Sunday, 29 June 2008

CNWP Conference





Today's
CNWP conference opened with the sad news of the death of Terry Fields, the former Militant MP. After a short tribute from Tony Mulhearn we held a minute's silence in memory of the comrade.

In my report of last year's conference, I said "If the CNWP isn't built from the ground up, if local groups aren't initiated and assume an active existence, then next year's conference will be a very forlorn affair indeed." Well active groups are few and far between but this last year hasn't been a bad one where the CNWP's message is concerned. Speaking from the platform, Hannah Sell noted the number of successful public meetings that have taken place but also the ire the campaign is starting to attract from union bureaucracies. It was no accident, she thought, that the CWU and Unison had to resort to getting out the big guns to defend the Labour link at their respective conferences, and it is CNWP signatories in the latter union on the receiving end of a witch hunt. But also the political environment in which the CNWP finds itself has changed. Last year's conference took place under the shadow of the imminent hand over to Brown and some within the labour movement had deluded themselves into thinking we were going to get something better than Blair. Instead we got a government more brazen in its courting of capital, a government so transparently working against the interests of working class people that it's in electoral meltdown. So there is potential for the CNWP to become more significant in the near future.

We then heard from the panel of speakers. The first was John McInally, Socialist Party member and PCS Vice President. He argued that no matter how hard a union fights, it is struggling with one arm tied behind its back if there isn't political backing behind the industrial muscle. For this reason, he announced the PCS leadership will be seeking to build a conference of the trade unions expelled and disaffiliated from Labour and reaching out to those who never had a formal relationship in the first place on the question of political representation. Needless to say this development was universally welcomed by conference. We then heard from Simeon Andrews of the LRC give a speech in which he basically said a) the Labour party can no longer be regarded as a vehicle for working class politics and b) it cannot be reclaimed. He did however argue that what exists of the Labour left now is worth preserving and he argued if the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell broke with Labour they would lose their seats to official (i.e. Brownite) Labour candidates. Bob Crow of the RMT backed up McInally's argument that unions need political representation. Campaigns for disaffiliation are not good enough in and of themselves because of the danger of depoliticising trade unionism, as is the case in the USA. Neither do we need more false starts like the SLP, Socialist Alliance and Respect. Our starting point should be a series of common demands which can act as an umbrella, and then we should go from there.

Dave Church of Walsall Democratic Labour Party came next and warned Labour were bound to lose in two years time, but people "out there" were already paying the price of their criminal policies. We've got find a way of getting together and start believing in ourselves. He felt we were going round in circles at the moment when we should be firmer about the destination. Rob Hoveman of Respect said his organisation was a contribution to the process of building a new party. It has significant pockets of localised support and, contrary to what its critics say, is firmly an anti-privatisation and anti-war organisation of the left. What's more Respect is in a position to win more councillors and perhaps return two MPs over the next two years, despite the split with the SWP. But it still remains committed to working with the rest of the left and the trade unions to build something greater. Mike Davies of the AGS argued that left unity with environmentalists was necessary. He was at pains to say this should not be confused with an alliance with the Greens, who, despite honourable exceptions, were fundamentally a right-wing party because they have no analysis of the social roots of ecological crisis. Dave Nellist was the final platform speaker. He made the usual points about Labour, Tories and LibDems being three wings of the same capitalist party, before moving on to a critiquing the Labour left. The process of creating a new party has its own momentum and should not confine itself to the speed of the slowest wagon, which he thought the LRC represented.

We had enough time for a dozen contributions from the floor. Stan Keable for the cpgbs made the usual point about building a Marxist party, and Bill Mullins set out the SP's desire for a new party to be federalist at the beginning. Gerry Byrne of the Socialist Alliance wished Bob Crow had taken steps at this meeting to raise the umbrella he spoke of. Andrew Price and Rob Williams of the SP called for union disaffiliation from Labour and challenged those left MPs to leave the party. Contrary to what the LRC may think, it's extremely unlikely comrades like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell would lose their seats, they thought. There was a touch of ultra-leftism in the air as some speakers accused these MPs of propping up New Labour. Jeremy Dewar for Workers' Power thought we didn't need a few MPs when what is clearly required is a workers' government(?!) He also echoed the call for a new party now. Finally, Dave Griffiths came back in and counselled the need for patience, of the need to understand our differences and negotiate them so we can progress the task at hand. Sound advice in my opinion.

There then followed a debate on the resolutions before conference. Without wanting to go in the technical details of every contribution, the motions can be summed up thus. The SP proposed the CNWP be put on a firmer organisational footing with the introduction of a members structure and regular regional meetings. This was passed overwhelmingly, though I couldn't help feeling this is something that should have gone through when the CNWP was founded a couple of years ago. The motion put forward by the SA caused most controversy, because of the line; "as well as campaigning for a new party, [we] will also begin work to determine the structure and rules for such a party." Many SP comrades spoke against it in favour of our amendment deleting this line on the grounds it was premature to speak of rules for a formation that doesn't exist. In the end the SP amendment was withdrawn after it had been pointed out this position was adopted at last conference and in subsequent steering committee meetings. Hence the SA motion was passed overwhelmingly, as were the modest proposals from Berkshire CNWP for strengthening the campaign's profile in the labour movement. The Workers' Power motion was alright and most of its content was covered by the other motions. What most comrades objected to were the strident criticisms it made of the RMT, PCS and FBU leaders for "prevaricating". Not the cleverest way of engaging these comrades in the CNWP project. If it wasn't for that I'm sure it would have passed. Also voted down were the CMP's motion on the CNWP adopting some Weekly Worker clichés and an amendment from the RDG on republicanism and democracy.

The final session of the day saw conference split up into a series of workshops on fighting the BNP, union disaffiliation, environmentalism etc. As an advocate of a more serious attitude toward parliamentary cretinism I went to 'building an electoral alternative'. Rob Windsor, the "other" SP councillor in Coventry gave us a run down of the campaign in St. Michael's ward to get Dave Nellist re-elected. He noted the insidious character of Labour's campaign - first by pretending to voters new to the area that the ward was a straight fight between Labour and the Tories, and then trying to mobilise a communal vote. It was only through hard campaigning, mass canvassing and a first class record of struggle that saw off Labour's challenge. Dave Church who lost out on a seat by 70 votes talked about all year campaigning and regular, targeted leaflet drops. Tony Mulhearn drew from his experiences in Liverpool, of how over the years comrades disappeared into the council chamber and were swallowed up by the labyrinthine apparatus. The way they dealt with the problem was by building a mass membership in the district Labour party. In those days DLPs could set policy and an active membership ensured there was accountability. The other strength of their approach was translating socialism into a day-to-day programme that linked local bread and butter issues to events of national import.

Overall this year's conference at least had some limited progress to shout about. But we have to soberly assess the campaign's impact on labour movement politics. We've already seen how CNWP-inspired motions have got on the conference agenda of a couple of large unions, and political representation has become the burning issue in our movement. But this is thanks to the neoliberal ineptitude of the government rather than CNWP activities. But this could change. Now the CNWP has a more robust structure the campaign could assume more of an independent existence and it, along with the NSSN are SP campaigning priorities. But the most significant event to come out of it was John McInally's news of the PCS initiative. If it goes ahead (and Bob Crow is reportedly interested) there will be a meeting in the Autumn, and then who knows? Could it be possible the CNWP's objective can come to fruition within the next year?

