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.
28 thoughts on “crisis! so what else can we do?”
I was in agreement until the first half or so of the article, then I began feeling certain dogmatism for example arbitrarily defining what is and what is not a revolution (a revolution does not need to be a socialist revolution, it can also be a bourgeois revolution for example) or the apparent equalization of anticapitalist economic theory with Marx’ economic theory (which is in fact a, not too good, theory of Capitalism and therefore hardly “anti-capitalist”).
Also generalizations that do not fit with my perception of history: like the assumption that it is necessary for the masses to be outright desperate (then why we don’t see a permanent revolution in Haiti or Bangladesh?) and the dismissal of the militant parties or organizations in articulating, rather than just promoting, the popular anger in something more than spontaneous protests, into a real regime change: a revolution.
If we look at all kinds of revolutions in history, it was always the parties (often with armed branches) and not the mere amorphous boiling of the discontent masses which structured the revolutions into new political and social systems. Even for anarchists this is true as the CNT or the Makhnovists acted as a militant party in their respective failed revolutionary processes. It is also true for the bourgeois revolutions when they succeeded in the 18th and 19th centuries: there were parties which articulated and organized social discontent into a force of destruction and construction.
Also communists should not dismiss democracy, people’s power. It is for people’s power on the economy and for increased people’s power in the political aspects also that we fight for. If collectivization is not democratization of the economy, then it is just switching one master for another, as Orwell (a communist) described in Animal Farm.
“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”…
Of course: that is promoting revolution, propaganda. But that is not enough: we must prefigure and organize to direct the change whenever the opportunity arises. Of course not against the people but the people, the masses, are an accumulation of many fragmented forces, which need a direction in key moments.
The counter-revolutionary forces in power will try to direct them in the opposite direction of resignation, distraction and demobilization; we must work as facilitators and catalizers of the popular will instead.
I think your criticism a little misdirected. For example I do not characterise ‘revolution’ at all – never mind dogmatically. In this short article, whose primary focus is not the characterisation of the details and difference between bourgeois revolutions and other forms, of course the term stands undefined. Also I did not write “that it is necessary for the masses to be outright desperate“, there may of course be circumstances in which this does not apply. I wrote “that the history of revolutions demonstrates that masses do not move into large-scale protest movements until their situation becomes extremely desperate”. These mass protest movements, uprisings etc., may or may not be followed by revolutionary developments.
It may appear at first reading that this is the same as your interpretation of that sentence but to me it is not. The masses may be desperate and also not move, but they certainly do not move when they are well situated and enjoying standards of life they are generally satisfied with. Nor those or have become resigned or accustomed to. That is the point being made. In that sense desperation, anger or need (however this motivational sentiment for uprising is defined) could be said to be a necessary, but insufficient condition. But of course, as noted, the analysis of revolutions was not the purpose of this contribution so of course the other necessary numerous key factors which my research uncovered are also unmentioned let alone unexplored.
Neither do I dismiss democracy or people power – indeed I advocate it – although there again that is just a convenient generalisation until forms of democracy are considered in more detail, when many of them to my mind are very tarnished and counter-productive political forms.
Your point about parties (often with armed branches) heading up the struggle is true to a certain extent for bourgeois revolutions, but even these bourgeois parties could not head up the masses unless the masses had not seen the need for change. They remained discussion clubs. [See the prior peasant uprisings in England, the Putney Debates and leveller and digger activism in the English Civil War or French peasant unrest prior to the French revolution.] And even these leaderships who you say introduced new political and social systems – did so for an elite and their ‘construction’ returned the workers and peasants to a life of toil and exploitation.
From my reading of the history Russian revolution, it is also the case that there were many aspiration ‘leaders’ but they led nothing but discussion groups, activist cells etc., until the masses moved – in very desperate circumstances and as you say the sad results of this leadership are fictionally characterised in Orwell’s Animal Farm. I wrote an article on my blog at http://www.critical-mass.net entitled ‘The revolutionary Party; help or hindrance!’, which uses extracts from the leaders which demonstrate the real relationship – in their own words – between the leaders and led of that disastrous period and later.
You said: “The mis-labelling of middle-eastern uprisings as revolutions indicates this confusion exist among the bourgeois as well as many left commentators”.
I say that you are the one confused here (or trying to impose your very subjective criterium), the North African and Arab “uprisings” were, are still, full fledged revolutions, albeit bourgeois in nature (because of the leadership and the consciousness of the working class, which is always who mans the barricades, no matter the character of the revolution). They are not communist or socialist revolutions, but revolutions nonetheless.
And we should learn from them too, as we do from the classic revolutions of Leninist type and the many others.
You say: “I wrote “that the history of revolutions demonstrates that masses do not move into large-scale protest movements until their situation becomes extremely desperate””.
