‘Abolishing the present state of things’

by · December 8, 2014

Paris Commune: the ‘reabsorption of the State power by society’

Paris Commune: the ‘reabsorption of the State power by society’

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.

—Marx & Engels (1845), The German Ideology

We present here the panel that Left Flank organised for this year’s Historical Materialism conference, held in London on 6-9 November. It was entitled ‘Anti-politics, social movements & the practical critique of the state’ and featured three papers. We include the audio of the three papers as well as the slides for the first paper.

Our sincere thanks go to the conference organisers and to the critical but enthusiastic people who filled the room and contributed to the success of the session.


Elizabeth Humphrys & Tad Tietze — ‘Abolishing the present state of things’: reconstructing Marx’s critique of politics and the state

Abstract: A range of social critics has pointed to the hollowing out of previously entrenched representative political institutions and the growth of popular anti-politics sentiment during the late neoliberal era in Western democracies. Antonio Gramsci’s prediction of a ‘crisis of authority’ where ‘social classes become detached from their traditional parties’ seems to have come to pass, yet without a breakdown of bourgeois hegemony or a breakthrough by revolutionary political projects. By reconstructing Karl Marx’s early critique of politics and the state — often inaccurately dismissed as immature and undeveloped as compared with his later critique of political economy — we will outline its relevance to the current anti- political conjuncture. Drawing on the work of Lucio Colletti, Gary Teeple, Derek Sayer and Peter Thomas, we will argue that grasping the essential nature of the relationship between state and civil society, and the limits of political emancipation vis-à-vis social liberation can lay the basis for theorising a significantly different approach to ‘the political’ to that which has been dominant within the Western revolutionary Left for the last century. Furthermore, we contend that this new approach is immanent in the practical activity of the emerging anti-political social movements of our time.

Download slides as PDF here.


Jonny Jones — Some thoughts on ‘anti-politics’ in austerity Britain

Abstract: The Australian Marxists Elizabeth Humphrys and Tad Tietze have suggested that there presently exists a widespread mood of ‘anti-politics’, stemming from a ‘crisis of representation that leads most people to see politics as completely detached from their lives.’ Their analysis proceeds from an interpretation of Marx’s critique of politics and the state, as well as from Gramsci’s insights into the processes by which classes and class fractions become ‘detached from their traditional parties.’

In analyses of the Australian political class, and in Luke Stobart’s work on the 15-M movement and the growth of Podemos in the Spanish state, it appears that this rejection of the political mainstream can lead to disparate outcomes depending on, among other factors, the balance of class forces and the strategies pursued by the political classes and the left to relate to the anti-politics mood and the movements that it imbues.

In this paper, I hope to assess the applicability of Humphrys’ and Tietze’s broad conception of anti-politics to analysis of political developments in Britain since the 2010 student revolt, such as the anti-austerity movement and the recent emergence of UKIP as an electoral force; and to examine its implications for revolutionary strategy in Britain.


Luke Stobart — The politics and ‘anti-politics’ of Podemos

Abstract: Contrary to economistic categorisations made of the 15-M (Indignados) movement in the Spanish State, this movement was primarily a rebellion against ‘really existing politics’ and an example of the new ‘anti-politics’ identified by Humphrys and Tietze. Due to the historic dimensions of the 15-M, its consciousness-raising, and the reconfiguration of social struggle it inspired, the 15-M has fed a progressively-inclined organic crisis of the state. More recently, ‘anti-politics’ has confirmed its transformative potential through the electoral advance of Podemos — a radical organisation mainly consisting of participants from the ‘new social movements’. In a context of political disaffection and ‘institutional blockage’, Podemos’ systematic antagonism towards ‘the political caste’ enabled it to win 8% of the vote in its first elections, and to dominate subsequent debate in the mainstream. This militancy and Podemos’ ‘new way of doing politics’ (mass assemblies, open primaries and rejection of ‘closed-door’ negotiations) are unsettling and destabilising the traditional Left, and strengthening calls for a change in the institutional framework after the abdication of King Juan Carlos. Even when taking local factors into account, the surprise impact of Podemos suggests that radical ‘anti-politics’ provides a strong basis for progressive projects within the contemporary international context.

HM Panel

Discussion2 Comments

  1. David Atkins says:

    ‘Abolishing the present state of things’ : the quotation from Marx’s German Ideology epitomises what is wrong with classical Marxist theory – it is pure determinism, whatever communists may say about the importance of human agency. This deterministic element follows from Marx’s reading of history as primarily driven by class conflict over the means of production – a mistaken, or rather, over-simplistic view, I believe. It has led to the failures of Communism in the 20th century, the result of a theory that is attractive to only a tiny minority of intellectuals. As an ex-Trotskyist, I have personal experience of this and would welcome a wider debate. Future generations will be faced with the question of why Communism failed despite the existence for most of the 20th century of those ‘actually existing conditions’ which Marx predicted would see its triumph over capitalism.

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