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The decline and rebirth of the labour movement (Part One) PDF Print E-mail
The Labour Movement-Economy

Nonsym_velocity_time_dilat_commonWhich events in the history of the labour movement, in the past, have determined the present-day way of looking at the world? The labour movement attempted to respond to the economic totalitarianism of capitalism. But what was it that deflected the revolutionary programmes towards totalitarianism and brutality? What is the use of the theories when the results are so far removed from proper human relations? Is it perhaps a demand of the times that spiritual needs should be added to the agenda of the labour movement? Should not the spiritual needs of man be added to the agenda of the labour movement as this is a demand of the times?



The labour movement, however much it may appear to have taken shape within the framework of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is an exceptionally ancient cause, since there has always been a conflict between labour and property - property which has reached the point of the appropriation of man and of his enslavement. Labour started out from the natural option and process in agricultural production, extended to the valorisation of the labour of animals, and also the appropriation of their very life as food, and continued its cycle with the vital areas of the food chain. Labour came to be the slavery of man, but the food chain of man was 'enriched' with human flesh - human sacrifice and fodder at the spectacle. This was an eternal cycle of barbarism which showed up man's animal origins, culturally reinforced, an involution of mankind into its natural ecological materialism and an indication of the heavy burden and difficulties which it undergoes in its evolution.

From the successive cycles of attempts at civilising or 'humanising' - political, economic, and cultural - of human beings we have arrived at the - unprecedently - extreme explosions of barbarism of the twentieth century. The sacrifices of one's own family, of servants, and of the peoples at the altar of leaders and kings in antiquity, the sacrifices of slaves, human sacrifices made to the gods, sacrifices in the name of shared interests in wars - all these sacrifices have taught their lesson to man too late.

The slow incubation of ideas: the example of democracy

Those innovators who have attempted to convert brute power into regulated power, in order to balance between mass desire and power and the desire to govern, have suffered greatly and have seen little achievement from the toil of their ideas, if we recall the story of Confucius, of Akhbar, of Kublai Khan, and of many other leaders, throughout the length and breadth of the earth.

Some histories - of ideas and men - have made a vast contribution, but in the longue durée. The example of the idea of democracy is typical. The democratic idea was born in ancient Greece to some degree, but not only there. It received its definitive development through the success and significance of the reforms of Solon, and then of Cleisthenes. It took on historical importance from the survival of this political system through the Persian Wars and from internal developments in Greek civilisation. It was seminal for Roman Law, which was a further development or adaptation of the Greek experience and which was tried and tested through the historical crisis of the Roman Empire by the movement of Spartacus and of Christianity. In the late Middle Ages, the idea of democracy took on its shape with Magna Charta, the city-states, the educational movements, and the birth of the bourgeois class in the Renaissance, Humanism, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Liberalism, Romanticism, and Socialism. It has been a vast current which was associated with the human sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which shows up, of course, the importance of thinking and of ideas in history, according to Hegel, who was not alone in this.[1]

In the crisis of the labour movement, a dominant role has been played by the idea of property and our relation with labour. This is symbolised also in the narrative of the Garden of Eden and the expulsion from it. It is symbolised in the relation of consciousness with the life cycle and the discovering of the mental imagery of institutionalisation by man, and of the difficulty of the management of resources, by means of institutionalisation and labour. It is about labour in the field of ideas and of institutions and labour in nature. It is linked with the violence of dialectics in nature and the inability of man to absorb the leisure of animals, reverie, and carefreeness in his civilisation, contemplation - with detachment - which allows free time and its enjoyment as an experience. On the contrary, the enjoyment sought after by desire becomes a game of the fantasy which distorts the spiritual horizon and thinking of humanity, since only thinkers can possess the necessary background as subjects, and these only in certain social conditions, even though we know that there have been great thinkers in the position of a slave and of someone who strives, just as there have been thinkers who have been free of economic cares.

It cannot be said that thought is a class idiom. This was one of the myths which have been cultivated and which have yielded poor results in the course of history. And in the countries of socialism in practice, for example, we have not seen the great spiritual achievements which the class myth expected in the quality of the life of the peoples. Although there have been social acquis, we have not seen in the end the organised production of labour liberating leisure and time for the spiritual manifestation and enjoyment of man. Similarly, in liberalism in practice, free time is, in effect, alienated.

