Creating a participatory system of economic democracy in Rojava

Out of repression has emerged one of the world’s most interesting experiments in democracy. And by democracy, what is meant is not the formal capitalist variety of elections every few years in which consumption of consumer products is substituted for participation in societal decisions.

Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces intent on destroying them, in a part of the world that Western pundits claim can only be ruled by dictators, the Kurds of Syria are intent on creating a society more democratic than any found in North America or Europe. This is not simply a matter of creating institutions of direct and communal, as opposed to representative, democracy but, most importantly, democratizing the economy. In the words of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, “In self-government, an alternative economic system is necessary, one that augments the resources of society rather than exploiting them, and in that way satisfies the society’s multitude of needs.”

The many sides of that equation are explored in detail in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan,* a study of Rojava’s experiment in radical democracy by three activists who spent months in Rojava studying the society being constructed, and who themselves have been involved in Rojava in various capacities. One of the authors, Anja Flach, spent two years in the Kurdish women’s guerrilla army. Her co-authors are Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer, and Michael Knapp, a historian. Although the three authors make clear their sympathies for the Rojava revolution, their book is not hagiographic, but rather a serious analysis of a developing process.

The Kurdish people are split among four countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — and have long suffered persecution in each of them. Their persecution in Turkey is well known; successive Turkish governments have attempted to disrupt organizing, obliterate Kurdish culture and ban the Kurdish language through waves of lethal military crackdowns. Mr. Öcalan escaped Turkey after a military coup that led to hundreds of thousands of Kurds thrown into jail; he and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) he leads were granted asylum in Syria. In the late 1990s, under Turkish pressure, Syria expelled the PKK, and a year later, Mr. Öcalan was abducted from a Greek consulate (a kidnapping believed to be a CIA operation) and has been imprisoned in Turkey since.

But that the Syrian régime found the PKK a useful lever against Turkey for a time did nothing to ameliorate ruthless repression against the Kurds of northern Syria. The Ba’ath Party of the Assad family implemented 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. Bashar al-Assad, in contrast to the misplaced hopes that he might institute a thaw upon succeeding his father in 2000, instituted a harsh neoliberalism. Mass privatization, suppression of unions, the shredding of the social safety net and a channeling of investment capital into tourism and away from production had a particularly devastating impact on Rojava.

After the uprisings in Syria against the Ba’ath régime began in 2011, the struggle quickly became militarized. The Kurds avoided being overrun by the Syrian army or the various Islamist forces because of their own organization. Grassroots organizing had been done steadily since the 1990s, and when local government collapsed following the 2011 uprisings, that organizing, a nascent council system and the formation of militias enabled the carving out of an autonomous territory. People surrounded government buildings, demanding the surrender of all arms while guaranteeing the safe passage of all Syrian government officials. This tactic worked, quickly sweeping through all three “cantons” of Rojava. (A canton is a portion of a province, perhaps bigger than a U.S. county or French department but smaller than a U.S. state or a French region.)

The aim here was to create a democratic territory through peaceful means. This takeover was accomplished nearly without bloodshed, although Rojava’s militias have had to repeatedly repulse attacks from Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other hostile forces, as well as fend off the sometimes active hostility of the Turkish government, which has allowed Islamic State terrorists to freely cross the border and re-arm themselves. Sadly, Rojava has also been subjected to periodic blockades and political harassment from the two corrupt parties that control Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Rojava to the east.

The system of democratic autonomy

The basic units of Rojava’s organization are councils and commissions. These constitute the building blocks of Rojava’s system of “democratic confederalism.” The authors of Revolution in Rojava explain this concept in this way:

“Democratic Confederalism aims at achieving the autonomy of society, that is, a society that administers itself through small, self-governing decentralized units. It entails a permanent social revolution, reflected in every aspect of social structure. All institutions are self-organized and self-administered.” [page 44]

Concurrent with that concept is “democratic autonomy,” which is defined as “the autonomy of the commune” in an “anti-centrist, bottom-up approach.” 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. (“West Kurdistan” is the portion of Kurdistan that lies within Syria.)

Integrated within the four-level council system are eight commissions — women, defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — that work with councils at all four levels; in turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also a ninth 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 commission, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

Taking with upmost seriousness the full liberation of women (also expressed in the all-women’s militias that fight on the front lines the same as men’s units), the women’s commissions are tasked, inter alia, with adjudicating cases of patriarchal violence and forced marriage. An umbrella women’s movement organizes women across Rojava, taking on activities including educational work, publishing a newspaper, pushing for legislation, and investigating and documenting domestic violence. This work has roots in the 1990s, when PKK women organized door to door. When organizing by men was heavily suppressed after 2004, women organized clandestinely, giving them experience.

Making women’s participation central is of course a glaring contrast with the Islamist groups and the so-called moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army. Every organization in Rojava must include at least 40 percent women. Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Rojava’s largest party, said the revolution is conscious of not repeating the mistakes of the past, in which women’s liberation was often put on the back-burner. She said:

“We’re a still long way from achieving our goals. … But we’ve learned from the failed revolutions in the past. They always said, ‘Let’s carry the revolution to success, and then we’ll give women our rights.’ But after the revolution, of course, it didn’t happen. We’re not repeating that old story in our revolution.” [page 70]

Creating a new justice system

As with many governmental functions, the judicial system has had to be rebuilt from scratch. Peace committees seek consensus through dialogue at the commune and neighborhood levels. The goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment. Most cases are settled in peace committees, but felonies and those cases not adjudicated in the peace committees are assigned to district-level people’s courts. There are separate women’s peace committees that handle cases of male violence against women in which all-women panels hand down decisions.

Parallel to these systems of democratic self-activity is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration. This is essentially a dual government, created primarily for foreign governments. Because Rojava’s councils have been ignored elsewhere, the DAA was created so that world’s governments would have a government they could recognize. Each of three Rojava cantons has a DAA, which includes an elected parliament and ministries that are distributed among the various political parties so that each has at least one minister. These, however, rely on the earlier-established council system and work with the councils. The division of labor between the councils and the DAA has yet to be worked out, nor how to reconcile a dual-government structure.

Civil society associations also play large roles in Rojava. These groups perform educational work, organize grassroots activity and place representatives on the councils. Many of these associations are occupation groups. In contrast to what the Kurdish movement sees as the state existing as a means of extracting profits for favored social groups or classes and inculcating a fixation on authority, civil society is substituted for a state. The authors write:

“The Kurdish movement, in its anti-statism, thus draws on [Antonio] Gramsci’s concept of civil society in proposing to strengthen civil society for the purpose of overthrowing the state. In contrast to the abortive Bolshevist strategy of seizing state power, Öcalan posits, like Gramsci on the ideological, political struggle for civil society, a ‘war of position’ beyond military confrontation. Through empowerment, a civil society tries to free itself from the hands of the state and its religious, economic and administrative structures and so to build a counter-hegemony and to activate individual parts of the society to represent civil society in councils and communes.” [pages 122-123]

Economic development on a democratic basis

This democratic concept extends to the economy. Food and fuel prices are controlled, working conditions are negotiated among several interest groups, workers’ rights are defended and the pursuit of profit maximization is blocked to avoid the destructive tendencies of capitalism. The principals of the “communal economy” are described in this way by the Union of Civil Society Associations:

“The state system exploited the society’s labor power and trampled the rights of workers. Under Democratic Autonomy, civil society associations solve problems according to principles of moral politics and an ecological society. The unity of society is the foundation. These associations hold society together. They ensure the unity that is needed to satisfy everyday social needs. Of course, they do this as part of democratic, communal life. They are how society organizes itself.” [page 124]

