Why are Leftists cheering the potential demise of Rojava’s socialist experiment?

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Assad government in the city of Qamişlo (photo via KurdWatch.org)

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

YPJ fighter helping maintain a position against Islamic State (photo by BijiKurdistan)

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Arab Salsa)

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.

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The problem is fascists, not those who stand up to them

The ongoing debate of recent weeks around how, or if, to confront demonstrations of white supremacists and fascists is the latest manifestation of arguments the Left and liberals have been having for many years. For this is not simply a question of tactics but incorporates broader ideas of how we conceptualize the threat from the extreme Right.

For decades, the liberal “solution” to fascists, including marches by undisguised neo-Nazis, has traditionally been to go to the other side of town, pray and hope they go away. Critiques of antifa and other groups who courageously stood up to the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, are variations on that pacifist theme. We need do no more than refer to Cornel West’s support of “the anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.”

Raleigh-Durham IWW stands with clergy at the stairs to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (photo by Anthony Crider)

The problem with liberal-pacifist responses is that, if adopted, the only result would be to embolden the fascists. The white-nationalist gangs behind the Charlottesville rally unmistakably intended to intimidate. Remember that another demonstration was scheduled for Boston the following weekend and several others were planned. Instead, because they were confronted in Charlottesville, their Boston rally became a fiasco for them and appearances in other locations were called off. Communities showed what they think of them. The result for speaks for itself.

The foremost problem with liberal-pacifist responses is that it tells people they have no right to defend themselves. That should be rejected, emphatically. The violence of hate-mongers like those carrying the torches in Charlottesville and any violence that is used in defense by people who have no choice but to physically defend themselves has no equivalence. Should people have just stood there and allowed violence to be perpetrated against them and allow gangs of white supremacists and fascists to intimidate the majority — the vast majority — into silence? Do we really need to ponder this question?

Sufficient numbers in themselves stop fascists

Fighting back needn’t be physical, and generally does not need to be if there are sufficient counter-forces. I’ll draw here on two examples from late 1990s in New York City.

In the first example, a small band of neo-Nazis were running loose on Staten Island, the city’s right-wing outpost situated at a distance from the rest of the city. There were five of them, apparently inspired by a truly loathsome “novel” called The Turner Diaries, which features scenes of vast groups of people hung by Nazis during a race war. (To give you an idea of the demographics there, Donald Trump won Staten Island even though he received only 18 percent of the overall New York City presidential vote.)

A small group that I was then a member in, New York Workers Against Fascism, organized a coalition to confront the neo-Nazis. It was quickly decided to organize a series of peaceful demonstrations on the belief that a violent response would only alienate the community we were attempting to rally against the neo-Nazis. At one rally, in a park, the neo-Nazis actually showed up in uniform, across a busy street, and started giving Hitler salutes while shouting “white power.” They were simultaneously pathetic and representative of a potentially highly dangerous trend. In this instance, we had to hold back a group of anarchists from Love and Rage who wanted to charge, one of whom angrily told me “I came here to smash fascists.” I answered that today we were going to smash them peacefully. Conceding to the coalition’s consensus, he didn’t charge although he remained angry. Tactics had to be a serious consideration here.

Note the coalition did not go to another part of the island and pray the neo-Nazis would go away. In this case, a confrontation needed to be non-violent, although we did have some baseball bats hidden in case we were attacked. Fortunately, they stayed hidden as the coalition significantly out-numbered the neo-Nazis.

A few years later, a Ku Klux Klan group decided to have a rally in Manhattan. Setting aside the idiocy of them thinking they could get a foothold in a place like New York City (fascists aren’t the brightest bulbs, to put it mildly), one can’t help but wonder how they thought they could get any reception other than the one they got. Their appearance was scheduled for Foley Square, a downtown location with wide spaces. Eight of them showed up, guarded by hundreds of police officers and surrounded and heckled by about 80,000 counter-demonstrators. Yes, we outnumbered them 10,000 to one! The Klan ended its event early and were said to have received an escort by the police to the Holland Tunnel, the nearest exit from the city.

Similarly, the white supremacists were badly outnumbered in Boston last month and had to be protected from the people of Boston by rings of police and metal barricades. They had to slink home. They were successfully confronted. Not by praying they would go away but by so out-numbering them that they had to concede defeat and realize how unpopular their racism and misogyny is, even if they are highly unlikely to admit to themselves.

Communities are entitled to defend themselves

Questions of tactics, based on the immediate situation, the size of the forces on the two sides and the community being defended and/or reached out to, should predominate. Should we condemn antifa for a physical defense in light of the other outcomes discussed here? Emphatically no. The situation in Charlottesville called for such a defense, as Professor West directly said. The next time a community needs to defend against physical jeopardy, we can only hope there will be people ready to provide it.

Let’s not forget what fascists stand for. They stand not simply for hate, but for supremacy of one group over another, violence to enforce such supremacy and ultimately the annihilation of demonized peoples and groups. We all understand what fascism led to Nazi Germany.

Boston Free Speech rally counter-protesters on August 19, 2017 (photo by GorillaWarfare)

The Holocaust should not be out of our minds when fascists carrying torches march in formation chanting “Jews will not replace us.” When we think about where fantasies of white supremacy lead, such as in the apartheid systems of South Africa and the United States South of the pre-civil rights era, and in slavery, ideologies of white supremacy should not be taken lightly. When we see the results of misogyny globally, especially but far from only in régimes run by religious fundamentalists, talk of making women subordinate to men can’t be laughed off as nothing but the fantasy of losers who can’t get a girlfriend.

