Category Archives: historical materialism

The God Delusion

Richard Dawkins

Ok, maybe I’m five years and more late with this review, but it’s Easter, so it seems as good a time as any to offer my thoughts on one of the most controversial books of this millennium.

And why has it been so controversial? Well, no to put too fine a point on it, it cuts through the bullshit by which many, many people make a living. But more than that, it implicitly sticks the boot into a system of social control – an essential prop of the capitalist system. Not that Dawkins would put in those terms, of course. And therein lies The God Delusion‘s limitations.

Amongst those prepared to consider it rationally, there can be little doubt that Dawkins is an extremely talented writer. From his earliest published work The Selfish Gene (1976), he has demonstrated an ability to explain extremely complicated subjects in a way comprensible for lay readers, without over-simplifying great scientific theories.

One essential component of this capability is Dawkins’ schooled and elegant materialism, and it is a real pleasure to read his descriptions of evolutionary processes, in response to religious misrepresentations of Darwin. Similarly, he is able to shoot down pseudo-scientific and philosophical claims for the existence of a god or gods with a skill and depth of knowledge born out of almost constant debate with religionists over the years. These elements are covered in greater detail here.

So far, so rational, and so enjoyable. But when he leaves home territory and comes to the social and political, Dawkins parks his materialism and becomes a philosophical idealist. He is not exactly alone in this – materialist explanations of society are currently unfashionable, and you have to seek them out. More than that though, you need to reconcile yourself to the idea that the Marxists were right all along.

And there’s a strong suggestion Dawkins has investigated Marxist perspectives on religion. Though he sketches a crude outline of a Marxist position, he is clearly familiar with the idea that, as he puts it: “religion is a tool used by the ruling class to subjugate the underclass”. But even though he appears to agree that the idea has merits (“It is surely true that black slaves in America were consoled by promises of another life, which blunted their dissatisfaction with this one and thereby benefited their owners.”), Dawkins backs away from the social, and instead confines his search for a “Darwinian” – that is purely biological – explanation for the persistence and prevalence of religious belief and practice.

This leads him to some reactionary – not to say irrational – conclusions. For instance, when describing the July 2005 London bombings, he lays the blame solely at religion’s door, despite acknowledging that many had been expecting what was called ‘blowback’ after Tony Blair’s decision to involve the UK in the conquest of Iraq – a war which Dawkins himself opposed. Nevertheless, he contends that the bombers did what they did because they were religious, and were looking forward to a life in Paradise as reward for their ‘martyrdom’.

It is worth spending some time unpacking this thought. If religion was the sole cause of the London bombings, then why don’t many more Muslims do a similar thing? For that matter, shouldn’t many more theists literally fight in the name of their god? No, specific Muslims set explosions off because they were deeply moved by the suffering of their co-religionists in the Middle East, and in the absence of a mass working class movement they saw terrorism as a way of possibly bringing that suffering to an end. Of course there were personal factors in play as well, but the religious feelings of excitement and floatiness Dawkins cites from a failed Palestinian suicide bomber were surely the body’s way of coping with what – in purely biological terms – is the ultimate irrationality.

At times like this, Dawkins stops being a scientist of any kind, and manifests as a smug, quite posh and very comfortably-off man, shaking his head in disbelief that others can be so deluded. And this lack of comprehension is exactly why he can put forward no practical proposals for overcoming religion and its obscurantism.

Like Dawkins, I was raised an Anglican. But unlike him, for a while I was really into it. And so I understand the attraction religion holds for many, many people. I also completely identify my own experience with that famous Marx quote, which in its more complete form reads: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” 

But then Marx went on to say that: “To abolish religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness. The demand to give up illusions about the existing state of affairs is the demand to give up a state of affairs which needs illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of the vale of tears, the halo of which is religion.”

See? So much more beautiful – and potentially useful – than saying ‘Stop being so deluded!’ over 406 pages.


How Do People Become Radical? (Part Two)

Student demands are selfishness in action

Continued from Part One

Becoming radical is not easy. For me, it was a quite deliberate process of smashing what William Blake called the “mind forged manacles” – the heavy, clanking, iron chains cast in church, school, and even the home. As my new knowledge grew, I found myself increasingly able to contextualise the old teachings. But this is a long, drawn-out task, which I know I am far from completing, though I have been working on it for twelve years. I doubt I will ever complete it, regardless of what happens politically during the rest of my life.