Rojava, the authors write, was a “quasi-colony” under the Ba’ath régime. There was an enforced agricultural monoculture with no local production allowed. Oil, gas and agricultural products were shipped out, and canned food and finished products from elsewhere shipped in. Not even trees were allowed to be planted. So although there is much productive farmland, Rojava could not come close to self-sufficiency in food as all farmers were forced to raise wheat or cotton. Farming is now being re-oriented toward local needs so that a much higher percentage of food can be produced locally; this is partly a necessity as the area is often blockaded by neighbors.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan

The councils, already in existence, organized the economy to prevent a collapse after Rojava’s liberation. Price controls, measures against hoarding food and medicine, agricultural diversification, planting fruit trees, and building grain mills and industry were implemented and are ongoing projects. Rojava’s economic underdevelopment is seen locally as a disadvantage and an opportunity. It is the latter because, the authors write, it “allows the traditional social collectivism of the Kurdish people to be channeled positively to build a new, alternative economy.” [page 197]

Much of this new economy rests on cooperative enterprises. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social needs. Much of this cooperative production is in agriculture or small shops but there are plans to create more industry to meet local needs. Thirty percent of all coop proceeds must be given to local self-government administrations. And this is seen as a route to eliminating unemployment. The authors write:

“The cooperative system is solving the problem of unemployment. ‘Through the communes and cooperatives and the needs-based economy,’ explains [Afrin University chair] Dr. [Ahmad] Yousef, ‘each person can participate in production in his own way, and there will be no unemployment. Where communes are established, it will become clear that unemployment is a result of the capitalist system itself.’ ” [page 206]

Such a system can’t work without an educated population:

“To ensure that society is able to make decisions about the use of water, soil, and energy, information about the society’s needs are taken out of the hands of the experts and socialized. Education is critical for this purpose. ‘We school the people in how cooperatives can form a social economy,’ says [Union of Kurdish Communities leader Cemil] Bayık. ‘We are establishing economics academies to advance this.’ ” [page 207]

Surrounded by a hostile world

All this is at odds not only with the existing institutions and state organizations surrounding them, but with the capitalist powers as well. How can Rojava’s experiment possibly survive in a such a hostile world? The authors of Revolution in Rojava strongly urge the building of Left support sufficiently strong to influence North American and European governments. The people of Rojava, the authors stress, are in need of material support from the West at the same time they are acutely aware of the dangers of a U.S. embrace.

The idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is called “naïve” by the authors, 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.

The danger of U.S. material support, of course, can’t be underestimated, given that a communal economy oriented toward people’s needs rather than private profit is anathema to U.S. corporate and government power, which have teamed up to throttle many a revolution attempting to transcend capitalism or simply assert independent development. Moreover, the U.S. wrongly classifies the PKK, which seeks to implement the same system as their fellow Kurds in Syria, as “terrorists” and has long supported Ankara’s scorched-earth repression of Kurds.

In the short term, material support from the West is needed if Rojava is to successfully defend itself from Islamic militants and the Turkish government. Syrian (and Turkish) Kurds, who see their model as one that can be expanded across Syria and the entire Middle East, have their eyes open to the narrowness of the path that must be thread through these contradictions. Nor are their eyes closed to their unsolved problems of pollution, water, waste management, and the stop-gap use of diesel generators that is causing serious environmental problems.

The book ends on an optimistic note, readapting Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase to declare the future is “communalism or barbarism.” Although brief discussions of Thomas Jefferson, Luxemburg and Gramsci (who was no opponent of the Bolsheviks) are poorly argued and their views misstated, this is at most a minor irritant in a work ably presenting the first comprehensive study of Rojava’s inspiring experiment in mass-participation democracy. Revolution in Rojava is an excellent introduction to a revolution that is not yet well known but should be.

* Ercan Ayboga. Anja Flach and Michael Knapp (translated by Janet Biehl), Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan [Pluto Books, London 2016]


Analyzing the failures of Syriza

So many put their puts hopes into Syriza; so many were bitterly disappointed. Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left proved wholly unable to resist the enormous pressures put on it and it is Greek working people who are paying the price, not excepting those who voted for Syriza.

How should we analyze the depressing spectacle of what had been a genuinely Left party, indeed a coalition of leftist forces from a variety of socialist perspectives, self-destructing so rapidly? The simplistic response would be to wash our hands and condemn Syriza as “opportunists,” but we’ll learn exactly nothing with such an attitude. If we are serious about analyzing Syriza’s spectacular failure — including those who expected this outcome in advance — digging through the rubble is unavoidable.

There were many currents coursing through Syriza, in addition to other Left tendencies outside. Nor were there shortages of people who feared what the fate of Syriza might become, including leaders inside it, before it took power, reminds Helena Sheehan in her new book The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left.* Written in exhilaration and sorrow, Professor Sheehan, a veteran of solidarity work with the Greek Left, rides those tides as she recounts the anticipation and optimism before, and the depression and shock afterward, inside Greece and among Syriza’s allies across Europe.

The prologue to this failure is well known, but Professor Sheehan takes us through it in a “you are there” style reflecting what was happening then and her own optimism. That we know how this story will end does not detract from this writing style; rather it heightens the emotions as we re-live what at the time appeared to be the imminent first serious blow against global austerity and the ever tightening grip of finance capital. This was not a pollyannaish optimism, for no one serious had doubts about the immense task facing Syriza should it be elected. Certainly Greece could not be a small socialist island in an immense sea of capitalism — Greece’s problems then and now can have only European and international solutions.

Still, someone has to go first. The international Left saw hope in Syriza, and Syriza economists worked on solutions. There was much political seriousness as Syriza was seen as the last hope; that fascism might well be next given the growing menace of Golden Dawn focused minds.

Professor Sheehan sets this stage, opening her book in 2012, a year in which a second memorandum is signed, forcing more harsh austerity on Greeks, and in which Syriza rose from a minor parliamentary presence to finishing a close second to Greece’s main party of the Right, New Democracy. Providing the analyses, hopes and fears of a variety of Greek activists gathered on repeated visits, she recounts Syriza’s strong efforts to engage social-movement groups (in contrast to the Greek Communist Party’s sectarianism) and for Syriza to be inter-generational in its leadership.

Tip-toeing to the election by backtracking?

Nonetheless, there was Left criticism that Syriza was “watering down its wine” or wanting only to manage capitalism instead of creating socialism. Syriza officials vigorously denied this, saying they would reverse austerity cuts, restore wages and pensions, and re-distribute wealth and power. This would not yet be socialism, but “was intended to open a new path to socialism for the twenty-first century.” One danger sign, however, was that the party was split on whether to remain within the eurozone, even if the euro and the European Union as a whole were seen as a site of struggle. Some within Syriza, such as Costas Lapavitsas, argued that Syriza should be prepared for a break with the European Union. Despite these warnings, no systematic preparatory work on any “Plan B” was formulated.

Austerity might have been coming down harder on Greeks than elsewhere in Europe, but this was no aberration specific to one small country EU officials saw as easy to bully. This was not a local battle, Professor Sheehan writes:

“These cuts to pay, pensions, and public services, this privatization of public property, this redistribution of wealth from below to above: these were not temporary contingent measures. These were integral to a systemic restructuring of capitalism. … Where there were once experiments in socialism in the east, there were now oligarchies. Next on the agenda: advances achieved by the labor movement in the west were to be stripped.” [page 58]

Yet no success in a single European country will be sustainable unless it is followed by similar successes in other countries.