My apologies for the quote nuance but it is the same in the end. Sometimes the masses move without being too desperate (but being conscious and feeling strong), many other times the masses remain passive and disorganized because they lack consciousness and revolutionary optimism, and of course grassroots organization at sectoral or local levels.
I was just watching a documentary where someone said among children picking up rubbish in the outskirts of Antananarivo: 75% of Malagassy people live under the poverty line, with about one euro per day… They are truly desperate but they do not make a revolution just because of that (and Madagascar is not any exception, rather the rule). There is much more to revolution-making than just popular desperation (actually there must be rage and hope and not just mere desperation). On the other hand the Cuban masses were maybe not so bad when Fidel and Che (and many others, of course) took Moncada Palace in the late 50s, for example; they managed to focus the popular anger, rather than desperation, into hope and (unlike Obama) realization of at least some of that hope by means armed and political alike.
“… they certainly do not move when they are well situated and enjoying standards of life they are generally satisfied with”.
We could also find some notable exceptions because it’s not all just a matter of food on the table. 1968 is a notable example of revolutionary processes within an environment of material satisfaction (but deep dissatisfaction otherwise, it was a revolution against authoritarianism: De Gaulle, Krushchev… failed only in part, as so many others: 1948, Paris Commune…)
But of course I agree that the main cause should be found in bad (and probably in worsening) material conditions. When conditions worsen people first try to retain or recover the previous ones (hence the siren songs for a second round of Keynesianism) but eventually they must probably face that the system is broke (not just financially in its very conceptual essence) and that a new beginning is needed.
“But of course, as noted, the analysis of revolutions was not the purpose of this contribution”…
Alright, duly noted. No worries.
“Neither do I dismiss democracy or people power – indeed I advocate it”…
Alright, my apologies for misreading you in this one.
One could easily misunderstand your intentions when you dismissed “the democratic illusion”, without any further qualifications. Even if it was not what you meant, I think that we must be careful in criticizing “the democratic illusion” clearly for being an illusion, a facade show for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, and not for being (supposedly) democratic.
And also I think that we must defend the concessions achieved within that illusion of democracy such as human rights, freedom of speech or even the often pointless universal right to vote – mostly because I think that these are conquests of the working class, even if partial and very imperfect.
“Your point about parties (often with armed branches) heading up the struggle is true to a certain extent for bourgeois revolutions”…
Only? I actually see that happening even more clearly in the worker revolutions, specially the partly successful ones, from Russia to China, from Albania to Cuba, from Yugoslavia to Vietnam…
Of course these all follow the Leninist model but, as I mentioned above, also in the greatest Anarchist attempts like the aborted Catalan/Spanish revolution of 1936-37, you do find the revolutionary parties with other names.
I’m not enthusiastic of parties and certainly dislike sectarian organizations (and I have never belonged to any party myself, let that be clear) but I find very difficult to prefigure, canalize and realize a revolution without some sort of party-like organization. Probably it should be more networked and decentralized today, after all the Leninist type of party belongs to the Fordist epoch and we are already at the end of the Toytist period, but some sort of political organization is no doubt necessary.
“From my reading of the history Russian revolution, it is also the case that there were many aspiration ‘leaders’ but they led nothing but discussion groups, activist cells etc., until the masses moved”…
That’s coincident with Kropotkyn’s analysis of the Russian Revolution. I don’t recall the exact words but essentially he presented the Bolshevik leaders as riding the wave instead of being swallowed by it… but not in control of it at all.
Still, after the Leninist coup or October Revolution, the Red Army was crucial and the Russian Revolution would have been smashed without it. Similarly in China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Albania… the military front was important, crucial I’d say, even if often these were rag-tag armies. Maybe it’s the sign of an epoch that cannot be universalized but we can’t deny their historical importance at least in the 40s, 50s, 60s and even up to the 1970s (Angola, South Vietnam, etc.) and the 80s (Nicaragua).
Again the Anarchist version was not too different even if less disciplined maybe. Catalan, Basque and Spanish Anarchists effectively aborted the 1936 fascist coup in Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastian with armed militias. The real history talks of rather small groups of activists taking arsenals and disarming putschist police stations after bloody street battles in which we can’t talk of “the masses” but of militant cells instead. Later they would attempt to win also in the conventional military front, to no avail but what else could they do but to try?
Similarly, on the other side, the fascists also took Seville with a bunch of militants pretending to be an army and a radio spreading false information. Small groups can have great impacts in critical moments, hence the importance of being organized and ready for such a key moment.
“I wrote an article on my blog at http://www.critical-mass.net entitled ‘The revolutionary Party; help or hindrance!’”…
I will take a look because it sounds promising. Thanks.