And then there’s putting your thoughts into practice. Often of course, there are economic costs, not to mention the ‘free time’ given up to organising things, (maybe) writing subversively, and taking political action. The more you immerse yourself in this world, the higher the toll it takes. You are combating everything; swimming against the tide. There have been many moments – such as once when I was awoken at four am to face off with massive, dead-eyed riot cops – when the inevitable question ‘Why?’ entered my head.

But then why do people do anything? To put things as simple as possible, people act in one way because it seems better than all the other ways. Becoming a communist seemed better (and more logical) than giving up all hope for myself and humanity, and I remain one for similar reasons. And when I believe, how can I not act?

There’s a more formal Marxist way of saying the same thing. Perverse though it may seem, activism is a kind of ‘selfishness’. We are all shaped by the flow of history, and yet:

“History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not ‘history’ which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends.”

When I take part in radical activism, I do so because I believe it’s in my best interests. If there was some kind of situation where it seemed to be against my best interests, I wouldn’t continue. There is nothing less radical than martyrdom. So in the fullest sense, to go back to my friend’s questions, I see my own activism as very much ‘nurture’ over ‘nature’. Sure, I must have been born with certain predispositions, but they have been shaped by the events of my life. No less than the investment banker or the president, I am doing what seems best for me.

I’m aware that this isn’t a fully satisfactory answer, because it doesn’t offer some kind of ‘magic bullet’. There’s no particular argument you can make that will definitely make people see things your way. Ranting at them doesn’t help, because it often just alienates you from people who could be allies. On an intellectual level, all that you can do is try to put the day to day disasters into context, predict the way things will turn out if capitalism is left to continue unabated, and offer realistic ways out of this mess.

If we’re talking about ‘selfish activism’, nothingiseverlost’s comment on Part One raises more interesting questions about how “one of the big dividing lines is the point where you start basing your activity around your own needs and everyday life”. Is there a division “between getting pissed off at what capitalism does to people in Iraq/Colombia/other distant location that you can’t really affect, and getting pissed off at what it’s doing to you personally”? With a new generation of students and workers becoming radicalised by the economic crisis of their own lives, ‘the selfishness of solidarity‘ seems like a good idea for another article/thesis/book!

So what does separate us from “the ones who are content to fritter their lives away watching soaps and reading The Enquirer?”. Ultimately I would say it is an urgent sense that the world can (and must) be a better place for us and our descendents to grow up in. In these times of heightened class struggle, the celebrity magazine reader of one week is likely to become the hardcore revolutionary of the next.

Spectre Of "Class War" Haunts Westminster

When Gordon Brown claimed the Conservative Party’s inheritance tax policy was “dreamed up on the playing fields of Eton”, he must have thought he was scoring an easy political point. However, he had touched off a storm which would fascinate politicians and commentators for days, by alluding to the great unmentionable: social class.

David Cameron responded by complaining that the “petty, spiteful, stupid” line marked the start of a Labour Party-led “class war” against the wealthiest in society, and pundits speculated that Chancellor Alistair Darling would use his pre-budget report to launch swingeing attacks on those at the top of the tree. In the event, he merely proposed a one-off tax on banker bonuses over £25,000. Considering the government has already spent £850 billion bailing out the banks, the £550 million he forecast this would bring in amounts to just a drop in the bucket. Even so, he provided sufficient loopholes to protect bankers from even this puny infringement on their enormous wealth, and increased VAT, which disproportionately hits the poorest. Normal service had resumed.

The media still fretted though. As could be expected, the Tory-supporting papers made a furious defence of Cameron and his shadow cabinet, of which seventeen members were privately educated. Harry Phibbs of the Daily Mail attacked Brown for his “desperate, divisive tactic” of drawing attention to the truth. But even more interesting was ‘civil liberties defender’ Henry Porter, in the supposedly ‘progressive’ Guardian. “As a nation we’ve always been more interested in character”, he announced, so “…the better part of each one of us knows that class is an obstacle to understanding someone’s character, and is certainly no way of assessing a potential leader.”

It is at best naive – or in Porter’s case it is deliberately deceitful – to suggest that an individual’s socio-economic background has no impact on their personal politics. On the contrary, getting to grips with someone’s apparent material interests is the only way of getting to grips with them as a ‘character’, or public figure.

Cameron is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth, and a direct descendent of King William IV and his mistress Dorothea Jordan. His family made their money in finance and grain. He attended Heatherdown Preparatory School, Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. His wife Samantha is the daughter of a baronet and a viscountess, and the Mail has estimated the Camerons’ combined wealth at more than £30 million. After graduating, he joined the Conservative Research Department, at the height of Thatcherism and the uproar over the Poll Tax. Throughout his life, Cameron has known both that he is extremely wealthy, and that this wealth must be extended and defended from those who create it. In this context, his policies of class war against the poor make a lot of sense.

