Saturday 8 January 2011

Socialism, liberalism, and the student movement

The emerging student movement has seen activists from a huge range of different political backgrounds join forces to resist the government’s onslaught on education. This diversity is one of our strengths, but it will inevitably lead to debates – not just philosophical ones, but concrete disagreements as to the correct course, what allies to choose, how to interpret the cuts etc. This piece examines one ideology common among students, liberalism, and how socialists might best interact with it to help our cause. The terms used here are classically Marxist ones, so be warned if that’s not your cup of tea.

Liberalism is older than socialism. It emerged properly during the enlightenment, as a critique of the repressive authoritarianism of the ancien régime. Liberals championed freedom of speech and conscience, and declared universal human rights considered inviolable by the state. The crucial point here is that liberalism posits a conflict between the individual and the state: the individual is its basic reference point, and that basic unit’s rights are to be defended against the encroachments of the alien, authoritarian force of the state.

It is not difficult to see that liberalism was the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (first merchant and manufacturer, then factory owner), for the hostile state was the still largely feudal establishment that attempted to resist the shift in the economic and political balance of power in favour of the bourgeoisie. In championing the freedom of the individual, liberalism defended a rising class against its opponents: it effectively functioned as a tool of class struggle. That’s not to reduce liberalism to merely a class ideology, for many of its ideals are transparently universally valid, but to see it as also useful to class struggle, and therefore naturally an ideology popular with the bourgeoisie in the late feudal state. The individual central to liberalism appears here as the early capitalist entrepreneur, desiring to pursue his affairs without undue interference.

If liberal ideology was a weapon in the struggle of the bourgeoisie against its aristocratic opponent, its role changed fundamentally once the bourgeoisie had prevailed, either almost completely as in France or by arrangement with the old elites as in Britain. Certainly, a liberal ideology of reason, civilisation and enlightenment was employed in the nineteenth-century imperial conquest of the globe, with the bourgeois state as Hegel’s ‘march of God in the world’. But once it was in power, a strong defence of individual liberty became more of a liability than an asset to the bourgeoisie. As the ruling class – particularly in the financialised, monopolised form capitalism took in the second half of the nineteenth century – the capitalists had no use for these remnants of their own rise. As Adorno explained, liberal ideals fell by the wayside as capitalism created an increasingly total society in the twentieth century, creating ‘enemies’ and persecuting dissenters more subtly but no less effectively than the dictatorships of the East.

But now an interesting moment had come: liberalism regained its critical potential. In the nineteenth century, liberal thought was already invoked in both jingoist and anti-imperial rhetoric (witness, for example, arguments about the British occupation of Egypt in 1882). As capitalist society became total and increasingly authoritarian in its habits of thought and action, liberals began to criticise its excesses: McCarthyism, segregation, the colonial wars in Kenya, Algeria, Vietnam etc. Although their critique was often less fundamental than that put forth by Marxists, liberals nevertheless provided vital opposition to the capitalist and imperial order, especially in the United States where no labour movement comparable to those in Europe had developed. Dissent during the ‘war on terror’ has been liberal to a very significant extent. It is unsurprising that many liberals have also rebelled against the authoritarianism of the current British government, even as a supposedly liberal party is in coalition with the Conservatives.

It follows from liberalism’s class origins that it was an ideology of the privileged. Even today, liberal ideas do not have much traction with the working class, but are mostly espoused by sections of the bourgeoisie, particularly the intellectuals. If liberalism was marked as a bourgeois ideology in its insistence on the individual as the fundamental point of reference, socialism is a proletarian ideology through its casting of classes as the fundamental subjects of history and politics. That’s not to say socialism is somehow the ‘natural’ ideology of the working class: as Lenin recognised, socialism was conceived in the universities, just like liberalism before it, and then carried into the working class, quickly becoming the chief ideology of that class for its clear expression of the workers’ fundamental interests (the socialisation of the means of production and overthrow of the exploiters).

Socialism has always put class front and centre. It does not demand ‘human rights’ in the abstract, but concretely the emancipation of the working class and classes similarly exploited – not because it does not believe in human rights, but because it recognises that only a successful revolution of the working class can end the conditions of oppression and exploitation that affect all of humankind: that is, by recognising the proletariat as the fundamental revolutionary subject. Not the individual’s liberation from an encroaching state, but the proletariat’s self-liberation from its oppression and exploitation is the crucial step towards a society without oppression and exploitation. Liberalism’s revolutionary potential in capitalist society is limited, partly through the largely bourgeois class character of its adherents, partly through its atomised view of society; socialism, by recognising and organising large social forces capable of challenging established power structures, creates that potential. Socialism insists on class as the fundamental reference point because the condition of the worker in industrial society is precisely not one of isolated individual activity, but of labour in mass conditions (factories, call centres, and so on).

Liberalism was and is central to the resistance against the neo-liberal programmes of enriching the wealthy by taking from the working class, e.g. through privatisation, regressive taxation and the dismantling of public services. Liberals have been particularly active in struggling against the attacks on individual liberty of the last ten years, such as ‘anti-terror legislation’ and more recently the practice of kettling and other repressive police tactics. The massive cuts and tuition fee increases in higher education have also spurred liberals who insist on free education as a human right to action.

Socialists have linked up with liberals and others in defence of free education, and must continue to do so. While recognising and stressing our philosophical similarities – evinced by the fact that publications such as the Guardian and the New Statesman unite liberals and leftists, sometimes awkardly –, we must also continue to push the argument, already well understood by many, that the cuts agenda is not merely ‘ill-advised’, but is part of a wider class struggle on behalf of the ruling class. This class struggle does not only affect students alone, but the working class too. In order to succeed, the student movement must ally itself to the organised labour movement: it must recognise, as socialists already know, that there is a very definite class enemy, and definite class allies. Appeals and civilised demonstrations – fighting the ruling class on the ground it has generously set aside for us – will not suffice. Direct action is needed, and for that we need a firm alliance of students and workers.

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