Liberals who don’t want to confront these threats but insist on an absolutist free-speech position, even to the point of saying we should engage with fascists, are playing with fire. You don’t “debate” people who deliver their message only with violence. You don’t debate whether one racial group if superior to another. You don’t debate whether we should adopt social forms reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. You don’t debate whether the Holocaust happened or if there is an international Jewish conspiracy. Just as the proverbial “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” puts limits on free speech, advocating the annihilation of people (always conveniently different) is outside any reasonable definition of free speech. Yes, that means “no platform for fascists” — we shouldn’t apologize for such a stance, which is what the non-violent confrontations recounted above amount to.

All working people are ultimately threatened by fascist ideologies. Beyond all the reasons already discussed (more than sufficient in themselves), there is the question of who fascist movements serve. That there is no immediate danger of a fascist takeover in the United States (or almost any other global North country, Hungary and Poland excepted) does not mean we should ignore the class nature of fascism.

Who would a dictatorship serve?

As always, we should carefully distinguish between right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump (whose election is ultimately a product of decades of routine Republican Party rhetoric) and his ability to actually implement fascist rule. Once again, it might be best to see the Trump phenomenon as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it. To say this is not to ignore the glaring connections between the Trump administration and white supremacists and the so-called “alt-right” (let’s retire that silly term and just call them fascists or fascist wannabes), but rather to note that most of the U.S. ruling class — industrialists and financiers — backed Hillary Clinton and not President Trump in the 2016 election.

That matters, because at its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements, although not sufficient in themselves.

Despite national differences that result in major variations in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. After using violent militias to gain power, those militias are quickly sidelined.

Hitler would never have reached power without significant material support from German industrialists. German industrialists and aristocrats, and the conservative politicians who served them, thought they could control Hitler if they put him in government. They couldn’t, but profited enormously as wages for German workers declined sharply and were enforced by labor codes that even a Nazi paper once said were “reminiscent of penal codes.” It was little different in Mussolini’s Spain or Franco’s Spain or Pinochet’s Chile.

Think it can’t happen in your country? It can. Any country dominated by the capitalist system is at risk of fascism because fascism is capitalism with all the democratic veneers stripped away, when capitalists come to believe they can’t continue to rule and maintain profits any other way. That fascist groups, even the Nazi Party, start out as small bands of deluded misfits lashing out at scapegoats because they don’t have the intellectual capacity to understand the world they live in, in no way alters this picture.

Better to definitively defeat fascist grouplets now, before they have any chance of becoming tools. Anti-fascist organizers are doing humanity a service, whether peacefully counter-demonstrating or using more militant tactics such as those of antifa.

No country on Earth fully safeguards labor rights

There is no country on Earth in which violations of labor rights do not occur. The best rating is for those which are merely “irregular violators of rights,” and only 12 countries managed that.

The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual Global Rights Index report on the state of labor around the world, has once again provided sobering news. Sixty percent of countries exclude whole categories of workers from labor law, the ITUC report says, indicative that “corporate interests are being put ahead of the interests of working people in the global economy.” The ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said:

“Denying workers protection under labour laws creates a hidden workforce, where governments and companies refuse to take responsibility, especially for migrant workers, domestic workers and those on short term contracts. In too many countries, fundamental democratic rights are being undermined by corporate interests.”

Among the key findings of the report:

  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike.
  • More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining,
  • Eighty-four countries exclude groups of workers from labor law.
  • The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased to 59 countries from 52 a year earlier.
  • Unionists were murdered in 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

International labor standards

To assess the state of global labor, the International Trade Union Confederation, “a confederation” of national trade unions, sends questionnaires to its affiliates in 161 countries and territories representing 176 million workers, with the intention of covering as many aspects of the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike as possible. The information collected is then used to assess whether a given country meets standards set by the International Labour Organization.

These standards are examined by answering “yes” or “no” to 97 indicators arranged in five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. The reason for a binary “yes” or “no” rather than a gradated scale is because “this method reduces the normative subjectivity of the analyst who carries out the coding,” the ITUC said. Further, because each of the 97 indicators is based on “universally binding obligations,” companies and government are required to meet them in full.

When the ITUC first carried out this survey, in 2014, the highest score attained was 43, meaning that no country had even half of its questions answered with a “yes.” In other words, every country in the world flunked.

For the 2017 report, the ITUC did not indicate the range of country scores, but followed its previous format of grouping countries into five tiers. The top tier, in which countries merely “irregular violate” labor rights, consists of 12 countries, which are marked in green on the map below. Eleven are found in Europe, and one in Latin America, Uruguay. (Yellow represents the second tier, followed by progressively darker shades of orange and red, the worst violators.)

ITUC map of labor rights. Green represents the highest-ranking countries; red the lowest.

The rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Irregular violations of rights: 12 countries including France, Germany and Sweden.
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 21 countries including Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia and Chile.
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, Britain and the United States.
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines.
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 11 countries including Burundi, Palestine and Syria.

U.S., Britain systematic violators of labor rights

The United States was also rated a “four” in 2014, while Britain has slipped from being ranked a “three” then. Once again, that means the U.S. and U.K. commit “systematic violations” of labor rights — so much for those governments’ endless attempts to assert moral authority over the rest of the world. The Trump and May governments are not likely to improve upon these rankings. In regards to U.S. deficiencies, the ITUC report says:

“Far from consulting with unions regarding labour law and policy, some states and U.S. politicians have taken deliberate steps to roll back workers’ collective bargaining rights. … The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and judicial decisions interpreting the law prohibit workers from engaging in sitdown strikes, partial strikes and secondary boycotts, and impose other restrictions on organisational or recognitional strikes.”

Embarrassingly for a country governed by a party calling itself a “Coalition of the Radical Left,” Greece is among the countries with a ranking of “five.” This ranking is due to harsh restrictions on collective bargaining that were implemented beginning in 2010 through several laws on orders of the “troika” — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which led to “a significant erosion” of labor rights.