Unlike some within his cabinet, Gordon Brown was not born into such great extravagance. The son of a Church of Scotland minister, he was accepted into the University of Edinburgh aged just sixteen, due to his exceptional academic ability. He wrote his PhD thesis on James Maxton, a fiery Scottish parliamentary socialist, who once called a Tory MP a “murderer” when the government withdrew school milk. However, Brown needed to pragmatically sell out his youthful idealism in order to climb the greasy pole of 1980s and 90s Westminster politics. He did so, becoming – alongside Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson – a key architect of the anti-worker New Labour project. Attacking the working class of the UK and other nations has apparently become a kind of second nature to him, even though he rose from its ranks. No less than Cameron, he now understands that his advancement must come at the expense of those Maxton sought to represent.

In 1999, then Prime Minister Blair used his party conference speech to declare that class war was “over“. So far as official circles were concerned, that was supposed to be that, at least in terms of people fighting back. A decade later, with the chasm between the elite and the rest of us still widening by the day, we are beginning to see the first signs of resistance. In the midst of the greatest economic crisis since the 1930s, and with a massive post-election offensive planned by the ruling class, it is considered extremely dangerous for a politician even to vaguely hint at class divisions. The people who own the economy – or at least some of their paid scribes – know a powder keg situation when they see one.

Also published in issue 10 of The Commune.

Union Sell-outs – Disbelief and Dialectics

Many postal workers and their supporters were left disgusted and disbelieving on Bonfire Night. Billy Hayes and his Communication Workers Union executive had unanimously voted to sabotage a series of strikes which enjoyed widespread support, and guaranteed there would be no strikes until after Christmas. What’s more, they had gained nothing concrete in return. When the new year comes around, Royal Mail will still be looking to make thousands of workers redundant, and attack the conditions of those that remain. In the meantime, posties are already facing a meagre festive period, having lost hundreds and even thousands of pounds in wages on the picket lines.

A message on the ‘I Support the Postal Workers!’ Facebook group summed up the thoughts and feelings of many:

“All the postal workers in Stevenage are furious at the strike being called off. They feel that Royal Mail have got what they wanted eg mail being delivered for Xmas. As soon as Xmas is out of the way Royal Mail will be pushing the changes through and not giving a stuff about the workers. Some feel that they have lost wages for nothing.”

But if Hayes and his team of bureaucrat fat cats had done anything other than cave in to Royal Mail demands, I’d have been forced to examine my whole outlook on life. Yes, I was disgusted, but very far from disbelieving. Of course, that’s all very easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but then I warned that posties were “…lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union” on October 25th, ten days before the ‘interim deal’ was announced.

So what is it that makes me so annoyingly good (annoying to myself, that is) at predicting political developments? Well, it’s a tool called ‘historical materialism‘, which is the philosophical basis of Marxist thinking. If you want, you can go off and Google how Marx stood Hegel’s dialectic on its head, but for my purposes here, I’ll quote Marx from The Holy Family, which I think neatly summarises his view of how historical events unfold:

History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not ‘history’ which uses men as a means of achieving – as if it were an individual person – its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends.”

That is the quote, in all its simple glory. People can best be understood as pursuing “their ends”, their material interests. The appreciation of this idea sets Marxism apart from the opportunism of pseudo-leftists, the ‘moral’ pleading of liberal pressure groups, and the utopian anti-authoritarianism of certain anarchist strains.

Once I grasped it however many years ago, this ideology-free way of looking at the world seemed like a kind of uncommon ‘common sense’. It follows from this theory that the CWU executive decided to end the strike not because they really think workers will get real benefits from the modernisation of the business, but because they believed it would be in their own individual best interests. As a Marxist, I learned to mentally put myself in the shoes of the protagonists – as a detective might – examining the way social forces impact on the choices open to people, and the way the “pursuit of their ends” leads them to make certain choices.

Let’s take Billy Hayes then, suspected of crimes against the postal workers he claims to represent. The first thing to note is that he no longer sorts or delivers post. His job – which puts (presumably high quality) food on his table and (presumably expensive) clothes on his back – is to be the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. He is well rewarded for this, receiving a pay package worth £97,647 last year. But he faces conflicting pressures.

On the one side, his membership are angry about attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. They want a better deal for themselves, and could even throw Hayes out of his lucrative position come election time in April. On the other side, Royal Mail bosses are teamed up with the government, who want to sell off the company, and need to impose those attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to make it attractive to potential buyers. Big business wants Labour to intimidate the working class as a whole, because it is aware that massive cuts must come after the next election, to balance the books of UK PLC, which is deep in the red after the bank bailouts. For Hayes, another factor is the alliances he will have made with the powerful during his period in office. Many compliant union bureaucrats have been rewarded with titles and House of Lords seats in the past, for example.

