The Commune is hosting a debate on organisation this month. Roy Ratcliffe offers his contribution.
Among the anti-capitalist left there has been much debate of what is an appropriate course of action in the present circumstances of developing capitalist crisis. A great deal of conflict exists together with considerable impatience. Discussions and debates among the ‘left’ are tending to orientate around assisting and initiating class or population wide actions, and this via competing forms of organisation. Such attempts are largely by either invigorating existing ones, such as trade-unions and political parties, (eg the Labour-Party in the UK) or initiating new ones such as Occupy and Syriza in Greece.
However, some of these initiatives stem from a mistaken view, that small groups, with the correct orientation and ideas can stimulate significant and sustained actions, involving large numbers of people – before the vast majority of the population are ready to do so. In this case, they are bound to fail. And of course, simply turning out in large numbers to demonstrate or vote will be insufficient to solve this present structural crisis. A parallel problem is that promoters of these initiatives generally appear to have insufficient understand of the dynamics and evolution of protest, uprisings and revolutions.
In particular, a number of ‘left’ initiatives also suffer from an overly subjective and bourgeois view of history. They tend to exaggerate the importance of leadership and talented individuals as key motive forces of changes in economic, social and political affairs. Bourgeois historical methodology predominantly focuses upon the great figures in history – kings, statesmen, military leaders – and imagines it is these characters that galvanise, stimulate or create the development of important events and historic transformations. From this elevated viewpoint, the ordinary people, the microscopic incremental social changes, the day to day processes of production, the moods of the population are inevitably held in the background whilst these figure-heads, reflecting hero worship or aspirations in that direction, are posted in sharp focus and placed upon various historic pedestals.
This same phenomena is manifest within some sections of the anti-capitalist movement as former ’leaders’ (such as Lenin and Trotsky) are treated to the same bourgeois form of elevation to hero or guru status, while the real dramatis personnel – the workers and others – are absent or appear only in blurred grey streaks across the historical record. One of the rare personalities in the anti-capitalist movement, who did not follow (or aspire) to this tradition was Karl Marx. He rarely credited any individual, including himself, with any such pivotal position of importance. Although occasionally recognising some outstanding contributions by individuals, in all his researches, he concentrated upon classes, economic categories and historical processes, as being the real motors and engines of economic, social and political developments.
Accordingly, when informed of the contents of a planned workers congress in Zurich he responded critically in a letter. He considered its organisers had their ‘heads in the clouds‘, and were contemplating ‘phantom problems’ when he wrote the following;
“What should be done at any definite moment in the future, and done immediately, depends of course entirely on the given historical conditions in which one has to act…….The doctrinaire and inevitably fantastic anticipation of the programme of action for a revolution of the future only diverts one from the struggle of the present.” (Marx to Nieuwenhuis. February 1881.)
This letter contained useful advice which still has contemporary relevance. The letter clearly warns against adopting doctrinaire positions and ‘fantastic’ anticipations of programmes of action and revolution. It also suggests formulating proposals after giving serious thought to the given historical conditions. For revolutionary anti-capitalists, those conditions involved a realistic appraisal of the economic, social and political elements of contemporary life at the time, not one or other variety of wishful thinking or anticipation of an impending revolution. If we consider these historic conditions today we cannot avoid including the following.
A) A fundamental, structural and episodic, economic and financial crisis.
B) The complete abandonment of any serious anti-capitalist positions among all the major political parties in Europe and North America along with the modern trade union movements.
C) The spectre of Stalinist sectarianism and its post-capitalist form in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere which continues to damage and inhibit the post-capitalist project.
D) A divisive and debilitating residue of Leninist and Trotskyist sectarianism and vanguard elitism within the revolutionary anti-capitalist tradition, which further distorts the anti-capitalist viewpoint.
E) The almost virtual absence of any serious anti-capitalist economic theory among the vast majority of the population, including that proportion organised within the trade union movement.
For those anti-capitalists who accept that the above five aspects of the current historical conditions are of key importance, certain things should follow. If we also accept that the capitalist mode of production is one which is destructive of the welfare of large numbers of humanity and the planet’s ecological balance, then certain responsibilities also attend that understanding. The first task, I suggest, is that of widening the understanding of the nature of the current crisis. Without this understanding only varieties of Keynesian and neo-liberal policies are likely to be pursued. I suggest that this economic understanding is best guided by the forensic economic analysis of Karl Marx, in Das Capital and other of his associated documents.
