First posted: 17th March, 2011
This is not a response to academic Marxism; which will be, or which is, as distanced from ‘street’ Marxisms (such as the UAF/SWP) as Chardonnay is from white cider. That is no surprise. Academic anarchism will also be distanced from street anarchism. (It will even be the case that academic flower arranging, if there is such a thing, will be distanced from street flower arranging.)
So my only concerns are the Marxisms which are translated and heard in Marxist tabloid newspapers (like Socialist Worker), at meetings, at demos, etc., not the many Marxisms of the Academy. (None of this is to say that the UAF/SWP, etc. are truly ‘street’. I only use that word in the sense that some Marxists sometimes do their business outside departmental seminars and even outside branch meetings.)
One vital sin of Marxist political theory is the theorist’s penchant for generalisation (despite the fact that the average Marxist political theorist thinks that it is only others, those whom don’t subscribe to his theories, who are the true generalisers). For example, take the theory that all EDL are racists and indeed fascists. Or, as Martin Smith, of the UAF/SWP, once put it. All EDL are ‘petty bourgeois’ (he said that some, or perhaps one, are ‘carpenters’ – as, I think, Tommy Robinson is); apparently in contradiction to many previous Leftist claims that they were all ‘working-class football hooligans’.
In addition, the SWP theory that all Asian and black members of the EDL must be ‘Uncle Toms’; that is, blacks and Asians who don’t fall under the SWP/UAF stereotypes – particularly the political ones – of what blacks and Asians should do and even think (e.g. if a black man is right wing or only listens to classical music, he must be an Uncle Tom). In other words, Marxist theory has told them that a black or Asian man cannot be a true believer in the EDL without suffering from a heavy dose of ‘false consciousness’ or because he's an Uncle Tom (unless suffering from false consciousness turns him into an Uncle Tom).
Another aspect of these Marxist generalisations, and Marxist theory generally, is that they simplify things. So it is strange that Marxists view their theories as being sophisticated and contrary to enemy’s political simplifications, such as those of the EDL and all groups that aren’t driven by Marxist theory. Yet Marxist theory is full of neat generalisations.
Despite that, one of the real, or main, reasons for theory, or generalisation, is that such simplifications make propaganda, and therefore action, much easier and much more likely. Thus revolutionary and radical political changes are also made easier and much more likely. It is so much easier to fight an enemy, such as the EDL, if the UAF/SWP states that all its members are racist and/or fascist. If some, or even many, EDL are not racists or fascists, then stating that this is so will only slow down the new recruits to the UAF/SWP by making them ask too many questions about the real status of the EDL. The SWP/UAF can’t have that. It will, again, slow down the Revolution or even make it impossible. You cannot fight an enemy that’s only partly racist or fascist (or even not fascist or racist at all!) because that will complicate things and take away some of the fire from the revolutionaries' bellies.
The problem is that if complication, or complexity, or even subtlety, slows down the revolution, then it will follow that lying about the EDL, that is, not even admitting the fact that some, or many, EDL are not racist or fascist, will, or may, become acceptable if such ‘lies for Justice’ speed up the revolution or create the violence and chaos which the SWP/UAF requires in order to succeed. In other words, if it is OK to ignore the non-racist and non-fascist elements of an enemy, then it’s just a small step to repeatedly saying that EDL is completely racist and/or fascist.
This totalism about the EDL is bound to fire up young student revolutionaries. How can it not? After all, they are fighting against an enemy which is completely racist and/or completely fascist. This will be an example, then, of ‘lying for Justice’, which is very much like Islamic taqiyya.
The SWP/UAF has a ‘fondness for broad generalisations’. Such broad generalisations work (like terrorist bombs). They simplify and thus inspire. Any rough edges will work against the Revolution or against Radicalisation. What the SWP/UAF ends up with is an ‘pedantic symmetry’ which will inspire and heat activists up far, far more than a political stance which recognises complexity and a lack of uniformity in any given political phenomenon.
Following on from this, it can be said that these are some of the reasons why Marxists and the UAF/SWP are such Platonists when it comes to so many of the other phenomena they fight against and write about. For example, to the UAF/SWP capitalism becomes Capitalism, the west becomes ‘the West’, the ruling class becomes the Ruling Class, the oppressed become the Oppressed, and Muslims become Oppressed Brown Exotics. That is, all these things become abstract entities.
Capitalism, for example, is seen as some kind of thing – if an abstract thing, which always works in the same way and is always seen in the same way by all Trotskyists. It follows from this that, to the UAF/SWP, capitalism is not really complex at all. It is not made up of multiple variables, none of which are static or determinate. Capitalism one day must be the same the day after (except, of course, the changes to capitalism which Marxists allow – such as the transition to colonialism or to fascism). In other words, capitalism is an abstract thing which is not, in fact, made up of millions upon millions of human beings, institutions, laws, modes of behaviour, etc. which can change from day to day and which can respond to external changes from day to day. Instead we have a static phenomenon that works as one with all its parts belonging firmly to the whole.
