Bankers, Fire Extinguishers, Marx and Trotsky

Picture stolen from the massthink blog. Click on it to see the accompanying explanation of Marx's base/superstructure theory.

In a week where the British state has sent an over-enthusiastic kid to prison for a disproportionately long time as a ‘deterrent’, and the government has huffed and puffed in a pantomime pretence of blowing the bankers’ bonus house down, while the bankers themselves have made a moving and impassioned plea for us to let them stop apologising, it is important to remind ourselves of a few things:

  • Individual acts of terrorism are foolish, self indulgent, and un-socialist. The thinking socialist knows what motivates people to commit them, but recognises that they are the least useful method of achieving our aims.
  • The bourgeois courts act in the interests of the ruling class. On this occasion, quite explicitly.
  • Capital, in the last analysis, rules governments. Governments can’t really control the forces of capital. Some try harder than others, mind. The current mob won’t try at all.
  • The relationship between base and superstructure occasionally becomes quite explicitly clear. This is one of those occasions. Most of the time it seems far more complex (indeed, most useful contributions to Marxist thought, post-Lenin, have sought to interpret and explain this complexity – see Gramsci, Althusser, Raymond Williams and others). But every now and then the stark, Marxian model of the economic base dictating the form of the cultural/ideological/social/political/judicial superstructure reveals itself in almost caricatured form. That’s what the newspapers have been full of this week.

So, as socialists, none of this week’s news is news.

A foolish kid commits a dangerous act. It was bound to end in prison. Is it a shock that the courts decide explicitly to use his sentence to send out a message to other protestors? No. Because we know whose courts they are. There may have been a ‘just’ prison sentence that could have been handed down. This one ain’t it. And the judge knew that, and pretty much said so.

A couple of years back, the state stepped in to sustain the capitalist system when it hit crisis point. Just like in 1929. Capitalism only keeps existing because people intervene to sustain it. Those interventions never, ever conform to the philosophy of liberal democratic political theory. But liberal theory developed in the wake of capitalist production relations, and at a considerable distance behind it. In reality, those whose interests are best served by capitalism will do all they can to sustain the system, and that includes massive state intervention in the economy –  the very thing that is supposed to be the enemy of capitalism. In the last analysis, the interests of capitalism itself, rather than the individuals who benefit from it, will always prevail. Nonetheless, the beneficiaries are now in a brilliant position to start thriving again. The state was super-handy when the system needed saving. But the state is incapable of intervening when the system is thriving. Marxists have always known that. It takes the announcement of a banking bonus bonanza to clarify it for everyone else.

So of course we want revenge and of course it is tempting to undertake stupid individual acts of criminal defiance. As someone far cleverer than us once put it: “the point, however, is to change”. So let’s focus on getting rid of this laughable system, and replacing it with something much much better. As a class.

Let’s give the last word to Trotsky, from his 1911 essay: Why Marxists Oppose Individual Terrorism

Trotsky, with really really good hair

“If we oppose terrorist acts, it is only because individual revenge does not satisfy us. The account we have to settle with the capitalist system is too great to be presented to some functionary called a minister. To learn to see all the crimes against humanity, all the indignities to which the human body and spirit are subjected, as the twisted outgrowths and expressions of the existing social system, in order to direct all our energies into a collective struggle against this system — that is the direction in which the burning desire for revenge can find its highest moral satisfaction.”

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