“Yiannis Tolios, an economist, also elected to the [Syriza] central committee, articulated the problem starkly, but with a different stress: ‘If having socialism in a single country is considered hard, having socialism in all countries at the same time is nearly impossible.’ Greece needed to forge ahead, whether the rest were ready or not, but it was perilous path.” [page 59]

Syriza would reconstitute itself as a unified party, with its previous constituent groups, including its largest, Synaspismos, dissolving themselves (although some remained outside). One-quarter of the central committee were members of Left Platform, an organized faction advocating reversing austerity by any means necessary, with the central committee majority heterogeneous but pro-Alexis Tsipras. Internal critics complained that too much power was being concentrated in the hands of the party leader and his inner circle, nor was concern that Syriza was moving too far toward the right confined to the Left Platform.

Most active members of Syriza believed capitalism was the problem and socialism the solution, the author writes, but had “stopped dreaming of storming winter palaces.” She writes:

“They were not holding out for an all-encompassing insurrection, which would destroy capitalism one day and inaugurate socialism the next day. They were planning for a protracted process, which would include winning multiparty elections, entering into difficult negotiations, agreeing to unattractive alliances, undoing damage done, building the new inside the shell of the old.” [page 85]

Winning an election, but not necessarily power

Anticipation grew as Syriza prepared to take office, but the party’s 2014 Thessaloniki Program was seen by many as a significant retreat. Was Syriza watering down its wine even before the next election? Whatever the strength of the wine, Syriza won the election of January 2015. The “troika” of EU institutions and the International Monetary Fund that had been dictating austerity to the previous Greek governments wasted no time in tightening the screws on the new government in what was seen as an outright attempt to humiliate Syriza. Negotiations dragged on, and amidst much international solidarity, Prime Minister Tsipras called a referendum that summer to supposedly buttress his negotiating position.

Greeks responded by heavily voting “no” to further austerity. The Syriza government then did a remarkable about-face. Eight days later, Prime Minister Tsipras signed an agreement even more unfavorable that what had been demanded by the troika. More than half of Syriza’s central committee signed an opposition letter and most Syriza members were furious. This was ignored.

View of Vikos Gorge, Greece (photo by Skamnelis)

Some Syriza officials offered public justifications for this turn of events, arguing that the party was in a marathon and not a finished race, and that the party retained scope for maneuver and to continue to be a Left party through links with solidarity networks. Others, however, argued that the new agreement was a disastrous capitulation. One alternative path to austerity was to exit the eurozone. The counter-argument was that the analysis supporting a eurozone withdrawal was correct but nonetheless such a road should not be taken due to the balance of forces tilted heavily against the Greek economy.

There were arguments both for remaining in and for leaving the eurozone, but anti-austerity advocates on both sides recommended strong steps such as renouncing the debt, nationalizing the banks and imposing capital controls. These were not considered — Syriza never had a “Plan B.”

Staying in the eurozone was favored by a majority of Greeks, a factor undoubtedly an influence on the party. But by taking office without an alternative plan to negotiating with the troika, in particular EU officials completely cold to any Greek argument, Syriza had boxed in itself. Excuses by Syriza officials for why, rather than reversing austerity, they had agreed to its intensification were just that, excuses. Professor Sheehan challenges those excuses sharply:

“It was one thing to allude to a gun to the head and to admit to defeat, but another to turn around and to claim a great moral victory and to aim the attack on anyone who said otherwise. There was much violation of elementary logic, evasion of empirical evidence, and denial of ethical culpability. … The point about conceptualizing contradiction is not to affirm it and to wallow in it, but to struggle to resolve it, to transcend it, to create a new synthesis from it. As if intensified economic expropriation and political capitulation were not bad enough already, they added intellectual obfuscation and moral degradation to the dreadful reality unfolding. … You cannot build a left when you trash the very basis of our beliefs. It came from a mix of blatant opportunism, genuine confusion, psychological distress, and postmodernist sophistry.” [pages 133-134]

Syriza, despite all the bustle of the previous three years, had taken office unprepared. And, bizarrely, holding a belief that the troika could be reasoned with.

A suicide mission followed by a purge

Next was a “suicide mission for the Left” — Syriza introduced into parliament a 977-page bill to be voted on immediately with no time to be read. The Left Platform voted no as a unified faction and a separate Syriza parliamentary faction, the 53+ Group, complained about the stifling of party democracy, yet Syriza overall voted yes and the new agreement was approved with support from most other parties. “I do not believe that you can do bad to do good,” is the author’s succinct appraisal.

In the wake of shameful capitulation, rather than call a party congress, Prime Minister Tsipras decided to call a snap election, which he would use to purge Syriza of its left wing. He distinguished this campaign by attacking the Left and international supporters. The Left Platform members of parliament resigned to form a new party, Popular Unity, but with little time and no resources it failed to reach the 3 percent vote threshold. Syriza won again.

Defections from Syriza and attempts to build a new Left party have continued since as not only is no debt relief in sight despite one humiliating concession after another but Syriza lurches right in foreign policy and the prime minister falls to his knees in front of the church. It had taken Syriza only six months to travel the path that the former socialist party, Pasok, had traveled in 20 years but without the genuine reforms that Pasok had implemented early in its time in government. Implementing and expanding expropriation in order to end it is not dialectical; it is nonsense, Professor Sheehan points out.

So why had Syriza taken such a road? No one answer could suffice, but the author, in a wide-ranging survey, explores several opinions offered by various Greek activists. In short form these include:

  • That Syriza’s actions constitute a retreat, not a betrayal, as transformation is a painful marathon with many retreats.
  • Syriza had no coherent program but its left was too focused on a transformation of the state.
  • Syriza failed to contest the narrative of “there is no alternative” and should have renounced the debt, nationalized the banks and elaborated an anti-capitalist narrative.
  • Syriza’s failure is rooted in its class compromises and constant reassurances to the Right since 2012.
  • Popular Unity has a future despite “messing up” its first election.
  • It is impossible to control the economy inside the eurozone.
  • The power of money destroyed Syriza.

Helena Sheehan has written a most useful study of Syriza and in particular the range of platforms and outlooks, and the evolution of these, as the party prepared to take power and then found itself unable to manage, let alone solve, internal and external contradictions. That this is a “you are there” document from a personalized standpoint does not at all mean that The Syriza Wave is anything other than a serious political analysis. The work could have been strengthened in two ways: one, a deeper discussion of the economic issues, including the ramifications of staying in (or exiting) the eurozone, and, two, a discussion of how virtually every euro of the troika loans are going to creditors and banks rather than to the Greek people, a topic barely mentioned in passing only once. These are topics that would have added to the narrative.

Nonetheless, a reader wishing political analysis and to understand what activists and leaders in Syriza were thinking and doing, including ministers before and after taking up their posts, would do well to read this book. Professor Sheehan, despite the appropriately bitter denouncements of the party’s performance in office in contrast to her earlier support, ends on an optimistic note. We are, after all, supposed to learn from defeat so we can do it better in the future, yes?

* Helena Sheehan, The Syriza Wave: Surging and Crashing with the Greek Left [Monthly Review Press, New York 2016]

Conceptualizing cooperatives as a challenge to capitalist thinking

As capitalism lurches from crisis to crisis, and a world beyond capitalism becomes a possibility contemplated by increasing numbers of people, finding a path forward becomes an ever more urgent task.