Ironically, the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, says that collective bargaining is a “best practice” of the European Union, but the EU continues to block any attempt by the Syriza government to restore labor protections. A proposed law to re-establish collective bargaining was not submitted to the Greek parliament because of troika disapproval.

A sobering reminder of what capitalism offers working people: A race to the bottom and more exploitation. Surely, the world can do better.

How do we build a movement?

Politely walking into pens set up by police, shaking our signs and gently dispersing will not build a movement serious about root-and-branch change. Even the more militant demonstrations, in which people — gasp! — actually take the streets in defiance of authorities, both legal and NGO, are far from sufficient.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t demonstrate. Nor is it to say that demonstrations aren’t important and necessary. They are. Demonstrations are important (including the semi-official large-scale walks in which government officials are moved to participate) because they signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly, and serve as a potentially invaluable organizing tool.

Rally on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg after the February Revolution of 1917 (Source: State museum of political history of Russia)

But demonstrations don’t, and can’t, change anything by themselves. They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. This is especially so when they are “one-off” events. Remember that it was only two autumns ago that an estimated 400,000 people marched through the streets of New York City in defense of the environment. There were street actions in the financial district the next day, ones that were permitted to go on for much the day because it would have been too embarrassing for the gentrification mayor, Bill de Blasio, the Obama of New York, to have openly suppressed it one day after he marched in the big Sunday stroll.

But, then — nothing. The energy generated by the march evaporated; it might as well not have happened. It didn’t help that march organizers raised no demands, much less attempted to connect global warming and environmental destruction with economic issues. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead-end strategy.

A steady crescendo of demonstrations and marches certainly are part of any serious movement. But petitioning leaders to do better for working people yields meager gains. There are structural issues here: When Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Francois Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, Matteo Renzi and Alexis Tsipras follow the same path, then a condemnation of personality doesn’t provide explanations.

There are no saviors. We will have to save ourselves. And we won’t save ourselves without organization or commitment.

Fighting on all fronts

An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force. A serious movement needs a full toolbox and not simply one tool.

Such a toolbox can only be wielded by cohesive organizations welding together movements in broad alliances that provide scope for people with specific issues and oppressions to advance their goals simultaneous with rooting these in larger understandings of the structural causes of them and the systemic crises that must be tackled. The days of telling people that you need to wait your turn and, anyway, your oppression will be solved once we have a revolution need to be definitively over. On the other hand, splintering into a myriad of groups working only on specific issues in isolation from one another is a guarantee of ineffectiveness.

Nor is it necessary to choose between “identity politics” and “class politics.” We need to fight on all fronts, using both what is relevant from past struggles and new tactics and strategies reflecting contemporary understandings arising out of current conditions. Nor should it be an obligation to accept or reject organizational structures simply because they are old or new. There are vast gradations between those who believe we should just replicate whatever Vladimir Lenin did and those who believe we should spend three hours a night in open-air assemblies.

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

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.

Theory derives from examining our experiences, both in our everyday lives and in movement work, and developing ideas out of these in opposition to the dominant propaganda — ideas that can be translated into concrete actions. Effective action, in turn, is impossible without organization.

In her thoughtful paper, “Ideas for the Struggle,” Marta Harnecker writes that the example of successful revolutions demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle and based on current, concrete conditions is essential. She argues that 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.”

Changing the world means taking power

We can ignore the state all we want; the state will not ignore us if we mount any challenge to present-day orthodoxy. Nor will the new age concept of “changing ourselves” lead to any social change. If we want a better world, that entails eventually taking power. As Vivek Chibber recently put it at the “Global Resistance in the Neoliberal University” conference: “A politics that doesn’t try to take power isn’t politics — it’s just talking.”

The task, however, not only is immense but must be conducted on multiple levels, Ms. Harnecker writes:

“[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.”

And what form should a “political instrument” take? These need not take any specific form — and in pluralistic societies are likely to encompass multiple forms. Yet if building an effective movement that is sustainable, institutionalizes memory through integrating past experiences and aims toward a transformation of society, a party is necessary, argues Jodi Dean. In her 2016 book Crowds and Party, she argues that Leftists who want to create a better world have to get past their criticisms of the party form, and not become trapped in their own self-critique or allow critiques of specific parties to become a universal rejection of the party form.

This argument is made in the context of analyzing why Occupy so quickly dissipated. The birth of a movement such as Occupy should represent a beginning, not an end. A spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, is often seen as an end in itself. Such spontaneity needs a permanent form for meeting the challenge of maintaining a movement. Professor Dean argues that those who mistake an opening for the end,

“treat organization, administration, and legislation as a failure of revolution, a return of impermissible domination and hierarchy rather than as effects and arrangements of power, rather than as attributes of the success of a political intervention. The politics of the beautiful moment is no politics at all. Politics combines the opening with direction, with the insertion of the crowd disruption into a sequence or process that pushes one way or another. There is no politics until a meaning is announced and the struggle over this meaning begins.”

New forms of organization

This does not mean a party is the only organizational form. Nor does it have to mean that a single party will, or can, express the full range of demands of a broad movement or represent all shades of opinion, especially given the divide that will likely persist for some time between those who begin with a goal of fundamental transformation and those who advocate reforms. Given the pluralism of most countries, including all advanced capitalist countries (not to mention the complexity of modern life), the formation of multiple parties should be seen as healthy.

A successful movement will inevitably be a coalition; the political expressions of this should be coalitions as well. Popular-front types of organization, movement coalitions organized to achieve specific goals while allowing participating groups to express their particular perspectives, are forms likely to be necessary to create the sufficient scale of activists needed to effect advances.

A multitude of popular organizations, reflecting not only the differing sites of struggle but the necessarily different types of struggle, will come into being. These need not be permanent, although some will be. Self-organized councils or assemblies of workers sustaining an enterprise occupation or sit-in strike is but one form; neighborhood organizations uniting into bodies representing larger spaces of geography, advocacy groups and the creation of liberated zones are among others.

