THERE is a possibly apocryphal story about a test given to candidates to become FBI agents. They were asked to explain the term ‘dialectical materialism’. It was a trick question. Anyone who answered it correctly failed the test.
The story behind the story is that dialectical materialism is the term used by Karl Marx to cover his philosophical ideas. The FBI apparently wanted Das Kapital to be a closed book, never to be opened as far as their agents were concerned. If you do not want to sit an FBI test, read on.
The best concise explanation of materialism I have come across is on page 117 of Everybody’s Book of Politics that was published by Odhams in the mid-1930s. It states that ‘a society is a structurally-related cultural whole in which no element can be understood as an isolated phenomenon, and that all changes in the structure of society are brought about, in the first place, by the development of productive forces’. Phew. But this sentence explains the totalitarian nature of Marxist regimes which are driven to control the ‘cultural whole‘, plus their promotion of work as the sole form of human expression. Mona Lisa should be holding a pair of scissors and looking up from cutting cloth in her state-run garment factory – but only briefly so as not to affect her daily production quota.
Dialectics is a form of intellectual analysis that considers outcomes as a synthesis of two opposing forces, the thesis and the antithesis. Put the two words together and you have the struggle between the class of labour and the class of capital in the field of production. According to Marx, labour is oppressed by capital and the synthesis appears to be the merging of labour with capital into a single class. For some reason this involves murderous violence directed against capital as the synthesis actually involves killing capitalists. This neatly explains how Lenin, Stalin, Mao and all their wannabes murdered millions with a clear conscience and were defended by intellectuals in the West. Their god told them to do it.
It is, hopefully, a different kind of dialectic that motivates the Labour Party, but dialectic there is. They have migrated from the alleged oppression of the working classes by capitalism into the alleged oppression of various minority identity groups by ‘society’, although no one seems to have told poor John McDonnell. This shift has not gone unnoticed by the working classes, especially as they seem to be Labour’s new class enemies now. Unless they are also members of one of these identity groups, or have the tribal belief that today’s Labour is the same as it was in the days of Harold Wilson, the working classes are not voting for Labour.
The elections to the European Parliament were Labour’s for the taking given the Conservatives’ disarray, but Labour’s performance was dismal, just as it was in the local elections. Labour exists to provide an antithesis to the Conservatives. The two-party system could be regarded as a form of dialectic in British politics, which explains Labour’s loathing of Conservatives to a point where their senior politicians are able to get away with boasting about how much they would like to see the murder of past and present Conservative ministers.
Labour have been unable to apply their dialectical principles to Brexit thus far. They have failed to find a workable synthesis between the thesis of Brexit and the antithesis of Remain. And this explains why they are floundering. On the issue of Brexit Labour cannot pick a side. Labour is all about picking sides. So elements within the party have picked different sides.
The widening top-to-bottom ideological split in the Labour Party should be the main news of the day, were it not for the ‘interesting times’ being experienced by the Conservative Party. The reason for Labour’s current problems do not necessarily lie solely with its controversial leader, but with the fact that Labour’s traditional way of doing politics simply does not work with Brexit.
In the 1920s, the Liberal party were eclipsed as newly-franchised voters brought up a new party to oppose Conservatism. The Liberal Democrats’ apparently irresistible rise as the party of anti-Conservatism is the recovering of previously lost ground as Britain deindustrialises. The Conservatives have been punished due to a failure of policy as their traditional approach of pragmatism in the national interest is pulled in too many directions. But Labour has been punished due to a failure of politics and ideology, which is far worse for them than the Conservatives’ dilemma. Pragmatism is governed by objective reality in a way that ideology is not.
It is actually in Labour’s best interests for Brexit to happen as soon as possible so that they can get back to arguing about the direction of the post-Brexit economy on the basis of their ideology. Their current position of opportunistically trying to benefit from a chaos they have partially contrived is in the best tradition of communist parties in history, but it shows Labour to be shallow. Brexit has exposed a hole in the heart of Labour’s politics through which one or two new opposition parties might slip to replace them. Labour thus continue their Brexit-delaying tactics at their own peril.