The long arc of mass movements

By Pete Dolack

For as long as there has been capitalism, there has been opposition to it. Opposition to it is again on the rise, although far from coalescing into any sort of cross-border, synchronized movement. Such movements have existed in the past, and it is worthwhile to adopt a long perspective by studying them.

Toward that end, an interesting book was recently re-published by Verso as part of its “Radical Thinkers” series. Anti-Systemic Movements, by Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins and Immanuel Wallerstein was originally written in 1989, just before the Soviet communist bloc began to collapse, and although the book is to a small extent an artifact of the Cold War era, it nonetheless — because the authors presented a long perspective — a valuable starting point for thinking about the types of movements necessary today to overcome the massive problems of the contemporary capitalist system.

The theory underlying the book is that of “world systems” analysis, which emphasizes that capitalism is a global system that changes and mutates over time and therefore must be analyzed as a single unit rather than as a collection of nation-states. Crucial to this understanding is recognizing the global division of labor that forms the basis for a division of the world’s countries into one of three broad categories: core, semi-periphery and periphery, with the latter two subordinate to the core countries and the periphery the most exploited.

If capitalism is a global system, then the response to it must be global as well. Regardless of familiarity or agreement with a “world systems” analysis, the global nature of capitalism can not be missed — manufacturing is continually moved to new locations with ever cheaper labor costs; raw materials and resources are traded around the globe on a massive scale; and capital moves to all corners of the Earth at a click of a computer button in search of new investment or for pure speculation.

Corporate globalization is a stronger phenomenon than in the past, but is not new — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels discussed globalization in the Communist Manifesto, written in 1848. That was a year of revolts in multiple European countries and empires. Those revolts ultimately failed, ushering in a period of reaction and strengthened monarchies. Despite the immediate failure of 1848, the uprisings did have long-term effects, most importantly the rise of working class organizations to combat the power of capitalist states, a necessity more forcefully administered after the bloody crushing of the Paris Commune in 1871.

In the fifth of the five essays that comprise Anti-Systemic Movements, professors Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein argued that the events of 1848 and 1968 constitute the “only two world revolutions” (authors’ emphasis). Finding strong parallels between 1848 and 1968, the authors situate 1848 as an uprising seeking to fulfill the original hopes and overcome the limitations of the French Revolution, and overturn the counter-revolutions of 1815. The uprisings in 1968, they argued, sought to fulfill the original hopes and overcome the limitations of the Russian Revolution, and overturn the counter-revolutions of 1945, when the United States firmly established its world hegemony. They wrote:

“In both cases the bubble of popular enthusiasm and radical innovation was burst within a relatively short period. In both cases, however, the political ground-rules of the world-system were profoundly changed as a result of the revolution. It was 1848 that institutionalized the old left (using this term broadly). And it was 1968 that institutionalized the new social movements. Looking forward, 1848 was in this sense the great rehearsal for the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution. … 1968 was the rehearsal for what?”

I would argue that it was the drowning in blood of the Paris Commune, the world’s first example of a people’s movement derived from socialist inspiration taking power, that might have been the more indispensable impetus for the growth of organizations such as political parties and unions, but there is no question that 1848 was the critical precursor of the Paris Commune and working peoples’ organizations long pre-date the Commune. There is no good argument against the authors’ statement that:

“The lesson that oppressed groups learned from 1848 was that it would not be easy to transform the system, and that the likelihood that ‘spontaneous’ uprisings would in fact be able to accomplish such a transformation was rather small. … Since the states could control the masses and the powerful strata could control the states, it was clear that a serious effort of social transformation would require counter-organization — both politically and culturally.”

But let us return to the question just asked: 1968 was the rehearsal for what? In 1989, when Anti-Systemic Movements was written, it was too early to provide an answer. I believe it is still too early to provide an answer. But perhaps, in this new era of long-term systemic capitalist crisis, a new movement can arise that not only directly challenges the capitalist system but incorporates today’s social movements — struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism & etc. – and which not only grasps, and acts on, the need for struggle to be internationalized but is capable of crossing national lines because of its inclusion of all struggles against oppression and its ability to connect these struggles.

Can the Occupy movement become the movement just described? It is far too early to say – if we are yet unable to determine the outcome of uprisings a generation ago, we are in no position to judge a movement born six months ago. That latent discontent with the capitalist status quo is widespread was confirmed by the incredible explosion of the Occupy movement; its clear message of the one percent against the 99 percent captured the social zeitgeist while placing the social debate on a class foundation in contrast to the national and race scapegoating routinely put forth by right-wing “populist” movements.

The movements that arose during the 1960s — reaching a brief zenith in places as diverse as Mexico City, Paris and Prague, and militarily expressed in the Tet Offensive, the turning point in Vietnam’s defense against United States invasion — were responses not only against capitalism but against the bureaucratization and deformation of anti-capitalist revolutions and movements. “Errors and terrors” repeated themselves in Communist states, professors Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein wrote, adding that social democratic governments were engaged in colonial repression and Third World national movements were frequently disappointing.

When new social movements burst on to the world stage in the 1960s, the “old left” seemed unable to comprehend. The French Communist Party, to provide one example, still attempted to appeal to women as mothers and housewives into the 1960s, seriously moving to modernize its line only after the 1968 student uprisings. But even afterwards, the Communists fell back on strictly economic themes, throwing overboard appeals to women based on anything other than as workers, and stifled internal discussions, ultimately driving many women away.

Moreover, the example of one movement could and did provide inspiration for other movements. A good example would be the feminist movement in the United States, which grew directly out of the experience that the women in civil rights organizations, where they developed skills to organize against their own repression experienced on a society-wide level while confronting the sexism they experienced within the civil rights movements.