We obviously disagree on a number of points. However, I have a rule of thumb so to speak. It is ‘whenever I am sure of something I maintain it with an element of doubt’. So that if I discover new evidence which throws new light upon the view I have arrived at I can reconsider or adjust my view. No evidence I have encountered so far has convinced me that my assessment of what constitutues a revolution and what doesn’t is that far off. Of course a lot depends upon how one defines a revolution. But thats another piece of detailed writing not comment and counter-comment. And of course we don’t need to agree on everything do we? Regards, Roy
For some years those associated with The Commune have argued that organisationally it is not a question of what Lenin or Trotsky said on vanguardism and “Democratic Centralism” but an organisational form for the conditions under which we work. After all, Marx did not make a fetish of one organisational form.
Roy outlines the current conditions:
1 profound Economic crisis
2 lack of any significant anti Capitalist organisation.
3 The problem with Leninist/Trotskyist sectarian vanguardism
4 The lack of an understanding of Marxist political economy among trade unionists.
Roy then specifies our current tasks:
1 To grasp and spread an understanding of Capitalist crisis and the nature of Capitalism within the working class
2 To work to overcome the sectarian heritage.
3 To build a network of anti Capitalist enlightenment
4 To aim at a critical mass who understand the need for an alternative society.
In general most of those who contribute to the commune would agree with the above,although some might add or alter certain aspects of Roy’s conclusions.
Roy grounded his starting point by referring to a Letter from Marx to Nieuwenhuis 1881: “What should be done at any definite moment in the future and done immediately depends of course entirely by the given historical conditions”
Now the context of the letter is a Labour congress. Now Marx seems to be making a point he made many times about organisation basing itself on actual social and political developments, rather than abstract schema and timetables for revolution. But Roy seems to make this a lesson for minorities, whatever the nature of their politics,not to act to try to organise large scale or significant actions.
So we get this comment about anti cuts work: “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” In the context of another comment ” before the rest of the population are ready to do so.” this does appear to suggest we wait for critical mass.
But if it just means we need to stress developing an anti capitalist culture and an understanding of capitalism in the sense of pre Leninist Socialists such as John Maclean and his economic classes then I think there would be agreement. Although some of your argument does appear to slide into opposition to a minority organising and agitating.
In the communist manifesto Marx did not restrict himself to broad economic and class wide comments. The role of Communists is to bring out the common interests of the proletariat independent of nationality. Communists represent the interests of the working class as a whole, as the most resolute and advanced section of the movement. This is not vanguardism in the sectarian from the outside Leninism.
The problem currently is the radical left is not advanced or resolute enough. Many on the left are tangled up in trade unionism or keyesian calls for workers and capitalists to work together in the state for growth.If we are to break from this and make a difference we can only start from where we are: a small minority who need to get organised. Networking is not sufficient. The mass of the working class on seeing the failure of the trade unions to go beyond one day token strikes, to real resistance,have concluded voting labour at the next election is the only possible alternative which is the hidden agenda of the trade union Bureaucracy.This is a dismal prospect; One we should organise against.
I am in agreement with you that the majority of the working people should have an understanding of the nature and workings of the present system of capitalist exploitation and its effects in their life. But the system of capitalist exploitation produces illusions for the masses to mask its true face and defend itself against any possible risks and challenges to its workings and existence. The problem is how to destroy these illusions and unmask the capitalist mode of production and state. As you have pointed out, without their situation becoming extremely desperate, the mass do not rise against the existing social system. As long as they have their social positions of comfort and security ensured no amount of convincing is sufficient ot move them from their submission to the capitalist relations of production. It is only when the productive forces operating under the rule capital come to a standstill i,e the social production disintegrates and can not ensure livelihood for the majority of the people, our convincing and educative effort may bear fruit. Only their personal experiences can serve as an effective condition for their developing and achieving a consciousness of the nature and workings of the present system of capitalist exploitation and its effects in their life tearing through the illusions making them toiling under the yoke of capitalist relations of productions. It is a process of self education, and not a process of persuasion or brainwashing. In the south asian countries there are deprivations and discontent but there are deep rooted illusions prevailing over and taking hold of the people’s minds making them unable to see the real causes of their sufferings These illusions are religious,ethnic,communal and nationalist and not only hide the true face of the present system but also divide them making them incapable of any concerted rise against the system. In the west it is different. But more or less this clearing of the illusions and developing a consciousness of the nature and workings of the present system of capitalist exploitation and a motivation to go byond it is the very first step to a radical change of the society. Without it the revolution of the rifle is bound to fail.
I agree with what you say and thank you for developing some of the points I made only briefly. I particularly agree with your references as to the multiple sources of ideology and identity which divide the workers and oppressed. I have two articles on my blog with regard to religion. ‘Religion and violence’ and ‘Religion versus women’s rights. Which refers to all three Abrahamic religions equally.
Hi Barry! With regard to the article I think the substantive clue to my suggestions is in the title of the piece. ‘Crisis! What else can we do?’
