Building a better movement

All of us who struggle for a better world are disheartened that so many advances of the 20th century have been lost. The mounting crises of the environment, the global economy and ever more constricted political systems are unmistakably moving humanity toward a cliff. And yet social movements, for all the victories here and there, again and again fail to sustain momentum.

Why are we in this predicament? No single person or organization can fully answer such a question, of course, but we do need to seriously reconsider what has been done and how. In this spirit, Marta Harnecker’s “Ideas for the Struggle” is a document that merits wide discussion. Originally written in 2004 and updated this year, the paper consists of 12 short, closely linked sections. And although written with Latin America in mind, the ideas are borderless.

Argentines demonstrate against banks in February 2002 (photo by Usuario:Barcex)

Argentines demonstrate against banks in February 2002 (photo by Usuario:Barcex)

Taking on the idea of spontaneity head on, Ms. Harnecker, a sociologist and activist since the 1960s, opens her paper by declaring that popular uprisings are insufficient in themselves. She writes:

“The recent and not so recent popular uprisings that rocked numerous countries across the world have clearly demonstrated that the initiative of the people, in and of itself, is not enough to defeat ruling regimes. Impoverished urban and rural sectors, lacking a well-defined plan, have risen up, seized highways, towns and neighborhoods, ransacked stores and stormed parliaments, but despite being able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people, neither their size nor their combativeness have been enough to move from mass uprisings to revolution. They have overthrown presidents, but they have not been able to conquer power and initiate a process of deep social transformations.”

The example of successful revolutions, she argues, demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle is essential. To be effective,

“to convert mass uprisings into revolutions, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required: one that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy; that is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orientating their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation; that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.”

The past doesn’t have to be the future

That “political instrument” has to be welded anew and based on current, concrete conditions; people who believe that strong organizations are something to be avoided because many parties of the past engaged in authoritarian or manipulative political practices should not be trapped in the past. She writes:

“I believe it is fundamental for us to overcome this subjective barrier and understand that when we refer to a political instrument, we are not thinking about any political instrument; we are dealing with a political instrument adjusted to the new times, an instrument that we must build together. … We are talking about understanding politics as the art of constructing a social and political force capable of changing the correlation of force in favor of the popular movement, to make possible in the future what today appears impossible. We have to think of politics as the art of constructing forces. We have to overcome the old and deeply-rooted mistake of trying to build a political force without building a social force.”

By “social force,” Ms. Harnecker refers to the multitude of grassroots organizing that takes on particular struggles, including at local levels, and whose autonomy must be respected. A larger organization working on the broader project of building a revolutionary movement can only do so by working with these multitudes of grassroots movements. There can’t be a movement toward a better society without organic movements seeking to transcend the current society. This “construction of forces,” as the author defines this process, has to be conscious work. She writes:

“[T]his construction of forces cannot occur spontaneously; only popular uprisings happen spontaneously. It requires a political instrument that is capable of consciously building the required forces. … I envisage this political instrument as an organization capable of raising a national project that can unify and act as a compass for all those sectors that oppose neoliberalism. As an organization that is orientated towards the rest of society, that respects the autonomy of the social movements instead of manipulating them. And one whose militants and leaders are true popular pedagogues, capable of stimulating the knowledge that exists within the people — derived from their cultural traditions, as well as acquired in their daily struggles for survival — through the fusion of this knowledge with the most all-encompassing knowledge that the political organization can offer.”

Balancing debate with the necessity of action

How should such an organization develop its ideas? In what some readers would likely see as more controversial, Ms. Harnecker argues for democratic centralism. Although a term that is looked on with disfavor due to how the concept was badly distorted in 20th century communist parties, she argues that only through thorough democratic discussion can activists be prepared to carry out work, but that there also has to be strategic action rather than simply debate. She argues:

“This combination of a) a democratic debate at different levels of the organization and b) a single centralized leadership based on whatever agreements are arrived at by consensus or by majority vote is called ‘democratic centralism.’ I do not see how one can conceive of successful political action if unified action is not achieved around key issues. I do not see any other alternative to democratic centralism for achieving this, if consensus cannot [be] reached.

Only a correct combination of centralism and democracy can ensure that agreements are effective, because having engaged in the discussion and the decision-making process, one feels more committed to carry out the decisions.”

That a decision must be made and actions taken based on that decision does not mean an issue is closed in this conception. The minority must be allowed to continue to argue its case because that minority might be right, and if the majority is convinced it is right it should have no fear of further debate, the author writes.

