Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Paul Mason: From Revolutionary Marxism to Radical Social Democracy and the Workers’ Bomb.

with 8 comments



Then raise the workers’ bomb on high,
Beneath its cloud we’ll gladly die,
For though it sends us all to hell,
It kills the ruling class as well.

The Workers’ Bomb.

(See: Posadist Paul Memes.)

Paul Mason is at the centre of new controversies, about his left politics, and about his support for nuclear weapons.

This is what he says about the former.  (Paul Mason Blog).

As to Mr Osborne’s claim that I am “revolutionary Marxist” it is completely inaccurate. I am radical social democrat who favours the creation of a peer-to-peer sector (co-ops, open source etc) alongside the market and the state, as part of a long transition to a post-capitalist economy. There’s a comprehensive critique of Bolshevism in my latest book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future.

Paul Mason was, we are informed, a member of the groupuscule, Workers Power, now better known amongst the masses for its ‘revolutionary’ Labour Party journal Red Flag.

Paul Mason’s book  PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future  (2015) uses many Marxist concepts (echoing Ernest Mandel on Kondratiev waves as in Long waves of capitalist development: the Marxist interpretation. 1980). This is the idea that capitalist development and crises, innovation and stagnation, are long-term cycles (we are on the downward one at present).

The core of PostCapitalism is a reflection, often interesting,  on “immaterial”labour, and the development of postcapitalism, a form of social order and economics,  within capitalism itself, fostered by the (apparent)  central role of information in the economy, civil society, and the state. His key concept is “networks v hierarchies”. This is a belief that that there is an inherent desire for a “beyond” capitalism in the search for human autonomy, although since he does not appear to have read Castoriadis or the current inspire by his works he would not use this term. He asserts, however clear tendencies in the direction of the current of thought that began with the 1950s/early 60s  review Socialisme ou Barbarie, and now has an influence on radical European ecologists”Eventually, work becomes voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.”  It is important to note that in this objective everybody (as the Castoriadists would say) has an ‘interest’ in the ‘project’ – farewell then to the central agency of the working class and labour movement. (1)

That Mason has drawn on rather more radical politics and ideology than ‘radical social democratic’ ideas in the distant past (2011/12) can be seen in the book that preceded PostCapitalism.   His  Why It’s Kicking off Everywhere, The New Global Revolutions, uses the ‘autonomist’ idea of the ‘multitude’  – rather than just everybody – amongst other terms, to express the growth of resistance to the existing state of affairs. The multitude is the many against the few, Empire, or, in ‘populist’ form, the ‘elite’.

Mason wrote,

“the political theory that influenced the events of 2009-11” was Autonomism. They “had theorised very clearly the idea of a struggle between the ‘general intellect’, the suppressed human being and capitalist legal norms.” One can see that this offers at least one vehicle to express opposition to economic policies, to inequality, to lack of power. The ability to share and form new agencies of opposition has been made stronger by a technological and social order that needs instant, unrestricted, communication.

Why it’s Kicking Off Everywhere. The New Global Revolutions. Paul Mason. Review. Adnrew Coates.

To Mason there are signs of the “emancipated human being” emerging “spontaneously from within the breakdown of the old order”. The illumination of the multitude can be seen in the “act of taking a space and forming a community” – from Tahrir Square to Wall Street. This showed “the deployment of digital communications at work, in social life, and now in the forms of protest.” But in the tradition Mason refers to, there are more sceptical strands. Capital and the state can colonise such “smooth spaces” (democratic and equal areas) and make them “striated” (integrated into established exploitation and power) is less obvious (A Thousand Plateaus. Gilles Deleuze. Félix Guattari. 2003)

This is the theoretical background:

These theorists considered that globalisation and ‘Empire’ (its political-economic inter-tangling) were creating a new ‘nomadic’ (Félix Guattari) form of resistance: the “multitude”. (Multitude. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri 2004) Negri, Hardt and others from the ‘autonomist’ tradition considered that in contemporary capitalism, the “general intellect” and ‘immaterial labour” (production and communication by the manipulation of symbols) were centre stage. Paulo Virno described post-Fordism as a “communism of capital”, “A communality of generalised intellect without material equality.” (A Grammar of the Multitude. 2004.)