Saturday, 28 June 2008

National Shop Stewards' Network Conference

I attended the second annual national conference of the NSSN, having been delegated by Keele UCU, and was glad I did. There were over 200 delegates and close to 100 observers. It was refreshing to see some new faces. Yes, there was a good turnout from a lot of the Socialist Party regulars, but the SP far from dominated the event. Dave Chapple of the CWU, National Chairperson of the NSSN, explained from the start that he was not ‘politically-affiliated’, and that the purpose of the network was ‘to build the strength of the grassroots movement up to what it was 30 years ago’. He also stressed that no one union dominated the network, and that if it did he would not be involved with the movement. He then introduced Bob Crow, the general secretary of the RMT.

There were several guest-speakers during the day, and I am not going to give a blow-by-blow account of ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that’. I will concentrate more on trying to describe the flavour of the event, and will provide just a snippet from each of the main speakers. For me, Bob Crow’s most interesting contribution was a call to change the rules of the TUC to allow trades councils to send delegates (as is the case Bob told us in Scotland, Wales and Ireland). He said that the TUC should be about more than general secretaries talking to other general secretaries. I agree with Bob as this would increase the potential influence of lay officials and help open up the TUC to the grassroots.

Onay Kasab of Unison did not say much (if anything) about the need for a shop stewards’ movement but he did highlight how grassroots activists are fighting back at the bureaucrats who were attempting to stifle them in his union. Onay is one of the activists currently being ‘witch-hunted’ in Unison for seemingly nothing more than exercising his right to free speech!

Karen Reissmann, also of Unison, spoke about her already well-documented struggle in which her branch were out for 42 days, and of how good it was to be on strike on April 23 with other public-sector workers and strikers from Fujitsu.

Brian Caton, general secretary of the POA, bemoaned the failure of the TUC to take on the fundamental issue of trade unionism, which he defined as rights and freedoms. He argued that when the TUC are asked to take the lead on this issue, "we give reports" is their reply. Brian, if I recall rightly, had a more robust answer to the problem - a general strike. Not surprisingly, this went down a storm with the delegates!

We then broke for lunch and for the modest sum of three quid enjoyed tea and a very varied selection of rolls. A big thank you to whoever organised that!

In the afternoon we had a choice of eight workshops to attend. I went to a session entitled ‘Organising in the workplace and young workers’. There was a panel of four from the PCS, CWU and Unite and the workshop was chaired by Sheila Cohen, a National Organiser of the NSSN. There were practical and positive contributions from both the panel and the floor. A delegate from BECTU explained that she was having trouble organising at the BBC and was given a wealth of advice from other participants. I was particularly interested to hear from one of the panel on his successes in organising in a largely unorganised workplace in Fujitsu.

The final session of the day started with varied and enthusiastic contributions from the floor, even if they weren’t always focussed on the need for a shop steward’s network! Sadly, we were then informed by Tony Mulhearn that Terry Fields, the former Militant MP, was dying from cancer and was not expected to last the hour. Obviously this was shocking news to everyone.

Linda Taaffe of the NUT, Secretary of the NSSN, then reviewed the progress of the movement over the last year. She reported that regional shop stewards’ networks had been set up in seven areas, and that there had been a fringe meeting at the TUC. Linda said that at the moment the movement had a founding policy but no rigid structures. However, it had intervened in a wealth of disputes. She urged everyone to go to the next meeting in their region and take a friend. She also urged us all to send a motion to our union branches to donate money to the movement.

Jack Hayman of the International Longshore Workers’ Union told conference of the current strikes against Bush’s policy in Iraq that were hitting the ports on the West Coast of the US. It was great to hear of trade union activism in the States, as we are often given the impression there is no real class struggle in North America. Jack’s appeal for solidarity naturally met with load applause.

Rob Williams of Unite then treated us to his typically rousing Welsh oratory and then Caroline Johnson of Unison told us of the recent inspiring dispute in Birmingham City Council. Janice Godrich, president of the PCS, was the final guest speaker. Janice told conference that her union had affiliated to NSSN and, importantly, had made a financial contribution!

It was a very good day. Refreshingly, there was an absence of sectarianism, and a real feeling of the left working together. I intend to support the next meeting in my region. As the recession deepens, employers are going to try and cut workers’ pay in real terms. These are ideal times for the left to come together and forge a renewal in trade unionism. Let us take this opportunity and get behind the NSSN!

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Storms and Tea Cups

You didn't need the powers of Nostradamus, Mystic Meg or Ted Grant to predict the resignation of the SWP's remaining Left List councillors this week. This must surely mark the end of the SWP's attempt to substitute themselves for the genuine alliance of (small) forces Respect once represented.

I cannot begin to describe how disappointed, disgusted and incredulous I am with the SWP's behaviour these last 10 months. But for all that, I've not found it in the least bit surprising. What the party has seemingly forgotten is that revolutionary socialist politics is a serious business. In early 21st century Britain our task is incredibly complex and drawn out. There is no more a noble project than building the new society of associated producers. And there is nothing more essential and necessary now capitalism is consuming and destroying the very ecology that makes our civilisation possible. But our class, the only viable vehicle for socialist transformation is weak, fragmented and disorganised. Putting the socialist case in this context demands organisations and activists are serious about our politics and how we put them across. It means long term work in workplaces, communities and on the streets. It requires we draw deep from the experiences of comrades past and present so we can learn and utilise effectively the opportunities events place before us. It puts the left in a position where we have to cooperate with each other and whatever new forces are thrown up by the never-ending struggle. All of this is the bottom line against which the left in Britain should be measured.

For the SWP, as Britain's foremost revolutionary organisation (at least in terms of membership and profile), a unique responsibility devolves to its shoulders. But instead of responding constructively to the difference of opinion in Respect it went completely off the rails. What we have seen this last year is an abject lesson in how not to do socialist politics. There was the ludicrous witch-hunt claims, where Galloway's mild criticisms of the way the SWP leadership ran Respect was read as a systematic attempt to expel them from the organisation. Then the duplicity, lies and gerrymandering over November's ill-fated national conference. The ludicrous statement "against the witch-hunt", which stupidly put a substantial list of SWP members into the public domain. The sectarian attempts to make Galloway a persona non grata in the anti-fascist and anti-war movements. The whole Organising for Fighting Unions cheque fiasco. The sectarian folly of the Left List election campaign. The 'ourselves alone' calling of last week's Love Music Hate Racism march. The defection of Ahmed Hussain, a sitting SWP councillor to *the Tories* in February, and now the departure of Oli Rahman, Rania Khan and Lufta Begum. You've got to ask yourself, is all this indicative of a serious approach to politics?
It reconfirms for all of us who are wary of the SWP that once again its leadership cannot be trusted to work with other socialists in a comradely and cooperative way. Again, it shows its main preoccupation is preserving its organisational, as opposed to political, integrity.
I wrote those words back in October. I could never have dreamed the SWP would show itself up in the fashion it has done. But it did and shows no sign of stopping. The SWP has been tested not by world-shattering events but by proverbial storms in political tea cups. And it has been found wanting.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

V: The Second Generation

Be warned - spoilers! When I was a little 'un back in the 80s, occasionally a show would come along that saw me diving behind the sofa or hiding under a cushion. The three series of V had me bolting for my hidey-holes on many, many occasions. Vicious, nasty baddies like Diana (Jane Badler, pictured) I could handle. Swallowing rodents, little birds and guinea pigs? No problem. The reptilian faces hiding behind a human mask weren't an issue either. Oh no, for me it was those hideous eyes. They were the stuff of many a childhood nightmare, but I digress. V told the story of a creeping take over by fascist lizards from outer space. They claimed to come in peace but really the Visitors wanted to take our water and reduce the human race to soldiers, chattel or ... food. But us humans weren't going to take this lying down. A resistance movement emerged to harass and eventually overthrow the Visitors' villainous tyranny.