Staging-posts in the progress of the labour movement - as a basic movement of the spiritual and evolutionary expression of mankind

The labour movement, frequently, has had spiritual inspiration and it has not been the masses exactly who have constituted it - to break down yet another myth. Basic staging-points have been the conflicts which have taken place between autocratic power, inflexible law, and untimely, deferred, retrogressive institutions, in conditions which involved new needs and a new consciousness - a consciousness which resisted this obstinacy and barbarity of power.

The impasses of this strength, whether these made their appearance through crises of war, or through crises of taxation policy and a shortage of goods, because of a lack of care, natural disasters, etc., have served as feedback factors, where more fruitful agents, figures who were exponents of ideas, found a public for the promotion of ideas and changes.

This is what happened within the framework of Magna Charta, an important inspirer of which was Stephen Langton, as well as within that of the French or American Revolution and the revolutions in pursuit of national liberation in the era of Romanticism. These were often deflected into forms of irredentism. The baton was passed to socialist revolutions, which were deflected into totalitarianism. After the process of the Second World War, we arrived at a point where a re-ordering of the future was possible. It now could be said that this opportunity was not exploited as it ought to have been, and now we are in the middle of an on-going and escalating crisis, more multiform and, at many points, more insidious than any in the past.

The historical background of the labour movement

The Industrial Revolution and the institution of the market have, equally, their origins far back in history.

These can be identified in the earliest agricultural and nomadic life of man with the revolutions in the use of tools, then go through the first appropriation of animals for work, reproduction, and food, and pass through the institution of slavery, corporate and capital wealth, the cycle of commercialisation of the accumulations of products and means, with all the phenomena of scale, thus shaping a constant evolution of the form of the market.

Later, we arrive at the founders of the science of economics: François Quesnay, Adam Smith, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They were followed by a generation of more specialised economists, the first generation having been economist-philosophers or philosophers of life. François Quesnay was the founder of the Physiocratic School, Adam Smith was the theoretician of 'moral sentiments', and did the first systematic work on the economy, continuing along the road on which Quesnay had started out with his 'tableau économique', while Jean-Jacques Rousseau laid the foundations for ideas involving property, fences, the social contract, education or the recovery of spiritual value by man, with his Émile, and the whole game of civilisation, nature, and the human spirit.

Subsequently, a new generation of dissidents who gave expression to this dialectic arose. These were followed, mainly continuing the work of Rousseau, by idealists of socialism and communitarians, and, afterwards, idealists of anarchism and of Marxist socialism. In parallel, born into the genealogy of the thought of Adam Smith were deviations and contention about the state or the leverage of the state as an institutional economy of scale for its individualism and corporate force. Here, the self-evident dominates again: the phantom - as in the age of slavery - of the appropriation of profit as an end in itself, without thought about life. The theory of alienation, which attempted to put forward 'thinking about life' was a complete failure, since, in its political system, the 'liberating dictatorship of the proletariat' has proved to be incapable, spiritually and politically, of being formed with values and reason and has resorted to totalitarianism and the autocracy of the absolute appropriation of the state by a new totalitarianism under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This bureaucratic, ideological, cultural, and intellectual totalitarianism imposes upon the dictatorship of the proletariat a viewpoint in every area of thought, in the belief that man is a materialistic machine. If one thought more scientifically and comprehensively about this materialism, it would be seen that man is looked upon as a tool and no more, with a nihilist end as an entity and a value which 'logically' cancels out any socialist humanism.

In this way we have ended up, on the one hand, in having the nihilism of self-deception, and, on the other, the nihilism of the denial of freedom. The alienation of freedom - in both cases - is the dominant point. It is here precisely that the deficit of unification, of dialectic collectivity and synthesis of ideas - because ideas cannot be formed in isolation - comes to the surface. Thus freedom cannot exist without brotherhood and justice, without hierarchy scale and equality, and so on. The same holds good, naturally, of our entity in relation to otherness and wholeness, materiality and spirituality. However, this line of thought has remained underdeveloped, in the 'logics' of historical routine.

