171 years ago The Communist Manifesto was published in Bishopsgate, London. Everyone has heard its famous phrases about a ‘spectre’ haunting Europe; about the history of all hitherto existing society being ‘the history of class struggle’; about capitalism being like a ‘sorcerer’ who can no longer control the power called up by his spells; and about proletarians having ‘nothing to lose but their chains’ — and a world to win.
Less well-known, but perhaps more immediately relevant to the politics of the UK today as we approach our third General Election in four years, is Part III, where, under the title of ‘Conservative, or Bourgeois, Socialism’, Marx and Engels pass down this warning to us about that very peculiar section of the middle-classes that claims to speak for something it calls ‘social justice’. In the spirit of the continuing relevance of this text to our understanding of capitalism, I have updated Marx and Engel’s designation of this class from ‘bourgeois’ to ‘middle-class’, and the class it wants to abolish from ‘proletariat’ to ’working class’:
‘A part of the middle classes wants to redress social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of capitalist society.
‘To this section belong economists, philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the conditions of the working class, organisers of charities, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics and cloak-and-dagger reformers of every imaginable kind. This form of socialism has, moreover, been worked out into complete systems.
‘The socialistic middle-class want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting from them. They want the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They want a middle class without a working class. The middle class naturally conceives the world over which it rules to be the best; and middle-class socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the working class to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightaway into the social New Jerusalem, it merely requires that, in reality, the working class should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should discard all its distasteful ideas about the middle classes.
‘A second, more practical but less systematic, form of this socialism sought to disparage every revolutionary movement in the eyes of the working class by arguing that not mere political reform, but only a change in the material conditions of existence — in economic relations — could be of any advantage to it. By changes in the material conditions of existence, however, this form of socialism doesn’t mean abolishing capitalist relations of production — an abolition that can only be brought about by a revolution — but rather administrative reforms based on the continued existence of these relations of production. Such reforms, therefore, in no way affect the relations between capital and labour, but at the most lessen the cost and simplify the administrative work of government by the middle classes.
‘Middle-class socialism attains adequate expression when, and only when, it becomes a mere figure of speech. Free trade — for the benefit of the working class! Protective duties — for the benefit of the working class! Prison reform — for the benefit of the working class! This is the final word, and the only seriously meant word, of middle-class socialism, which can be summed up in the following phrase. The middle class is a middle class — for the benefit of the working class!’
This, to my ears, is still the most accurate description of the election promises of Oh Jeremy Corbyn — in which he recently promised, among other things (below):
- Not to re-nationalise the National Health Service but to make the waiting time on trolleys in privatised Accident & Emergency departments slightly shorter;
- Not to implement Brexit but to offer a second referendum on remaining in the European Union of neo-liberal states;
- Not to socialise production but to buy into the Green New Deal lie that through a fourth industrial revolution for capitalism we can reduce carbon emissions;
- Not to socialise housing provision but to continue Labour’s policy of demolishing council estates and building market sale, shared ownership, rent-to-buy and (un)affordable rent properties for the middle classes subsidised by the state;
- Not to stop Labour councils designating single mothers as ‘intentionally homeless’ and imposing £100 fines on rough sleepers but to end rough sleeping;
- Not to ‘secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’ — as Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution once read — but to end in-work poverty, food-bank use and tuition fees.
These promises of what the middle-classes understand by ‘social justice’ are not so radically at odds with what the Parliamentary Labour Party might agree to implement should it ever form a Government, unlikely as that appears; but they’re a long way from the socialist rhetoric with which Labour ideologues such as Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani and Ken Loach seek to hide the ruthlessness, cynicism and contempt for the working class of Labour in power — in our councils, in our city halls, in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords, and in the European Parliament — where the party’s Neo-liberalism is there for anyone with eyes to see.
The question is: do we want to look? Or, 170 years after Marx’s warning, do we want to keep on falling for the capitalist ideology of ‘middle-class socialism’?
Architects for Social Housing