How do we build a movement?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting on all fronts

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

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

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

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

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

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

In her thoughtful paper, “Ideas for the Struggle,” Marta Harnecker writes that the example of successful revolutions demonstrates that a “political instrument” capable of a national struggle and based on current, concrete conditions is essential. She argues that people who believe that strong organizations are something to be avoided because many parties of the past engaged in authoritarian or manipulative political practices should not be trapped in the past. She writes:

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

Changing the world means taking power

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

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

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

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

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

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

New forms of organization

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breaking hegemony through alternative examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day, people have had enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a better movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The past doesn’t have to be the future

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

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

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

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

Balancing debate with the necessity of action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confronting capitalist hegemony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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]

Belief in capitalism as a material force

Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.

That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.

It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.

Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.

Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.

Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs

But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”

One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:

“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’

‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”

Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.

The hegemony of ideas that serve elites

How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:

“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”

Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:

“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”

A result of this “social hegemony” is:

“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”

Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom

Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:

“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power.” [page 106]

Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002 (photo by William M. Connolley)

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)

In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.

Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.

An array of institutions to convey one basic message

There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.

Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.

If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.

The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.

Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.

Solidarity instead of hierarchy as “common sense”

When the serious work of building a better world starts, we will have no choice but to use some of the bricks of the current world as we begin that construction. A social or economic system does not completely eradicate all traces of the immediately preceding system overnight. Nonetheless, the repressive elements of the prior system must be eliminated as quickly as possible, with new structures and thinking capable of defining the better world.

If socialism is to be that better world, what structures might be necessary? Socialism can be defined as a system in which production is geared toward human need rather than private profit for a few; where everybody is entitled to have a say in what is produced, how it is produced and how it is distributed; that these collective decisions are made in the context of the broader community and in quantities sufficient to meet needs; political decision-making is the hands of the communities affected; and quality health care, food, shelter and education are human rights. There is no class, vanguard or other group that stands above society, arrogating decision-making, wealth and/or privileges to itself.

A blueprint for such a future is not possible; a better world will be created in its making. But neither can we leap to a different world empty-handed or without a compass. Tangible counter-examples and concrete ideas are necessary if working people — the vast majority of humanity — are to break free from their acceptance of capitalism as “common sense” or the “only alternative.” When ideas become rooted in masses of people, they become a natural force, argues Michael Lebowitz in his latest book, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now.* He uses the example of the “socialist triangle” to explicate a structure for a better, democratic system.

Socialist Imperative coverThe three sides of the socialist triangle (a concept put in this form by Hugo Chávez) are production for social needs and purposes, social production organized by workers and social ownership of the means of production. None or any two of the three sides stand on their own; each is dependent on the other two.

Production for social needs is defined as production accomplished for our common needs. This is envisioned as production in which we would go beyond self-interest and therefore create a “solidarity economy.” Social production organized by workers is essential for developing the capacities of working people. Decisions in the workplace are made by the workforce as a whole, developing the capacities of all. Social ownership of the means of production does not mean the state owns all enterprises; it “implies a profound democracy” in which people, in their capacities as workers and as members of society, determine the results of their labor.

A society in which all can freely develop

Professor Lebowitz proposes a “Charter for Human Development,” offered as “self-evident requirements”:

“1. Everyone has the right to share in the social heritage of human beings — an equal right to the use and benefits of the productions of the social brain and the social hand — in order to be able to develop his or her full potential.
2. Everyone has the right to be able to develop his or her full potential and capacities through democracy, participation, and protagonism in the workplace and society — a process in which these subjects of activity have the precondition of the health and education that permit them to make full use of this opportunity.
3. Everyone has the right to live in a society in which human beings and nature can be nurtured — a society in which we can develop our full potential in communities based upon cooperation and solidarity.” [page 174]

The goal of these three points, Professor Lebowitz writes, is to redefine the concept of fairness:

“It is unfair that some people monopolize the social heritage of human beings; it is unfair that some people are able to develop their capacities through their activities while others are crippled and deformed; and it is unfair that we are forced into structures in which we view others as competitors and enemies.” [page 174]

We are talking about a different world than the one we live in now. Quite different. A world in which these are guiding principals is a world that has a new concept of “common sense.”  Any ideology, if its hold on a sufficiently large percentage of people is strong, becomes a material force. Industrialists and financiers, who constitute the dominant class in the present world and thus decisively shape contemporary belief systems, can and do wield an enormous and deadly apparatus of violence to maintain their dominance, true, but that is insufficient in itself. Capitalism’s staying power rests on the widely held belief that there is no alternative to it.