Popular Unity supporters rally in Chile in 1972 (photo via Revista Argentina Siete Días Ilustrados)

Popular Unity supporters rally in Chile in 1972 (photo via Revista Argentina Siete Días Ilustrados)

This is a crucial point. The road to one-person dictatorship began with the stifling of minority viewpoints. As the spaces for debate steadily constricted in the 1920s Soviet Union, it is impossible not to think of Leon Trotsky’s warning that the party would substitute itself for the working class, that a faction of the party would substitute itself for the party and finally a single leader would substitute itself for the faction.

We should never under-estimate the isolation that the Bolshevik Revolution faced, nor the enormous challenges of modernizing a backward country while defending itself against a hostile capitalist world. Nor ignore the huge advances made in a country that went from a 20 percent literacy rate to producing more engineers than any other country in the span of two generations. Nonetheless, the political distortions imposed by first a single-person dictatorship and then a bureaucratic monopoly of power by a single party placed fatal fetters on Soviet development.

People can only solve their problems by freely discussing them, without coercion or manipulation, and then freely acting through coordinated activity based on the results of their discussion. In turn, there must be larger organizations that connect the many particular struggles into a broad movement, one that enables activists to see the links and commonalities between these struggles and the often common enemies that they face.

Confronting capitalist hegemony

None of us possess a blueprint on how to build an effective mass movement. But one thing that ought to be clear, yet often isn’t, is that simply replicating the models of the past is a dead end. To return to Ms. Harnecker’s paper, she argues that no movement can be effective without consideration of capitalist hegemony in opinion manufacturing and the broad acceptance of capitalist rule that hegemony engenders. She writes:

“I am talking about a strategy that takes into consideration the important social, political, economic and cultural transformations that have occurred across the world in the last period. One that understands that the new forms of capitalist domination go far beyond the economic and state sphere, have infiltrated into all the interstices of society — fundamentally through the mass media which has indiscriminately invaded the homes of all social sectors, and in doing so changed the conditions of struggle. … The capitalist elites tend to achieve a significant hegemony over important popular sectors, a real cultural leadership over society; they have the capacity to ideologically subordinate the popular sectors, even those who are exploited by them. As [Noam] Chomsky says, propaganda is to bourgeois democracy what the truncheon is to the totalitarian state.”

Discussion of alternatives to capitalism must become more serious. Not only do social movements need to free themselves of forms of thinking imposed by capitalist hegemony, alternative spaces must be opened and successfully defended:

“[W]e must develop a process of popular construction opposed to capitalism in the territories and spaces won by the left, that seeks to break with the profit logic and the relations this imposes and tries to instill solidarity-based humanist logics. We must promote struggles that are not limited to simple economic demands — although these need to be included — but that advance the development of a more global, social project that encourages authentic levels of power from the grassroots.”

As I noted earlier, the author has written “Ideas for the Struggle” with the experiences of Latin America in mind, and some of the examples she provides are specific to that region. Nonetheless the ideas expressed (of which I have quoted only a very small sample) provides much material for discussion that is pertinent to any country or region. We do need to stop lamenting that we don’t know how to build an effective movement and start seriously discussing how we are going to build an effective movement.

If we don’t, barbarism will be the future. As the world’s resources are depleted, the environment is polluted beyond near-term remediation and ever more people are thrown into desperation — if we go on with capitalism, this is the path humanity will continue to walk — the industrialists and financiers who rule the world will surely have more intensive repression in store for us. If that is not the future we want, we’ll have to change it ourselves.

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20 comments on “Building a better movement

  1. […] via Building a better movement — Systemic Disorder […]

  2. newtonfinn says:

    As I believe I mentioned in a prior post, I have been spending a great deal of time with Albert Schweitzer’s “Philosophy of Civilization,” written on the heels of WWI. Apart from his call for a new Renaissance/Enlightenment based upon the elemental, universal ethic of reverence for life (which inspired Rachel Carson to write “Silent Spring” and launch the environmental movement), I am fascinated by Schweitzer’s analysis of how modern thought has become trapped in present facts and their projection into what we call history, which then combine to create the realpolitik that underlies what has now become global neoliberal capitalism.

    When one reads an Enlightenment thinker like Thomas Paine, Schweitzer’s characterization of our current plight becomes vivid. During a brief flash of history in the 18th and early 19th centuries, intellectuals, as well as “average” people, experienced an existential freedom from tradition and authority, which allowed them to measure existing political, economic, and social structures by an idealistic yardstick of reason and human rights. They also experienced a power to impose on those brute facts of reality and entrenched trends of “history” new concepts and visions of what genuine civilization should entail. My goal is to probe Schweitzer’s thinking as deeply as possible on the manner in which this existential freedom and power were obtained during this brief but extraordinary period.