SWP theorists simply must not believe, or cannot believe (again, because complexity militates against revolution or radicalisation), that many social and political phenomena, such as capitalism and indeed the EDL, are infinitely complex. That complexity can be instantiated in the indefinite combinations that are possible within a given social or political phenomenon (or other kinds of phenomena as well). That is, we are faced with (possible) massive variability as well as the fact that many of the things which are taken to be stable and continuous, or set, may end up being transitory, peripheral or even contradictory. (As the growing impoverishment of the working class proved transitory in the late 19th century; or even that the racism of the EDL, if it was racist at all, has proved to be peripheral to its upholding of patriotism or even nationalism.)
If the transitory or peripheral reality of a given phenomenon is ignored, or not seen as being transitory or peripheral, then all sorts of crazy and extreme things may be held to be true about it. Alternatively, as with the SWP/UAF, it is even the case that that which is peripheral, or that which is transitory, is quite deliberately taken as essential, or ongoing, in order to further the Revolution or radicalisation. Taking them that way simplifies the theory (or helps the theory) and thus inspires the revolutionaries or radicals. The peripheral nature of the EDL’s racism, for instance, is ignored or not seen as peripheral at all. Similarly, the short period in which EDL demos were indeed violent and disruptive are seen to make violence and disruptiveness essential to the EDL. That is, because the EDL is fascist and racist (more theory), the EDL must always be violent and disruptive. Or, more correctly in the case of the SWP/UAF, it is imperative to the cause of Revolution or Radicalisation that the EDL is seen as violent and disruptive, and repeatedly said to be violent and disruptive, in order to achieve the SWP/UAF’s end that is the complete and utter obliteration of the EDL – which is a direct threat to this group and its campaign for Revolution or Radicalisation.
A more relevant example is Marx’s own theory that it was simply impossible for capitalism to allow any reformist change which would make the lives of the working class better. That was not allowed by his theories. It was also impossible for capitalism to increase its democratic structures without a revolution. And, today, it is deemed impossible for capitalism to feed most, or more, of the world’s poor because the Marxian theory of ‘surplus value’- the requirement of the capitalist to take a big share of the profits for himself and himself alone (or whichever Marxist you choose). This will mean that the ‘profit motive’ of all capitalists will leave the system, capitalism, with no way near enough extra or excess to feed anymore of the world’s poor.
What are Theories?
Because theories are not observations, or readings from the facts, or data; they, by definition, must go beyond observation, fact or data (or all of them). Instead, theories account for the facts, or explain them. They do this by referring to things which are effectively unobservable. That is, theories are non-factual (which is not the same as saying they are untrue or incorrect), or non-experiential, or not examples of data. It is this going beyond the observable, beyond fact, beyond data, where all the trouble lies; which is not to say theory is itself trouble.
Theories can be trouble. Theories can, of course, be false. But, in the UAF/SWP Marxist case, it is this going beyond that’s the big problem. The SWP member, or leader, is taking us beyond what is observable, what is factual, etc. In so doing he may well take us vastly astray. In theory (!), he may indeed be correct or true in what he is saying through his theory or theories. However, also in theory, there may be nothing that is holding him back in his theorising. He may not even be theorising on what are actual facts or observable data. Alternatively, what he takes for facts may well be facts, but that may not stop him from coming up with a false theory about those facts, or stop him from misinterpreting them.
For example, the UAF/SWP has observed EDL members making Nazi salutes and making racist comments at various demos. From that correct observation, or fact, the SWP theorist argues that the EDL itself must be racist or Nazi. However, you cannot conclude from the behaviour of a member of a class, or of an organisation, that the organisation itself shares all the details or beliefs of each of its members or supporters. Many Tories are sadomasochists; but the Tory Part is not a sadomasochistic party (as far as I know). Indeed, some members of the Tory Party may be Trots – that doesn’t itself stop them from being members of the party. Instead it shows them to be hypocrites, mentally retarded, or entryists.
Of course observation itself is imbued with interpretation and theory. There may not be any complete, or even possible, separation of theory from fact or fact from theory. For example, many of these Nazi salutes may not have been Nazi salutes at all. Many people, in many types of circumstances, raise their hand in what is close to a Nazi salute. But because the SWP already has a theory that the EDL is Nazi or fascist, then ordinary hand raisings are interpreted as Nazi salutes because SWP/UAF theory is determining that interpretation.