No where in it do I say that is all anti-capitalists should do. This point seems to have been missed. In this sense I do not specify the tasks or suggest we ‘wait for a critical mass’ but suggest a list of things which I think should not be overlooked whilst we are active – along with the reasons I think so. I don’t really mind if people disagree – good! But I genuinely offered these suggestions on the basis of a life-time of trade union, and left activism as well as the last two years involvement with a number of anti-cuts organisations and left groups. During the last year or two I have found at least three run by different ‘left’ groups who refused the suggestions some of us made to become a unified group. So I am not against forms of organisation. I even wrote an article some time ago entitled ‘Form and essence in the anti-capitalist struggle’. It argued against making a fetish out of any one form of organisation, but recognised the need for different forms which should be judged not on the basis of ‘one size fits all’ or ‘for all time’ but as those ‘fit for pupose’ intended. It is still on my blog at http://www.critical-mass.net. Over the last two years I have also noticed – and this among dedicated activists – the following; a lot subtle and blatent forms of sectarianism, a lot of impatience and considerable wishful thinking along with a reluctance to get their heads around questions involving serious study either of the history of anti-capitalist struggle or an understanding of the economic crisis itself. Another article on my blog prompted by this observation was ‘Patience; the first condition of learning anything’. Accordingly over the last year or so I came to the conclusions which were offered in the above article to the readers of my blog before it appeared on the commune one. This of course only reflects my experience and my observations and so of course may not reflect others.
Regards to all, Roy
Firstly, Marx and Engels did not underplay the role of leadership in struggle. They often discussed the attributes of the leaders of the various unions/labour organisations andoften used owrds such as “so and so has 20,000 men under his command’. Now I am all for empowering people and getting rid of hierarchy but to deny the importance of leadership is idiotic.
Seond, Marxists are not in agreemnt as to what the current crisis should tell us. Some believe this is a seminal moment, the time capitalism finally comes to a grinding halt, others think it a blip. Some believe rate of profit is to blame, others think it is structural, some believe it is financial. That debate has not been settled.
Finally, I reject the idea that progress will come from a complete collapse of capitalism or a major crisis, on the contrary, it will come from ever greater prosperity and technological development.
you have not elucidated on your idea of progress. Let’s take it in the true sense i,e overall wellbeing of the people. You say it will come from ever greater prosperity and technological development. What do you mean by prosperity? Is it abundance of social wealth and resources? There is already such abundance achieved, even in India where deprivation, starvation and underfeeding are reigning supreme among majority of the people. To bring about progress your stress is perhaps on technological development. The west is more or less technologically developed. But why is there so much unemployment today?
I think it’s not technological development but the social system of production, the nature of the authority of control over and the purpose of the social production which is the force behind the social progress. It’s the forces and relations of production that actually determines the course and pace of the social progress. The productive forces consist of the material means of production and the people i.e. labour power. The material means of production are the objects of labour and the instruments of labour i.e. technology. The material means of production are the passive agent of production and people or the labour power is the active agent. Without the application of labour power to the material means of production, production can’t get started. The material means of production is activated only by the labour power in action. The output or the results of social production are material and human or physiological. The material results of production are the products that satisfy human needs. The human, physiological results attained through the process of production may be the intellectual and spiritual enrichment and development of the people , in short, the development of their labour power, or may also be physical exhaustion, boredom etc. as is the case under the rule and authority of the capital. Under the authority of the capital the productive forces work only for the goal of profit making, or accumulation or self expansion of the capital. In the capitalist system of production the only serious concern or motive is the material output of production. The intellectual-spiritual output is nothing important to capital. In the capitalist system of production and exchange of values the only function of the productive forces is to achieve the maximum rate of profit in the competition of capital accumulation, which can be attained by increasing the productivity of labour. It leads to a competition of increasing the productivity of labour resulting in more investment in technology i.e. fixed capital than in the labour power i.e. variable capital. The higher organic composition of capital makes a great part of the social workforce redundant and culminates in a falling rate of profit. Investment in production becomes unprofitable and production unsustainable from the viewpoint of capital’s profit making. Capital fails to reproduce itself in greater magnitude. The process of production and reproduction halts causing unemployment and suffering of the people. That is the crisis brought about by the capital in its stress on technology, the purpose of which is only the reproduction of the capital in larger size, not the increasing reproduction of the human labour power. The reproduction of the human labour power means a generation and development of overall physiological efficiency necessary for not only economic activities but also intellectual-aesthetic activities needed for existential wellbeing of a person. The condition for the reproduction of the human labour power is the workers’ democratic authority over the social system of production and exchange. Progress, to me is the uninterrupted and continuous course of reproduction of not the capital, but the social labour power at an ever increasing rate. The material output of production is necessary only from the viewpoint of consumption by the people, of satisfying their needs, not from the viewpoint of capital accumulation. Only satisfying the needs of the people can guarantee the uninterrupted and continuous course of reproduction of the social labour power at an ever increasing rate. To capital only the material output of production is important usually at the cost of great physiological exhaustion and unemployment of the people. There can’t be full employment of the social workforce under the authority of capital, because technological development operating under the authority and profit making motive of capital causes a constantly growing displacement of labourers. The unity of productive forces is broken, the labour power is alienated from the material means of production, the productive force is split in two, the active agent of social production is thrown out and forced into inaction. Thus the capitalist form of production prevents the productive forces from being in action and effective and the products from circulating, unless they are first turned into capital i.e. serves its purpose of capital accumulation. Therefore only technological development can’t guarantee social progress. Only the unity of the social productive forces, which can be attained only under the democratic authority of the workers of the world, can guarantee the social progress through production planned to satisfy the human needs and exchange of values oriented towards the reproduction of human labour power on the basis of no other relations but relations of labour and labour only. When we will be able to transform and replace all economic relations into/with relations of labour, we will be able to talk about progress meaningfully and effectively. Then the technological development will serve not to increase the rate of profit or exploitation but to increase the creative leisure of the people by reducing/abolishing the burden of labour. That is surely not a matter of prosperity or economic growth or a rise in the GDP, or whatever you may call it under the authority of capital.