Professors Arrighi, Hopkins and Wallerstein argued that four changes in relations were “established” as a result of the 1968 uprisings. The military capabilities of the core countries to police the global South became limited; changes in power relations among status groups such as genders and ethnicities “have proved to be far more lasting than the movements which brought them to world attention”; spreading labor unrest has shrunk the areas offering “safe havens of labor discipline”; and dictatorships have been replaced by democratic régimes.

The third item in the above paragraph has not been true for some time; labor has not been so weak against capital since the 1920s, or perhaps earlier. The authors were writing just before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, a zone that, despite its faults, did provide alternative ideas of social organization. The bloc’s collapse pitched the Left into a crisis nowhere near a solution, opened a previously blocked swath of the world for full exploitation by capital and weakened resistance to the onslaught of neoliberal triumphalism.

And although the other gains mentioned above are real, the authors acknowledged that the actual changes for subordinate groups from the 1968 uprisings are meager:

“[S]ome material benefits did accrue to subordinate groups as a whole from the change in the balance of power [in the world social system]. But most of these benefits have accrued to only a minority within each group, leaving the majority without any gain, perhaps even with a net loss. … In all directions we are faced with the apparent paradox that a favorable change in the balance of power has brought little or no change in benefits to the majority of each subordinate group. This apparent paradox has the simple explanation that the reproduction of material welfare in a capitalist world-economy is conditional upon the political and social subordination of the actual and potential laboring masses.”

Writing in 1989, on the eve of an unforeseeable change in world affairs, the authors forecasted four developments continuing in the following two decades: the erosion of U.S. hegemony with no clear new order to replace it; a deepening struggle between labor and capital leading to pockets of rising well-being surrounded by increasing immiseration for most; new technologies undermining the abilities of states to control their civil societies; and the “demands of disadvantaged status-groups — of gender, of generation, of ethnicity, of race, of sexuality — will get ever stronger.”

By and large those four predictions did come to pass, although the pockets of relative prosperity are now being eroded. The decline in living standards among people previously privileged is beginning to expand the base of opposition to the political and economic status quo. Those so privileged within a given country tend to be well delineated; less obvious but no less important is that all working people in advanced capitalist countries are privileged in relation to people in all other countries. That latter privilege was a fruit of imperialism, even if the rewards heavily flowed to the top; but now imperialism has dialectically evolved into a relationship that erodes the living standards of working people within those countries as ever more manufacturing and services are transferred to new low-wage havens. Now all of the benefits are flowing to the top (the “one percent”) of the advanced capitalist countries, with some diversion to the very top within the developing countries to which production is transferred.

The economic crisis — a structural crisis of the capitalist system — has been long lasting and, with short-term fluctuations, is bound to deepen. And the myriad of social problems and discriminations expressed in economic struggle and in cultural forms are a long distance from being solved. Older institutions of working people, those with roots in the first half of the 20th century and even the 19th century, proved to be disappointingly incapable of understanding, never mind responding adequately to, the social movements of the 1960s and beyond. The newer institutions that began during that decade and since routinely acknowledge social issues and the legitimate demands of minorities, women, gays, lesbians and immigrants, but continue to struggle with these issues.

That straight women, lesbians and transgendered people had to create safe spaces for themselves at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City by erecting a large tent for women and another large tent for women and transgendered people speaks for itself. Social struggles such as these were (and are) discussed at great length within the Occupy movement, but that they are necessary speaks to the inability of Left movements to adequately confront them. I stress here that I am not pointing a finger at the Occupy movement; rather, I am noting a symptom of how deeply racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, anti-Semitism and other social ills are imbedded in the capitalist society that envelops all of us.

One important reason for the Left’s inadequate responses is a belief held among many that social ills and discriminations will magically vanish when capitalism is ended. But we should all acknowledge that racism, sexism and the other social ills are woven so deeply into the fabric of society that a conscious struggle against them is necessary before, during and after any social upheaval or revolution. Only a movement that incorporates the social movements and the struggles for economic justice and democracy — an all-encompassing movement to completely overhaul society – can succeed.

If an injury to one is an injury to all, then injury to one has to be opposed by all.

Simultaneously with inter-related struggle is to have long-term goals, not simply reforms to be won in the short term, which can easily be (and often are) taken away. The authors of Anti-Systemic Movements argued that post-1968 movements have lacked a clarity that post-1848 movements possessed:

“After 1848, the world’s old left were sure that 1917 [socialist revolution] would occur. They argued about how and when and where. But the middle-range objective of popular sovereignty was clear. After 1968, the world’s antisystemic movements — the old and the new — showed rather less clarity about the middle-range objective. They have tended therefore to concentrate on short-range ones.”

By and large, that analysis remains true more than two decades later. I am not arguing that there should not be short-range goals — tangible goals that can be obtained and create a real advance are indispensable and create their own momentum during periods of movement upsurge. Any movement, especially one that confronts a global hegemonic system, must have attainable short-term victories. But to concentrate only on reforms, and not necessarily big reforms, is a short-term strategy that isn’t viable over the long term.

If the problem humanity confronts is a global system, then the long-term goal has to be replacement of that global system. Replacing this or that banker, successfully forcing a reform on this or that corporation, successfully defending a progressive law or defeating a regressive law are real, tangible accomplishments deserving of applause, but can not be other than short-term reforms lacking a stable foundation. The problems humanity faces are far larger than any group of bankers or corporations.

Reforms that lead toward much bigger changes — clearly articulated reforms that the system can not accommodate — are the path toward a real change in human existence.

Finding those reforms, and finding that path, are no easy task. But we have no choice but to find them.


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