Hobsbawm, party and class

Submitted by Matthew on 17 October, 2012 - 7:41

To explain why Eric Hobsbawm backed Kinnock over the Labour left as “a pre-occupation with party over class” seems to me misleading (“The paradox of Hobsbawm’s legacy”, Solidarity 260).

I don’t think this is his view, but Liam McNulty’s phrasing implies that Marxists prioritise “class over party”. While in a “first principles” sense this has an element of truth — because we put the goal of working-class self-emancipation higher than allegiance to any organisation as such — in practical terms it is wrong.

As Trotsky put it in ‘What next? Vital questions for the German proletariat’ (1932):

“The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party. The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious. To say that ‘the class stands higher than the party,’ is to assert that the class in the raw stands higher than the class which is on the road to class consciousness.

“The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat, is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilizes those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically.”

This was not said in order to justify the bureaucratic twists and turns of the German Communist Party. Trotsky: “there isn’t the slightest need for this... theory in order to establish the necessity for a [workers’] united front [against the Nazis, which the Stalinists opposed]”.

I think Hobsbawm’s rallying must have had more to do with the “Popular Front”, anti-class struggle politics which — as Liam explains — he had grown up politically with and then developed. By the early 1980s, the Eurocommunist current around Marxism Today had concluded that working-class struggle had no prospects because the Thatcherites had “hegemonised” such a big swathe of workers, and that the only alternative was a “broad popular alliance” stretching from the Labour right to the Liberals and even Tory “wets”.

That included opposition to left struggles, however limited, for democracy and working-class policies in the Labour Party.

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