But what if that hadn't happened? What if our resistance hadn't proven strong enough and the Visitors' occupation had continued through to the present day? This is the premise of Kenneth Johnson's V: The Second Generation. Johnson was the creator and executive producer of V: The Miniseries, which ended with Julie and Elias, two resistance leaders, sending a distress call out into space in the hope of receiving aid from the Visitors' enemy. This is where Johnson's novel picks up the story, disregarding the events of V: The Final Battle and the one season TV series.

Set in the present day the Visitors have now sucked up half the world's oceans while, incredibly, still affecting to be our friends. The world's gullible populace appear - in the main - to really believe the water is being taken for purification before being returned to us. But not everyone. The resistance continues to eke out a twilight existence as a victim of brutal repression and mass apathy. In short, things look hopeless. Diana, now promoted to commandant of the Earth, has the world in her scaly grip and it looks as though nothing will loosen it. Until help arrives.

The Zdenti are a race of humanoids evolved from insects who've fought the Visitors, and won. From across the stars they've sent a trio of warriors to scope out the Visitors' nefarious schemes and link up with the humans. During the course of many a confrontation they make contact with the resistance, but time is of the essence. The Leader, the, erm ... Visitors' leader, sends Jeremy, a special envoy to Earth with new water scooping technologies that would drain the remaining oceans in a matter of weeks. The Leader needs the water to fuel the upcoming offensive against the Zdenti. Will the resistance and their allies thwart the leaders plans, save the Earth, return the water and free the millions suspended in stasis?

It's hard to know if fans or casual readers will care that much by the end. I'm afraid to say V: The Second Generation is just awful. It's riddled with inconsistencies, absurd plotting, simplistic story lines and a narrative so wooden you can almost hear it creeking. But that's just the start of it. There are two things that really annoyed me about the book.

First, there's the science. I like my science fiction to be plausible, biologically, sociologically and technologically speaking. For example, Star Trek from The Next Generation onwards had enough techno-babble and cod knowledge of physics to make warp drives, transporters, phasers etc. to appear convincing. What let the show down were utterly rubbish aliens all cut from the same essentialist cloth - Cardassians were sneaky, Vulcans logical, Ferengi greedy and Klingons warlike. The Visitors at least were slightly more credible - at least they were alien, even if they are nothing more than lizards. And I'm not entirely convinced a sophisticated space-faring species would succumb to fascism. But at least there was variation between Visitor characters and no essential psychological differences between them and the humans.

That's where the plus points end. The worst piece of scientific illiteracy in The Second Generation (and something the original series was guilty of) is the existence of cross-breed children. Yes, that right. We might not be able to cross breed cats with iguanas on this world, but humans and alien reptiles from another star? No problem! (It's also worth observing that while humans and visitors happily have relationships, Johnson cannot quite bring himself to allow for interracial liasons between human characters). To add insult to injury, the Zdenti are very poorly conceived. Baring in mind they are a race evolved from insects, apart from violet eyes, concealed probosci and an all over sheen they look exactly like us! This was either a case of highly unlikely parallel evolution or Johnson's trying to assure the studio it won't cost too much to fix up the new aliens. Whatever, it's pretty dumb.

But really, this is nothing compared to the biggest problem with this book. V: The Second Generation is crassly sexist. There are a lot of female characters here, but nearly all of them fall either into the categories of 'bitch' or 'weak'. Diana obviously belongs to the former, but that is what made the character almost iconic in the first place. The problem is Diana forms the template for all the the other morally ambiguous women in the book. Without exception, the bitches are upwardly mobile or at the top of their game. The fighter pilot, the informer, and the 'team mate' (Hitler Youth analogue for young humans) are without scruple and will do anything to improve their influence, careers and status. To top it off The Leader has inexplicably changed sex between the miniseries and the book, and is not averse to being a bit nasty. So let this be a warning to you - when women have power expect nothing but tyranny!

Julie, on the other hand, is the leader of the resistance and, as a consequence, someone you would reasonably expect to be a strong character. But from time to time we are shown her breaking down under the burden of her responsibilities. This isn't a bad thing in itself, but when you're never shown resistance men having these moments the sexism alarm bells start ringing. Only three female characters fall through this gap - Ruby, Julie's 12 year old half-breed adopted daughter and the two female Zdenti agents. However, all are under the close supervision of men - the aliens by their commander and Ruby by Nathan, a team mate-turned-resistance member and by Donovan, the resistance hero of old. It's when these women stray from their supervising males that they get into trouble.

V: The Second Generation is a total mess. Even if it wasn't hobbled by bad science and a stunted view of women the book would still be in deep trouble. Not only are the sub-plots very simple and compare unfavourably with the complex story lines of contemporary science fiction, the final phase of the book comes straight out of the Independence Day school of 'smash the baddies' plans. You can get away with this in a B Movie like ID4, but not in an ostensibly serious slice of science fiction.

Apparently it looks as though the book will be adapted for television next year and reportedly most of the original cast are interested in reprising their roles. If this is the case, someone needs to do a steam clean of Johnson's novel before it enters into production. It's way too crude and simplistic for today's audience as it stands. But I'm still not convinced a "reimagining" of V is needed. Isn't it sometimes best for things that happened in the 80s to stay in the 80s?

Monday, 23 June 2008

Gramsci and European Integration

I wanted to come back to Andreas Bieler's contribution to Saturday's proceedings, 'Class Struggle and the Analysis of European Integration in the Global Economy' because he presented it as an exercise in Neo-Gramscian analysis. Say what? No, I don't know anything about Neo-Gramscianism either. But at least I was a touch wiser after the lecture.

Gramsci's contribution to Marxism and social theory has certainly been influential, but how influential has been a topic of debate in international relations scholarship. For Bieler the basic positions on Gramsci's legacy boil down to two camps: austere and absolute historicism. The former holds that Gramsci's work was conceived at a particular point in time and is only meaningful in this context, which of course was 1920s and 30s Italy. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, then knowledge is always contingent and context-specific. It means forever starting from scratch. Against this, absolute historicism acknowledges the historical origins of Gramsci's perspectives, but says concepts can transcend their origins provided they are adapted, reformulated and applied critically. If theory is to be useful it must adequately grasp and explain new phenomena. It becomes an obstacle if it coalesces into schools of concepts, ignoring new approaches and developments. Because this set of concepts has outgrown its origins, it is necessary that we speak of Neo-Gramscianism.

