To Dissolve the People, and Elect Another

The radical democrat is caught within a tension. They must hold, first, a faith in the ultimate capacities of the people as free agents, and second, a realist recognition that such agents are not yet free, and that their expressions under an unfree system are not adequate guides to their interests. To put it differently: democracy is an insufficient guide to agents ‘best interests’ if they do not know what their ‘best interests’ are yet because of the distorting pressures of existing power relations. My proposition is that this tension lies at the core of the vanguard theory of the party within Marxism, and remains an indispensable analytic for adequate (radical) political practice more generally.

Lenin’s vanguard party was, roughly, competing against two other interpretations of socialist strategy. In the first, deterministic or mechanistic understanding, there was a simple reflection of ones material conditions in their consciousness, such that as capitalism’s crisis tendencies intensified, so too would the revolutionary disposition of the proletariat. The second, a Luxemburgian faith in the spontaneous capacities of the proletariat, was effectively a more sophisticated understanding of the first. Whilst she dropped the belief that events necessarily evolved in stages cast in iron necessity — presumption that led the Mensheviks to demand an alliance with the bourgeoisie so as to not disrupt the natural order of dialectical materialism (feudalism-bourgeois revolution-development of industrial capitalism-proletarian revolution) — she did nevertheless overemphasise the potential for an ‘organic ideological growth into socialism.’ The party was here never permitted autonomy from the democratic will of the masses, and only served a hermeneutic function in which it relayed back the deeper meanings of class actions back to them.

Lenin, by contrast, saw something very different. The working-classes were never going to achieve revolutionary consciousness of their own accord, stuck in a conciliatory ‘trade union consciousness’, a labour aristocracy pulled toward reformism by imperialist superprofits and disorganised by internal differentiation. An overemphasis on material conditions, and a refusal to act ahead of the spontaneous actions, would lead only to a missing of the opportunity, to ignoring the ways a political intervention by a dedicated vanguard in a specific conjunctural moment might raise the proletariat to revolution.

Georg Lukacs offered a more sophisticated version of this theory of the vanguard. The subjectivity of the working-classes was distorted by a general process of ‘reficiation’, where human social relations are transformed into objectified and immutable relations amongst things. Commodification of labour-power inserts workers into a ‘fragmented’ and ‘contemplative’ form of a consciousness which is not solely a false consciousness. By contrast, a conception of themselves as atomised commodities competing to sell their labour-power, manipulated by the forces of accumulation outside of their control, was in some sense an accurate depiction — and was necessary to participation in — capitalisms genuine social practises. Nonetheless, this was ‘fragmentary’ insofar as this was a partial view: it did not locate this supposedly atomised process of exchange within the class relations of domination that constitutes it, it did not reveal how the amorphous ‘and unchallengeable invisible hand’ is but the objectified power of human agents, and thus capable of being overturned. To move from passive contemplation to active Subjecthood then required the ‘self-consciousness of the commodity’, that is, for the proletariat to realise that the ‘objects’ of the process — the dehumanised commodities manipulated by commercial forces — were in fact the ‘subjects’, (re)producing the social and economic relations upon which it was all based. Lukacs believed that this ‘self-consciousness’ was however not the default understanding because of the forces of reification. He thus posited a distinction between ‘empirical’ consciousness — the actual ideas present in the heads of the proletariat at a given time — and the ‘imputed’ class consciousness — the objectivity possible or ideal-type reflexive realisation of the structural position and attendant interests of the working class. It was the job of the vanguard party to stimulate the move from the one to the other.

We must resist here the knee-jerk reaction against positing a distinction between what one is conscious of and what some apparently more enlightened party is conscious of as necessarily totalitarian. If I develop an obsessive passion for ice-cream as a way to avoid dealing with some trauma or another, it is reasonable for someone to suggest that this compensatory behaviour is not quite in my ‘best interests’, despite the attractiveness of the sugar given my present mental state. It is also the case that people regularly act in ways that, while not so potentially pathological, they might disown or shift if they calmed down and thought about things from a more widened perspective. The assumption that agents are always perfectly aware of their interests is no better than assuming the opposite.