    Perhaps there are subtle and overlooked messages for our time, care of a polymath, writing by candlelight in the depths of the African jungle. If I find any, I’ll share them on this thought-provoking website.

  3. Arjun says:

    Harnecker’s text sounds well-worth reading in the full. Based on the quoted text, though, I have to wonder about the use of the term “political instrument”–seems like this is just a vague term used to replace the term “Party”? I can understand the need to move away from the baggage of the authoritarian 20th-century socialisms, but I feel like one should be straightforward about this; no need to skulk around with new terms describing old concepts.

  4. Prole Center says:

    So, we come full circle after trying to reinvent the wheel once again. Democratic centralism and a single unifying political party, or instrument (as if changing the name will change the substance), is the only way forward.

    And when did the Soviet Union get all those engineers? Before or after Stalin? You know, the Trotskyists are just mad because the Soviet Union was built under Stalin’s leadership and not their guy’s, to paraphrase Stephen Gowans.

    Oh, and there’s really no such thing as a one-man dictatorship, just like there’s no such thing as pure democracy.

  5. fjwhite says:

    “We do need to stop lamenting that we don’t know how to build an effective movement and start seriously discussing how we are going to build an effective movement.”

    And who is this “we” who are going to build an effective movement?

    For starters, perhaps it would be helpful to provide examples of current (or past) “effective movements” (e.g. feminist movement, civil rights movements, LGBT movement) as a first step in learning the process of its rise (and fall).

    I’m no student of the history of social movements but my impression is they’re messy affairs, a process of fits and starts and not tales of steady progress.

    Somehow, the idea of “seriously discussing” seems somewhat formulaic for messy episodic social processes.

    • We have to start somewhere. Remember there is far from any consensus out there, opinions ranging from those who believe we should just replicate whatever Lenin did to those who believe we the solution is to spend three hours a night in assemblies. Not to mention the vast gradations in between.

      The process is created in the doing, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be thinking, and theory, behind it. Movements that forced significant change, including the civil rights and feminist movements, spent a lot of time discussing and debating strategy, tactics, coalition building and all else.

      Practice without theory amounts to running around in circles with no effectiveness. Theory without practice is arm-chair pontificating. Only a synthesis of theory and practice can propel a movement forward to effective action. That synthesis does not fall out of the sky.

  6. troutsky says:

    I’m sure you meant “practice withOUT theory” and I agree and appreciate this timely post. I have been trying to make the case that climate justice needs to assume the role of hegemonic unifying “issue” for the left. “Neoliberalism” lacks explanatory power and being against it is like being against ‘globalization’ in the 90’s. Too vague.

    At the point of ‘demands’, climate justice forces activists to confront capitalism itself (the mode of production and the ideology) and make a stark choice: to enter the morass of Green Capitalism or reject the system entirely; down to the level of property relations, law, and even constitutionality. No other “social justice” issue forces this reckoning, in my opinion. And because it introduces concepts such as “limits” and “tipping points”, climate is existential (not just material), and resists incrementalism.

    This consolidation is antithetical to recent movement trends such as”movement of movements” or “intersectionality” , instead asking for prioritization and making tough choices (like the World Social Forum could never do). Because it confronts progressives, social democrats and liberals at the point of markets, it will be a tough slog and probably require some charismatic ML King type figure-head.

    My answer to Prole is: just think about his moniker. Who considers themselves “proletariat”? The old labor focus is a dead end (SEIU?) and the only vanguard “workers” will form is that of right-wing populism. Sorry Comrade. The working class will never again be a class “for itself” and climate justice activists will come from all strata.

    • Oops, I did mean “theory without practice” and just corrected that.

      To your central point about the necessity of concrete issues, and that the very concrete threat that is growing from global warming, I am in agreement. “Green capitalism” is a chimera; we can’t reverse global warming without transcending capitalism. Capitalism is the problem and we must face that.

      On your final point, I suppose it depends on how we define “working class.” The traditional definition is that of blue-collar workers only, classically on an assembly line or other type of factory. One mistake of socialist movements of the 20th century was to have defined “working class” in such a narrow fashion. I would define “working class” or “working people” as everybody who is an employee (except top executives of course) and almost all freelancers, who are workers without a steady job (as I was at one point in my life). Students, the unemployed and retirees are further components.