As with any Marxist analysis the starting point are the relations of production. For Neo-Gramscians the core collective actors are class forces and the struggles between them. Also, class forces are always fractionalised. This is hardly news, Marxists have previously analysed the contradictions within class forces around finance/industrial capital, blue/white collar workers, and public/private sector capital. But for Bieler these in the main have succumbed to the fusion of capitals and proletarianising/deskilling processes. In the European Union of today, class fractions tend to be organised around a complex of nationally-oriented, internationally-oriented, EU transnational and global transnational fractions of capital, which are in contradictory relationships with one another and, of course, are subject to the overarching antagonism with labour.

For those who operate with vulgar notions of Marxism (who, in the main, tend to be its opponents) the importance of class struggle should not be confused with economic determinism. After all, does not struggle imply openness? Capital is economically compelled to intensify the exploitation of labour power, and it is so driven to compete among other capitals. But this by no means guarantees the economy gets what the economy wants. In this sense, the economy conditions and determines the social in the *first* instance. For Neo-Gramscians class forces become conscious of their conflicts and ultimately their interests on the terrain of ideology. More often than not discourses of struggle do not assume an explicit class character, but they have the effect of mobilising class forces.

Right wing British euro-scepticism is a case in point. The language of class is never used, but the language of sovereignty, independence, Brussels bureaucrats and the like have successfully cohered a bloc of forces representing national and international capitals who believe they would lose out from further European integration. This is where 'old-style' Gramsci comes to the fore. Each class fraction engages in hegemonic projects to try and win influence in civil society and bend the polity to its will. But not all projects have an equal chance of succeeding. Looking at the spectrum of euro-scepticism in Britain, it tends to assume a right wing character owing to the resources at the right's disposal and the overall balance of class forces in capital's favour. They have hegemony over opposition to the EU. When was the last time you heard opposition to the EU expressed in anti-neoliberal terms outside the left press?

To illustrate the framework in action, Bieler looked at the case of Austria's accession to the EU in 1995. In the early 90s Austrian capital was more or less split down the middle between national and international orientations. The latter was for EU membership as the free trade area would give it greater market opportunities. The former however was protected by tariffs and regulations that, as a condition of membership, would have been swept away. Analysing this contradiction means identifying the key representatives of contending fractions and their actions. These typically would be employers associations, unions and political parties. In this case, the Federation of Austrian Industrialists were united behind a discourse that would make Austrian capitalism more 'efficient', but also its organic intellectuals contrived to answer concerns about Austrian security and the 'neutrality' it managed to maintain throughout the cold war. Compare this with the tensions that divided the Austrian Peoples' Party. It has traditionally drawn support from business, agriculture and white collar workers, but any unity the party had was swept away by the debate. The dominant bourgeois pole of the party tended to support the FAI's stance, whereas the middling and agrarian elements backed the no campaign.

Internationally-oriented capital won the eventual referendum because it was able to cohere a more convincing hegemonic project than its opponents. As the tide of history was flowing in neoliberal globalisation's favour, EU membership seemed common sense. But as we have seen in Ireland's referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, this is not sufficient in and of itself. Here the Campaign Against the EU Constitution was able to pursue its own variegated hegemonic project and negotiate the contradictions between the class forces grouped behind it to win the referendum.

Much ink has been spilt over the ramifications of the Irish decision, so I won't be adding to it. But what I took from this application of Gramsci to European integration is a change in my perception of his contributions to Marxism. It showed how Gramsci's abstract theorisation of socialist strategy in the context of a (relatively backward) nation state is flexible enough to explain its subsumption under the emerging sovereignty of the EU at a very different historical conjuncture. What it demonstrates is the essential openness of Marxist analysis and its unrivalled ability to produce convincing social explanation.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

A Day With Bourdieu

Alas, only metaphorically seeing as this titan of the French intelligentsia passed from the scene six years ago. But Pierre Bourdieu's ideas live on and this was the topic of yesterday's Reproductions day school at Warwick University. After the customary tea and biscuits the proceedings began.

The first session by Michael Grenfell, titled 'Social Class? Bourdieu and the Practical Epistemology of Social Classification' was an overview and recap of Bourdieu's work for those of us whose brains had gotten a bit stiff. Among other things, he suggested there were three key moments in Bourdieu's approach empirical work. The first concerns the construction of the research object. This means anything the sociologist approaches as an object of study is not innocent. To illustrate, social space is composed of an overlapping and shifting number of fields. Each of these fields operate as if they are an economy, with their own methods of regulation, stakes to fight over, capital to accumulate and strategies that can be deployed in struggle. There are any number of agents active within these fields who occupy certain positions and trajectories and have an interest in struggling for the possession of the capital specific to it. The more capital one has, the greater the potential for reconfiguring the field around their interests. All social phenomena have a position in one or multiple fields and are constituted by their relations to other objects within the field and the overarching dynamics of struggle. Therefore starting point for sociological research is to conceptually locate the object in relation to everything else and not commit the fallacy of treating it as stand alone phenomena.

The second methodological instance consists of three distinct levels. Even though social space is configured through interrelated fields, it is worth bearing in mind that contemporary social formations are organised hierarchically - and this applies to fields too. The wider social field constitutes/is constituted by the economic and political fields, but it is also dominated by them. Even though each field has a certain autonomy and a specificity that cannot be wholly understood with reference to external determinations, who "decides" what is and isn't legitimate tend to be those who are rich in the capital of the dominant fields. The closer a field is to this field of power, the more apparent this domination is, and the more value the cultural capital specific to it has vis other fields. For example, among academic disciplines Economics enjoys close links to the business world, attracts more research monies, influences key decision making and so on by virtue of its position. The same cannot be said of Cultural Studies. Hence sociological research involves analysing this field of power, the relations between the agents competing in the field and the 'habitus' of agents, a "practical sense, that is, an acquired system of preferences, of principles of vision and division (what is usually called taste), and also a system of durable cognitive structures (which are essentially the product of the internalisation of objective structures) and of schemes of action which orient the perception of the situation and the appropriate response. The habitus is this kind of practical sense for which is to be done in a given situation – what is called in sport a “feel” for the game, which is inscribed in the present state of play." (Practical Reason 1998, p.25).

Thirdly and crucially is the element of Bourdieu's work Grenfell felt was often overlooked by sociologists - the process of 'self-objectivation'. What this means is turning the sociological gaze back upon ourselves. It follows that if all social phenomena are bound up in the structures and struggles outlined above, so are we. There's no Mount Olympus from which sociologists can observe the social space below, we are as much part of the fields we study as anyone else. Bourdieu is not for a 'sociology of the sociologists' because it's a jolly excuse for academics to churn out more papers no one is likely to read: it is the condition of scientific sociological knowledge. By looking at our own trajectories, positions and interests in academic and other fields we control for the distortions and biases that are the inevitable outcome of a sociology operating in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This can only strengthen the claims our research makes (something, incidentally, that concerns about half of my thesis).

Then came the first of the day's workshops. The first was Raffaella Bianchi whose paper was on musical culture and class in Risorgimento Milan. She looked at how opera was assimilated into the class practices of the nascent Milanese bourgeoisie, of how private boxes at La Scala became a key site for the constitution of common political interests and a new nationalist hegemony to counter the Austrian and Papal domination of Italy. The second was from Will Atkinson who was using Bourdieu to understand class reproduction in a self-stylised individualist age. As education is one of the primary fields where we all begin acquiring the cultural capital that allows us to get on, he was interested to see if class remained a key factor in its accumulation and therefore individual life chances.

