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Ken Coates

Reform and Revolution

Rejoinder 1

(Spring 1962)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 8, Spring 1962, pp. 22–24.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ken Coates is a regular contributor to International Socialism. Reference to his biography attached to his comment on Cardan (IS 5) and his article on Cuba (IS 6) will discover his full career: from miner to extra-mural lecturer in Nottingham University. He was active in the YCL, the National Union of Mineworkers, and, subsequently, the National Association of Labour Students (Secretary, 1959) and the Labour Party.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s Rejoinder to Left Reformism raises an important question which needs to be discussed further. Rightly, MacIntyre reproaches Henry Collins for not adequately understanding that beliefs about the capitalist system, engendered by it, play a role within it; and that this role is to be explained by the fact that men’s social relations, which shape their beliefs, ‘are capitalism’. The ideological nature of thought in capitalist society binds all classes: ‘a definite social relation between men ... assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things’. This is why Marx included in the very first chapter of Capital a most difficult section on the fetishism of commodities, in an attempt to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of our own social products. It is also why he had to urge Trade Unionists to struggle not for a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, but for the abolition of the wages system. This confrontation of slogans charts in the most graphic possible way the path forward from ideological thinking.

Yet today we are less preoccupied with the abolition of the wages system than ever, and this fact stamps itself as a hallmark on the enslavement of our socialist movement to snivelling attempts to mollify inhuman social relations whilst preserving them intact. The old cry for a fair day’s pay echoes itself time and again in our modern ears: in Nottinghamshire the miners have a word that sums it up: ‘fairation’, The notion of fairation, of fair crack of the whip, is at once a stimulus to protest and a curb upon it. It is fairation which prompts many a strike, because someone has been ill-used or sacked; but it is equally fairation which gets Colin Hurry and Mark Abrams their anti-nationalisation scores when they poll the public conscience to patch Mr. Gaitskell’s trousers. All those working class respondents to such pools who accept the reproach ‘how would you like it if someone came and took away the business you’d worked to build up?’ which is implied in so much propaganda for the status quo, are revealing their bondage to the maxim ‘property is the first reality of freedom’, which is an ideal type for the ideological notion in our time.

The number of people in the labour movement who harbour such thoughts is larger than many of us think, and some of them are by no means anti-radical. If all this is true, then the major problem for socialists here remains that of breaking through these imprisoning prejudices which stalk militants through every battle and police demonstration more effectively than any constabulary. That is why the actions of workers and the growth of socialist thought feed one another, and why at the same time the working class must to ‘liberate itself. With all respect to brainwashers, no-one else can. Social-engineering blueprints fail, not because social engineers can’t draw, but because the rules of perspective they are forced to adopt are distilled from the practice of the very structure they wish to make away with, and the application of blueprints so designed can only reinforce that structure. This is the peculiar nature of class ideology as it was understood by Marx. Lenin, who used the word ‘ideology’ neutrally to describe any coherent system of ideas, was not following Marx, who always used it to denote this kind of ‘false consciousness’. The false consciousness of bourgeois society was not seen by Marx as something simply mistaken. On the contrary, it was internally consistent, logically correct: measured by its own standards it could never be faulted. Only when judged in the light of social existence, did it fail, and then because it could not meet the human promise it had itself stated. More, such false consciousness can be said to be historically necessary, since it is the ladder which we must climb, before we can kick it away.

Alasdair MacIntyre clearly follows Marx in his use of the term ideology, and not Lenin. All the more astonishing to read in his article that Soviet Marxism has all the features of a class ideology. This seems to me to be a most dubious proposition, and I should like to see the evidence for it. It certainly cannot lie in the fetishism of the plan which Dunayevskaya has invoked; to parallel the fetishism of commodities in her model of ‘state capitalism’: for, far from being contained in a hieroglyph, the nature of the plan is clear to every Soviet citizen, even if not in the way that some of the planners would appreciate. The plan does not lie unquestioned outside the realm of fairation, as a structural assumption of the thought of the Russian people. On the contrary, the very real arguments about whether it should be made this way or that, whether there should be more consumer goods or not, have entirely different content from the demand for a fair day’s wage under capitalism. Press the latter to its logical conclusion and the workers will be arguing about each other’s lack of self-denial while their betters relax and take the confident airs of welfare capitalism. Pursue the former arguments, and you are at once debating the whole question of political democracy in Russia. This question goes very near the bone indeed.

To be sure, the Russian bureaucracy argues in a contradictory and temporising manner, and wears its ‘Marxism’ in different fashions to suit the weather. But it has proved manifestly incapable of developing an ideology in the marxian sense of the word: indeed, I have already shown that Marx does not conceive of ideology as conscious falsification; and, revealing though the unconscious slips of bureaucrats may be, they certainly betray very little consistency, and exhibit virtually no mass-appeal whatever. The ragbag of quotations from Lenin and Marx which are sewn into Mr. Khrushchev’s speeches are not ideological, since they are neither consistently false nor even consistently falsified; and one can hardly assume that they are ‘historically necessary’. In fact they reflect a constant process of manoeuvre between the world socialist movement and world capitalism. In his tortured combination of blindness and insight, with his unbelievably philistine programme of advance, Mr. K. surely conjures up a parallel with the British trade union functionaries who recently called several conferences on Democracy whilst they frantically stuffed the ballotbox, and in between times led a strike or two. These men behaved very badly, but they were not capitalists, old style or new.

Workers who opposed them had no built-in fetishes of their own to purge before they could come to grips with them: the only ‘mystification’ they had to overcome was one of lies, deliberately told. Their hesitations in doing battle were not mystical in origin, but entirely rational: they feared to weaken their own organisation in the face of its enemies, if they did not take care in their struggles.

It seems to me that Alasdair MacIntyre himself has not entirely discarded what he calls the ‘illusion that one can characterise a contemporary state in isolation from its world situation’. I can see no reason why he should want to insist on the dogma that Russia is a class society, different in no essentials from the capitalist bloc, if he were free of this illusion. In any event, I think he should develop his argument about the Russian ideology before it is accepted and I do not think he will find this as easy to do as he seems to imagine.

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Last updated: 12 February 2020