For Hardt and Negri a general figure, made up of “all the diverse forms of social production”, emerges. This the multitude. It is “an open and expansive network in which all differences can be expressed freely and equally, a network that provides the means of encounter so that we can work and live in common.” It is a “living alternative” to the domination of Capital and Empire – the entangled economic, “biopolitical” and sovereign rule of Nations. This ‘network’ is the future paradigm for revolutionary change, its imprint flourishes everywhere, its future open.

Negri and Hardt observed examples of this operating, in the anti-globalisation campaigns of the 1990s, and early new century. Such resistance showed up most famously in the Mexican  Zapatistas, and, travelling down to a region where revolts never died down, in the rest of Latin America. For John Holloway, building on several decades of similar work, there was a world-wide “Scream of refusal” of people refusing to accept Capital and the State (Crack Capitalism. 2010).

Negri also talked of how the proletariat was enlarged, giving it “productive functions that were once typical of the middle class” (Goodbye Mr Socialism. 2008). May 68 was only the “first revolt of the post-Fordist and cognitive proletariat” against global capitalism. Europe was not resigned to the rule of business. 1996 saw France explode in nation-wide union-led strikes and protests against neo-liberal public reforms that brought down Alain Juppé’s Cabinet (though not the President). Many at the time saw that as defining set back for neo-liberalism. Negri enlarged the field of class conflict to the “precariat”, the partially employed and often unemployed, and saw this as a social factor behind the 2006 “local insurgencies” in the French banlieues.

No doubt Mason has changed the distant time of 2012, when it must be underlined that these ideas circulated in a rich broth of concepts, emotions, and reports. For the present it is indeed hard to see how his more recent belief (in Postcapitalism) that the pro-business Scottish Nationalist party, dedicated to looking after its “ain folk” or claim that the populist leader centred (Pablo Iglesias) and hierarchically organised Podemos represents a ‘network’.

Mason’s views on the Bomb are now the centre of interest, not all of it of the most serious quality.

This is his call:

A new defence doctrine for Labour Keep Trident. End expeditionary warfare

Vote for renewal of a Trident-capable force of four submarines, while retaining the right move from CASD to a CASD-capable submarine force, subject to parliamentary approval. At the same time, if the Scottish government votes to scrap Trident, Labour should advocate the removal of the base from Faslane to a base in England.

His argument?

Labour cannot un-invent its unilateralist wing, and it must listen to those who took to the streets calling for it to scrap Trident. Having listened, it must offer them something more important: a Labour party ready to rule; a government ready to break the cycle of failed expeditionary wars; which can fight terrorism effectively and stabilise NATO’s relationship with Russia in Europe.

To do this Labour needs more than just a position on Trident. It needs a defence doctrine.

Which is,

  • a nuclear deterrent whose posture can change in response to global circumstances, and whose specific terms of use are made clear to adversaries and allies alike;
  • a conventional force designed around Britain’s NATO mission in Europe, to deter potential Russian aggression and to facilitate the major powers of Western Europe taking charge of stabilising the region, rather than having to jump to the demands of immature democracies of Eastern Europe.
  • an enhanced anti-terror capability pre-authorised to operate on British soil in the face of a Mumbai-style attack, and whose surveillance and intelligence operations come under increased democratic scrutiny.

Since neither Mason nor the Tendance are defence experts, or indeed have views of any depth on these topics, we leave it to others to comment.

Meanwhile we intend to have a good laugh.

(1) Recent books on this which are worth reading include: Manuel Cervera-Marzal, Eric Fabri (dir.), Autonomie ou Barbarie. La démocratie radicale de Cornelius Castoriadis et ses défis contemporains, éditions du Passager clandestin, 2015. Cornelius Castoriadis et Claude Lefort : L’expérience démocratique 2015.  Collectif (Auteur), Nicolas Poirier.   François Dosse, Castoriadis, une vie, La Découverte, 2014. Cornelius Castoriadis ou l’autonomie radicale Broché – 23 avril 2014 Serge Latouche


Written by Andrew Coates

April 8, 2016 at 4:57 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Thanks for the background on Mason — I always thought of him as an ultra-left and his past membership in the Fifth International sect helps explain that aspect of his politics.