The history of the contradictions of the labour movement

But how did we arrive at the present point of crisis and inadequacy of the labour movement? To begin with, a culture had been cultivated which was not functionally cohesive with the historical environment as a break with forms, with a final rejection, for example, of religion and of the philosophical thought in general on the quest for a spiritual meaning in life, in the nations, in the different cultures, etc. There has been, that is to say, no thinking about the problems of the spiritual content of man, nor about his co-existence and sustainability in relation to nature and the environment.

In the writings of Marx and Engels there were very few approaches able to predict matters concerning the contradictions in dealing with issues of the environment on our part and the resultant fatal consequences. These were prophetic as to the environmental crisis and the affinity of our environmental violence with social violence. Nevertheless, there were very few references to questions of alienation at the spiritual level. Emphasis was given only to the area of social alienation, whereas there should have been a mass movement with a co-ordinated ideological comprehensiveness. In the field of religion, there are only very few hints of co-existence from Ludwig Feuerbach to the early Karl Marx, as in his later personal letters in which he speaks of a sui generis state which reminds him of Nirvana, or on matters which concern his love for Jenny von Westphalen and the metaphysics of the cycles of life, from Pythagoras and the Brahmans to more modern metaphysical beliefs.

Small hints are given by Vladimir Lenin in the 'Logic of the Ether and of Energy', along the lines of Theosophy, or even when he likens dialectics to the Hindu 'trinity' of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, in the Philosophical Notebooks.

In other respects, Lenin's attempts to co-exist with problématiques and views such as those of Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky or of Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev at the political level are also deserving of respect. His contradictions, however, over Tolstoy are obviously those of a political expediency and opportunism, within the logic of 'the end justifies the means'. It is natural that there should be in historical undertakings errors and imperfections, because political subjects, both individual and collective, have limitations on their  capacity and ability to discern.

Consequently, the deification of Marxism (which reached the point of the deification of Stalin) - which, unfortunately, never served as a retrospective starting-point of self-knowledge and self-criticism as to man's passion for religion - is indicative of human weakness and of the need for the human stage of evolution. This need is alluded to, more sincerely, by Brecht in Stories of Mr Keuner. The same, nevertheless, happened in the opposing camps, which also functioned with violence and militancy of subjection.

On the other hand, we should recall that the paradise of neo-liberalism was a callous junta - Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile; and now, in one sense, its great paradise has become post-Mao China. These 'realistic' historical confusions which occur in ideological currents and which end in pending communicating reactions of 'realistic policy', such as those of the Munich Agreement and the Molotov - Ribbentrop Pact, are typical in history, and, for that reason, require a much more healthy body of values, principles, and agencies to oppose them, without distorting concessions such as those made, for example, at the League of Nations or with the founding of the UNO, and with the regime which has taken shape in regions such as the Middle East and elsewhere. We need a stable body of principles able to resist these supposedly 'realistic' pressures of power and vested interests.

In the time of the Cold War, in Latin America and in certain other instances, socialism once again found allies in the Christian, or religious, culture - as in the case of the Sandinistas - and again, of course, with problems, because it cannot be said that there are unalloyed values of good in lines of thought and attitudes in realistic conditions.

Similarly, the issue of the self-determination of nations was investigated by Vladimir Lenin, in conflict with Rosa Luxemburg. Nevertheless, historically, it could be said that Rosa Luxemburg was vindicated by the course followed by the Soviet Union itself on issues of the self-determination of nations. At the same time, the problem of the barbarity of the stripping of nationhood also came to light with the issues and behaviour of Stalin, whom Lenin himself called a "Great-Russian bully".

The characteristic of contradiction appears in all the trends and figures, including Trotsky, with many disputed points. Trotsky was the same person at Kronstadt and the executions carried out by the Red Army as he was afterwards with the questioning of the 'dictatorship upon the dictatorship of the proletariat' and of betrayed bureaucracy, or, also, as the unsparing critic of Kemal.