After lunch Andreas Bieler gave a talk on European integration and 'Neo-Gramscianism' - but I'll leave that one for a post of its own. So it's to the afternoon workshops. Saleem Izdani Khan gave a presentation on sectarianism and class in Pakistan. This was basically an account of the shifting composition of the Pakistani ruling class and the project of constructing a secular Muslim state in the aftermath of Partition. He also looked at the position of the army and the contradictions arising from Pakistan's backwardness (i.e. feudal basis of much of the ruling class, low rate of urbanisation, regional rivalries, geopolitical positioning, etc.). Considering no one knew anything about Pakistan apart from Saleem, the question and answer session was very thorough.

The final event saw Lisa Adkins give a talk called 'Mobility in a Time of Futurity' which was a complex encounter between Marx and Bourdieu, and one where Bourdieu didn't come off lightly. Adkins critiqued him for ignoring how exploitation and surplus extraction are also fundamental constituents of the social order. He disregards the Marxist understanding of capital as representatives of congealed abstract labour time and deploys capital merely as effort recognised by others in a field. The problem with this, I would suggest, is by treating capital in this meritocratic manner Bourdieu can only really describe the reproduction of the uneven distribution of capitals, but not explain it. For that you need Marx. Adkins went on to look at the composition of abstract labour in contemporary capitalism and argued there were new modes of capital accumulation starting to emerge. With reference to her work on freelance web designers, she described how they made their money. Basically they build websites and charge according to the number of potential hits it would likely generate. In classical terms, the designer is not exploiting their labour power as would a self-employed small business owner, instead earnings are entirely future-oriented, based on time that does not yet exist. I wasn't entirely sure about this myself.

Overall it was an excellent day. All the sessions were high quality and gave pause for thought. And it was good to see plenty of Marxist and Marxisant postgrads in attendance. If this is in anyway representative, it looks like the increasing take up of Bourdieu is paving the way for a sociological comeback of Marx. Afterall, it is impossible to talk about Bourdieu and not have the old beard crop up sooner or later. 

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Zizek for EU President!

Brother T took some time out from the class struggle in milton keynes on friday to listen intellectual superstar, terrorist and provocateur Slavoj Zizek speak at Birkbeck. The advertised meeting was on 'the materialist reversal of Marx in Hegel', but according to the report, Zizek instead had a muse about the European Union and the Lisbon Treaty. See, I told you he was a terrorist. Zizek is a complex figure and I don't know his work particularly well, so I defer to T and others who may wish to add their observations in the comments box.

Slavoj Zizek is alive! His oeuvre is all encompassing of philosophy, literary and cultural studies, scattered with references to pop-culture (The Matrix, The Sound of Music, Mel Gibson's conspiranoia, etc. and cannot fail to evoke one's imagination. How many other contemporary intellectuals generate such a vast interest that they've spawned a peer-reviewed journal in their honour? He reads, steals and borrows from a whole array of scholars but it is his intimate relationship with Lacan that is of most interest to me. 

Lacan's own perverse technique for allowing the limping of the truth is to engage with "midspeak": a technique that realises the truth can only ever be half-spoken. Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man asserts that ours is the language of sales and marketing and perhaps this is best encapsulated by Zizek in his introduction to Welcome to the Desert of the Real.

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by the censors, he tells his friends: 'Let's establish a code: if a letter you get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it's true; if it's written in red ink, it's false.' After a month, his friends get the first letter, written in blue ink: 'Everything is wonderful here: the shops are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, cinemas show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair — the only thing you can't get is red ink. In our liberal democracy have (or at least we are told we have) all the freedoms we could ever wish for and are free to raise our voice at the ballot box. Zizek contests this fallacy by advancing that the only thing we are missing is the red ink: we feel free because we lack the very freedom to articulate our unfreedom.

So what is to be done? Mikhail Bakhtin points out the most apt way of restructuring prevailing values is to make them the topic of the discourse. i.e. To discuss them. But no one but a few (allegedly) archaic Marxists refer to capitalism any more. Zizek's recent offerings go some way to redressing this, such as his Violence and In Defence of Lost Causes.

Zizek commenced with an overview of the recent Irish "no" vote to the Lisbon treaty and how the EU is likely to grapple with this. I expected Zizek, who ran for president in Slovenia's first election in 1990, to damn the EU bureaucracy for its democratic deficit and attempt to push the treaty through but instead he offered to throw his hat in the ring. His lack of resistance surprised me. He advised that what was to follow was going to present a serious philosophical paper and that he would leave out the crude jokes and pop-culture references. I would contest that he was only partially right: the paper was more theologically as opposed to philosophically informed. Zizek's recent co-conspirator, the passionate Christian, Alain Badiou has a lot to answer to. What would Lacan say?

Does the Lacanian Left exist? Perhaps it was in a moment of Revolutionary Becoming. Now it seems to be influenced by bourgeois values and adopting an ethico-religious stance. Zizek seems to be grappling with his own demons: is he a representation of the commodification of a space formerly reserved for intellectual endeavours or a "serious" theologian? If this trend is to continue it might be slightly more difficult for Verso, his "regular publishers", to tempt me with his next offering.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Branch Meeting: Campaign for a New Workers' Party

At tonight's branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party brother A gave a talk about the Campaign for a New Workers' Party. When the local branch of Militant was inside the Labour party, the fruitfulness or otherwise of staying put was kept under constant review. However, things are now very different. In the absence of mass independent working class political representation in most countries, the Socialist Party and the CWI must not only constantly reflect on the project of recruiting to our organisations but also the opportunities for building something bigger and wider that can fill the political vacuum on the left.

This is a lot easier said than done, especially when the consciousness of working class people is in a state of flux. The experience of the postal workers' strike last year is a case in point. Here we have Royal Mail management carrying through a neoliberal restructuring programme as a step toward privatising the post office. This is carried out at the behest of a Labour government. The main responsibility for organising the resistance falls on the shoulders of the CWU leadership who not only accept the process of marketisation but also stubbornly claim it's in their members interests to remain affiliated to Labour - the very party kicking postal workers in the teeth! The same is true of other unions. For instance Unison's behaviour over NHS and local government cuts spring to mind. All this impacts on the building of a new workers' party, it means we have to deal with a situation where most union leaderships and bureaucracies will fight tooth and nail against it until such a time when pressure from below forces them to throw their weight behind a new project. But even then it will be haphazard, halting and likely involve attempts to exclude most existing left organisations, including ourselves.

But what do we do in the here and now? The CNWP is not a party and it lacks the advantages of party organisation. But there are ways its message can be disseminated. In Liverpool, the CNWP has organised a counter-weight to the official 'Capital of Culture' celebrations. As the establishment have chosen to ignore working class contributions to the city's culture, activists under the CNWP umbrella have worked to modestly redress the balance with their own events, talks and film screenings. In other places, such as Kent, the CNWP has organised debates on working class political representation. Up and down the country other CNWP public meetings have taken place alongside street stalls, letter writing campaigns, etc. In the absence of any major upsurge this careful, patient work must continue.