That path is likely to contain a multitude of possibilities and experiments, not all of which will prove viable. Psychological barriers will surely be a major inhibition to overcome; possibly the biggest roadblock given the still ubiquitous idea of “there is no alternative” that has survived despite growing despair at the mounting inequality and precarious futures offered by capitalism. In short, a viable alternative to the capitalist structure of enterprises and society is urgently necessary.

cooperatives-confront-capitalismCooperatives represent a “counter-narrative” to the idea, inculcated in us from our youngest ages, that a small group of bosses are naturally entitled to exert leadership and thus are the only people with the capabilities of running an enterprise, argues Peter Ranis in his latest book, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy.* Putting to use his considerable knowledge of Argentine and Cuban cooperatives, and combining that with a challenging argument about the possibilities of worker cooperatives in the center of world capitalism, the United States, Professor Ranis argues that the cooperative form can indeed posit a challenge to capitalist hegemony.

In his opening chapter, in answering his own question “Why worker cooperatives?,” in the context of working people building a Gramscian “counter-hegemony,” he writes:

“This requires a working class movement that moves beyond wages, hours and working conditions and into the realm of owning and maintaining production that leads to controlling local economies that demonstrate working-class capacity for impacting on societal economies and, by extension, politics and the concomitant public policy. Cooperatives would, indeed, be the key ingredient to a proletarian hegemonic outcome. … What worker cooperatives provide is a counter-narrative to the one that assumes that only owners and managers can provide leadership and function effectively in the world of production.” [pages 15-16]

It is indisputably true that counterposing living examples of working people’s successful self-management is a prerequisite to breaking down current capitalist cultural hegemony. But, in contrast to more traditional ideas that state ownership should be the alternative, Professor Ranis argues that it is the cooperative form, because workers there assume all management functions, that can build an alternative. His argument, however, is not pollyannaish by any means — cooperatives face serious challenges at the hands of capitalist governments not to mention the direct hostility of capitalists themselves.

No easy path for Argentine cooperatives

For all the success of Argentina’s cooperatives in providing a better standard of living and vastly superior working conditions to their members, the road has been a hard one — and those cooperatives still constitute a minuscule portion of the Argentine economy. Moreover, not all those in Argentina who formed cooperatives necessarily wished to do so — converting the recovered factories into state-owned enterprises with worker control was often the original goal and in some cases that is still the hoped-for outcome. (Although at the moment, given the harsh neoliberal policies of the new government of Mauricio Macri, that is off the table for now.)

Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not hold back from discussing the difficulties. These cooperatives formed when the former capitalist owners decided to close down production and/or had not paid the workers for long periods, sometimes months. Forced to take matters into their own hands, workers occupied their workplaces and physically defended themselves, with the help of the surrounding communities. Argentine law was not on their side — bankruptcy codes heavily favor creditors, assets are quickly sold and judges have too much arbitrary power. Nor is there a national law facilitating this process; a patchwork of provincial and municipal laws, with varying terms, prevail. New coops face difficulty obtaining loans and credit, and are often forced to pay for supplies in cash.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The route to survival for coops has been involvement with local communities, making donations, becoming involved in others’ struggles and fostering the idea that cooperatives can’t survive on their own but must be part of a struggle for socialism. Leaders are rotated, positions of day-to-day management have set terms and all major strategic decisions are made collectively in meetings of all members. Coop salaries are higher than salaries in capitalist enterprises and working conditions are far safer. This sense of solidarity is a principal — Professor Ranis quotes a leader at the FaSinPat ceramics plant (the former Zánon factory) in this way:

“When we have to support another struggle, we stop production because it is a social investment, a sowing that we reap in the future.” [page 66]

Thus struggle does not stop at the factory gates. Professor Ranis elaborates:

“The Zánon workers see their factory as being at the service of the community and not the market, and that attitude has been translated into countless acts of solidarity, for which they have been compensated by the community in five attempts by the provincial police to take over the factory. … They argue that an effective state must take responsibility for creating jobs while allowing workers to control production and extend its surplus to the whole community.” [page 68]

An easier path in Cuba?

Cooperatives have become a steadily growing experiment in Cuba. There, cooperatives have a firmer footing because they are being formed with government support. This, however, is mostly a top-down process, with most coops being formed at government insistence by converting state-owned enterprises. Cooperatives Confront Capitalism does not shy away from critiques of this process, noting the top-down decision-making, that although there is considerable input from below it remain consultative, and that bureaucratic barriers impede the formation of coops created from scratch.

The self-employed sector remains larger than the cooperative sector, and most Cuban workers continue to work in the state sector as the coops are concentrated in services. Professor Ranis also points out that inequality is returning to Cuba. Only some have relatives elsewhere who can send home remittances, and the re-sale of goods bought in the U.S. is highly profitable, and thus another source of inequality. The author argues that a movement from below is necessary to re-establish egalitarianism, especially as ration books are likely to be phased out for all but the poorest.

Nonetheless, he argues Cuban coops are a positive step forward and have a much better chance at success than do coops in Argentina or the United States. They are one of the best ways to democratize and de-centralize Cuban society, and also provides a path for fallow agricultural land to be put back into productive use. Neither private capital nor the state sector can meet workers’ needs; a worker-centered approach can defend against capitalist and state socialist forms, he writes.

Professor Ranis, in the middle of the book, makes a case for a great increase in the use of the cooperative form in the United States, where coops remain rare. Although most readers will likely find at least some of his prescriptions controversial, he does make them effectively. Arguing that capital that relocates should pay penalties for a “broken contract” with the local community, he calls for the use of eminent domain to block such moves. In what could be seen as a partial misstep, he argues that the controversial U.S. Supreme Court decision Kelo v. New London provides a legal precedent that can be used for worker and community benefit.

The argument for using eminent domain to take over enterprises that would otherwise be moved by their capitalist owners certainly is intriguing, and merits the exploration that Cooperatives Confront Capitalism provides. But an expansion of the Kelo decision runs the risk of becoming pyrrhic. The Supreme Court found constitutionally legal a plan by the city of New London, Connecticut, to tear down a neighborhood to build a speculative complex intended to attract shoppers and tourists; a move that backfired when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer did not in fact expand there but instead moved from the area.

The author paints the Kelo decision in a more positive light than merited by asserting that the city government had a well thought out plan that would have benefited the displaced community when in fact it was to benefit corporate interests. He also, without being specific, mentions a Brooklyn eminent-domain case as an example of positive development. I do not know what example the author had in mind, but the most prominent example of this activity in Brooklyn is the destruction of a neighborhood to build an unneeded basketball arena (there were already four in the metropolitan area) and luxury housing too expensive for the people of the surrounding area to afford. That is not the sort of “development” any community needs.

The creative use of eminent domain in the U.S.

Thus eminent domain risks being a tool for corporate plunder rather than the hoped-for tool to save jobs. Professor Ranis argues that the Kelo decision provides a legal cover for the taking of property for “the public good,” but doesn’t mention that the judge who wrote the decision, John Paul Stevens, was clearly uncomfortable and took the unusual step of advising state governments in how to circumvent the ruling. On the other hand, that such a decision went against the personal preferences of the ruling judges does admittedly boost the author’s argument that Kelo provides a possible route to expropriating runaway capitalists. In this reading, Kelo provides the legal basis for a government to take over an enterprise that would otherwise be moved and turn it into a cooperative, and should even become the “default option” to combat a closure.