I don’t think capitalism has finished it’s job of developing the productive forces if I am being honest. It still can and will play a progressive role, albeit with its not insignifcant problems/injustices and potential for huge amounts of destruction. A move to socialism now would advance humanity better than the capitalist path I imagine, so I am all in favour of arguing for socialism.
I cannot imagine socialism can develop from a desperate situation or a collapse of some kind. I think this will help the far right. What a crisis can do is give space to left ideas and provide ammunition for the left in attacking the system. But ultimatley the existing depressed realities will only aid the far right. What I mean by prosperity and progress is what we have clearly seen in Britain and pretty much the whole developed world over the last 100 years. One generation being better off than the previous one. Technology has played a crucial part in this, under capitalism it doesn’t just play a negative role but can be applied as use values. Of course under socialism technology will rally flourish to the ultimate benefit of the human race.
For me socialism is a positive outcome of the inherent contradictions of capitalism, not the thing that emerges from the ashes of a final epoch capitalist breakdown. Crises are nothing to get excited about, the task of building socialism is a constant, whether capitalism is growing or depressing.
@Steve: Capitalism has clearly entered an era of declining returns. Capitalism does not just develop productive forces (the “positive” side) but also predates on Natura (and Humankind as part of it). And the planet cannot just keep up with the ever-growing demands of Capitalism. It may still play a role in the “periphery” (underdeveloped countries) but even there we see a growing wave of discontent and often revolutionary uprisings (from Bolivarian semi-socialist regimes in America to Maoist armed and political struggle in South Asia).
Neither Fascism nor Keynesianism nor anything I can imagine can save Capitalism. The only solution is Socialism because only Socialism (or Communism if you wish) can be Green enough. Your usual “green” parties are just a new socialdemocracy (social-liberalism) but the proper respectful management of the environment is crucial for any new socio-economical regime that may succeed and neither Capitalism nor any other explotation regime can do that, only a Socialist management can. Of course not one obsessed with “the development of production forces” but one with an open mind, able to see beyond 19th century theories into the 21st century real needs.
It’s Eco-Socialism or extinction, let’s have that clear.
I don’t necessarily disagree with any of your points, apart from the ultra pessimism. I just don’t accept that socialism will spring from a great calamity, then again how could I know for sure?
Not so much “from” as “through”.
Nobody can know the future so it’s not a matter of “Socialism will” but rather of “Socialism can”. Socialism cannot succeed when or where Capitalism is strong. Nothing strong and solid ever collapsed and needed from a creative replacement as may be Socialism/Communism. It’s the rotten, obsolete structures which revolutions demolish to build something new on the ruins. And it is people surviving in rotten structures and fearful of them collapsing over themselves and their affective entourages (family, friends, community…) who realize the need for revolution and eventually may make it.
But there is nothing deterministic in all that: just a matter of windows of opportunity.
And it’s not pessimistic at all because we are right now living through that great crisis of Capitalism, crisis in which it finally reveals itself without masks to an evolved social worker class, perfectly able to realize that at such juncture they (we) can do much better without the bourgeois parasitic masters.
I do not believe that socialism will spring from the collapse of capitalism because that collapse will be a backward step, a descent into barbarity. Socialism is the next progressive forward march of history, the logical resolving of capitalism’s contradictions, and a positive resolution. A higher form of existence, It surely cannot come about amid a painful decline. The more likely event is that a catastrophic collapse of capitalism will result in something reactionary.
Dialectics (or Chaos dynamics also) implies crisis and conflict. The Capitalist system did not arise from the mere advance of Feudalism or the Old Regime but implied serious conflicts inside this culminating in the late 18th century “civilization crisis” and the subsequent revolutions, which began to stamp out the Old Regime (a process consolidated later through the 19th century).