In the discussion, M thought more people would be receptive to CNWP ideas as more workers enter into struggle ... and win. Locally we've seen partial victories at Burslem and Keele and the mayor's attempts to close Dimensions was defeated off the back of a large community-based campaign. Nationally, just this week we've seen the tanker drivers took on their employers and won. And also there's a growing scepticism toward union tops themselves. David Prentis of Unison may have excited newsrooms with his dire warnings to Gordon Brown, but this is the same leader who has recommended nursing staff accept the government's below inflation two per cent pay "offer". With such people comprising the main "opposition" within Labour, then what hope can there be for reclaiming it?

E wondered if there was an issue with the CNWP's name. If most people thought of themselves in either non-class or middle class terms, would they likely not be attracted to a campaign that proudly announces its class character? N wryly observed there was nothing quite like a recession to remind people of what class they are. M also noted that many formerly middle class jobs had been proletarianised. For example teachers and lecturers increasingly face insecurity and attacks on working conditions. N argued the key task building the CNWP's influence lies in rebuilding the labour movement - if the campaign bypasses, ignores or otherwise does not relate to trade unions then the confusion and auto-labourism they engender go unchallenged.

P asked if the Labour party can really be written off as a vehicle for working class politics? He drew attention to last year's abolition of conference as (theoretically) the body's sovereign decision-making body, and the new structures that have come in its wake - namely the formation of a National Policy Forum to which CLPs can submit proposals. The problem is there's very little chance of anything not attuned to government thinking being adopted. There is no mechanism to force the leadership to adopt popular social democratic policies. To all intents and purposes, the Labour party is a dead end. However P argued that the CNWP and the SP should establish friendly relations wherever possible with comrades in the Labour party who disagree and patiently explain the case for a new party instead of hectoring and denouncing them.

He then moved on to the CNWP itself. He noted there are problems with the campaign. It remains an ad hoc organisation limited to regular steering committee meetings, a website, a blog, a declaration and sporadic activities, mainly initiated by SP comrades. Perhaps there is a case for putting it on a firmer organisational footing. On the other hand there is as yet no clamouring for a new party. If there is a mass desire, it is overwhelmingly a passive one. This explains why CNWP stalls tend to attract far fewer than our usual campaigning SP stalls. This experience scotches the argument, forwarded by some on the ultra left, that our party is holding the campaign back. Even if the SP had liquidated itself into the CNWP from the outset, its spread of ideas and influence would not be qualitatively greater.

Summing up, A suggested that if the Labour left somehow managed to revive as a force on the cusp of taking control of the party, the bureaucracy would do everything it could to thwart it, up to and including expulsions. As for the CNWP, he argued it would be better for it to make propaganda by intervening in disputes and campaigns rather than concentrating on electoral politics. Though class struggle remains low there are a rising number of disputes. Because Labour has abandoned all pretence to being the workers' voice there is a fresh opportunity of making a case for a new party. This is what we will seek to do here in Stoke.

If you agree with the case for a new party or remain to be convinced the CNWP conference takes place Sunday 29th June, 11am-5pm at South Camden Community School, Charrington Street, London NW1.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Good Vibrations

I wanted to blog today but those rebellious brain cells have erected barricades across my neural pathways. I suppose it's just as well - does blogland need another post on David Davis saying the same thing as everyone else? Instead I've had a rummage in my worm-ridden archives and have retrieved this little gem. My review of Ann Summer's(!) first saw the light of day five years ago in Move magazine, a self-styled free guide for cool Stokie people, just like me ;) It was a bit of a strange publication, combining culture, arts and gig reviews with neoliberal propaganda for regeneration, but that's a whole other story. This article is short, work safe and a vacuous waste of your 30 seconds. But hey, it will do as blog filler.

When you mention the name Ann Summers, you tend to think of saucy parties and giggling housewives. So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I first went into their new store in Hanley.

I must confess it wasn’t my first time in a sex shop. I have nipped into two other outlets of ill repute in Stoke in the past (in a hunt for novelty gift items, honest!) Both times demanded a good deal of psyching up before stepping over the threshold. Seedy and foreboding outside, the interiors were not much better. Walls covered in posters, racks upon racks of magazines (and in one case, Mills and Boon books!) and a middle-aged bloke shifting uneasily on his stool does not make for the most welcoming of atmospheres.

Contrast this with Ann Summers. Situated in a prime location opposite McDonalds and next door to Waterstones, it is bright, well lit, and inviting. The shady looking chap of the traditional sex shop is nowhere to be found. Staff instead appeared to be cheery, and greeted me on my way in. I was almost dazzled by the cleanliness. Grease, damp, and dull paint jobs give way to pastel shades and shiny surfaces.

Despite the immaculate impression, my brain was telling me that I was in a sex shop, and I appeared to be loitering around the underwear section in full view of the street. My feet quickly carried me away, to the rear of the store toward the “toy department”. Here stood two display arrangements; the first carried a bewildering variety of battery-operated products, while the other seemed tailored toward the more "specialist" movie buffs among us.

Little did I realise that one of the assistants had followed me into this section. Imagine my horror when he began recommending certain items to me, describing their effects on his partners. Call me slightly prudish, but normally these matters are discussed only with close friends. But slowly, I got over the initial shock and started seeing the conversation like any other sales pitch. Having listened to the literal ins and outs of the most popular models, I eventually decided on a “safe” novelty item – a racy birthday card.

I couldn’t fault the checkout. The service was friendly and chatty, but having paid for it she gave me a branded bag to carry it in! Ann Summers may outclass the traditional sex shop, but give me an old skool brown paper bag any time.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Democratising Public Services

One of the few positive outcomes of the continued neoliberal dominance of government thinking on public services is it's stimulating serious thinking around non-market policy alternatives. An important contribution to this process comes from the TUC's Rethinking Public Service Reform: The Public Value Alternative, a pamphlet published last week. Written by Mick McAteer it argues for a completely different model of public service, one eschewing the market fundamentalism of New Labour and the Conservatives and embracing different principles of operation.The pamphlet is split into two broad sections: an explanation and critique of market-based reforms of public services; and an examination of the ideas underpinning the 'Public Value' approach and how they can be implemented in a democratic and participatory fashion.

It begins with the stunning observation that £44 billion of public services are now provided by the private sector, and this slice is forever growing. To give a local example, not content with closing schools and re-opening them as academies, as well as presiding over PFI community centre and office builds, Stoke-on-Trent City Council intends to enter into so-called 'strategic partnerships', which will see the contracting out of council call centres, IT, benefits processing and its personnel bureaucracy to private firms. All in the name of "cost" and "efficiency". This dovetails the orthodoxy dominating public service provision in Britain, that market discipline grinds costs down and continually improve services, otherwise 'consumers' will go elsewhere.

The pamphlet is careful to distinguish between the simple and sophisticated market-based approaches governments of the last 30 years have experimented with. For the first three terms of Tory government the private sub-contracting of (some) public services was solely concerned with cost and efficiency measures, to the detriment of the service itself. Under Major and then Blair the solutions became more complex: cost and efficiency were still the primary concerns, but they had quality measures built in too. Advocates of these new measures boasted the market could deliver universal and free at the point of need services better than the old welfare bureaucracy. The problem with this of course was capital tended to be attracted to those services who could guarantee the highest return, a problem afflicting simple and sophisticated policies alike, leading to public money being squandered by governments to make these new markets look more attractive and less risky. Secondly, private financing is in fact less efficient. Government funding ensures capital is available to public services at a cost beneath that of private funds, plus the latter's responsibility to their share holders have to build returns into costing plans. For example, the pamphlet cites PFI projects adding 1-3 per cent extra costs above what would have been the case for public borrowing. Another figure adds an extra £200,000-£300,000 per year for every £10 million invested in the PFI. There is no risk here for the contractor - every project is underwritten by the taxpayer, which is hardly an efficiency incentive! McAteer provides plenty of back-up evidence for the prosecution from social care and care homes; and the grandiose claims made for private finance refuted with reference to NHS Direct, the DWP and Job Centres.