Not only that. If the SWP has a theory that the EDL is racist and fascist, then this may, or does, lead them to find the facts, and even make the observations, which substantiate the theory and thus prove themselves right on the issue all along. This also happens when leftist academics carry out statistical surveys. Their pre-existing ideologies determine the statistics which they will ‘find’. That is, they will ask questions in a certain kinds of way - ways which will ensure they are given the answers they want. They will also ask the type of people who are guaranteed to give the answers they want. They will ignore the people who’ll say the wrong kinds of thing. They won’t frame the questions in the kinds of way which will produce answers they don’t like. (This is often done by making the questions exceedingly simple and vague – such as: Do you believe in peace? Or: Are you a racist?)
Marxist Theories… Marxist Conspiracy Theories
A good way of providing an account of certain Marxist theories is to explain their close relation to conspiracy theories! I mentioned earlier that the problem, or danger, with Marxist theory is the going beyond facts, experience, evidence and data. One of the most common destinations of this beyond is into the Noddy Land of conspiracy theory.
Marxism is laden down with conspiracy theories; more so today than in Marx’s own day. Take the massive Zionist Conspiracies, which nearly all SWP and other Trots believe.
Because Zionists are seen as being politically evil, as it were, they do much work for Leftists (as well as for Nazis and Islamists). Zionists, or Zionist cabals, help explain multiple phenomena. Indeed, as was said earlier, they simplify things for the average SWP member.
If the theory that Zionists are power-hungry, money-hungry, hate all non-Zionists (non-Jews) is taken as true, then of course it will follow from this that they will want to rule the world, force the US Government to do what they tell it to do, and, last but not least, go out of their way to destroy each and every enemy of the state of Israel. The Marxist theory is that this is what Zionists are like. Even though there are millions of Zionists, and millions more who are simply accused of being Zionists, each and every one of them is seen as being power-hungry, money-hungry and a fanatical and immoral defender of Israel. Believing all this will help the SWP (as well as the Islamists and the far right) explain so much. It explains why the US supports Israel ‘no questions asked’. It explains why Israel ‘doesn’t really want peace with the Palestinians’ and why Israelis, or Zionists, are ‘really attempting to create a Greater Israel’. It explains why they drink the blood of dead Palestinian babies. It explains why they oppress the Palestinians. It explains why they run nearly all the banks and financial institutions in the whole goddamn world, as well as nearly all media.
Only evil, money-loving, power-loving Zionists could do all that! Therefore they must be evil, money-loving and power-loving. This is, of course, a sort of self-justifying vicious circle.
Because of this theory – this conspiracy theory – of essential or even racialised Zionist evil, many people have made massive mistakes about the Jews and Zionists and have misinterpreted given phenomena. For example, Adolph Hitler believed that the Jews controlled and created communism and socialism. He believed that partly because he discovered many ‘Jewish names’ in the accounts and logs of socialist and Communist organisations. Or, rather, his pre-existing anti-Semitism led him to check such things to see how many Jewish names he could find. But he often got it wrong. Many of the names he thought were Jewish, were not Jewish at all. This also often happens with Leftist ‘anti-Zionism’. They too make mistakes with supposedly Jewish names, as well as with cabalistic connections or alliances which don’t actually exist.
But it’s not just Jewish names! It’s people too. The Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPACUK) believed that the former Rochdale MP, Lorna Fitzsimons, was an ‘ardent Zionist’. Thus, because of Islamist ‘anti-Zionist’ theory, it quickly concluded that she must also be a Jew – all Zionists, surely, must also be Jewish! Thus MPACUK produced hundreds of leaflets which said:
‘Lorna Fitzsimons is an ardent Zionist and a member of the most powerful anti-Muslim lobby in the world, the Israel lobby!’
This passage itself does not explicitly say that Fitzsimons is Jewish. That was said in previous leaflets and in other places. Thus it followed from her Jewishness that she must be an ‘ardent Zionist’ as well as being ‘a member of the most powerful anti-Muslim lobby in the world, the Israel lobby!’ There was a small problem. She was not Jewish at all. And even if she was a Zionist (however that is taken to mean – because being a Zionist is often seen as definitionally a bad thing), that doesn’t automatically make her Jewish. It is doesn’t make her the ‘puppet’ of Jews or Zionists either, as Islamists and Leftists think that millions upon millions of us are – all except themselves, of course.
Thus Islamist and Leftist theory determined how the facts or observations were interpreted. Let’s say that it was indeed a fact that Fitzsimons spoke out favourably about the state of Israel. She may even have a hooked nose. However, from these facts, or possible facts, the wrong conclusions were made. Or, more correctly, the Islamist or even Islamic theory of Zionism and Zionists determined how these legitimate facts or observations were interpreted. Thus false theory misinterpreted true facts or true observations.