I may be wrong but I imagine the collapse of Capitalism and possible rise of Socialism in a similar manner, although probably more intense and accelerated (because everything goes much faster and is much more global nowadays). Like the bourgeois revolutions had precursors in Switzerland, Netherlands, Cromwell… the worker revolution has precursors in the USSR, China, Cuba and many others, but similarly it should also have some differences and an even greater, more definite impact, stamping out the obsolete, rotten Capitalist regime, now unable to offer anything but misery and desperation.
But for sure the French Revolution was not done under triumphant Louis XIV but under the decadent Louis XVI, in the context of a deep social and economic crisis. Same for every single revolution I can find in the history books: a decadent old regime goes into deep crisis and the people (sometimes) finds a way out of that misery and utter oppression via a revolution that offers new expectatives and hopes.
As put off as some are by the Marxist analysis, this is where it is crucial.
The rate of profit is all important – no expected profit, no production.
For the last few decades the rate of profit has been artifically supported through credit/debt, made possible by the fiat money regime.
The collapse of Lehman’s expose the problem.
With the whole financial sector about to go under the main governments of the world had to step in a bail out the banks (i.e. capitalism) with more credit/debt.
The illusion of bits of paper (bank notes, bonds, etc) representing real wealth (claims on labour time) has been temporarily restored.
But it is a illusion; this amount of ‘wealth’ cannot realise the amount of labour time it lays claim to.
Capital devaluation/destruction must occur eventually – debts to pay debts just leads to insolvency.
So despite the huge advance in technology, the capitalist system cannot continue without a huge destruction of value (& human misery) to restore the rate of profit.
Will this mean a long perod of stagnation leading to revolution or will society collapse into a barbaric third world war & the end of civilisation?
It’s impossible to know for sure, but one way or another the hope has to be for humanity to push forward for a world based upon meeting human needs rather than profit.
You believe that there is still scope for capitalist development of the society. Capitalist development is actually a development of the capital i.e. a greater scope and magnitude of the accumulation of capital, a greater expansion of capital through greater investment. Capitalist development is manifested at first as destruction of the pre-capitalist form of production with the capitalist system of production emerging as the only universal form of social production and increasing the productivity of social labour. This is surely a development over the feudal society in respect of the productivity of social labour, employment generation, consumption and the relative freedom of labour power. But as capitalist development basically means a greater scope and magnitude of the accumulation of capital, an expansion of capital, it also means greater control over labour and greater exploitation and subordination of labour. The development of the society in general under the authority of capital is only a by-product result of the process of the increasing capital accumulation. It is also a result of the struggle and movement of labour, which forced the capitalist state to go on the defensive and take regulatory measures in the interest of capital accumulation through redistribution of wealth and resources. The prosperity and progress that you have clearly seen in Britain and pretty much the whole developed world over the last 100 years is the result of such social processes. It cannot be denied that such prosperity and progress of the west is also an outcome of the colonial plundering of the east, of the exploitation and misery of the people of the east.
You are hopeful that capitalism can still produce positive results. How can it be done by the capital in this age of the falling rate of the profit, when as a desperate remedy to the falling rate of the profit, capital is trying to save itself by turning to the financial sector, and in the east, by trying to go back to the good old days of the early capitalism when there was no so called democratic state and welfare package for the people, by a state sponsored plundering of national resources. Capital is trying to shed the social security package which it had once to concede due to the pressure of the rising labour. All these are only to restore and compensate for the declining returns of the capital.
You believe that the socialist transformation of the society will happen by a forward march from the days of capitalist prosperity and progress. Maju has rightly observed that Socialism cannot succeed when or where Capitalism is strong and that nothing strong and solid ever collapsed and needed from a creative replacement as may be Socialism/Communism. The inherent contradictions of the structure of the forces of production in the capitalist system of production will give rise to the crisis of capital accumulation making the social production slow down and collapse. It’s sure that such economic crisis in itself will not bring about the socialist transformation of the society. Economic crisis is only a condition for the inherent contradictions of the structure of the forces of production being expressed and working in the structure of the relations of production i.e. bursting as conscious and political action of the working class against the authority of the capital. Only the political action of the working class in the context of the rotten, obsolete structures of the defunct capitalism can bring about the socialist transformation of the society. If that political action is absent, barbarity may follow.
Hi there! Considerable interest has been recently shown in an earlier analytical article of mine entitled ‘Sectarianism and the question of a General Strike’. For those interested in this phenomena – which is in line with point 2 in the above article – I have added an updated supplement to this article entitled ‘The Subtle Characteristics of Sectarianism’ at http://www.critical-mass.net and suggested some guidelines on how the left could break with this tradition and introduce a new culture to anti-capitalist dialogue and co-operation. Regards, Roy
Feudalism collapsed because it opened trade routes, this resulted in the growth of towns, of peasants moving from the country to the town. Progress did not come about due to catastrophic failure. The problem for socialists is that the working class have been neutered and their self organisation (which was becoming obvious to Marx and Engels) has been displaced. This remains the problem. Those hoping for socialism to spring from the ashes of capitalism are surely in for a bitter disappointment.
