“Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, not yet reached the stage of a culture that has receded into the past.” — Lenin, 1923
As leftists we are confronted by an immediate duality when we begin to think of taking control or achieving power within the state. We need the state and ultimately to control the power of the state’s arms to a greater or lesser degree to realize our goals and to effectively begin to work to end the societal institutions of oppression that are embodied in patriarchy, hierarchy, class, racism, colonialism, and homophobia and that are expressed often in laws, or the lack thereof to mitigate their effects, and that can scarcely be overcome without, in turn, the use of law or the changing of laws.
Yet the nature of power, of attempting to attain power and of attempting to maintain power and to govern, can corrupt the endeavor itself, and not due simply to some cliche that “power corrupts” inherently. Rather, the hierarchical, bourgeois and patriarchal realities of the state and the society it reflects, as well as its modern offspring, leader driven political parties that seek to achieve “power” within the framework of the state, operate within a context of the fact of pervasive and institutional systemic oppression that both visibly and invisibly works to undermine even the most radical efforts to overcome it.
As I have noted in previous pieces, The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology has perhaps the best succinct overview of this process of how individuals, and by extension their parties, movements and governments, are all contextualized, whether they wish to be or not, within the broader reality and framework of systemic oppression:
“Relationships between groups and relationships between groups and social categories, should not be confused with the oppressive behavior of individuals. A white man may not himself actively participate in oppressive behavior directed at blacks or women, for example, but he nonetheless benefits from the general oppression of blacks and women simply because he is a white man. In this sense, all members of dominant and subordinate categories participate in social oppression regardless of their individual attitudes or behavior. Social oppression becomes institutionalized when its enforcement is so of social life that it is not easily identified as oppression and does not require conscious prejudice or overt acts of discrimination.”
This is why, in the quote from Lenin (that comes from one of his last works, Better Fewer But Better), above, Lenin notes that while the past has been “overthrown”, in that the Bolsheviks had achieved state power, it had yet to be overcome; which is a fundamentally different problem. It reflects a certain disillusion with the notion that power itself is transformative.
In the case of the Soviet Union and its other Leninist imitators the limits of power proved to be an intractable one. In the end they never did overcome it and arguably were completely subsumed by the patterns of tyranny and the repressive political culture of the past.
Part of the obvious problem that faces leftists and other radicals, is that, overwhelmingly, the parties and organizations that we have formed to seek to achieve power, and therefore ultimately the politicians and leaders that these parties and movements produce, mimic institutionally, structurally, and organizationally the same parties, leaders and politics of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois order that they seek to supplant.
While the series of bourgeois revolutions and reforms from the 18th through to the 20th centuries lead to the end of feudalism and feudalism’s tremendous rigidity, immobility and intellectual and social backwardness, the new bourgeois political order and political class did not, of course, reject one of the feudal order’s essential ideas that not only must people be governed by elites, but that these elites, be it through the “will of God”, “hard work” (which is a more common justification within the bourgeois context which alleges that its capitalist economy rewards such “hard work” although this is both obviously and demonstrably false) or what have you, actually deserve to govern.
In the end, justifications for economic and political inequality, as well as for hierarchy, flow from this universal patriarchal and bourgeois fallacy that there are those who, in some way, are meant to be rich, to be powerful and to govern, while the vast bulk of humanity is not. This has historically been commonly tied as well to deterministic, misogynist and racist concepts of gender and race.
The fallacy forms a framework within which arises the widely held belief that the people themselves are not capable of political and economic self-governance and that they will, ultimately, require some leader or “boss”, be it a manager, owner, Prime Minister, or Dictator for Life!
This assumption of the lack of the people’s ability to self-govern and of the need for the people to be directed and managed is a continuous political assumption that flows through human history as a terrible thread from feudalism, to bourgeois liberalism to the vanguardist ideas of Lenin and modern Social Democratic parties.
Within the Canadian left (and elsewhere to be sure) these ideas have, ironically to a degree, as we shall see, also led to the new pandering of “left” “leaders” and politicians to what are perceived to be what a certain strata of the “people” are willing to accept politically and have led these same politicians to capitulate to largely fictional forces of “reality” out of what amounts to a very primal desire for the semblance of power.
The problem with the fixation on power as an end within the construct of the bourgeois, patriarchal and hierarchical society within which power is to be achieved is that, when combined with the left’s leader cults and highly and rigidly structured parties with an individual at their head (an individual most often rallied around due to highly misguided notions of “solidarity” and treated as almost infallible due to reflexive electoral partisanship), we end with left politicians and caucuses who continuously justify retreat as a means to get elected with the apparent, though never actual, notion in the background that should they get elected they will cease to retreat.