Notwithstanding issues we might have with specific examples, the author does advance his case well:

“We need to use eminent domain for development purposes much as we use the legislative rights to tax and spend, zone for economic purposes, and regulate for consumer and environmental protections. … When workers occupy factories and enterprises they are not really taking something. They are trying to keep something that is already theirs, through their work, through their production of important goods and services, through allowing capital to be invested, and supplying the community with their taxes, their consumption expenditures and their everyday involvement in the civic life of their community.” [page 109]

Regardless of the route to their formation, government support and early subsidies are necessary for the coop sector to flourish. Such support is not currently the case; as an example, New York City provided $3 million in subsidies for 44 cooperatives while the New York state government gave $70 million to one capitalist aluminum factory to keep it from relocating. Without government help and access to low-interest credit, the odds of success are not high, given the capitalist headwinds that are inevitable, although the author notes that, for one example, Canadian coops survive at a higher rate than traditional enterprises.

But those that do make it provide a sterling example, superseding the “simplistic idea” that private property belongs only to the owner — “workers cannot be separated from the capital they produce.” [page 116] The book concludes with a call for “human development”:

“Cooperatives are basic to human development because their success depends on the emancipation of the whole worker rather than what the erstwhile capitalist wanted of them and determined for them.” [page 155]

However we might quibble with this or that specific passage, Professor Ranis has provided a well-reasoned argument for cooperatives as a form that shatters the tired, self-serving shibboleths of capitalism, when advanced in tandem with militant social movements at community and national levels. Demonstrating to ourselves that we can run the enterprises we work in is indispensable, and his book is thus a strong step forward.

* Peter Ranis, Cooperatives Confront Capitalism: Challenging the Neoliberal Economy [Zed Books, London 2016]

Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

We can dream, or we can organize

The swift rise, and swift crumbling, of the Occupy movement brings to the surface the question of organization. Demonstrating our anger, and doing so with thousands of others in the streets, gives us energy and brings issues to wider audiences.

Yes spontaneity, as necessary as it is, is far from sufficient in itself. For all the weeks and sometimes months that Occupy encampments lasted, little in the way of lasting organization was created and thus a correspondingly little ability to bring about any of the changes hoped for. Nor is social media a substitute for mass action.

Organization, specifically a party, is the missing element, Jodi Dean argues in her latest book, Crowds and Party.* 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. The party is a permanent body that can channel the crowd’s promise of justice into organized political struggle, she argues.

Crowds and Party coverWith a sustained, organized movement, real change is not possible. How then to sustain the enthusiasm of a spontaneous “crowd,” such as Occupy? Through a more structured form capable of organizing activists toward concrete goals worked out through mutual discussion, distilling practice and experience, and providing the necessary scale. The ideology of individual autonomy is a product of capitalist ideology; a Left that promotes individualism is a Left that is reinforcing capitalist ideology.

Professor Dean argues that to do so is to accept markets and the capitalist state as a given; focusing on individuals is a substitute for focusing on necessary revolutionary transformation. She writes:

“The realism in which the Left has been immersed in the neoliberal decades has meant that even when we are fully conscious of the deep inequality of the system in which we find ourselves, we confirm and conform to the dominant ideology: turn inward, enclave, emphasize the singular and momentary. … [W]e found ourselves participating in individuated, localized, or communicatively mediated activities without momentum, duration, or a capacity for political memory. Or we presume that we have to focus on ourselves and thereby redirect political struggle back into ourselves. In a brutal, competitive, and atomized society, psychic well-being is so difficult that success on this front can seem like a significant accomplishment. Trying to do it themselves, people are immiserated and proletarianized and confront this immiseration and proletarianization alone.” [pages 71-72]

The ‘beautiful moment’ is a start, not a culmination

What Professor Dean calls the “politics of the beautiful moment” represents a beginning, not an end. By this “beautiful moment,” she refers to a spontaneous outburst of popular action, such as Occupy, and the tendency among some to see such spontaneity as an end in itself. The “crowd,” as she terms this spontaneity, provides an opportunity for an emergence but the party is the form for meeting the challenge of maintaining the fidelity of an event. 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.” [page 125]

The imposition of the popular will over the National Guard at the dawn of the Paris Commune is an example of a “crowd event,” Professor Dean argues, but this event did not create the Commune — the Commune was pre-figured by earlier attempts. The overlap of the Commune form and the “crowd event” created the space for emancipatory egalitarian politics. Similarly today, the crowd is not an alternative political arrangement, it is an opening for a process.

Without targeting the capitalist class, there can be no end to exploitation. Movements inevitably run up against state power — how can a movement sustain itself in the face of repression? An unorganized movement can’t, and indeed Occupy withered once the Obama administration, the federal security apparatus and local police forces combined to suppress it.

Or, to put it another way, you can ignore the state all you want, but the state will not ignore you.

Centralization and hierarchy have been problems in Left parties of the past, but this is nothing unique to the Left; all political organizing runs this risk. Political organization unavoidably creates a gap between the few and the many, and organizing means creating differentiation, but, Professor Dean argues, this gap need not be permanent nor with set divisions. This gap is also a social space where the crowd’s association creates space for an alternative perspective to arise. The effects that arise when large numbers of people organize can’t be avoided and to believe otherwise is to indulge in “the fantasy of the beautiful moment.”

Opponents of parties and formal organization are incorrect in charging that workers were excluded from Left parties and that the leaders of those parties believed that an intellectual vanguard held all knowledge. This is a misreading, Professor Dean writes:

“Lenin’s point is that political consciousness comes from outside the economic struggle, not [outside] the class struggle. The economic struggle takes place between particular interests within the field of capital. The terms of the struggle are set by capitalism. The political struggle—for communists—is over the field itself. When ‘we’ is used as the designator for the subject of a politics it asserts more than a collective will. It announces a will to collectivity, a will to fight together on terms that challenge rather than accept the given. Class consciousness is not spontaneous. As [Slavoj] Žižek emphasizes, what is spontaneous is misperception—the perception that one is alone or that one’s circumstances are unique. The political ‘we’ of the party ruptures this immediate consciousness to assert a collective one in its place.” [pages 198-199]

No going forward if we erase the past

Anti-party critics seek to have nobody hold political knowledge, the author charges, and that is a serious failing: Erasure of the past is renouncing revolutionary power. The collective space of struggle creates the conditions for new perspectives to arise, and the party establishes this space.

Professor Dean, in the last two chapters, provides several inspiring examples of communist activists finding power in their collectivity. The young Jewish woman who finds the courage to stand up to her tyrannical father because she feels the power of her party comrades behind her; the impoverished Black laborer who enters the Communist Party illiterate because of his poor schooling yet becomes a strong organizer and eventually writes a book; the organizers who do far more than they ever thought possible and continue to push themselves forward. When a new recruit had to have basic concepts explained to him, he wasn’t ridiculed or made to feel inferior; instead, the more experienced took the time to patiently explain in detail.

There is no transformation without organization, the author argues:

“To reduce the Party to its excesses fails to recognize its indispensable capacity to generate practical optimism and collective strength. Such a reduction likewise reduces the world, contracting possibility into what can be done instead of forcing the impossibility of what must be done. … The party continues the moment of belonging, intensifying and expanding it in solidarity purpose.” [pages 247-248]

Here, however, the author could have strengthened her argument with a discussion of those excesses. Communist parties did have weaknesses (as all parties do). She touches on some of this, briefly, in the introduction, pointing out that the authoritarianism of Left parties in the East, the surrender to capitalist assumptions of Left parties in the West, and the failure of Left parties to incorporate identity politics as reasons for so many turning their backs on the party form.

Why was this? One reason was the imbalance between theory and practice; practice with too little theory behind it leads to practice that spins its wheels in place. For all the good that the British and U.S. communist parties achieved in the lives of people it reached, particularly in the 1930s, that activity did not lead to an ability to grow beyond small followings. The extreme policy zigzags of alternately denouncing all other organizations with tailing those groups previously denounced, and embarrassing episodes such as Lysenkoism, demonstrated not only fatal over-centralization but an organization in which theory had disastrously fossilized into incontestable dogma.