New types of unions could be still another form. Staughton Lynd, in his recently updated book Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, argues that present-day unions are “institutional dinosaurs, resembling nothing so much as the corporations we are striving to replace.” He advocates shop-floor committees that organize around grievances and problems rather than negotiating contracts and that use direct action, even in opposition to union leaders, and “parallel central labor bodies” that organize workers in a geographic region, across industries. New labor organizations should be built on solidarity, he writes:

“[B]y building organizations based on solidarity, rather than on bureaucratic chain-of-command, we build organizations that by their very existence help to bring a new kind of society into being.”

As with any other organization created to address specific problems, sustaining effectiveness will be impossible without linking the specific problems to other issues and in turn linking related issues to larger structural critiques. The enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions present enormous challenges. This is a hegemony that must be broken, and won’t be broken until a critical mass of people come to understand the excuses that buttress all this for the self-serving ideology that it is.

Breaking hegemony through alternative examples

Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, in their 2014 book We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism, argue that the work of breaking this hegemony necessitates defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard.

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. They write:

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.”

Nothing of human creation lasts forever. Capitalism, despite the frantic scribblings of apologists for inequality, is no more immune from this than previous forms of economic and social relations. What will replace it is up to all of us. Given that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet, that hard-won reforms are temporary in a system of massive and pervasive power imbalances, that no permanent solutions are available in a system that is dependent on its most powerful institutions (large corporations) being able to offload all responsibility for pollution and other social problems on society, and that inequality, endless growth, global warming and pollution are necessary byproducts for the system to function at all, limits will be reached.

If this is the last century of capitalism, what will replace it? It could be something worse — some combination of high-tech fascism imposed on feudal arrangements in which a minuscule minority uses extreme force to hoard the world’s dwindling resources for itself is not only not out of the question, but the likely response of a capitalist elite that will stop at nothing to maintain itself. In the continued absence of organized resistance across borders, that may well be the future. Or a better world can be created, through organized struggle, that is based on fulfilling human need within environmentally sustainable practices in which everybody has a say in how their enterprise functions and in larger political and social decisions.

One day, people have had enough

These words are being written on the 100th anniversary of the start of the February Revolution in Russia. Let’s take a moment to reflect on that momentous event, which toppled an absolute monarch who ruled as a direct representative of God and whose every word was indisputable law. A monarchy that had no hesitation in shooting down protestors in the hundreds or thousands, where the overwhelming majority lived in unspeakable poverty and illiteracy.

Women protest in St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day, 1917

More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution, during which time three major demonstrations were planned, and mutinies spread throughout the army. The tsarist régime responded with lockouts of factory workers, shootings of strikers by the police and army, and mass arrests.

But on one day in 1917 (March 8 in the Gregorian calendar not yet in use in Russia), tens of thousands of women textile workers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was then called) walked out. The women walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. More struck the next day. The day after that, a general strike was under way in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. Within a week, the tsar abdicated.

Years of tireless work paid off. As I wrote in my book It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment:

“One more strike, one additional action following hundreds of actions, one action that on the day it began did not seem noticeably different from previous actions, put the revolution in motion. Why this one? It is impossible to say. Perhaps all that can be said is that on that particular day, enough Russians, or at least enough Petrograd women and men, were sufficiently exasperated to do something about it. The February Revolution is an excellent example of the necessity of continuing to struggle: It is usually impossible to predict which spark will be the one to catch fire. The revolutionaries were surprised by the revolution, and perhaps that could not have been otherwise. But the revolution would not have happened without their work.”

Russians had ceased to believe the ideologies that kept their society in place. Similarly, our task today is to explode the mythologies that undergird our current world. This is a big task, but one that is indispensable, Henry Giroux writes:

“Central to a viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

[P]rogressives must address the crucial challenge of producing cultural apparatuses such as alternative media, think tanks and social services in order to provide models of education that enhance the ability of individuals to make informed judgments, discriminate between evidence based arguments and opinions, and to provide theoretical and political frameworks for rethinking the relationship between the self and others based on notions of compassion, justice, and solidarity.”

And as a reminder that we need to take care of each other, because struggle is such hard work, it’s appropriate to offer a quote from Mark Fisher, who recently left this world all too prematurely:

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order,’ must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”

Good words to remember, even if many of us won’t be around long enough to see a better world come into being. Struggle we must, regardless. I don’t wish for the following words to be reduced to cliché because they are uttered so often (including by me), but the choice for the future remains socialism or barbarism. Let us be worthy of our task.

Economic issues are not separate from “identity” issues

Building the largest possible movement to not only tackle the immense, and intensifying, problems facing humanity and the environment but to overcome these problems is our urgent task. Given the position the Left finds itself in today, serious discussions inevitably include a variety of perspectives, and that is healthy.

But sometimes these discussions can veer too far into an “either/or” dynamic. These debates center on who should be the subject(s) of a mass movement that can begin to reverse the European and North American slide toward the right, a direction that, at least for now, appears to be sweeping across Latin America as well. In the United States, following the shock election of Donald Trump, an “either/or” debate has taken shape in the form of “identity politics” versus “class politics.” But do we really have to pick a side here?

An example of an activist arguing that there has been too much focus in the U.S. on “identity politics,” Bruce Lerro, writing for the Planning Beyond Capitalism web site, argues that both the Democratic Party and the Left ignored working class concerns, catastrophically leaving an opening for a right-wing demagogue like President-elect Trump to fill a vacuum. Critical of what he calls a capitulation to “long-standing liberal ideology [that] all ethnicities and genders will be able to compete for a piece of the capitalist pie,” Professor Lerro writes:

“Calling people into the streets on the basis of attacks on ethnic minorities or anti-Islamic remarks alone ignores the results of the election. It reveals the left’s inadequacy in having next to no influence over all the working class people who voted for Trump as well as the 47% of the people who didn’t bother to vote at all. It continues the same 45 year history of identity politics which has failed to make things better for its constituents, except for all upper middle class minorities and women in law and university professors who benefit most from identity politics and who moralistically preside over politically correct vocabulary.”