Let’s examine one of the most famous of all Marxist theories – or conspiracy theories. Take the theory that those who control the ‘productive forces’, the Capitalists (with a Platonic ‘C’), somehow make the rest of us (except the SWP/UAF, etc.) accept their moral systems, political ideologies, etc. None of this is of course observable. You can’t really observe a capitalist, or capitalists as a whole, hoodwinking the rest of us into believing what they believe. Indeed if it could be observed then it wouldn’t really be an effective case of hoodwinking or an effective creation of ‘false consciousnesses’. If capitalists could be clearly seen to do this to others, the rest of us would see straight through their stratagems to make us believe what they believe. For example, no one has ever secretly recorded a meeting of capitalists (of whatever persuasion or kind) talking to each other about the need to make the workers, and everyone else, accept their ideology and moral system. (However, didn’t the Jews make the mistake of writing all their plans to rule the world down in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?!)
Thus the Marxist ideas of ‘class control’, or class ‘false consciousness’, are deeply theoretical in nature. Indeed they may be little more than conspiracy theories, on par with the Jews (again) being behind the destruction of the Twin Towers; or the CIA assassinating J. F. Kennedy; or even that Hitler being still alive (even though he’d be around a hundred-and-thirty years old today!).
It’s not a case of theory versus no theory at all
None of this is to say that theory is malign or always untrustworthy. Far from it. As a matter of fact (!), I personally believe, along with Leftist critics of conservative anti-theorists, that those members of the right wing, or the Conservative Party, who say they have no time for theory are either lying to us (or to themselves); or they are simply wrong. We cannot escape from theory in politics (as is certainly the case in all the sciences). And those that say that they do are, again, wrong or self-deluded.
For instance, the theory-free nature or feel of some beliefs or political stances may simply be a result of their familiarity. If we have looked at something in the same way for many years, or even if society itself has done so, then that way of seeing things may seem ‘natural’ or devoid of theory. But even the flat-earthers would have had theories about things – including theories about the flatness of the earth. For example, they would have needed to distinguish hills or mountains from that which is land. They would have needed to distinguish the two. In addition, how did they know that the earth continued being flat beyond that which they had observed?
Similarly with political conservatives. How do they know that ‘there have always been forms of capitalism in society’ – even if proto-capitalisms? Ancient societies cannot be observed. Some societies are not even accurately accounted for in the history books, through archaeology, etc. And even if past societies are accounted for by history or archaeology, it is still the case that it will take a theoretical account of capitalism to allow them to move from the capitalism which we have had in the West since, roughly, the sixteenth century, to the capitalisms, or proto-capitalisms, of ancient or even Stone Age societies. Capitalism will need to be defined or conceptually encapsulated. And that can’t be done with facts or observations alone.
To repeat. None of this is an absolute argument against theory – not even against political theory. There is a place for theory. So it’s not the case that we need to be against explanation – which many theorists contend conservative ‘anti-theorists’ to be. How can anyone be against explanation? Indeed we do need explanation in politics and elsewhere (or even everywhere).
Many Marxists have claimed that political conservatives, for example, at least old-style conservatives (not the ‘New Right’ of the 1980s of the ‘neo-cons’ of today) thought that all political theories were ‘fact-grubbing’ bad habits of thought which led us to various political hells. As a result of that, Marxists even believed that conservatives were, or still are, against any surveys or accounts which deal with statistics; whether about poverty, health, race, the nature of education, etc. Of course, more than any other school of political thought, Marxists love their stats. It makes them look academic and objective. It makes them look theoretical rather than like the political Neanderthals they call ‘conservatives’. However, as I said earlier, stats are themselves determined by pre-existing theories or ideologies and they are often used to say what the Marxist statistician wants them to say (this is apart from their pseudo-academic or pseudo-objective appeal). So the stats Marxists use to justify their theories or ideologies, are actually determined or shaped by their already-existing ideologies or theories, as argued above.
We should never takes statistical surveys or articles which are choc a bloc with stats as being somehow pure and unadulterated by theory or ideology. This is strange, then, because Marxists are often keen to tell us that this or that is soaked with ideology or hidden theory, despite what conservatives might say about them. Yet they too are keen to stress the objective and academic nature of their statistical findings. (This is a perfect example of stat-mania... but from an Islamist. Please click.)
The implicit argument is, at least in some cases, that in many respects Marxist theory or Marxist ideology simply arises from the stats which have been ‘discovered’. Marxist theory simply makes sense of them or is even derived from them. Thus Marxists too, just like conservatives in their own favourite cases of ‘experience’ and ‘practice’, think that they have a pure and untouched domain of statistics which are thoroughly objective and not theory-laden. That is, they are actually playing the game they suppose their ‘right wing’ or conservative enemies are playing.