Over the past three and a half decades, as hyper-globalisation and profit crises have brought neoliberal governments into power around the world, trade union bosses have everywhere followed this march to the right. Owing their privileges to their role as industrial cops – helping the state to beat down their membership’s living standards – they fear rank and file working class solidarity across industries and borders far more than they fear the capitalist class. From this perspective, it was inevitable that the CWU executive would want to throttle a strike movement that was receiving significant popular support, just when all 120,000 CWU members were set to walk out together.

What then of the leading left parties – the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party – both of whom sometimes claim to be Marxist, in favour of working class revolution? How have they reacted to Hayes’ betrayal?

The SWP were mildly critical of the strike suspension. Yuri Prasad’s 7th November article argued that it was a poor tactical move, with a huge post backlog having built up, and Christmas on the way. Prasad also claimed that “There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement”. This statement clearly abandons Marxist analysis (did the CWU ‘randomly’ sign the agreement then?), and is designed to cover up the real role that union bureaucracies play in controlling their membership. Prasad dared not try to explain why prominent SWP member and CWU vice president Jane Loftus voted for the agreement. Instead, the piece meekly called on rank and filers to keep “arguing hard for the return of national action” (i.e. exclusively within the confines of the current union structure). Three weeks later, Loftus resigned from the party.

The Socialist Party’s position on this strike is even more reactionary. In their 11th November lead article ‘Postal workers force management back’, the Socialist Party declared that the deal “does allow the CWU to regain some element of trade union control in the workplace and therefore does push back the attacks of the bosses.” It offered no evidence to back this up, but lionised the bureaucrats as heroic leaders:

“The job of leadership is to know when to advance and when to retreat. In the postal workers’ case it was clear that it was the bosses who were in retreat. But also what has to be taken into account is the readiness of your own troops to continue to advance as well. Many postal workers were looking to Christmas as time to be with their families and to have a well earned rest.”

In other words, the deal was the absolute best that could be won, given the postal workers’ lack of willingness to fight on. This turns reality upside down.

Even more tellingly, the editorial put particular emphasis on the parts of the agreement that speak of unions playing a further part in the ‘modernisation’ process’: “This issue of trade union ‘control’ is important,” the article continues. “It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all.”

This is the CWU bureaucracy that has already overseen the imposition of a pay freeze, over fifty thousand job losses in the last seven years, the raising of the retirement age to sixty-five, and now an effective strike ban. The very bureaucracy which, according to the deputy general secretary’s recent comments in the Guardian, wants to hold elections less frequently, so they are no longer in “perpetual election mode” – i.e. have to pretend to be concerned with members’ interests. Yet their possible control of workplace structures is something to celebrate?

Given that both the SWP and SP leaderships pursue strategies of integrating their members into union bureaucracies (the SP have two people on the engineering section of the CWU executive, neither of whom have publicly spoken on the deal), their betrayal of postal workers’ interests is not a shock. But it’s not necessarily any fun being right the whole time, especially when you’re right about how your team is losing.

No, Marxists use dialectics to argue and plan for a workers’ movement worthy of the name, and ultimately for communism from below, because they know that no-one else could make revolution for us, no matter who they say they stand for.

The philosophers have only interpreted the world…”, Marx wrote in 1845. “The point, however, is to change it.” Marxist analysis can help us do just that.

"Go on, get out – last words are for fools who haven’t said enough."

As I’m sure you know from all the documentaries, newspaper articles and insightful analysis (sarcastic? me?), today it is one hundred and twenty five years since Karl Marx angrily uttered perhaps the greatest ‘famous last words’ of all time. Thanks to Marx and Coca-Cola for reminding me.

It is only about eight and half trips round the sun since I read The Communist Manifesto for the first time, and opened my eyes to the world of Marx. Or rather, to the world, because they are one and the same thing. He says all this complicated stuff, but it’s actually really simple. In a sane, communist, society it would surely be ‘common sense’, but in this profit-driven one we are taught a ridiculous array of myths and legends before we can even raise a voice to object. I read Marx and Marxists a lot, but my understanding of Marxism is deepened every day, by every single interaction I see or take part in.

As Engels observed at his friend’s funeral:

Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.

He’s a century and a quarter dead. He’s trees, he’s grass, he’s flowers. But he gave us the keys to the universe, so rattle your chains in his memory anyway. You have nothing to lose…