It is true that liberal ideology tends to fight for the ability of minorities and women to be able to obtain elite jobs as ends to themselves rather than orient toward a larger struggle against systemic inequality and oppression. Leaving capitalism untouched leaves behind all but a handful of people who ascend to elite jobs. Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president didn’t end racism, did it? Nor would have a successful Hillary Clinton campaign have brought an end to sexism. A movement serious about change fights structural discrimination; it doesn’t fight for a few individuals to have a career.

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

Black Lives Matter takes the streets of New York City

But to say this is not to deny that racism, sexism and other social ills have to be fought head-on. So even a focus on class issues does not mean ignoring these issues, Professor Lerro writes:

“In criticizing identity politics I am not proposing that race and gender issues should not be discussed or that they don’t matter. My criticism of identity politics is that it has historically excluded social class. From an anti-capitalist and socialist perspective, race and gender are most importantly discussed at the location where capitalists produce surplus labor — on the job. So where there is white privilege over wages or the quality of jobs offered, this issue should be discussed openly by workers in and out of a union setting. At the same time, when we are organizing against capitalism and developing a socialist political practice, race and gender issues as they affect socialist organizing, need to be confronted. But the further away discussions of race and gender get from social class, the workplace and efforts to organize against capitalism and for socialism, the more they becomes discussions for liberals — not socialists.”

Racism and sexism in our own movements

Racism and sexism, however, are found outside the workplace, and have not been eradicated from social struggles. Certainly there can not be any going back to the open sexism of 1960s movements. There was a prominent demonstration of that era in which no women were invited to speak, and a group of women in response confronted men organizing the event about this, insisting that their demands be included. In response, one of the men told them that there was already a women’s resolution, which was simply a general plea for peace. Demanding that issues specific to women’s oppression be included, the male activist not only refused further discussion, but actually patted Shulamith Firestone, soon to be the author of The Dialectic of Sex, on the head!

Such degrading behavior would not be tolerated in a Left movement today, but it can hardly be argued that sexism (or racism) has been overcome once and for all in Left movements, never mind in larger society. The days when a Left movement can tell a member of an oppressed group to “wait your turn, it’ll all be better after we have the revolution,” really should be behind us.

Even after a revolution, these issues have to be worked on. Women, for example, made serious advances in the 20th century’s socialist revolutions but never sufficient advances, and there was often backsliding. The Sandinistas banned the display of women’s bodies in commercial advertising after coming to power in Nicaragua, but near the end of their first 11 years in power sponsored a beauty contest, nor did they legalize abortion. No woman sat on the Sandinistas’ highest body, the nine-member National Directorate, during those 11 years despite their fighting in large numbers, and even commanding, during the hard struggle against the Somoza dictatorship. No woman ever sat on the Politburo during the Soviet Union’s 74-year history.

Working people are oppressed, but not all to the same degree

The world’s advanced capitalist countries are far from a revolution, so all the more is it necessary to seriously make structural discrimination a component part of Left struggles, without forgetting the class dimension any such struggle must contain. In a typically thoughtful article in CounterPunch, Henry Giroux, while not losing sight of class issues, and the overall repression of working people under neoliberal regimes, refused to downplay the extra repression that rains down on minority communities. He wrote:

“Large segments of the American public, especially minorities of class and color, have been written out of politics over what they view as a failed state and the inability of the basic machinery of government to serve their interests. As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing.

As these institutions vanish—from public schools to health care centers– there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values, and the common good. With the election of Donald Trump, the savagery of neoliberalism has been intensified with the emergence at the highest levels of power of a toxic mix of anti-intellectualism, religious fundamentalism, nativism, and a renewed notion of American exceptionalism.”

Professor Giroux argues against a focus on what he calls “single-issue movements” but not in the sense of dismissing liberation movements based on specific oppressions, but rather argues for a joining together of struggles through drawing the connections among various social movements. He writes:

“Central to viable notion of ideological and structural transformation is a refusal of the mainstream politics of disconnect. In its place is a plea for broader social movements and a more comprehensive understanding of politics in order to connect the dots between, for instance, police brutality and mass incarceration, on the one hand, and the diverse crises producing massive poverty, the destruction of the welfare state, and the assaults on the environment, workers, young people and women. …

Crucial to rethinking the space and meaning of the political imaginary is the need to reach across specific identities and to move beyond around single-issue movements and their specific agendas. This is not a matter of dismissing such movements, but creating new alliances that allow them to become stronger in the fight to not only succeed in advancing their specific concerns but also enlarging the possibility of developing a radical democracy that benefits not just specific but general interests.”

Economic issues aren’t separate from other issues

All working people are exploited under capitalism. It would be the height of folly to sideline this fundamental commonality. But the levels of exploitation, and the intensity of direct oppression, varies widely and it would be folly to ignore this as well. Those subject to higher (often far higher) levels of discrimination have every right to focus on their own emancipation, and those in more privileged positions have an obligation to support those emancipations. Further, the perpetuation of class oppression central to capitalism depends on deep divisions within the working class, not only in terms of setting different groups at each other’s throats but in providing relatively better pay and conditions to some so that the more privileged set themselves apart from the less privileged, reinforcing hierarchies that maintain divisions among working peoples.

Therefore it is self-defeating to attempt to downplay racial, sexual and other divisions in an effort to “concentrate” on economic issues, as if these are somehow separate from other issues. In a very thoughtful essay dealing with the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in dampening activism and propping up the system they purport to critique, Sophia Burns goes on to argue that no fight against capitalist exploitation can succeed without women and People of Color playing central roles. If they are playing central roles, then the fight for their specific emancipations is central to the struggle.