I do not accept that we are in the age of declining rate of profit, I reject that whole analysis and everything that springs from it.
I think that we must understand the difference between long term progress (through several centuries) and short or mid term crisis (through decades). Hence progress happened inside Feudalism and this progress (which is not just “goodness” but comes with contradictions) dialectically, through repeated crisis (but specially through the big crisis of the late 18th century), caused the collapse of the Old Regime.
Similarly Capitalism in the long run specially has been the cause of almost unimaginable progress but progress comes with contradictions, which cause crisis, which cause either the reform or the collapse of the system. We have already gone through several deep reforms (for example in the last century: Fordism and the subsequent Keynesian subsidized bubble, Toyotism and the subsequent Reaganist cheap credit bubble) but the power of reforms is exhausted (in my understanding) and a more radical approach is and will be needed as the worst of a system crisis of dimensions surely never before experienced falls upon us.
That does not mean that even in these gloomy circumstances progress cannot be undertaken and the basis of the new society cannot be implemented in some cases. For example I just read today that Germany is investing heavily in renewable energies while quitting nuclear altogether and that is giving them more and cheaper energy (instead Spain radically cut all investment in renewables what can only result in greater misery for the country – Cuba on the other hand is also investing in renewables out of dire need). In fact when I read that article on German growing renewable energy might (a notion that would have been mocked just a few years ago) my conviction of living through the final stage of Capitalism was slightly shattered because, theoretically at least, renewables offer almost unlimited economic expansion possibilities.
However, as I see it, what is hope for Capitalism is bad news for revolution and Socialism. You can’t have both. We won’t reach Socialism through Capitalism: it’s impossible.
I agree however in this: “The problem for socialists is that the working class have been neutered and their self organisation (which was becoming obvious to Marx and Engels) has been displaced”.
But I ask: why would anyone organize in a socialism manner within triumphant Capitalism that offers, like in its apogee in the 1960s, safe long-term jobs, cheap housing and gadgets and very reasonable welfare in a context of relatively good freedom levels? It was precisely then when the unions collapsed and Thatcher, the woman who puffed icecream with air, coalesced as iconic forger of our last three decades, creating yet-another-growth-bubble out of cheap credit while demolishing unions and revolutionary hopes.
10 years ago when the Thatcherite-Reaganist late version of Capitalism was booming while the USSR collapsed and the USA invaded Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti with total impunity, even die-hard communists were doubting their lifelong convictions.
You can’t make a revolution in such circumstances (c. 2000). You need a weakened, elderly, sick Capitalism to be able to conceive that revolutionary change can in fact happen because the desperate people, as happens in Greece or other places, looks at radical alternatives as the only ones offering real hope.
Feudalism was a structure of relations of production developed to suit the social productve forces of its time. In the structure of the forces of production, the active element, i.e the human labour power is a force that defies and destroys and goes beyond any structure of relations that stands against the development of the social productve forces. Feudalism did not open trade routes, opening of the trade routes was a result of the development of the productve forces, of the early capital. This development resulted in the growth of towns, of peasants moving from the country to the town. The progress from feudalism to capitalism was a result of not any forward march of feudalism, but a resolution of the contradictions of structure of relations of production, a breaking away of the social productve forces from the feudal relations of production. This resolution came through an overthrow of feudalism, which was surely nothing less than a disaster,a catastrophe for feudalism and the society as well. It was the end of feudalism, but surely not of the society.
Hmmm… There are elements that can be considered as proto-capitalist, notably trade routes but many elements which did indeed bring productive progress like the incorporation of the heavy plough and other related agricultural improvements, without which the agricultural development of Northern Europe would probably not have happened (hindering therefore the development of the trade routes from and into Flanders and such) are without doubt unrelated to proto-capitalist trading developments. Similarly I’m sure that many other technological advances happened in contexts that are otherwise unrelated to the Capitalist system like monasteries or artisan guilds (extremely anti-market, totally not the Capitalist thing).
Progress (technological, scientific or otherwise) is not caused by Capitalism but in-built in human nature. However Capitalism favors in general such advances because of the intense market dialectics embedded in it, which do not allow for much complacency but force capitalists, specially in the industrial sector, to always look for improvements which can outcompete their rivals and increase their margins. By comparison feudal lords and artisan masters (or free farmers where they existed) were complacient and conservative but that does not mean that they never innovated, just that innovation and expansion (i.e. progress), was less important for them and in some cases it was curtailed by norms designed precisel to prevent excessive change of the status quo.
The decline of feudalism was a gradual thing (and is still continuing to this day) and didn’t arrive due to a catastrophe at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon (though revolutions are often a forceful and quick resolution of contradictions). The fate of capitalism will be similar I reckon.
Technological advancement is a feature of capitalism, far more than it was under previous economic systems, same with labour productivity. All Marxists recognise this.