    As for the nuclear issue: how is unilateral nuclear disarmament by the British government and the rejection of strategic deterrence that such disarmament would entail in the interests of the British working classes? Why not instead pursue multilateral nuclear arms reductions in tandem with Russia and China? Labour (and lefts of labour) do need a defense policy/national security doctrine; ‘anti imperialism’ alone won’t cut it.


    April 8, 2016 at 5:34 pm

  2. I said I am not a defence specialist.

    What I am however is a specialist in (1) Leftist Trainspotting and (2) The theories of ‘immaterial labour’, multitude, etc, which Mason has drawn in in the recent past, and (3) Intensely sceptical that ‘post-capitalism’ – the information based society – is emerging, just like that, out of capitalism.

    Paul Mason does however have some interesting insights along the way (on long-waves) and some radical ideas about reforming the current state of affairs, which include:

    Model policies thoroughly using abundant data before implementing them.

    Tackle public debt, not through neoliberal privatisation and austerity, but partly by closing down offshore banking and by holding interest rates below inflation rates.

    Promote (partly through state support/regulations) collaborative/co-operative/non-profit forms of work and creative commons production, rather than highly unequal, autocratic and/or rent-seeking business models.
    Break up monopolies or, where this is impractical, socialise them.

    Socialise the finance system (via a transitional phase of re-regulating the finance sect.

    I am opposed to his additional idea, Basic Income.


    Andrew Coates

    April 8, 2016 at 5:41 pm

  3. A more serious problem re Trident involves the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and the ensuing devastation of Barrow and elsewhere in the event of it being scrapped. Unite and the CSEU have investigated alternative jobs plans and been unable to come up with anything. In fact, it would make more economic sense to pay the workers to stay at home and tend their gardens, or dig holes and fill them in again. It’s a genuine dilemma for Unite (less so for the GMB, which has no leftist pretentions) and I have no answer – any more than does Len McCluskey

    Jim Denham

    April 8, 2016 at 9:55 pm

  4. I think it’s a non-problem, Jim. Job losses would be the inevitable result if Trident were cancelled by a government which clung to the neo-liberal taboo against any direct role for the state in creating industrial jobs except through military orders. But that sort of government won’t scrap Trident unilaterally anyway. Any conceivable British government willing to scrap Trident unilaterally would not be the sort that would shy away from job creation through alternative state orders.
    That said, the most likely scenario for scrapping Trident is if detente starts up again and there are some further treaties limiting categories nuclear weapons. In that case it will be the outcome of a deal between the US and Russia, neither of whom give a monkey’s about Barrow.


    April 9, 2016 at 10:38 am

  5. Denham – slavery, that was a serious problem too wasn’t it? All those reliant on the trade in Bristol and Liverpool, from making the chains to fitting the ships, It was so important that it made it an even bigger visual impact on those cities than even the large submarine shed does on Barrow-in-Furness. Should we have pondered about the abolition of slavery, never mind the consequence that nuclear bombs would put a lot more out of work – permanently – than the end of Trident.

  6. “taking charge of stabilising the region, rather than having to jump to the demands of immature democracies of Eastern Europe.”

    ‘Immature democracies’! Mason can eff off with this patronising guff. Point is to listen to the people there and especially our comrades.

  7. I think Paul has pointed out the central flaw of Mason’s ‘defence strategy’: though as others say, there’s plenty more.

    This commitment to a completely undefined stabilising role probably gets obscured amongst the rhetoric of rejecting “expeditionary diehards” and warnings which leap from completely right concerns about military figures directly trying to influence British politics to direct claims about the menace of a coup.

    On the specifics of Trident there is no easy answer, but on balance it seems that this is a bit of an imaginary Maginot Line link of protection under present conditions – would it have not things worse if the threat to use such weapons had existed in Ukraine? It has done nothing whatsoever to eliminate the spiral in the Middle East now, and that apart from all the other post Cold War conflicts.

    Andrew Coates

    April 9, 2016 at 4:21 pm

  8. Anyone who thinks Trident *isn’t* a problem for the unions, should read this: https://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2016/04/10/the-unions-and-the-trident-dilemma/

    Jim Denham

    April 10, 2016 at 7:39 pm

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