Her discussion merits being quoted at length. Writing in The North Star, she argues:

“There’s an implicit notion that members of more privileged groups (men, whites, straights, etc) do not meaningfully stand to benefit from doing away with racism, sexism, etc. That underlies the moralistic connotations of ‘allyship’ — you support struggles in which you yourself have no personal stake, because that’s what an ethical person would do. Now, if you’re middle-class, that assumption is basically true. You aren’t part of the ruling class, but you have a degree of security, comfort, and control over your life. If you’re middle-class and white male, then pro-male or pro-white inequalities are pretty unambiguously good for you. So, the only reason you’d oppose them would have to be ethics, not self-interest.

But the working class has neither power nor security under capitalism. The fact that different parts of the working class are treated comparatively better or worse along racial, gender, etc lines does not change the fact that the whole class is exploited, oppressed, and ultimately powerless. However, white workers, male workers, and straight workers could not possibly defeat the ruling class alone. After all, it’s the middle class that is disproportionately white, male, etc — the working class has more people of color, women, and social minorities in general than other classes do. White men are only around 1/3 of the total US population, and an even smaller portion of the working class. So, because racism, sexism, etc exist within the class system and (combined together) directly oppress the large bulk of the working class, no working-class politics that rejects or ignores them has the ability to succeed. They’re components of the operation of the class system in practice, serving both to allow extra-high exploitation of female and non-white workers and to undercut the political potential of the class as a whole, which deepens all workers’ exploitation.

Racism and sexism are components of capitalism, and all ‘capitalism’ means is the exploitation by business owners of everyone else. So, when a white male worker understands capitalism as a class system that exploits the class of which he is part, it’s only through externally-imposed propaganda that he’s convinced that he has no stake in getting rid of racism and sexism. Economics is not a separate issue floating alongside others. Nothing that exists in capitalism is outside of capitalism.”

From the standpoint of the relationship to the means of production, white-collar middle class employees, as commonly defined, are of the same class as a blue-collar assembly-line laborer. Both are exploited economically in the same way, being paid a small fraction of the value of they produce. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that such middle-class workers (even if more properly understood as a strata within a working class that includes the vast majority of humanity) are privileged compared to other workers, and that their composition will be more heavily weighted toward dominant racial, ethnic or other groups in a given capitalist society, with the nastier and lower-paid jobs disproportionally held by disadvantaged groups.

Struggles against chauvinism are not an adjunct

The pervasive propaganda that denies that capitalism is exploitative or even refuses to acknowledge the different opportunities among different groups “is not a class-free worldview, but rather a worldview that’s natural for the middle class and that gets promoted because it serves the ruling class,” Ms. Burns writes. Thus, she argues, a false opposition is created between economics and other issues.

“Of course, because sexist and racist ideas receive the massive institutional sponsorship they do, working-class whites do have deep-seated racist notions and working-class men are often profoundly chauvinistic. The struggle against such beliefs and practices, even (in fact, especially) when they manifest within the working class, is not an adjunct to class struggle. It’s a central and necessary part of it. But when activist nonprofits and their supporters use an exaggerated account of working-class bigotry to dismiss working-class politics and a class struggle worldview entirely, they aren’t benevolently defending the marginalized. They are playing a useful role for the system that brings bigotry and privilege into being.

Neighborhood and workplace organizing, inside the working class and outside of the activist subculture, must include breaking down racism and sexism, within the class and everywhere else. But the self-interest of each part of a class is in the ultimate self-interest of the entire class. Even white male workers have a material stake in abolishing white and male privilege, despite the fact that it’s a long-term interest that isn’t acknowledged by mainstream ideas. Middle-class white men, of course, do not have that same stake. If a socialist movement is healthy, it’s not a middle-class affair.”

Let’s take this discussion a step further. Should we even use the term “identity politics”? Susan Cox, speaking on the Joy of Resistance: Multicultural Feminist Radio program on December 4, argued that being female is not an identity but rather is a material reality, and one of the most foundational realities that define the world’s social organization. She pointed out that women’s unpaid domestic labor props up the entire capitalist economic system. Defining feminism as a movement with a goal of global resistance wrenches it from the idea that it is an individualistic, lifestyle choice.

Further discussing this issue in an article in Feminist Current, Ms. Cox wrote:

“One would think being half of the damn population would make us more than some minor, divisive concern.

Women’s issues have been labelled “identity politics” for decades in order to belittle the feminist cause as politically unsubstantial/unimportant. In fact, the term first became prominent in American academia during its anti-Marxist ’80s in order to describe women as a fragmented group of individuals, rather than a class of persons with common class interests.”

It is reasonable to dispute the use of the term “class” in this context, but it should be indisputable that women face a particular oppression, one that although predating capitalism has long been an essential prop for maintaining capitalism. Racism is also necessary to maintain capitalism, and thus fighting it can never be an adjunct to a broad struggle for a better world.

Dismissing all those who voted for Donald Trump as bigots, “deplorables” or ignorant is not only simplistic and mistaken, it is bad practice. Some who voted for him can be described in such terms, but plenty voted for him, however mistakenly, out of a belief that he would bring back their jobs and because he represented, in their minds, “change.” Some Trump voters previously voted for Barack Obama — such folks can hardly be described as racists. Similarly, in France, many now supporting the National Front formerly supported the Socialist Party or the Communist Party. The United Kingdom Independence Party, however ridiculous we might find its name, is peeling off supporters from Labour.

Again, those trends do not mean there is no racism in such movements; that plenty of such exists is obvious. But economic insecurity is driving the rise of far right movements on more than one continent. Establishment politics has failed working people, and working people, including those without higher education, know it. They live it. At the same time, the far right movements that are gaining support among working people tap into the racism, nationalism, sexism and anti-Semitism that both exists within working classes (reflecting the whole of society) and is an inculcated weapon of division launched by elites who have every interest in our not uniting.