The same inconsistencies were to be observable in the approaches of thinkers to the Soviet experiment, while, at the same time, very many would forget the dialectics of maturation in the approaches made by Karl Marx in judging the Franco-Prussian War as a starting-point for a world, and not a class, war. They forget, that is, that Marx himself recognised other factors - besides that of class - in the process of history, and they also forget the fact that he also foresaw a maturation of issues also in other matters, such as that of child labour, in giving judgement on the Gotha and Erfurt programme. The subtle nuances are lost. They were to emerge later as demands in thinking such as that of Antonio Gramsci on the educational undertaking in socialism, or of Brecht with his reflective, artistic, and aesthetic dialectics, which, however, deep down, concealed an unreserved regard for Lao Tse.

These beautiful poetical paradoxes are being lost. This is the same poetical paradox which fascinated Lenin in the music and in the sonatas of Beethoven, which were capable of enchanting even a Stalin. But such paradoxes were to reach the point where, as a new Neronian barbarism, the music of Mozart was used as a musical accompaniment in the 'concentration camps' of Nazi Germany. We must look more deeply into our spiritual horizon in order better to form our views and positions on the major issues and to fit our small and large scale together.

Unfortunately, many developments have taken shape as a result of the fluctuating relation between the small and large scale, and we can see this in the evolution of thinking, whether we take into account a Lenin, a bourgeois, who lost his brother to the Tsarist regime, or a Berdyaev, who was despised by the Bolshevik Revolution as a Menshevik, until he reached the point of being an apologist for the totalitarianism of Joseph de Maistre - an exponent of a perverted absolute and autocratic hegemonic fundamentalism which he revised towards the end of his life with a more profound mystical horizon in Truth and Revelation.

The holistic life stance as an escape from the contradictions

Our principal issue is how we see lifetime and labour. Do we see life as a field for profit and of a phantasm? Do we look upon work with dislike, and do we work in order not to have to work? Do we see work as a means of converting accumulation of wealth into power, into a fantasy?

Are we forgetful of the fact of death, or do we want to circumvent death in order to be able to build up theatrical performances, to beguile our spare time and to pervert our leisure?

These are the fundamental issues which man has not been able to resolve in his history and in his historical advancement and which he must resolve now, at all costs. If we do not take our stand on these problems, whatever technological revolutions we achieve, whatever institutionalisations of capital we establish, we shall continue to recycle our crises, and our expectation that by means of machines we shall see our liberation will be belied.

In the end, we can see that humanity has been plunged back into a deadlock as to insurance in the future and working conditions, in spite of all the technological innovation and demographic labour reserves. It is being brought to total collapse, to a complete Waterloo, with the simultaneous collapse of the environment. This is a vicious circle of madness from which we will not emerge if we are not able to unite the thinking of the small and the large scale. Karl Marx was not able to do it. Keynes did not concern himself with this, and the 'moral sentiments' did not meet with the liberalism of Adam Smith or the thinking of Jeremy Bentham, William Wilberforce, and others.

The road we must follow is long and difficult - it is the road which can unite into one the thought of Aurobindo or of Plotinus and Plato with that of Karl Marx and of John Maynard Keynes. It is unmistakably a difficult road. We live in 'interesting times', as Lewis Mumford says, to echo the words of the Chinese blessing and curse.

Enterprises, companies, and capital have not brought paradise, nor has Soviet totalitarianism, nor have all the hybrids of these. We must try again, as Immanuel Kant said.

And, naturally, those who look upon the whole question with a phobia of syncretism, as the Jews looked upon Christianity, as the Romans looked on Christianity, or as, later, Christianity looked upon heresies or other religions, cannot 'try again'. In refusing progress, in refusing interaction, we cannot advance. Progress is not a matter of museums. Unfortunately, however, mankind has the ability to function with living museums, or to be itself, frequently, a living museum of the past - a resident ghost in museums.

The tragedy of dogmatism can be seen in our inability to borrow and to understand ideas which we desperately need. We could borrow certain ideas even from an opposing line of thought, which, in the last analysis, may be vitally complementary. We could draw them from the thought of a Friedrich Hayek, even of a Milton Friedman, who himself once said that "we are all Keynesians now", but afterwards lay in wait to annihilate Keynesianism through a totalitarian state, through the state of the Pinochet dictatorship, through an unconstitutional illegitimacy. We should make use even of opposing thought and, in the light of the reflection that it can bring our merits to the surface.