Parallel to this is the concept of the single party: Why can’t there be multiple organizations working toward a goal of full human emancipation? No organization, much less an individual leader, has all the answers. Regardless of how we see this question, however, there is no escaping that organization and learning from the past are critical to sustaining any movement that purports to bring a better world into being. The answer is to learn from past mistakes, not to throw out the past. “To advance, we need to organize,” Crowds and Party correctly concludes. “We need a party for the people in the crowd.”

The title Crowds and Party is carefully chosen. Professor Dean has linked these two, and given us a powerful defense of organization, of demonstrating that only as part of collectives, rather than as individuals, can we hope to overcome the mounting horrors that capitalism unleashes on the world.

* Jodi Dean, Crowds and Party [Verso, London 2016]

The forgotten workers’ control movement of Prague Spring

At the time of the [August 1968] Soviet invasion [of Czechoslovakia], two months after the first workers’ councils were formed, there were perhaps fewer than two dozen of them, although these were concentrated in the largest enterprises and therefore represented a large number of employees. But the movement took off, and by January 1969 there were councils in about 120 enterprises, representing more than 800,000 employees, or about one-sixth of the country’s workers. This occurred despite a new mood of discouragement from the government from October 1968.

From the beginning, this was a grassroots movement from below that forced party, government, and enterprise managements to react. The councils designed their own statutes and implemented them from the start. The draft statutes for the Wilhelm Pieck Factory in Prague (one of the first, created in June 1968) provide a good example. “The workers of the W. Pieck factory (CKD Prague) wish to fulfill one of the fundamental rights of socialist democracy, namely the right of the workers to manage their own factory,” the introduction to the statutes stated. “They also desire a closer bond between the interests of the whole society and the interests of each individual. To this end, they have decided to establish workers’ self-management.”

Prague (photo by Beentree)

Prague (photo by Beentree)

All employees working for at least three months, except the director, were eligible to participate, and the employees as a whole, called the “workers’ assembly,” was the highest body and would make all fundamental decisions. In turn, the assembly would elect the workers’ council to carry out the decisions of the whole, manage the plant and hire the director. Council members would serve in staggered terms, be elected in secret balloting and be recallable. The director was to be chosen after an examination of each candidate conducted by a body composed of a majority of employees and a minority from outside organizations.

A director is the top manager, equivalent to the chief executive officer of a capitalist corporation. The workers’ council would be the equivalent of a board of directors in a capitalist corporation that has shares traded on a stock market. This supervisory role, however, would be radically different: The workers’ council would be made up of workers acting in the interest of their fellow workers and, in theory, with the greater good of society in mind as well.

By contrast, in a capitalist corporation listed on a stock market, the board of directors is made up of top executives of the company, the chief executive officer’s cronies, executives from other corporations in which there is an alignment of interests, and perhaps a celebrity or two, and the board of directors has a duty only to the holders of the corporation’s stock. Although this duty to stockholders is strong enough in some countries to be written into legal statutes, the ownership of the stock is spread among so many that the board will often act in the interest of that top management, which translates to the least possible unencumbered transfer of wealth upward. But in cases where the board of directors does uphold its legal duty and governs in the interest of the holders of the stock, this duty simply means maximizing the price of the stock by any means necessary, not excepting mass layoffs, wage reductions and the taking away of employee benefits. Either way, the capitalist company is governed against the interests of its workforce (whose collective efforts are the source of the profits), and by law must be.

National meeting sought to codify statutes

The Wilhelm Pieck Factory statutes were similar to statutes produced in other enterprises that were creating workers’ councils. It was only logical for a national federation of councils to be formed to coordinate their work and for economic activity to have a relation to the larger societal interest. Ahead of a government deadline to produce national legislation codifying the councils, a general meeting of workers’ councils took place on 9 and 10 January 1969 in Plzeň, one of the most important industrial cities in Czechoslovakia (perhaps best known internationally for its famous beers). A 104-page report left behind a good record of the meeting (it was also tape-recorded); representatives from across the Czech Lands and Slovakia convened to provide the views of the councils to assist in the preparation of the national law.

Trade union leaders were among the participants in the meeting, and backed the complementary roles of the unions and the councils. (Trade unions, as noted earlier, convened two-thirds of the councils.) One of the first speakers, an engineer who was the chair of his trade union local in Plzeň, said a division of tasks was a natural development: “For us, the establishment of workers’ councils implies that we will be able to achieve a status of relative independence for the enterprise, that the decision-making power will be separated from executive powers, that the trade unions will have a free hand to carry out their own specific policies, that progress is made towards a solution of the problem of the producers’ relationship to their production, i.e., we are beginning to solve the problem of alienation.”

Some 190 enterprises were represented at this meeting, including 101 workers’ councils and 61 preparatory committees for the creation of councils; the remainder were trade union or other types of committees. The meeting concluded with the unanimous passage of a six-point resolution, including “the right to self-management as an inalienable right of the socialist producer.”

The resolution declared,

“We are convinced that workers’ councils can help to humanize both the work and relationships within the enterprise, and give to each producer a proper feeling that he is not just an employee, a mere working element in the production process, but also the organizer and joint creator of this process. This is why we wish to re-emphasize here and now that the councils must always preserve their democratic character and their vital links with their electors, thus preventing a special caste of ‘professional self-management executives’ from forming.”

It's Not Over coverThat democratic character, and the popularity of the concept, is demonstrated in the mass participation—a survey of 95 councils found that 83 percent of employees had participated in council elections. A considerable study was undertaken of these 95 councils, representing manufacturing and other sectors, and an interesting trend emerged from the data in the high level of experience embodied in elected council members. About three-quarters of those elected to councils had been in their workplaces for more than ten years, and mostly more than 15 years. More than 70 percent of council members were technicians or engineers, about one-quarter were manual workers and only 5 percent were from administrative staffs. These results represent a strong degree of voting for the perceived best candidates rather than employees simply voting for their friends or for candidates like themselves—because the council movement was particularly strong in manufacturing sectors, most of those voting for council members were manual workers.

These results demonstrated a high level of political maturity on the part of Czechoslovak workers. Another clue to this seriousness is that 29 percent of those elected to councils had a university education, possibly a higher average level of education than was then possessed by directors. Many directors in the past had been put into their positions through political connections, and a desire to revolt against sometimes amateurish management played a part in the council movement. Interesting, too, is that about half the council members were also Communist Party members. Czechoslovak workers continued to believe in socialism while rejecting the imposed Soviet-style system.

Government sought to water down workers’ control

The government did write a legislative bill, copies of which circulated in January 1969, but the bill was never introduced as Soviet pressure on the Czechoslovak party leadership intensified and hard-liners began to assert themselves. The bill would have changed the name of workers’ councils to enterprise councils and watered down some of the statutes that had been codified by the councils themselves. These pullbacks included a proposed state veto on the selection of enterprise directors, that one-fifth of enterprise councils be made up of unelected outside specialists, and that the councils of what the bill refers to as “state enterprises” (banks, railroads and other entities that would remain directly controlled by the government) could have only a minority of members elected by employees and allow a government veto of council decisions.

This proposed backtracking was met with opposition. The trade union daily newspaper, Práce, in a February commentary, and a federal trade union congress, in March, both called the government bill “the minimum acceptable.” In a Práce commentary, an engineer and council activist, Rudolf Slánský Jr. (son of the executed party leader), put the council movement in the context of the question of enterprise ownership.

