Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Transitions, multitudes and united fronts

I'm currently flitting between a few different (but interconnected) theoretical interests, being pulled in different directions - and not quite completing anything! If I can marshal my thoughts and ideas I'll blog about these properly, very soon if possible, but meanwhile here's the material I've been reading.

David Harvey's new book looks like it could be fascinating, based on this chapter. It is quite simply one of the best contemporary anti-capitalist critiques you'll find, with a superb grasp of the dynamics of the current crisis and its background. I'm not convinced by some of his ideas in the second half of the extract. I don't think it's useful to compare the transition from capitalism to socialism to the previous shift from feudalism to capitalism (the latter is something Harvey discussed and debated with the late Chris Harman - it's a shame Harman isn't here to respond, with his unique authority on these matters, to Harvey's latest work).

I'm also intrigued at the moment by the increasing fashionability of notions of 'immaterial labour', 'multitude' and 'the commons'. I've read about these ideas before, associated with a number of influential left-wing theorists (most obviously Antonio Negri), but my interest has been renewed by noticing just how widespread certain concepts have become. Indeed they might be described as being almost - in the left-wing academy, at any rate - 'hegemonic'.

Which leads me on to Gramsci (pictured), who is associated with that particular term in the Marxist lexicon. When I did my Masters (in Media and Cultural Studies) several years ago I couldn't help notice that Gramsci was the Marxist thinker most incorporated into the academic social sciences. He has a respectability denied to Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg.

My return to Gramsci is influenced by a number of things, but the principal factor is something ignored by academics: his relevance to revolutionary strategy, especially his complex and subtle work elaborating a theory of the united front. Recent differences within the SWP - and my own expulsion from the party - have centred mainly on this point. For me, and others of a similar stripe, there is a certain urgency in re-engaging with what the foremost figures in our tradition have written about united front strategy. My interest has also been fed by reading an article on the relevance of Gramsci today and by Phil BC starting his series on Gramsci at A Very Public Sociologist.

I recently re-read the chapter on 'Party and Class' in Tony Cliff's short book on Rosa Luxemburg, which will certainly inform anything I might write about concerning Gramsci and the united front. I've recently read, and blogged about, both Lenin and Lukacs: it's proving interesting to explore the ideas about political strategy from these key thinkers in the tradition (Trotsky could of course be added to the list), and consider how they might be applied today. Where issues of organisation and strategy are concerned, it is a time for simultaneously re-connecting with lessons from the marxist tradition and thinking in fresh, creative ways about their relevance to new circumstances.


  1. The commons is one of the central categories in Marx's work, Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel Prize for the economics of the commons and its covered in my book Babylon and Beyond, I also discuss Negri and Hardt who are interesting but flawed.

    Any thoughts on Paul Mason interviewing Zizek on the BBC?

    And don't forget the General Election, I have been hitting the streets in Brighton and my friends have been to Birmingham this weekend...and I hear Jerry Hicks was a hit at the right to work lets make the theory practical

  2. I'm really thinking of the current vogue for the concept of the 'commons' found in Negri, Zizek and other radical social theorists. The most striking thing about this term is what radically different meanings it has for different people. It can be explicitly communist but also has very moderate and unthreatening versions.

    I think there's a problem with David Harvey's piece (linked to above), when he seems to suggest that communist spaces can somehow be developed within a capitalist society, which I ultimately think is wrong. He envisages these as central to a project of social transformation - as transition to communism - but it's still very problematic. This is why, broadly, I'm inclined to consider the concept (as it tends to be understood in contemporary radical theory) a very flawed one. But it also has interesting possibilites that I'm very sympathetic to.

    Paul Mason interviewing Zizek? First I've heard, but sounds v interesting. Yes, I gather Jerry H was at Right to Work, and I've been impressed by the material on your blog about Greens linking up with Respect and others in key campaigns like those for Salma and Caroline - hopeful signs.