of equality and interdependence lies the potential for human development and liberation. But there’s also recognition that such a future vision must be linked to current struggles, if it is to be anything more than a utopian dream. Marx succinctly outlines the tasks of communists:
‘In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time. Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.’

Three points here, all of them acutely relevant as the Manifesto was circulated amidst growing revolutionary tumult in 1848: communists support democratic or bourgeois revolutions (whatever their limitations might be), working class economic and social interests (‘the property question’) must always be forefront, and the movement must be international, uniting workers across national boundaries and opposing a common enemy. Class, not nationhood, is what unites us.
The Manifesto ends, then, with these stirring words:

‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!’


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