“The management of our nation’s economy is one of the crucial problems,” Slánský wrote.

“The basic economic principle on which the bureaucratic-centralist management mechanism rests is the direct exercise of the ownership functions of nationalized industry. The state, or more precisely various central organs of the state, assume this task. It is almost unnecessary to remind the reader of one of the principal lessons of Marxism, namely he who has property has power…The only possible method of transforming the bureaucratic-administrative model of our socialist society into a democratic model is to abolish the monopoly of the state administration over the exercise of ownership functions, and to decentralize it towards those whose interest lies in the functioning of the socialist enterprise, i.e. the collectives of enterprise workers.”

Addressing bureaucrats who objected to a lessening of central control, Slánský wrote,

“[T]hese people like to confuse certain concepts. They say, for example, that this law would mean transforming social property as a whole into group property, even though it is clearly not a question of property, but rather one of knowing who is exercising property rights in the name of the whole society, whether it is the state apparatus or the socialist producers directly, i.e. the enterprise collectives.”

Nonetheless, there is tension between the tasks of oversight and of day-to-day management. A different commentator, a law professor, declared,

“We must not…set up democracy and technical competence as opposites, but search for a harmonious balance between these two components…It would perhaps be better not to talk of a transfer of functions but rather a transfer of tasks. It will then be necessary for the appropriate transfer to be dictated by needs, rather than by reasons of dogma or prestige.”

These discussions had no opportunity to develop. In April 1969, Alexander Dubček was forced out as party first secretary, replaced by Gustáv Husák, who wasted little time before inaugurating repression. The legislative bill was shelved in May, and government and party officials began a campaign against councils. The government formally banned workers’ councils in July 1970, but by then they were already disappearing.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Robert Vitak, “Workers Control: The Czechoslovak Experience,” Socialist Register, 1971; Oldřich Kyn, “The Rise and Fall of the Economic Reform in Czechoslovakia,” American Economic Review, May 1970; and several articles anthologized in Vladimir Fišera, Workers’ Councils in Czechoslovakia: Documents and Essays 1968-69 [St. Martin’s Press, 1978]

Colonialism and nationalism in the building of liberation movements

The Sandinistas, in their difficulties with the Indigenous peoples of the Atlantic, had not reflected on the irony of being on the opposite side of the nationalist equation than they were when, as the representatives of Nicaragua, they encountered the United States. It had not initially occurred to the Spanish-speaking majority of Nicaragua that they, too, walked in the shoes of a colonialist. Larger nations have long dominated smaller nations, but a nation can be both a larger and a smaller nation at the same time, in relation to various other nations.

Nicaragua, a small country of 3 million, was long the plaything of far larger neighbors. But Nicaragua is an artificial construct: the dominant people of Spanish descent are dominant because their ancestors decimated the people who had already lived there. The concept of a Nicaraguan nationality is itself a legacy of colonialism, but also the peculiarities of local geography. Why are there seven countries on the narrow strip of land between Mexico and Colombia? Five of those countries, all speaking the same language, were part of a single Central American Federation. Yet that federation broke apart, unlike Mexico, because communication and travel were so difficult due to the mountainous terrain.

Over time, patriotisms developed, separate in each country created by the breakup. Domination by more powerful countries, and repeated direct interventions in the twentieth century by the latest, and most powerful yet, of those more powerful countries helped forge strong national identities. But those identities did not include the people who were already there, and had seen their numbers decimated through war, disease and plunder—in plain language, through a hemispheric genocide. It is easy to understand a colonial relationship when you are on the wrong end; it is far more difficult to understand this when you are on the power side of the equation.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution in Managua, in 1989 (photo by tiarescott from Managua)

Nicaragua’s nationalism was forged in its colonial relationship to the European powers and then to the United States. Augusto Sandino was able to articulate these feelings, and Sandino’s writings and example were strong enough to form a key pillar of a movement decades later. But as the majority Nicaraguans found their voices, found the confidence to create a revolution and to attempt to develop their culture free of colonial domination, the minorities in their midst, the descendants of those Indigenous nations decimated centuries earlier, felt themselves oppressed by those very same people who were so motivated by their own oppression at the hands of the giant neighbor to the north.

The movement of the majority, the Sandinistas, were not oblivious to their country’s history nor to the minorities of the Atlantic east, and were acutely aware of the poverty, underdevelopment and cultural trampling endured by the Indigenous minorities. But the Sandinistas had thought and acted in a mechanical manner, and so, initially, inflamed rather than soothed.

“The Left here did not incorporate anthropological concepts because it was married completely to the strict classical scheme: bourgeoisie versus proletariat without analyzing the cultural differences and the ‘civilizing’ conflicts that took place,” is the assessment of journalist and feminist activist Sofía Montenegro, who was one of the leading figures of the official Sandinista newspaper, Barricada. “What has happened here is not a mixing of the races but a clash of two civilizations, the Occidental and the Indigenous, in which one imposed itself on the other but was never able to completely conquer it.”

Marxist difficulties with nationalism

Marxism’s practitioners have often had a difficult time coming to terms with nationalism. The downgrading of the nation-state was articulated clearly in the movement’s most important early document, The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. The two wrote: “The workingmen have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got…National differences between peoples are daily vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto.”

Corporate globalization is not a new phenomenon, although of course the process has vastly accelerated since those words were written in the nineteenth century. Despite the increasing cross-cultural fertilizations in which better communications and increased commerce played no small role, the strength of nationalism only increased through the nineteenth century as disunited nations such as Germany and Italy struggled to unify their many pieces and other nations struggled to end their domination by stronger powers.

Those ongoing developments led to a current within Marxist theory that saw a difference between the nationalism of a colonial power and that of a captured nation seeking to throw off the hegemony bonding it. Self-determination for all nations had to be backed and therefore support should be given to independence movements. Independence was the right of all peoples in the name of self-determination. But it was also believed that national struggles were a “distraction” for the vast majority of a nation in that as long as they were oppressed by another nation they would not be able to fight for their emancipation as a class—they would not be able to free themselves of their domination by their native capitalists and aristocracy.

Humans can have multiple motivations, of course. World War I provided an excellent example: Nationalism was whipped up successfully in order to get millions to willingly fight a war that was fought to determine the capitalist division of the world’s resources. There was no other way to get those millions to fight. The war had to be brought to an end when those millions started to think more in terms of class, and of their common interests with the soldiers in the opposite trench, rather than in solely national terms. Very different feelings were unleashed, thanks to bitter practical experience.

Nationalism seen as a distraction from class

But the nonetheless still living body of nationalism continued to engender strong debates among the various strains of Marxism. A forceful argument against advocacy of self-determination of nations was put forth by Rosa Luxemburg, one of the outstanding contributors to twentieth-century political theory. Regardless of how valid a reader finds Luxemburg’s argument, she had the moral authority to make it. She was triply oppressed—as a woman in a male-dominated world, as a Jew in a Central Europe riddled with anti-Semitism and as a Pole (until the last days of her life, Poland was occupied and divided among three empires: Tsarist Russia, Prussian-dominated Germany and monarchal Austria-Hungary). Luxemburg adamantly refused to endorse independence for her native Poland, or any other nation.

It's Not Over cover“[T]he duty of the class party of the proletariat to protest and resist national oppression arises not from any special ‘right of nations’…[but] arises solely from the general opposition to the class régime and to every form of social inequality and social domination, in a word, from the basic position of socialism…The duty to resist all forms of national oppression [under an apolitical ‘right of nations’] does not include any explanation of what conditions and political forms” should be recommended, Luxemburg wrote in 1909. Generic calls for self-determination don’t provide any analysis of underlying social conditions and therefore cannot provide a guide to action.