So the system is all important, which is why we can be confident that Socialism would be superior to capitalism. Though I would point out that the day to day operation of a capitalist system is down to the skill, experience and talent of workers and that the capitalist class is a parasite they would be far better off without.
The decline of the socio-economic structure of feudalism was a gradual thing, no doubt (and is still continuing to this day in subordination to capitalism under the political structure of capitalism in many parts of the world) and didn’t arrive due to a catastrophe at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon surely. But the political structure of feudalism was terminated more or less at a definite period of time by violent or non violent political action of the class in direct contradiction with it. Similarly the socio-economic structure of capitalism may decline from time to time but this decline or crisis will not lead to any spontaneous emergence of socialism. It’s only by destroying the political structure of capitalism that we can get into the age of the socialist transformation of the society.
Whilst the responses have been generally interesting and informative, a number – but not all – of the responses so far to my mind reveal a lack of focus on what is the essence of the above article and in some cases a misreading of what is actually being written. First, the essence is really contained in the A – E characterisations of some key historic conditions and the five suggested tasks. The rest is my adequate (or less than adequate reasoning) to support why I arrived at these conclusions and suggestions. Yet I find it interesting that only a few of the responses have bothered to directly engage with the suggestions I have made.
In the first paragraph of the article I wrote; “Most such initiatives stem from a mistaken view, that small groups, with the correct orientation can stimulate large significant and sustained actions, involving large numbers of people before the vast majority of the population are ready to do so.” I wrote this from the experience of the past number of years and the last four in particular. Even though the crisis has intensified since the 2008 banking crisis, I still find this is the case.
Today in Manchester only 90 people turned up from the Greater Manchester area to assemble in solidarity with the strike actions in Europe and elsewhere. In other words not only did this publicised initiative not galvanise many workers to attend but it did not galvanise even a quarter of those who would class themselves as ‘left’ anti-capitalists. At a later university student demonstration only forty people turned up and 12 of us there were not students. Again very few of the anti-capitalist ‘left’ students even bothered to get involved, let alone non-affiliated students.
We may regret this situation and wish it were different, but it isn’t. It remains a fact that people in general in the UK (or at least in the North West) are not yet ready to fight collectively, comprehensively, consistently and in large numbers. Again in both instances today abstract calls for immediate General Strikes were made by different representatives of sectarian groups to the low-level turnout. This demonstrated only a fetish-like obsession with a de-contextualised historic trade-union tactic which at the very least needs updating with regard to the actual number of trade union members in the 21st century and their willingness to even engage with the idea, let alone the practice. [See http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/sectarianism-and-the-question-of-a-general-strike/ It also indicated a lack of considering or evaluating the recent experiences of those numerous General Strikes in other parts of Europe, such as Greece. So no clarity on what one would aim to achieve or how it might be achieved.
I can only reiterate that in my opinion, the six suggestions outlined in the article should not be omitted in favour of wishful thinking, abstract sloganising and frantically dashing around as if all that is needed is to make the ’correct’ call and everyone will magically rise up. There are important tasks in addition to those noted above, but it would be a mistake in my opinion to neglect those mentioned or to skimp on them.
From the outside, it may depend on what matters, to them at emotional level, Roy. I just read earlier or yesterday on how York massively demonstrated against the EDL and this has happened elsewhere in England recently wherever the fascists have tried to march (at least for what I’ve read). So it may be more a matter of what engages people and that is usually what affects them directly first and foremost.
Solidarity is nice but often felt as an empty gesture. Instead not so long ago tens of thousands demonstrated in London against education cuts and such that affected them or their immediate social circles directly. As someone with Spanish ID card, it’s surely great if English protest in solidarity but it’s even better if they take their own destiny in their own hands because your emancipation is my emancipation and vice versa.
So I’d rather see English fighting for English social rights, of course within the wider European and global contexts. But solidarity always begins at home.
For the record Roy, I have directly responded to the article. My main points are:
1. I reject your theory of the crisis. I do not believe that profit rates were even going down, I agree with those Marxists who say they were going up.
2. Leadership is important (sadly) and Marx recognised this fact.
3. As yesterday’s strikes show there is a fightback going on. Even in Britain people are debating the wealth of those at the top. Slowly but surely attitudes are adjusting.
In the above article [Crisis! So what else can we do?‘] I argued that among the anti-capitalist left there was much discussion of ’revolution’ and what initiatives given the developing crisis, might galvanise the masses into struggle. I asserted the following;
“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, such attempts are bound to fail….. 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.”
This article itself gave rise to some criticism and discussion, particularly after its further posting here on the Commune blog. Because that particular article was suggesting what could be done, much of the reasoning behind the last sentence of the above extract was not included. However, a further article has been posted entitled ‘Uprisings and Revolutions’ which hopefully attempts to make good that deficiency and make clear my own reasoning behind the original assertion. It can be found at; http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/uprisings-and-revolutions
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