As we have seen previously, there has never been a public clamouring for market economics and this is especially true of public services. For example, readers may recall the mainstream parties in the 2005 election battling over patients' right to choose the hospital who would provide their treatment. Research suggests most patients thought it irrelevant. In a YouGov poll, 89 per cent of respondents agreed "public services should be run by the government or local authorities, rather than private companies". The attitudinal evidence piles up against the marketisation of the public sector.

But there is an alternative, McAteer argues. The 'public value' approach reconceptualises value in stubbornly non-economic terms. The value generated in the private sector can be reduced to costs, balances and profits. But that created by public service has economic impacts too, on top of social/cultural value, equity, democratic and citizenship values and contributes to the long term sustainability of socio-economic relationships. Opening up and broadening the understanding of value beyond conventional economic terms means "public value can only be identified and assessed through a process of democratic engagement between service providers and service users. ...[T]his means the establishment of forums within which providers and users set priorities and develop strategies for public service delivery". Because they still require large funds sourced from the taxpayer this too must be considered one community of interest in the negotiation process.

According to the The Work Foundation public value is a timely and necessary guide to public sector reform. It would strengthen democratising processes in society and establish a more direct connection between those who decide and deliver public services, and those who use them. This engagement with users as citizens as opposed to passive consumers could increase their satisfaction and simultaneously empower them by giving them a say over how services are provided, something sorely lacking at present. In addition, public value improves the flexibility and responsiveness of services, there is no need for overly elaborate deliberative mechanisms when users can supply feedback at the point of use. McAteer adds his own advantages. First, it is a practical and non-utopian way of realising democratic welfare reform. In fact, because resources are limited in capitalist societies the need for dialogue and deliberation over their allocation is all the more necessary. Secondly public value is adaptable to a variety of settings: whereas market-based approaches ultimately reduce everything to the bottom line, democratic deliberation could enhance service provision regardless of its character.

McAteer identifies two problems with public value. Firstly, case studies offering supportive evidence are few and far between. More experimentation and trials need to be carried out (perhaps the unions as 'service providers' themselves could volunteer?). Secondly and linked to this is that rolling out public value procedures must be informed by best practice. Careful thought has to be put into the implementation of public value measures for it to succeed, otherwise the process could become chaotic and bureaucratic very quickly.

But overall public value is something the left should embrace. For starters it has the potential of reclaiming the language of empowerment from those who would dismantle the public sector because it is "faceless" and "unresponsive" and replace it with market-based provision - something that I noted previously. Secondly the spread of public value ideas and its implementation would furnish socialists a powerful new weapon in our perpetual war of position with neoliberal ideology and capital. It creates an impulse toward democratisation and decommodification that can not only undo the damage wreaked on public services by Conservatives and Labour alike, but threatens to offer a model that could be applied to all kinds of institutions. A socialist spectre in its public value guise could once again haunt capital, sending shivers down the spines of the ruling class.

Implementing public value would not be a simple task but neither have been the numerous wasteful attempts to apply market discipline to public services. But in public value we have a serious effort to realise the socialist demand of democratic control by workers and service users. For this reason the left should take it up and turn it against the ruling neoliberal consensus that can deliver bumper profits for the few, but very little for everyone else.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

More Twisted Beats

As long time AVPS readers know I do like my disco sleaze to be, well, a bit sleazy. And it just so happens something of a corker has been lighting up the radar this last couple of weeks. Buy Now's Body Crash is a little bit special. It's the kind of track that would come up to you in night clubs and ask you inappropriate questions about your trousers. If that wasn't enough, check out the video. It's erm ... a bit strange.



There's also this little gem I've been meaning to share for a while. It's hard to believe now but for a brief couple of years The Potteries was a key centre for youth culture during the rave era. Two words were mainly responsible for this: Shelley's Laserdome. Before it got shut by the cops as part of their general clamp down on rave culture kids used to travel from Manchester, such was Shelley's pull. Anyway, here's a tribute to this forgotten Stoke legend from Nathan Jay and Kaya.



Addendum: It's been driving me mad for weeks. In Body Crash can someone tell me what that sample is 21 seconds in?

World Naked Bike Ride

Yesterday saw one of Britain's more colourful regular mobilisations hit the streets of the capital. Yes, it was that time of year again for the World Naked Bike Ride. This year an estimated 2,000 cyclists assembled under the traditional battle cry 'as bare as you dare' and took a six mile tour around central London. By all accounts there were no arrests (when was the last time you heard of a riot at a nudist colony?) and generally the event was considered a success.

Those of us used to doing politics with our clothes on might be left wondering what the point of it all was, aside from having a bit of a laugh for a few hours. According to the official wiki page, the organisers are against oil dependency and curbing car culture, for demonstrating the vulnerability of cyclists on the roads, for obtaining real rights for cyclists and celebrating the freedom of the human body. Their "real rights for bikes" include making streets safer for cyclists, the introduction of cycle-only zones in cities and two-way cycle lanes. They are also for a ban on car advertising.

As a series of objectives to bring together as wide a number of naked people as possible they will do as a starting point. Socialists have long been keen on extending public transport and therefore tackling car culture by proxy. But to explicitly critique the cult of the car has traditionally been seen as a green preoccupation. It need not be. The pollution caused by traffic and the victims of road accidents disproportionately fall on working class people. See for example this post on Socialist Unity. With the astronomical rise in petrol the issue of car use is increasingly becoming a class issue.

Socialists would recommend more radical and far reaching measures than the demands of the WNBR, but where was an organised left presence? Did any comrade get their kit off except for a collecting tin and a bag of papers and try and sell copies of The Socialist, Socialist Worker, etc. ? If not I might be persuaded to scare the pigeons next year if I can convince a group of comrades to join me ...

To save searching for photos of yesterday's ride some are available here and here. Loads more from previous years can be seen here.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Branch Meeting: The French Revolution


Sister M took over the lead off reins last night to present a short talk on the lessons of the French revolution. Considering none of the massed ranks of Stoke Socialist Party knew anything about this pivotal moment in world history, we did well to have a half hour discussion! She began with Marx's observation that revolution starts at the top. This may seem counter-intuitive from a socialist perspective. After all, aren't revolutions the forcible intrusion of the masses onto the stage of history? Yes, but ruling classes are not immune to pressure welling up from below. Before a revolution comes along they can feel the ground trembling beneath their feet, and it is these tremors that start to focus the minds of the ruling class. One section supports modest reform to protect their privileges and the other favours repression, of keeping the masses under the cosh.