A further basic weakness of generic calls for self-determination, Luxemburg argued, is that they do not take into consideration the highly differentiated status of nations. “The development of world powers, a characteristic feature of our times growing in importance along with the progress of capitalism, from the very outset condemns all small nations to political impotence,” she wrote. “Apart from a few of the most powerful nations, the leaders in capitalist development, which possess the spiritual and material resources necessary to maintain their political and economic independence, ‘self-determination,’ the independent existence of smaller and petit nations, is an illusion, and will become even more so.”

Further, within each nation, there exist a multitude of interests that cannot be reconciled. “In a class society, ‘the nation’ as a homogeneous sociopolitical entity does not exist,” Luxemburg wrote.

“Rather, there exist within each nation classes with antagonistic interests and ‘rights.’ … There can be no talk of a collective and uniform will, of the self-determination of the ‘nation’ in a society formed in such a manner. If we find in the history of modern societies ‘national’ movements, and struggles for ‘national interests, ’ these are usually class movements of the ruling strata of the bourgeoisie, which can in any given case represent the interest of the other strata of the population only insofar as under the form of ‘national interests’ it defends progressive forms of historical development.”

Luxemburg here argued that movements for national independence or self-determination are effectively controlled by the nation’s capitalists who, by virtue of their economic dominance, will control the movement to establish their own narrow rule and thereby subjugate the working people of the nation. Therefore, only the widespread adoption of socialist economic relations can truly free the working people of any nation.

Seventy years after those words were written, the capitalists of Nicaragua indeed sought to control the liberation movement of their country. Nicaragua wasn’t fighting for independence in the formal sense, but it was a country with very little self-determination. In the modern system of capitalism, the interests of local capitalists in subordinate countries align with the capitalists of the dominant nation. The interests of the Nicaraguan plantation owners and industrialists were simply to rid themselves of their local dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and establish their own rule. Rule by these local capitalists would be dependent on capitalists from the dominant power, through the medium of multinational corporations, and therefore compatible.

When direct rule of a colonized nation is no longer possible because of resistance, formal “independence” is granted, but a compliant dictator can be put in charge. When the rule of the dictator is no longer viable, a more “modern” form of domination is put in place, the rule of a local oligarchy. The local industrialists and plantation owners are ready to step in and assume domination of society; eager to fulfill what they see as their natural role, they seek to topple the dictator. Nicaragua’s capitalists could not do that on their own (they are numerically minuscule) and so joined the rapidly building mass liberation movement in an attempt to wrest the movement’s leadership from the Sandinistas. The capitalists were unable to do so because the working people of Nicaragua took an expanded, rather than narrow, view of self-determination, and this understanding led them to swell the ranks of Sandinista organizations.

But should nationalism be ‘skipped’ as a stage?

But although Nicaraguans were aware of their class interests, and that their liberation necessitated changes in their societal institutions and social relations, nationalism played a significant role. Sandinista National Liberation Front co-founder Carlos Fonseca had helped create the FSLN’s philosophy by skillfully blending the nationalism of Sandino with Marxism. The importance of nationalism was a consequence of the force of colonialism upon Nicaragua. Therefore, for the colonized, nationalism can potentially play a partly progressive role if it is combined with other political ideas. Another outstanding political theorist, Frantz Fanon, writing in the middle of the twentieth century at the peak of the Global South’s national liberation movements, argued that nationalism is an important stage that can’t be skipped.

National and racial differences are used to create and continue colonial situations, Fanon argued, and therefore, for the colonized, this divide adds to the complexities of a class analysis.

“In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure. The cause is effect: You are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why a Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched when it comes to addressing the colonial issue. It is not just the concept of the pre-capitalist society, so effectively studied by Marx, which needs to be re-examined here. The serf is essentially different from the knight, but a reference to divine right is needed to justify this difference in status. In the colonies the foreigner imposed himself using his cannons and machines. Despite the success of his pacification, in spite of his appropriation, the colonist always remains a foreigner.”

The urban and rural working people of Nicaragua could not free themselves without “kicking out” the foreigner (the US commercial interests that dominated their country) and instead institute balanced trading relationships with interests outside their borders. No colonized country can attempt such a liberation without developing a sense of itself as a nation, and that sense of nationhood can’t be separated from the differences between the newly awakened nation and the nation that dominates it. During Nicaragua’s domination, just as throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, these differences were pointed to by the colonizing power as justification for the colonial nature of the relationship.

It is the recovery of nationalism, Fanon wrote, that provides the basis for an independence struggle. “A culture is first and foremost the expression of a nation, its preferences, its taboos, and its models…The nation is not only a precondition for culture…it is a necessity. Later on it is the nation that will provide culture with the conditions and framework for expression.” It is impossible to skip this stage of development. “Humanity, some say, has got past the stage of nationalist claims,” Fanon wrote.

“The time has come to build larger political unions, and consequently the old-fashioned nationalists should correct their mistakes. We believe on the contrary that the mistake, heavy with consequences, would be to miss out on the national stage. If culture is the expression of the national consciousness, I shall have no hesitation in saying, in the case in point, that national consciousness is the highest form of culture. ”

Sandinistas used national understanding as a scaffold

Fanon wrote as a Caribbean activist deeply involved in Algeria’s 1950s struggle against brutal occupation by France, and so it may seem that his expressions of nationalism and equating those expressions with a definition of culture are too strong, but if a people are oppressed on a national basis, then it is only natural that a culture takes on that oppression in that form. It is not necessary to agree with Fanon’s elevation of nationalism to such heights to find merit in his formulation. The course of the past century demonstrated the validity of Fanon’s theories: Nationalism has been, and continues to be, an extremely powerful political force.

Fanon’s integration of nationalism (grounded in profound sympathy for the distortions imposed by colonialism) with Marxism provides a more realistic analysis than Luxemburg’s dismissal of national liberation movements. Not because Luxemburg’s analysis of the lack of autonomy for the world’s smaller nations is incorrect (in fact, it was fully accurate then as it still is today) but because it, to use Fanon’s phrase, “skips” an important stage of development. A national consciousness bound together Nicaraguans in the struggle against Somoza, but rather than make that struggle a purely nationalist movement, the Sandinistas built upon nationalism, using it as a scaffolding upon which they erected a much larger understanding of what would be needed for Nicaraguans to liberate themselves. A struggle against an internal dictator, underdevelopment, lack of education and external domination is necessarily, in part, a cultural struggle.

Such a struggle by a national majority, however, inevitably contains differences from the concurrent struggle experienced by national minorities, and these differences, too, are cultural. The Sandinistas, to their credit, did come to understand, in a concrete manner rather than in their previous abstract theoretical manner, that they had to provide sufficient space for their own minority nations to develop their culture, and that those minority cultures had been stultified to a degree more severe than their own cultural underdevelopment.

This is an excerpt from It’s Not Over: Learning From the Socialist Experiment, officially published February 26 by Zero Books. Citations omitted. The omitted sources cited in this excerpt are: Katherine Hoyt, The Many Faces of Sandinista Democracy [Ohio University Press, 1997]; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto [Washington Square Press, 1964]; “The National Question and Autonomy (Excerpts),” Rosa Luxemburg, anthologized in Paul Le Blanc (ed.), Rosa Luxemburg: Reflections and Writings [Humanity Press, 1999]; and Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth [Grove Press, 2004]