This, as power and its retention becomes the end and justification of itself, never, of course, actually happens! The retreat, as we have seen for several decades now, becomes perpetual.
The reason for this is both simple and terribly difficult to overcome. In the first instance it is that the parties and politicians in question, as well as, more significantly in some ways, the narrowing band of their sycophants and dedicated supporters, earnestly believe that issues of fundamental importance are at stake in the election of this or that conservative, liberal or social democratic politician when they are in fact, in many respects, not. They are all part of a very broad political consensus; a consensus that both explicitly accepts capitalism and that has also now embraced virtually all of the basic ideas of the neoliberal counter-reformation of capitalism.
Ralph Miliband rather brilliantly pointed this out in 1973, when it was far less true than it is today, in The State and Capitalist Society. Miliband noted:
“For one of the most important aspects of the political life of advanced capitalism is precisely that the disagreements between those political leaders who have generally been able to gain high office (emphasis in the original) have very seldom been of the fundamental kind these leaders and other people so often suggest. What is really striking about these political leaders and political office-holders, in relation to each other, is not their many differences, but the extent of their agreement on truly fundamental issues — as they themselves, when occasion requires, have been wont to recognize, and as large numbers of people among the public at large, despite the political rhetoric to which they are subjected, recognize in the phrase ‘politicians are all the same.'”
It is not that there are not differences between the politicians and their parties. Of course there are. In the Canadian context there is little more dimwitted than the partisan types who claim, on the “left,” that the Liberals and Conservatives are the same or the troglodytes on the right who think that every liberal is a socialist and every social democrat a communist!
The differences are real and matter, but they are not fundamental. And, with the narrowing of the political consensus in the present context, they are less-and-less fundamental than before. Far less, for example, than they were in 1973.
Miliband also noted, and this is of critical importance in the present Canadian context and was rather prescient on his part, that with the reality and actuality of the political consensus on the fundamentals of the system that flow from our ideological hegemony, politicians seek to appear to be “above the fray” and to speak for “everyone,” as if to attempt to eschew difference while still claiming that it exists. So we find that Liberals, New Democrats and Conservatives will all, in various ways, attempt to frame the other parties as non-responsive to popular opinion or the people, as aloof, or as “ideological”, while representing themselves as the almost impartial fiscal and social managers and arbiters of the state.
In the case of “left wing” politicians this pandering confirms, in their own minds, their respectability and seeks to project their ability to govern. It also clearly seeks to rule out any class conflict or social disruption in advance. There is nothing to fear… social democrats will do nothing to make even the most blue-blood capitalist afraid!
Miliband framed this fake impartiality this way:
“This consensus between political office-holders is clearly crucial. The ideological dispositions which make the consensus possible may not, because of various counter-pressures, finally determine how governments will act in every particular situation. But the fact that governments accept as beyond question the capitalist context in which they operate is of absolutely fundamental importance in shaping their attitudes, policies and actions in regard to the specific issues and problems with which they are confronted, and to the needs and conflicts of civil society.”
This is the nature of hegemony and the reality of accepting the limits of the context of “power” within the bourgeois patriarchal state. It is that the consensus as to certain “facts” is a given and is therefore not a part of the “debate.”
Capitalism, inequality, tax cuts, poverty are all accepted as facts even if decried in rhetoric. So too, broadly, are patriarchy, racism and colonialism, as they cannot be defeated in any real sense in the context of a bourgeois, capitalist economy and hierarchical society.
The emphasis becomes on establishing one’s credentials within the context. Perhaps the most blatant Canadian example of late was the Ontario New Democratic Party’s campaign launch for what was ultimately a rather disastrous result for them, where their leader, Andrea Horwath, appeared with the boss and owner of a business, not the workers, to attempt to further minimize the potential “radicalism” of what was already a disgraceful, poverty minimum wage plan! There was no accident here. The message was direct and intentional. “Our” minimum wage plan will not threaten owners and bosses at all. In fact, they will endorse it.
Well, of course they will, because it ensures they will be able to pay poverty wages and by appearing with a “left” leader it dissipates opposition to poverty wages.
This is a direct example of the power of ideological hegemony in action. The leader of a “labour” party appearing with the boss to show that a wage plan for workers was acceptable.
This plays out, in terribly constrictive and oppressive ways in virtually every part of Canada outside of Quebec. Liberal and “left” politicians have no plan — any plan, at all — to directly confront poverty, poverty wages and the dire reality of homelessness, people living one paycheque away from homelessness, or the ever increasing economic polarization of our society.