This impasse and these contradictions even in great poets and thinkers, who thus render useless a part of their greatness. One such example is Yiannis Ritsos, with his notorious phrase that "the Soviet tanks dance the waltz in the squares of Prague",[2] or, in another version, that the sound of the Soviet tanks was sweet, when he spoke of the invasion by Soviet troops of the capital of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Now, what was their sweetness in Prague or in Budapest is another matter.

At the same time, we can see the totalitarianism of the 'opponents', as well as their narcissism, even in many leading figures in the dissident movement calling into question the communist regime, as, for example, in long-suffering Poland. The same story - from an anthropological point of view - unfolded in the French Revolution, through the processes of its development and the usurpation of power. However, the totalitarianism of dissidence as cruelty and the anti-democratic nature of vested interests have been clearly unjustified in dictatorships of the 'banana republic' and mining types, with the 'economic murderers'.

It is certain, however, that there is a dialectic of progress and crisis in the balance between disinterestedness and self-interest, towards which we must be discerning and participate spiritually, socially, and historically with the maximisation of our responsibility.

Our undertaking must be synthesis, collectivity, the measure, the mean, harmony, the dialectic of co-operation and of progressive no-harm. In history, the dialectics of violence have emerged from the phenomena of shortfalls, just as occurred in the Second World War as to the need to deal with the totalitarianisms of in the inter-War years and because of the economic crisis. This dialectic has become perceptible in the frame of a fundamentalism, whether that fundamentalism is that of the markets, or of the state, or of the nation, or of religion.

Kemal Atatürk, for example, resolved to restrict the fundamentalism of religion, but in this way he reinforced the fundamentalism of the state and of the nation and brought it to an economic-institutional interweaving of interests, or to the military-economic industrial complex, as John Kenneth Galbraith would have said. In history there is, in essence, a crisis of integration and transcendence of forms through balance and by their dialectical confutation.

We have to overcome within us and outside us the distorted stuff or the "twisted timber of mankind", as Kant put it, in every sphere. Even Kant, in his Pure Reason, introduces a nihilistic totalitarianism and needs to be complemented by another line of thought, such as that of Schelling or other thinkers.

In history there is a tectonic sub-stratum in the 'living rock' or in the lithosphere of civilisation, and very frequently, delay in the solving of crises leads to very great and violent, dynamic developments. Usually, we are lulled by intervening peaceful times, by the belles époques, which, however, carry within them the seeds of major crises. It is the same with the crises which we see in our own lives which manifest themselves with sudden health problems, which, however, have been incubating over a long period. These are the same crises which are generated in the greedy quest for prosperity in quiet times.

Our falling behind in the progress of ideas, in the field of history and civilisation, leads to violent disruptions and to ruptures through the friction between needs and routines.

The routine to which the world-wide labour movement yielded after the Second World War at a regional and global level is now at its end. It was a routine which, after the end of the Cold War, led to fantasising about the 'end of history', at the moment when history was being re-dramatised in the background much more than we were able to imagine.

The fatal division in thinking between spiritual and vital needs

Man has two types of fundamental need: vital and spiritual, and this is the corollary of the fact that he is a being which has a sense of identity and existential Angst. Existentialism, unfortunately, came into virtually nihilistic contact with Marxism and socialism and avoided a deep systemic involvement by means of thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, who, expressing themselves for the purposes of the moment, did not integrate socialism as a spiritual, cultural, and social movement.

Socialist thought has not touched upon the existential issue - and at this point there was a major weakness of thinking. At the same time, philosophical thinking did not take its stand on the matter of labour and viability, in spite of the fact that that the greatest founder of the thought of Western civilisation, Plato, and then Aristotle concerned themselves in considerable detail with this relation. There has been a divisive narcissism between these two areas: the spiritual and the vital, the life-supporting. Aurobindo comments critically on this division in connection with the development of India and of Indian civilisation. The division between the spiritual and the vital domain has proved fatal and it is this which led to the dualism of the Middle Ages, with religion and feudalism preying upon human needs and ruling human souls in an obscurantist manner.

