Orthodoxy and Time

Dali melting clockThis piece is a sequel to the previous "What is Orthodoxy" post below and should ideally be read after that. Here we are looking at how the objectivist notions of class talked about in the first piece in the series, relates to a particular notion of time - the Epoch.

The reason I concentrate on the theme of the conceptual legacy of Second International or orthodox Marxism is that I think it played a very significant role, even, in places and periods, a dominant one in the development of 20th century socialism. Further, that simplistic notions that "it's a Marxist issue" that doesn't effect the evolution of anarchist thought in the same historical period are crap. I just don't hold that the identity barrier between Marxism and anarchism is an impenetrable firewall. For me it's a permeable barrier and, given that we face historical struggles and debates over ideas of day together, in the same times and places, it is inevitable that there is a back and forth of ideas between the two families of tendencies. So drawing up a proper balance sheet of the ortho conceptual framework is a necessity for all of us if we are to be more successful in the 21st century than we were in the 20th.

To give an example of the penetration of orthodox thinking and it's objectivist idea of class into anarchist discourse, we can look at the debate between Pierre Monatte and Errico Malatesta at the 1907 Anarchist Conference in Amsterdam. Here the subject of debate was the relationship the anarchist movement should have towards the rising syndicalist movement, particularly the French CGT which had adopted its famous Amiens Charter the year before. Monatte has advanced a position that the revolutionary syndicalist movement (as distinct from and explicitly opposed to the anarcho-syndicalist movement) represents all the anarchist movements desire for a self-emancipatory worker's movement and that, therefore, the anarchist movement should dissove itself (liquidate itself) into the CGT and other national revolutionary syndicates (revolutionary unions). Here is a portion of Malatesta's response, rejecting Monatte's proposal:

The basic error of Monatte and of all revolutionary syndicalists, in my opinion,
derives from an overly simplistic conception of the class struggle. It is a conception
whereby the economic interests of all workers – of the working class – are held to be
equal, whereby it is enough for workers to set about defending their own particular
interests in order for the interests of the whole proletariat against the bosses to be

The reality is very different, in my view. The workers, like the bourgeoisie, like
everyone, are subject to the law of universal competition that derives from the sys-
tem of private property and that will only be extinguished together with that system.
There are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term, because there are
no class interests. There exists competition and struggle within the working “class”,
just as there does among the bourgeoisie. The economic interests of one category
of worker are implacably in contrast with those of another category.

Here in the first paragraph quoted, it is clear that the "overly simplistic conception" of the class struggle is the anarchist equivalent of the orthodox Marxist objectivist notion of class. Class exists objectively and has common, objective interests. It is in rejection of this notion that Malatesta makes his, at first sight, startling claim that "There are therefore no classes, in the proper sense of the term". This seemingly bizarre statement makes more sense when we understand "proper sense" as meaning formal or essentialist in the positivist fashion. To this degree we can say that Malatesta's critique of 1907 anticipates notions such as E.P. Thompson's processual and historicist definitions of class, or the class compositional analysis of the Italian operaisti of the post-war period, by a good half-century.

So, now to make the link from class to time itself. In addition to the notion of the "objective" notion of class (and it's compensatory product - "false consciousness") I would like to introduce a further characteristic of orthodox thinking - "epochalism". This is a byproduct of the objective class concept. Object-centred models have the disadvantage of the Platonic forms whence they derive, of being timeless. The definition does not really allow for change: if the properties that define an object change over time, then surely that means it has changed into a different object defined by the new set of properties? But in a socialist tradition that sees itself as historical - outlined by the historical problems of the rise of capitalism from feudalism and the historical question of overcoming capitalism - this timelessness does not fit. The solution is a kind of hybrid, a sort of "punctuated equilibrium" theory. That is, that the content of categories like class (and it's "objective" interests) is defined by particular eras or epochs. When one epoch replaces another, all the categories of analysis must be redone and the new strategy and tactics appropriate to the new era worked out. However, once that is done, then as long as the epoch persists... nothing changes. So the same strategy and tactics remain relevant. In fact, any move by militants to question existing analysis, strategy or tactics on the basis of "maybe things have changed a bit?" is pathologised as "revisionism". After all, if history hasn't changed, why should our analysis or programme?

Epochalism takes different forms depending on whether you have a substitutionist (partyist) approach to "the consciousness question" or a "class exclusionist" approach. If the former then, once the tendency founder has laid down the analysis and strategy for the era, the "doors of interpretation" (the gates of ijtihad) are closed, all that remains for the tendency leaders is to keep the faith and guard against revisionism by comparing all opposition with your bestiary of past revisionists so you know what names to call the new heretics. All interpretation of existing developments must be carried out through the imitation (taqlid) of the methods of the founder(s). Here epochalism creates extreme sectarianism of the party, whether it be on the Leninist or Bordigist model (c.f. the ICC's total dependency on the theory of the "epoch of capitalist decline" to justify their pointless existence).

In the case of the "exclusivist" version, the "infallible, invariant programme" is replaced by the organisational form of the "revolutionary" organisation, which must, again, be defended from any suggestions of reform, evolution or adaptation to meet changed circumstances - because, unless someone can demonstrate that we are in a new era, nothing of any strategic or tactical significance has changed.

In either case, the idea of the epoch removes the challenge of history. There is no longer a need for an ongoing exercise of analysis, of changing class composition and hence evolution of strategies and tactics appropriate for the political recomposition of the class as a conscious and antagonist subject, capable of making the revolution.

By contrast, the proposal for a politics free from orthodox aporiai, must start with the idea that history is a process of continual change. Hence we cannot afford to liquidate or mothball the process of analysis and strategising until the next epoch comes along (especially if they're like buses and you wait for ages and then three come along at once...). The work of analysis and formulation of strategy is a continual, unending task (which is not to be read as an excuse for not starting!).

In summary, I accuse the orthodox assemblage of inter-connected and self-reinforcing concepts of having replaced historical materialism with an idealist epochalism. I believe in the utility in trying to properly understand the errors that stem from the usurpation of historical materialism by this changeling, and understand how it has left its mark in not only tendencies that refer back to Lenin, Trotsky or Bordiga, but also to Luxemburg and Pannekoek and indeed, Monatte and Pouget.




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