      So we add it up and the overwhelming majority of people in a capitalist society are working people. We constitute a highly heterogeneous group — an office worker sitting in front of a computer, an editor who freelances, an assembly-line worker and a retail sales clerk have different experiences and don’t naturally feel a class kinship with one another. They all, however, have in common that they are exploited wage earners who are paid only a fraction of the value they produce.

      I don’t believe we can ignore this commonality, in part because this exploitation — or surplus-value extraction — is the basis for the entire capitalist system. Nonetheless, a movement seeking to transcend capitalism and bring into being a better world has to fight on multiple fronts and not only on a narrow labor focus. Combating global warming should be front and center in such a struggle.

      Marxists have too often ignored the environment, even though Marx himself wrote about the rupture of nature caused by capitalist production. This is a critical correction we need to make now. If the environment is made uninhabitable by staying on the present course, what greater crisis could we face?

    • Prole Center says:

      Only a very few class-conscious Americans consider themselves to be proletarians, and that’s the problem. No matter what peoples’ false perception may be, most folks ARE proletarians. SD seems to thing that they are “the 99%,” but that’s not true. I estimate that approximately 80% of Americans are proletarians. It’s a bourgeois caricature that makes all proles out to be grizzled assembly-line workers, but including all workers who earn a salary as well as all students and retirees is a mistake. Most university students, for example, come from the ranks of pretty affluent petty bourgeois families.

      • The true answer is probably somewhere between 80 percent and 99 percent. I have no issue with the “99%” slogan not because it’s accurate — it is not — but because it got everyday people to think in terms of class.

        The idea that “Most university students come from the ranks of pretty affluent petty bourgeois families” is laughable. I know lots and lots of people with university degrees, and they are all workers, as I am myself despite also having a university degree. There are millions of students at universities from modest backgrounds who are simply trying to survive and hoping a degree will help them get a job.

        Surplus-value extraction takes place whether it is on a shop floor or in an air-conditioned office.

        • Prole Center says:

          We clearly have different criteria for what constitutes working class. Based just on annual household income, I would put that cutoff between prole and petty bourg at around $100,000 based on the average cost of living for the entire U.S.; that number would be adjusted higher for NYC, the SF Bay area or some other expensive place. Of course, it’s not just about income, but more to do with wealth in the form of various assets and inheritance.

          The class standing of the family you were raised in makes the most difference including how much wealth you inherited from your parents or grandparents. Your class upbringing has a big impact on your personality and development.

          Levels of education and certain jobs or professions are important indicators of class status. The last time I looked up the stats on education only about 25% of the adult population of the U.S. had a bachelors degree or higher; those folks aren’t coming from the middle or bottom of the socio-economic ladder for the most part. When I went to university practically all my peers were clearly bourgeois – their parents were doctors, dentists, computer programmers, lawyers and business executives / owners. Kids whose parents were secretaries, janitors, sales clerks, factory workers, telemarketers or miners were very rare – and I went to a public university; it’s not like it was anywhere close to ivy league.

          Then you have people like George Orwell, for instance, who was raised in a bourgeois family and recognized his class status, but throughout his life apparently earned a fairly meager income. He remarked, though, that his personality, tastes, mannerisms and preferences were decidedly bourgeois.

          • You must have missed the working class students, Prole. I graduated from a state university (because it was the best journalism school in the state in which I grew up) and I can assure you there were very few sons or daughters of doctors . Everybody I ever met was from modest means and were attempting to gain a foothold in any number of professions such as nursing, marketing, communications and such.

            It is pointless to create a distinction between “working class” and “petit bourgeois” due to some arbitrary salary level. Our relationship to the means of production is what determines our class status, and thus most “petit bourgeois” are workers, too. In fact, there are even doctors who are workers, because they are employees of a large hospital or medical corporation.

            Computer programmers and engineers are working people, too, same as an assembly-line worker because they are employees who are paid a fraction of the value that they produce; surplus-value extraction does not depend on what color collar one wears at the workplace. I am the son and nephew of engineers, and I can assure you that our existence as “middle class” was rather precarious, and there was nothing unique there.

            A widespread failure to understand the totality of “working class” or “workers” has been one of the major reasons for the failure of the Left to gain a better foothold, and one that helps divide working people, the goal of course of industrialists and financiers worldwide. I am always amazed at people who like to give lectures to people about their “petit bourgeois” status: How can anybody expect to organize workers by thumbing middle class people, who constitute a large portion of working people, in the eye?

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