This is particularly the case wherein accepting ones first preferences might conceal the forces that have shaped those preferences. When the Labour Party lost in 2017 and 2019, those who supported them and continued to do so have to hold, in some sense, that the electorate was wrong; that the wisdom of the majority failed. We can accept that part of the blame must be placed on the failure of the Labour Party themselves — given the rules of the game in electoral politics, the Tories thumping ‘Get Brexit Done’ against Labour’s terminally indecisive Brexit position, wrapped in a laundry list of policies for which a cohering narrative was never spun, was indeed a better strategy — such that voters were ‘right’ to not choose the weaker of the two offers. However, to abstract the electoral competition itself from the entirety of other processes of preference formation — from the relentless assaults of the unashamedly right-wing press on an even moderately social democratic project; to the total decline in the organisational and cultural force of the unions as the mass base for the Left — is to ignore the ways in which some people’s preferences might have been distorted in such a way that, were the scenario to be different, they would not have voted as they did do so.

Two things must be said here. First, I don’t want to tacitly rest on a distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘distorted’ preferences, such that one is supposedly an authentic essence and the other a tainted product of social conditions. Quite the opposite: the point is that all interests are the products of social conditions, and that if the situation was reversed, and Labour had a mass organisational base and a broad programme of political education, it would be these organisations that ‘formed’ the preferences toward the Left. But if so, what makes this a better guide? Here we should pull back from the relativist implications: the whole point of Marxism is that capitalism is a social system that fundamentally dominates and exploits its workers, and that knowledge of and antagonism to this domination and exploitation is (in some, however implicit and endlessly refracted, way) rooted in people’s social conditions. It is not in the best interests of subordinates to perpetuate their subordination. If socialising institutions of the left can push the ‘masses’ toward this understanding — or, to put it differently, can persuasively articulate the reflexive understanding of that position already implicit in it — then this is the ‘correct’ option.

Second, we should not consider the failure of the popular classes to vote for their best interests a simple matter of being duped. The fact is that dominant classes, in constructing their hegemony, do indeed have to make concessions, do indeed have to appeal — in however a distorted way — to real problems, frustrations, and aspirations. Thatcher captured a sense of enervation against the lumbering postwar state; Johnson channelled the anti-political sentiment that has been brewing for decades against an unaccountable technocracy as a metonym for ‘the establishment’. Moreover, people’s interests are never so simple as to be divided into ‘best’ or ‘worst’ — what of my short term interests to prop up the housing market against my long-term interest of stable wage growth and a productive economy? And indeed the ‘people’ as such denotes nothing but a generalising abstraction, masking internal differentiation and contradiction. It may be in the White Man’s ‘best interests’ to fight the culture war against BLM and MeToo; it is the whole game of politics to convince the Poor White Man that his commonalities with BLM and MeToo are more pertinent than the superiority he might derive from their denigration.

With these qualifications out the way, we can come back to the central point. Politics, in the sense laid out here, is then certainly not a matter of slavishly following the winds of publicly opinion, of meeting the public where they are. Rather, it is about shaping that public opinion, of changing the situation, of meeting people where they should be. What we can see here, then, is a strong parallel between the function of the vanguard party — of moving beyond the ‘empirical’ content of existing working-class awareness to realise their best interests, of intervening so as to bring about precisely the revolutionary disposition which determinists before Lenin believed would simply arise from the tectonics of history — and modern political practice. The core issue with Starmer’s focus-group strategy is that he ends up stuck in a feedback loop: he’ll learn that people think the Labour Party is too profligate, or that they’re not patriotic enough, or whatever newsbite nonsense this stuff churns out, and simply give them back more of that by reinforcing the narrative which created it in the first place. Instead of daring to challenge the existing narrative of patriotism that counterposes British Values to BLM, this managerialism rolls over for it. Instead of not taking this narrative for granted, which has been spun by the right through their web of sycophants in the media, and re-articulating a politics of class that transcends false value-oppositions, or a politics of patriotism that isn’t inherently reactionary but draws on rich radical traditions, he simply accepts it as an immovable premise. Instead of attempting to rebuild a mass power base capable of countering the rights grip over the media and the atomising processes of capitalist production, Starmer takes the existing institutional arena and the power-balance congealed within it as set in stone.

But the whole point of politics, or at least a politics in which one seeks to break from the status-quo, is to reject the premise. And this means not deferring to the expressed ‘democratic’ preferences as some pristine General Will, but rather acknowledging that politics is a matter of shaping, constructing, this will to more or less emancipatory ends.

21, studying Political Theory and Sociology at Cambridge University