To “choose” between class politics and identity politics is a false choice. We are defeating ourselves if we decide to separate interrelated struggles and then debate which is the “proper” one. A multitude of tactics are just as necessary as fighting on multiple fronts, taking on the multiplicity of interconnected issues.

What do we do when a neo-Nazi speaks at a Left venue?

A sharp controversy has been raging in New York City Left circles for the past week, as one of the city’s few remaining Left spaces allowed a neo-Nazi to speak as part of a forum about the 9/11 attacks.

I had originally intended to not name names because the intent with this article is to discuss the broader issues raised, not only one specific incident. But as the issue has been widely discussed already, there isn’t any point to withholding the name of the locale, The Commons in Brooklyn. Nonetheless, this issue is much bigger than any one institution.

The basics are this: The owner of The Commons allowed the space to be used for a presentation by Christopher Bollyn, a virulent anti-Semite with a long history of publishing on neo-Nazi and white-supremacist sites. He was booked to speak as a “9/11 truther” who would talk on “9/11 and our Political Crisis.” Adding to the intrigue is that the owner of The Commons has herself been a prominent “9/11 truther.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

I don’t wish to paint with an overly broad brush. Many people who continue to investigate what happened on September 11, 2001, do so out of genuine principle and attempt legitimate research. There is no reason to believe the official government account of that day, and one need not believe 9/11 an “inside job” to question the official narrative. (So as to not hide my own perspective, I don’t believe 9/11 was an “inside job,” for multiple reasons, and I am skeptical of the so-called “truther” movement.)

Although reasonable research merits support, we should distinguish between people who investigate the commercial ties of Bush II/Cheney administration members or who make scientific inquiries into the physical properties of the World Trade Center materials that were destroyed on 9/11 from the unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that shade off into the considerable anti-Semitism that permeates the “truther” movement. That movement consistently provides platforms for rabid anti-Semites, and that is to their cause’s detriment.

On what basis do we defend an objectionable speaker?

This issue is impossible to disentangle from the Right’s continual conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. It is not difficult to distinguish criticism of the state of Israel for its apartheid policies and other crimes against humanity in its ongoing subjugation of Palestinians from blanket accusations against all Jews. Critics of Israel routinely do so. Ironically, one defender of the owner of The Commons decided to build on Right-wing tactics of misinformation by inverting the meaning of words when he absurdly claimed that “There are zionist-fascists who are trying to destroy The Brooklyn Commons as a venue for radical events.”

Huh? People who oppose neo-Nazism, and condemn anti-Semitism on a Left basis, are fascists — and Zionists! Truly remarkable. That statement can be dismissed as the desperate agitprop of an individual who has burned many a bridge. But what of the owner of The Commons herself? When asked to cancel the appearance of Christopher Bollyn, she responded with a lengthy statement that seems to have since been pulled from her venue’s web site. But, in part, she wrote:

“I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space.”

That is not unreasonable. But once it was brought to her attention, she could have canceled the event, as Busboys and Poets in Washington and the Unitarian Society of Hartford swiftly did when confronted with the nature of the speaker. Two paragraphs later, however, she wrote:

“I never intended for The Commons to be a safe space at all times. Nor was it designed to be a cozy cocoon for intramural debate among leftists. From the beginning my goal has been to foster discussion among disparate groups across a wide political spectrum.”

Nobody is asking for a “cozy cocoon,” and the many groups and individuals aren’t objecting because Bollyn is from another part of the political spectrum, but because he represents something that ought to be out of bounds anywhere: A Holocaust denier and an advocate of an ideology that calls for (and has attempted) genocide. There can be no “debate” with that. To deny the Holocaust is to endorse the murder of 6 million Jews and the Nazi ideology behind it. If we are part of the human race, we give no quarter to that. Period.

One other passage stood out in The Commons’ owner’s response. Although the venue has consistently been promoted as a Left space (and many Left organizations have offices there), she wrote:

“Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Lies and damned lies

If I were an advocate of charter schools, I sure would be upset at being grouped with a neo-Nazi. To be sure, advocates of charter schools peddle lies about the performance of them, and knowingly do so in the hopes of destroying public schools systems, reducing education to narrow training schools for future corporate drones and busting unions. Alas, there are liberals, unable to free themselves of corporate ideology, who go along with this, thereby making themselves useful dupes. But discussion of charter schools is a legitimate topic, however much we disagree with them.

flier-opposing-bollyn-at-the-commonsThe purpose of the above defenses is to obfuscate the issue and turn it into one of “censorship” and of Leftists’ supposed inability to tolerate opposing viewpoints. This is the first I had heard of charter-school advocates booking the space and although I might not like that, there is no comparison to inviting a neo-Nazi.

Another defender of the decision to allow Bollyn to speak, Nathan J. Robinson, did so under the straightforward title “Let The Kooks Speak. They will only embarrass themselves.” Writing in Current Affairs, Mr. Robinson said:

“[T]he best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.”

He backs up this viewpoint by citing what he says happened at the talk:

“[A]ccording to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a ‘pathetic spectacle’ with the ‘supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.’ The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that ‘not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,’ and that and that once you ‘strip away everything else … here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.’ So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.”

Facing the larger issue

The point, however, isn’t that a raving anti-Semite who denies the Holocaust and claims Jews assassinated John F. Kennedy to take over the U.S. government could be convincing. The issue here isn’t this or that individual speaker, it is the failure to confront anti-Semitism, racism and associated social ills. None of the defenders of allowing the speaker to talk have bothered to address the larger issue of the anti-Semitism that pervades the “truther” movement.