And so it was with France in the 1780s. That decade found a country the peasantry made up 80% of the population and its division between three so-called estates; the nobility, the clergy (who between them owned the majority of land) and the famous 3rd estate, comprising everyone else. To demonstrate their relative sizes, Paris at this time had a population between 500,000 - 600,000. This comprised of 10,000 clerics, 5,000 aristocrats and then the rest (of whom 40,000 were 'bourgeois'). So we have a numerically small ruling class sitting on a population through the church and the musket. But unfortunately for them, this was a class structure perched on a knife edge. The revolution drew deep from the well of many discontents, combining and condensing a constellation of grievances that kept piling upon one another. Here, M dwelled on Louis XVI's lavish spending on the military and military adventures. This she argued produced a budget crisis. As has been the case with subsequent crises under capitalism, the first instinct of the rulers is to get the ruled to bear its cost. But it was not possible here. Previous years of bad weather had exacerbated poverty in the lower orders and rumblings of discontent stayed the King's hand. Instead he caused a split in the ruling class by trying to introduce property taxes on the clergy and nobility.

It was at this point the more reform-minded elements struck. To deliberate over the tax, an Assembly of Notables was formed out of the clergy, nobility, bourgeois and bureaucrats. This grouping rejected the plan and demanded the King convene the Estates-General, a legislative assembly divided into three equal portions representing each of the estates. However, to reflect the great size of the 3rd Estate (comprising some 25 million people) its numbers of votes were doubled but owing to gerrymandering were stripped of weight to keep parity with the status quo. The Estates-General fell into farce and the Third Estate began meeting independently through a number of communes (commons) bodies. They verified their own powers and declared themselves to be a National Assembly of the people. Despite resistance to it on the part of the royalty, the first estate of the clergy came over to it followed 47 nobles. Thus achieving hegemony, the Third Estate, or rather its leading bourgeois representatives declared a Constituent Assembly in July, 1789. Two days later the King sacked his finance minister and began reconstructing the treasury, an event that provoked the famous storming of the Bastille. And as soldiers began arriving back, summoned to shut down the Assembly, the Parisian masses arose in an anarchic outpouring of looting and rioting. But nevertheless they won over the French Guard, the household troops of the Royal Palace and the King was forced to quit the capital. These events found their echo in the countryside as there was a generalised agrarian insurrection against the legalised bondage many peasants had been held in. Title deeds and châteaux went up in smoke.

In the 'August Decrees' the Assembly formally abolished what was left of feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. But by the end of the year the breaks has started to be applied to the revolution. 21st October saw the first hanging - of a working class man - by the new regime for the crime of sedition. In short order the "excesses" of the countryside were stamped on. The National Guard militia set up to protect the new constitution was staffed almost exclusively by bourgeois elements, and slowly but surely the revolution was beginning to assume a definite class character. The attitude of many Assembly members can be summed up by the quote of one participant that "one must work for the good of the people so they do nothing for themselves".

Very quickly factions in the Assembly began to form. Those who sat on the right were supportive of the royalty and were in favour of a constitutional monarchy on the British model. Those who sat on the left were republicans and favoured more extreme and thorough-going measures against the ancien regime. As a result of the intrigues and arguments a monarchical settlement was hammered out and the Assembly dissolved in favour of its legislative successor in September 1791. It was however to prove unworkable. The King was not subordinate to the Assembly, he was, constitutionally speaking, its partner. He possessed a veto over its decisions and retained the power to appoint ministers. This led to constitutional crisis again and a new phase of the revolution began.

In August 1792 power in Paris was seized by the city's commune. The government was forced to rely on it to remain in power, the King and Queen arrested and the monarchy was abolished. What remained of the Legislative Assembly also convened a National Convention - a body that wielded executive and constitution-making powers and was elected on the basis of universal adult male suffrage. As France was being assailed from foreign armies pledged to restoring the monarchy the Convention was a revolutionary government, and one which was forced to abrogate more powers to itself to beat off the dangers facing the revolution. For example, military reverses stimulated counter-revolutionary uprisings, which in turn invited the wrath of the Convention. This was the period of the Reign of Terror, where Robespierre's Committee of Public Safety arrested and executed anyone suspected of aiding reaction. The Convention also introduced conscription, pressing the general populace into either the army, suppliers for the army or gangs used against recalcitrant peasants to seize their grain. Though brutal this dictatorship defeated the armies of the Spanish, British, Austrians and Prussians. But it quickly began turning on itself. First the moderates to its right were denounced as counterrevolutionaries and guillotined followed swiftly by the radicals to its left. This was too much for many from all sides of the Convention and Robespierre and his supporters swiftly met the same fate as thousands of others. This was the period of Thermidor, of reaction within the revolution.

In 1795 after a period of terror directed toward the left, the Convention announced a new constitution. It created a 'Directory' in which executive power was held by five 'Directors'. This new body was not held in high confidence by the populace at large thanks to its arbitrary style of governing (the Directors routinely ignored the constitution). Furthermore this was a warmongering government. Revolution and war had so depleted France's wealth that government could not function without plunder and tribute seized from other countries. By keeping the army in the field, a certain Napoleon Bonaparte was able to build up a base of power, enabling him to easily lead a coup in 1799 and to the years of dictatorship and war that followed.

Opening for discussion F noted how the revolution was an advance for democratic principles, despite the Terror and its culmination in Napoleon's dictatorship. It was a revolution that only liberated the people up to a point and succeeded in speeding up the development of capitalism in France. Another legacy of the revolution lies in the spirit of the French working class, who show time and again their willingness to fight. P noted two things about the French revolution. First, though taking place in a period when the bourgeoisie were the rising class and the working class as we understand it were a variegated embryonic mass, even then they were afraid of letting the revolution go too far. This was typified by the way many among the bourgeoisie were satisfied with the constitutional settlement of the first phase of the revolution and their attacks on workers and peasants who went beyond their comfort limits. His second point was on the class character of the revolution. Marxists do not term the French revolution a 'bourgeois revolution' because the Richard Bransons and Alan Sugars of the day were taking to the streets. It is so-called because of the effects of the revolution. Its lasting achievements were the sweeping away of institutional arrangements that hindered the development of capitalism, and what it did was to raise the bourgeoisie to the position of the ruling class.

A compared the French with the Russian revolution. Leaving aside the national peculiarities of each country, the key difference between the two is that in Russia, the bourgeoisie had emerged relatively late on the scene of history. Though a bourgeois revolution was in their objective interests they faced a small, growing and politically confident Russian working class. The bourgeoisie was not strong enough and nor was it able to articulate their grievances, because they were aimed as much at them as they were at Tsarism. When push came to revolutionary shove, the capitalist class had a million and one ties to the bureaucracy and imperial family. They were not ideal, but the Tsar did at least defend bourgeois property relations. As was borne out in 1917, the regime brought about by the October revolution was forced to make inroads into these relations to retain power. From the standpoint of the Russian bourgeoisie, their stand with the Romanovs was entirely understandable.

Finally, P noted the impact of the French revolution is difficult to overestimate. All modern political ideas have those events imprinted in their DNA to greater or lesser extents. Conservatism is representative of the ideological reaction to it. Liberalism bases itself on the principles of political liberty the revolution popularised, but strives to limit that liberty to the public rather than the private realm. It is socialism that is the true heir to the revolution. The slogans of liberty, equality and fraternity point toward a society beyond capitalism, toward a society where the economy is taken from private hands and becomes the property of us all.