A study of the history of the anti-capitalist movement suggests that Das Capital was not well understood even by various 20th century intellectuals within the anti-capitalist movement, let alone those workers who at the time could barely read or write. Given the neglect of Marx after the sectarian distortion of anti-capitalist theory and practice, an economic vacuum of radical criticism exists. It is not surprising therefore, that Keynesian and other bourgeois doctrines persist among the organised and unorganised working class for many workers today do not understand the real and fundamental nature of the current crisis. All mainstream economic, financial and political observations and suggestions are therefore dealing primarily with the symptoms rather than causes and workers are left considering and pursuing solutions to the ‘appearances‘ presented to them by those who oppose to their interests.
This in turn is leading to workers, workers organisations and suffering interest groups only making proposals to deal with one or other symptoms of the crisis, rather than the cause. A degree of that misunderstanding is inevitable, but it is logical that that degree should be reduced where possible. Only a revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective can begin to counter this form of ideological confusion and to counter it – it needs to exist in larger numbers than at present.
Although a minutely detailed economic understanding of capital is not necessary for all those involved in anti-capitalist activity, the basic principles do require a wide level of understanding among all anti-capitalists. Dissemination of such a critical understanding of economic production under the capitalist mode, is being hampered by the fact of sectarian divisions among the left. It is further hampered by the impatience of those on the left who wish to leap over this step and prioritise the immediate building of defensive organisations.
Yet the history of revolutions demonstrates that masses do not move into large-scale protest movements until their situation becomes extremely desperate. Even then the general perspective of the masses for a definite period of time is one of challenging the existing economic and political system to change its direction, modify its programme and ameliorate their worsening situations. Revolutionary transformations do not automatically occur under the impetuous of large-scale demonstrations, general strikes or even mass uprisings.
The latter, where they occur, are merely akin to the seismic trembling of the earths crust – which may or may not result in a large-scale volcanic eruption or serious tectonic plate shift. This noted initial trend of workers and others making demands upon the existing system has been repeated in the 21st century by the examples of Tunisia, Egypt, Lybia and Syria in the middle east and North Africa, along with Greece, Spain, Italy, France, Portugal in Europe and to a lesser extent in the UK. The mis-labelling of middle-eastern uprisings as revolutions indicates this confusion exist among the bourgeois as well as many left commentators.
The fact that the majority of the citizens are as yet only stirring into sectional activity and subject to at least some democratic illusions concerning the system they live under, makes it a mistake to focus predominantly upon agitation to organise large-scale sectional actions. When workers and others are ready, they will stir themselves and begin to act on mass. When they do so they will be better equipped for the struggle if they (or at least many among them) have absorbed an understanding of the economic essence of the capitalist mode of production and the need to champion all oppressed sectors of society – not just their own!
To my mind the task of revolutionary anti-capitalists is to work alongside such workers and convince them by discussion and by the results of their defensive and reformist struggles that the capitalist system holds no future well-being for themselves, their neighbours, their offspring or the planet. That task of convincing others cannot be done unless those anti-capitalists are capable of understanding the system itself and of being able to work positively (in a non-sectarian fashion) alongside workers and non-workers.
Of course, part of that society-wide learning will be by their own direct experience, but another part should be played by being informed of the history of class struggle against capital along with the lessons learned. The responsibility for the dissemination of that history and the lessons learned during it lies at the moment with those anti-capitalists who are part of a non-sectarian, non-elitist milieu. It would be of considerable assistance to workers if a milieu developed who see their task, not as authoritarian leaders with the solutions already in their pockets, but as egalitarian facilitators of the self-activity of working people and the oppressed. In addition to the above need to understand and disseminate more fully the economic contradictions of the capitalist system, the further tasks of such individuals and groups I suggest should be;
2. To fully understand, explain and overcome in practice, the sectarian heritage of the anti-capitalist tradition.
3. To help facilitate, extend and develop an international, non-sectarian network of anti-capitalists and workers.
4. Where possible, to assist and support anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation and anti-ecological-destruction issues and campaigns.
5. To share with all those in anti-capitalist, anti-austerity and anti-cuts struggles those above-noted understandings and critical re-appraisals to begin to positively reassert the humanist possibilities of a post-capitalist form of economic society which produces for need rather than greed.
That task has begun in a number of places around the world, but as yet it is sporadic and few in numbers. It would be useful over the coming months if a network of internet sites and contacts, could be created among those who share this or a similar perspective. In this way the pooling of knowledge and sharing good practice could be developed. If one already exists – all the better – please let me know! It is to be hoped that others will soon join in and assist in creating a critical-mass which will in various ways be able to make an effective contribution to clarifying the struggle against the champions of capital and resurrect the struggle for a post-capitalist society. One which fully understands how to avoid replicating the disasters of previous attempts.