Take one prominent example. Many a “truther” (including some I personally know) repeat the preposterous argument that two, or five, (depending on the version) Mossad agents were “jumping up and down with joy” as the World Trade Center towers came down. This, sadly, seems to be widely believed among “truthers.”

Were these agents the same ones who called 2,000 Jews the night before to tell them not to go to work? What a busy day. Maybe the conversation went like this: “Yitzhak, Shlomo here. The family is fine, thank you. Listen, Yitzhak, I can’t stay on the phone; I’ve got another 500 to call tonight, but please stay home tomorrow because we’re taking out the towers. Oy, I better get time and a half for all these hours.”

Did the Mossad agents identify themselves to onlookers? Were they wearing Mossad name tags? (Maybe the tag read, “Hi, my name is Shlomo. I’m a Mossad assassin. How can I help you?”) Can anybody imagine one of the most professional (and thus deadly) spy agencies on Earth being so ham-fisted and obvious? No. Why would such a preposterous story gain traction for even a second? Because of belief, even if held unconsciously, that Jews constitute some sort of cabal, and when that arises on the Left it is among those who are unable to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism.

I suppose that is not completely separable from a belief that because the U.S. government, or the Bush II/Cheney administration (take your pick) is capable of evil acts, all evil acts are done by them and thus 9/11 has to be an “inside job.” This is reductionist thinking. The irony of inside-job belief is that is actually lets U.S. foreign policy off the hook! Maybe people in the Middle East really are pissed off about the oppression they’ve endured thanks to U.S. imperialism and maybe some of them, with a deficit of political knowledge or guidance, decided that individual acts of terrorism would be their response.

Evil individuals or a rotten system?

We really need to get beyond the idea that no so much as a leaf moves without the CIA being behind it. I write that as someone fully aware of the CIA’s record (and have recounted it in numerous articles and in my book.) The CIA is not a secret cabal of evil people; it is simply the government agency that carries out much of the dirty work that is required to maintain capitalism and the U.S. as the financial and military center of it. If the CIA didn’t exist, some other agency would be doing that work.

Much of the 9/11 “truther” movement derives from an unwillingness to grapple with the concrete realities of the capitalist system, and the structural inequalities and oppression built into it. The CIA is not ultimately the problem; it is the system it serves.

Unfortunately, it is far easier to indulge in conspiracy theories than to systematically analyze the world we live in. Those evil doers did it! Let’s get rid of those bad people and all will be well! Anti-Semites who cast Jews in the role of evil doers, and assign responsibility for all ills to them, are just a more extreme version of conspiracy-theory mongers and, ultimately, lie on a continuum.

This I suspect is why otherwise rational people exhibit a willingness to believe ideas that fall apart once they are examined seriously, and why the “truther” movement is unwilling, or unable, to separate itself from unexamined, often unconscious anti-Semitism (such as the Mossad agents jumping for joy) nor even from outright virulent anti-Semitism that goes so far as to deny the Holocaust. Even if someone was unfamiliar with Bollyn before this episode (I, for example, had never heard of him), the most basic Internet search would find his work. The New York Left activist Carol Lipton, for example, did a quick search and found:

“Bollyn also makes repeated reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Bollyn regularly appears on David Duke’s blogs, blames Jews for all the ills in the world, is a strident Holocaust denier who refers to the ‘Holohoax,’ and has been quoted across Twitter in hundreds of posts to show everyone his fiercely Jew-obsessed and Jew-hating statements. He is credited by some 9/11 truthers with originating the theory that Israel and Mossad were to blame for 9/11. He blames Israel for everything from Orlando to problems in Ukraine. He was formerly a long-term writer with the American Free Press, a white supremacist newspaper that was founded by fascist Willis Carto, founder of the Liberty Lobby.”

The online magazine JewSchool similarly had little difficulty finding Bollyn’s rants, publishing a long list of his nonsense, including numerous mentions of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” well known as a crude forgery concocted by the frantically anti-Semitic régime of Tsarist Russia.

Taking a stand, even at a cost

To their credit, several Left organizations that are tenants of The Commons issued a statement condemning Bollyn’s appearance:

“As organizations that work out of the Brooklyn Commons, we reject the antisemitic politics of Christopher Bollyn. We do not have any say in event booking and management at the Commons but agree that such politics should have no place in leftist spaces.”

One regular user of the space, the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, has said it will “pull all of its classes and upcoming events” and go elsewhere, even though this will cause itself problems in the near term. And that brings up to the final point for now. Should a space that booked a neo-Nazi be boycotted?

That is not so easy to answer, especially for those familiar with the effect runaway gentrification has had on New York City real estate. This, alas, has to be practical discussion. One prominent Left activist, with a well-earned reputation for integrity, argues that any organization that stays by renewing its lease would lose its credibility and that people should cut its ties with the venue. Another prominent Left activist, with a similar reputation, argues the opposite, saying that to leave would be to allow the far Right to drive us out. “We have hardly any spaces left and an easily accessible space, such as The Commons, that includes both meeting rooms and a hall for large gatherings is not something we should easily abandon — such spaces are central to our organizing,” she said.

There is no simple answer here. For years, The Commons has provided a low-cost space for a variety of Left causes and events, and the Left organizations that rent office space do so at below market rates. (Full disclosure: I have given talks there, had my first book party there and have attended dozens of events.) It is very painful to have to have this discussion, but it has been forced upon us.

The question of real estate in a capitalist economy looms large here. If housing and real estate were not capitalist commodities, and instead meeting places and centers for organizers were part of a public commons, this discussion would not be necessary; organizers would not be dependent on the decisions of one person who, as the owner of a private property, is not necessarily answerable to a broader community. Organizers may choose to “vote with their feet,” but those would be individual decisions.

Housing should be a human right, and would be in a better world, but an incident such as under discussion here reminds us that the the issue of space goes beyond basic housing — the restoration of a public commons needs to be central to our struggles.

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.