My name is Marc Mulholland. I am a Fellow (lecturer and tutor) in the History Faculty of Oxford University. My College is St Catherine's. I come from Ireland.

This is a blog relating to my book published in 2012 by Oxford University Press, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservativism.
Now on sale here and here. If you want 20 per cent off the price, I can arrange that! Send me a message or leave a comment, and I'll tell you how.

The thesis my book is examining was rather pithily summarised by Leon Trotsky in 1939: "Wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of the counter-revolution. The bolder the struggle of the masses, the quicker the reactionary transformation of liberalism." [Context is here]

However, my book isn't a defence of Trotskyism, or indeed any particular ideology. It's a study of an idea that took shape in Left, Right, and Centre variations.

This blog has tid-bits not included in the book, and other thoughts that occur.

You can see book details at the
OUP website.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Fabians, Revisionists, etc.

The ever-interesting Mike Macnair argues over here (if I understand him aright) that late-C19th / early C20th Fabianism in Britain, and revisionist / reformist tendencies on the continent influenced by Fabianism, promoted the idea of working-class political self-organisation, but they wanted such parties to drop or fundamentally water-down socialist policies.

I rather see it as being the other way around. Fabians and reformists were definitely and unambigiously socialist. They confidently expected capitalism to be transcended by a socially controlled economy. However, they were opposed to the excessively proletarian orientation of orthodox Second International parties. Socialists, they said, should seek to win over a substantial number of bourgeois individuals, for without their talent and acquired skills socialist governance would only lead to anarchical breakdown. Workers simply were not well educated enough to form a hegemonic stratum. More generally, they thought it would be much easier to ally with liberals in pursuit of democratic reform if the socialists ceased presenting themselves as partisans of a narrowly proletarian class agency.

George Bernard Shaw was, as one might expect, frank and up-front in his espousal of a middle class socialism. He appealed to middle class audiences to join the Fabians precisely in order to tame the "mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists." [Quoted in Henry Pelling, The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900 (London, 1954), p. 39.]

The German revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, rejected Marx’s distinction between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ labour as specious. Marx’s “arbitrary dealing in the valuing of functions”, Bernstein said, were designed to theoretically privilege the proletariat over the managers. This orientation towards the proletariat and slighting of the bourgeoisie was “the key to all obscurities in [Marx’s] theory of value.” Bernstein wanted socialists to ally with and recruit from the middle classes because the working class alone could not be politically hegemonic: "We cannot demand from a class, the great majority of whose members live under crowded conditions, are badly educated, and have an uncertain and insufficient income, the high intellectual and moral standard which the organisation and existence of a socialist community presupposes." [Eduard Bernstein, Evolutionary Socialism [1899] (New York, 1961), pp. 38, 219, 221). For Bernstein, the bourgeoisie could be won round to socialism gradually, on ethical grounds: 'Kant, not [workerist] cant'.

It's worth noting that the Second International required of its constituent parties that they organise the working class in the political sphere. It did not require its affiliates to be doctrinally socialist. The Fabians, revisionists  etc. thought this was the wrong way round. Socialism should be promoted as a pan-class ethical ideal, and the narrow class egoism of the Second International should be abandoned.

Bernstein, of course, was influenced by the Fabians. Ironically, however, he argued for the application of its lessons to Germany just when Fabianism was obviously failing in Britain. The Webbs did not succeed in 'permeating' the political establishment with pragmatic socialism, nor did they win round much of the middle class, and from 1900 the LRC / Labour Party committed itself to the self-representation of the working-class.

As I see it, the big question for socialists in this era was: 'Can we, or how can we, cooperate with the bourgeoisie?' It's what I talk about in my book.


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  2. I think you're wrong about Shaw - partly, indeed, because one never knows what to "expect" when it comes to him. The quote from Pelling speaks more to his dislike of a certain kind middle-class political leadership (sentimental and fanatical) than it does to any fear of working-class political mobilisation. Shaw did not want to "tame" the "sufferers" so much as educate them and politicise them. He initially chose the Fabians rather than the SDF (or Democratic Federation as it was still known at the time) precisely because he thought it would be easier to attract working-class members ('The New politics: From Lassalle to the Fabians')and, a year after joining, was lamenting that "I am afraid some of our recently acquired middle class vogue is due to an impression that we have found a way of making socialism itself an exhorting the working class not to do anything rash" ('Socialism and Human Nature').

    Mark H