For the most part they content themselves with pretending that living wages and comprehensive new social programs are “impossible.” There is no mention of accomplishing anything of meaning related to the now empty slogan of “social justice” that does not in part pander to the private sector. And while there are some party platforms that read better than others in a specific context or on an issue here or there, there is not one that seeks to do anything of any meaning to implement policies that might actually impact inequality and injustice, (which one must always note it also unevenly distributed, with people-of-colour, Indigenous people and women far more likely to be living in poverty than white men) and any policies that might achieve this are treated as some kind of fantasy when they are not.
They are just not the fantasies of the rich and the corporations.
Within the framework of the hegemony, the new left politicians portray themselves as embodying the “community,” a notion that minimizes the truth of class conflict and the realities of institutionalized racism and misogyny, and that seeks instead to portray any agenda as harmonious by including aspects of all classes and other interests; a fiction that is patently impossible. They have perverted the very meaning of “community.” Community in their political lexicon means tossing token scraps to the Precariat and people on social assistance and living in poverty, while reassuring the upper middle class, the wealthy and business owners that the redistribution of social wealth from the workers to them that has been going on for a generation will continue with no serious challenge as the, after all, handsomely compensated politicians all line up to promise to be the good little financial managers who will responsibly implement austerity with a human face and smile while distributing the scraps without rocking the boat.
“Fiscal responsibility,” it seems, never includes being fiscally responsible to those living in poverty and on poverty wages by actually advocating for or doing something to fundamentally change their situation. That might get in the way of the “realism” that they hope will get them well-paid jobs advocating for nothing.
The politics of today is anti-community. You cannot believe in community and really care about community without directly and forcefully confronting the reality that austerity, poverty, poverty wages and social injustice has left many out of the “community” and no amount of liberal or pseudo-social democratic supposedly “feel good” rhetoric is going to change that.
You cannot also continue to deny the fact that this austerity and poverty is not “distributed” equally. It falls far more on women, people-of-colour and indigenous communities. Either one has to accept that this is the fault of these people themselves (whether openly or de facto) or one has to reject this situation entirely which would mean politically doing something about it.
Only serious, detailed and real world polices to actually fight poverty and poverty wages will change it and will make community a meaningful word again.
However, any discussion of this is often portrayed as being somehow “old-fashioned” (as if the idea of ending thousands of years old social inequities is “old-fashioned!”) and “ideological.” This is one of the oldest and most persistent canards offered up by the politicians. The notion that advocating for “doing something” is somehow “playing politics” or “radical.”
Yet, the contradiction is that because you accept and chose to capitulate to the dominant political narrative, now driven almost entirely by an acceptance of capitalism, the neo-liberal version of the “market” and inequality as “facts” that “cannot be changed,” does not mean you are not being ideological.
Quite the opposite.
There is nothing more ideological than choosing to accept and “work within” an economy and system that is a human and environmental catastrophe, that has failed on its own alleged logic (modern capitalism and corporations could not exist without the massive and ongoing intervention by and protection of the state) and that delivers human misery on a massive scale.
In fact, that is the triumph of ideology over humanity.
“Realism” is about as pure, mindless and ultimately cruel an ideological vision as you can get. And it is driven almost entirely by a craven thirst for personal power.
All of this is framed within the politics of diminishing returns and diminishing turnout. Apathy, indifference and dangerously alienated anger, the preconditions of fascism and other ideological extremism, are evident everywhere, but the governing idea remains pandering to an ever decreasing faction of the middle class.
It is difficult to see how we can get past this without rejecting the hierarchical leadership structures of the past. All efforts to create new institutions, social structures and economies by “forcing history” through a vanguard have failed. Spectacularly and violently. Consciousness, it seems, cannot be raised by force.
Class, while often, and still, framed as the primary “oppression” and the “background” that links the broader struggle, has become so nebulous with the change of the nature of the economy in the developed world that most of the old constructs are increasingly losing their meaning. For example, what “industrial working class” are you talking about? You are certainly not talking about the one Marx was. Nor, even, the working class of the great industrial union struggles.
This analysis, as always, makes patriarchy, racism, and colonialism secondary to, and subsidiary to class in what amounts to an almost Catholic “hierarchy of oppression”, when this is not in practice, the case. Racism, colonialism and patriarchy are oppressions that are independent of and that can and will persist as the power relations of class forces change, and while the struggle for human emancipation is intrinsically tied together, there is no “dominant” oppression.
Racism, colonialism, patriarchy, and homophobia, are not going to be defeated by fighting on class lines. Poverty and class inequality will not be defeated by pandering to achieve power. Our movements and parties cannot create a “new world” by adopting the primarily 19th Century bourgeois political structures of the old.
In the wake of a catastrophic century of failure, it is time for the left and socialist movements to look to new collective leadership models and a different path.
After all, we not only want to learn from history, we allegedly want to change it.
Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, is a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2014, and is on the executive of the Socialist Party of Ontario.