It is precisely on this point that we must focus again in order in the end to meet the existential spiritual need of man and for the dynamic of a spiritual movement for 'spiritual security' to take shape. The latter need is that a part of scientific nihilism and materialism as a representation should be eliminated. This, in essence, is a historical instance which has developed from the age of the Enlightenment and of rationalism until the present. At the same time, we must deal in a more humane and sustainable way with the field of life-supporting needs and of vital well-being.

The gap, still unbridged, between these two spheres of needs of man:

1. In the one case we need freedom, prosperity, sustainability, and civilisation, because we cannot base our well-being on our barbarism towards animals, plants, nature, nor on social barbarism between ourselves.

2. In the second case we need our spiritual dimension with the existential Angst, but also, in the end, the existential vindication which should be pursued and expressed. It is only in this way, with this bridging, that we shall be on the real horizon of Planetary Logos and not with the nihilistic games of nature and thought, as represented by philosophers such as Axelos.

It is time for the labour movement to become a spiritual movement, and a movement for another attitude towards work, its product, its enjoyment, its sharing, and, without doubt, its quality in the cycle of nature. It cannot be simply a socially static, regulatory organisation which perpetuates development for development's sake through blindly increasing demand and consumer prosperity.

Unfortunately, however, this necessity for a pluralistic collaboration of synthesis and interaction in the course followed by of the labour movement we have accepted only as decorative, as we frequently see thinking and cultured people very clearly taking up a position which is often progressive and helpful. Nevertheless, this collaboration has not functioned and has not been systematised.

We are called upon now to arrive at an integration of collaboration. This integration must be open and flexible, without yielding to the temptation of systemic totalitarianism and the 'logic' of coercion as means for the domination of the 'right thing'. The right thing is not imposed; the right thing cannot be coercion. The simplistic and negative attitude which says that we are finishing with conceptual concerns and existential and transcendental torments must become extinct.

At the same time, of course, we must arrive at a settlement of acceptance and acknowledgement, at a state of calm, because it is precisely this constant existential worry that is distorting - and we cannot perpetuate terror and anxiety in order, in the end, to be alert. We need to discover afresh the 'noble middle way', not with the 'logic' of withdrawal from the world, but with the 'logic' which Aurobindo, a thinker of the East and profoundly aware of the spiritual and moral need for the evolution of the world, exceptionally pointed out, as at an earlier date Confucius did. We must leave behind us the mania for creating separate schools of thought and currents of ideology and we must see how we will work together in an anonymous - but with many names - co-ordinated use, with synthesis and mutual recognition, of all things.

We turn our attention to the need to see the spiritual horizon of the issue of labour and property for systemic reasons also, since the moral and rational hazard in the functioning of the system, for example, with the abundance of the means of money, gives rise to inflation, and inflation then brings about poverty, whereas to begin with it creates the impression that in this way plenty is secured. On the other hand, scarcity of the means, which is supposed to operate as a measure, as a regulator, as development, as viability, as an organic feature, and as a regulator of the organicity of the system, and which becomes a form of totalitarianism, of poverty in the midst of plenty, highlights precisely the problems which are within the subjects. In other words, it projects the defectiveness of the subjects, the moral, rational, and experiential defectiveness. In this way, then, emphasis is laid on the need for us to arrive at a regime of spiritual security in which property and vital materialism will be broken down internally, and detachment and minimalisation will be feasible, and a few things alone will constitute wealth.

In conclusion, we still have to deal with the systemic threat of the economy, since, for example, the economy and the market do not provide only fields of comparative advantage as its institutional and natural cultural products, but also destroys or devalues and conceals situations. We need another system which will contribute both to the economy and to minimalisation. This necessity is imposed equally by the principle of environmental sustainability and the need for another regulation in demographic, insurance, and other issues.

It is imperative that we should look again from the foundations up at civilisation and that we should pass through our individualism, our wilful, materialist, and mechanistic cerebralism into a holistic way of thinking, into a holistic, insightful, pattern of thought of synthesis and collectivity,  thus refounding the system. We need to enter into the age of a liberating collectivity and familiarity which will transform both ourselves as subjects and the system.


Ioannis Zisis, Writer

Photo  from Wikimedia

[1] Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793.

[2] Zanou, Constantina, 'Dancing tanks', Kathimerini newspaper, 2.8.2009, p. 12.


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