“the danger is,” writes our colleague Alasdair MacIntyre, in a reproof to the New Left in the current Labour Review, “that one will fight a series of guerrilla engagements on cultural questions which will dissipate socialist energy and lead nowhere. What one hopes is that opening up these questions will lead one to see the basic antagonism in our society at the point of production.”
This is good socialist doctrine; and perhaps we need the reproof. What is discouraging is the suggestion that we are back at a sort of ideological atavism which flourished in the days of proletcult. Because the way in which MacIntyre phrases his reproof entails the suggestion that, since the “basic antagonism” in our society is to be found in the nature of capitalist exploitation at work, therefore this is the only real or important antagonism, and that all other intellectual or political engagements are only of importance if they lead on to this.
I am sorry to seem to give a lesson in elementary socialist theory, but this kind of reasoning is no less than the ABC of socialism with the B and the C left out. The B and the C, in this case, are the class-struggle, which (whatever most contemporary “Marxists” have reduced it to) was a concept employed by Marx and Engels with the greatest subtlety. And the subtlety of the subtlest historical interpreter can never equal the rich complexity with which class antagonisms actually find expression in real history.
When Wilkes’ North Briton No. 45 was condemned to be burnt in public as a “seditious libel”, the London mob demonstrated and put out the executioner’s fire by the simple method of mass urination. If we follow the iron logic of the atavistic deviant of Marxism, each one should have returned to his own point of production and demonstrated in the same manner against his boss. This might certainly have been a more class-conscious action. But it would not (as Wilkes’ struggle did) have established the illegality of arrests under a General Warrant. And if General Warrants had been available to Home Secretaries in the nineteenth century, trade unionists would have been subject to wholesale arrest. And this, in its turn, would have made the struggle at the point of production a great deal more severe.
It would be amusing to follow up other examples (was the New Model Army’s concern with the authority of the Bishops a “guerrilla engagement on cultural questions” which dissipated energy?) But these are not notes for an undelivered lecture on the “Class Struggle” but an appea for money. And these are my points:
1. Any serious engagement in cultural or political life should not dissipate, but generate, socialist energy. Because:
2. We do not have one “basic antagonism” at the place of work, and a series of remoter, more muffled antagonisms in the social or ideological “superstructure”, which are in some way less “real”. We have a class-divided society, in which conflicts of interest, and conflicts between capitalist and socialist ideas, values, and institutions take place all along the line. They take place in the health service and in the common room, and even—on rare occasions—on the television screen or in Parliament, as well as on the shop floor.