Capitalism “tends to produce the workers it needs,” Professor Lebowitz argues, drawing on Karl Marx’s insights. People’s need to sell their labor power — that is, their need to obtain employment in order to survive — and the creation of perpetual unemployment creates a dependency on capital that has continued for so long that the capitalist mode of production comes to be seen as “self-evident natural laws.” Struggles are therefore contained within the confines of capitalism. Bargaining over wages and working conditions can become contentious, but this is never more than bargaining over the terms of exploitation; the relations within this system are never touched. Thus an alternative common sense must be constructed.

Going beyond limitations of past models

Neither the Soviet model, overly centralized and lacking in democracy, nor the Yugoslav model of cooperative enterprises constitute that alternative common sense. The Socialist Imperative argues that the Soviet system discouraged innovation because workers and managers saw it as disruptive. Moreover, initiative was monopolized by central planners and party elites, reproducing problems of alienation even if workers’ expectations of guaranteed employment and rising consumption were sufficiently strong to constrain leaderships.

In the case of Yugoslavia, unemployment was produced because workers (who were self-managers) sought to maximize their enterprises’ income per worker. Workers acted in solidarity, but only within their own enterprise; eventually loans were used to finance higher pay in weaker enterprises. The logic of capital gained ground, Professor Lebowitz argues, until Yugoslavia accepted an International Monetary Fund loan and passed a 1988 law that substituted stockholders for workers’ councils, hastening the end of the Yugoslav experiment.

Solidarity across society and a decoupling of consumption with work capacity are offered as the keys to a socialist society. Income distribution based on an individual’s capacity to work is a distribution based on unequal personal endowment or inheritance and thus a “right to inequality.” In other words, different people are born with different capacities, and social solidarity mandates that those accidents of birth not be made into permanent sources of inequality. Permanent inequalities are products of capitalist relations.

We are stunted individuals under capitalism; paid a small fraction of the value of what we produce and, given the dictatorial nature of relations in the capitalist enterprise, told we are incapable of making decisions and thus unable to develop ourselves. We are also kept divided along gender, racial, religious and national lines and fighting among ourselves, helping keep capitalists in power. Going beyond reformism and instead struggling together to overturn capitalist relations creates the capacity to do so:

“The working class makes itself a revolutionary subject through its struggles — it transforms itself.” [page 143]

Who is this working class? It everybody who has no choice but to “sell their labor power” — those who can not survive other than by hiring themselves to a capitalist. Those who have a job, those out of work and those who survive in the informal sector. Crucially,

“They may not correspond to the stereotype of the working class as a male factory worker, but that stereotype was always wrong.” [page 145]

Building a solidarity state from a local base

A social state can only be constructed from the bottom up, The Socialist Imperative argues. Drawing on the example of the communes of Venezuela, the book envisions neighborhood councils as the basis of local decision-making, with successively larger representations through councils established on city, regional, state/provincial and national levels. Mechanisms would be needed to transmit information up and down these levels for national-level decisions to be made as democratically as possible and for communities to have proper input. Needs and capacities would be assessed to democratically plan to meet those needs and make adjustments based on available capacities.

Socialist triangleEnterprise transparency and worker education would be established in the workplace to begin the process of social production. Worker decision-making would be increased step by step through negotiations between workers and management on the basis of social contracts filed with a ministry of work. These would be steps toward social ownership of the means of production necessary for the full development of human beings and society. The local self-interest that would exist at the start of this process would be a relic of the old (capitalist) system that would need to be overcome to establish a system fully rooted in social solidarity.

The movement must go beyond simply taking state power, Professor Lebowitz writes, but must create spaces for the grassroots to transform into active agents. Old structures must be subordinated:

“Working within a hierarchy, functioning without the ability to make decisions in the workplace and society, and focusing upon self-interest rather than upon solidarity are activities that produce people on a daily basis; this is the reproduction of the conservatism of everyday life — indeed, the reproduction of elements of capitalism.” [pages 189-190]

No blueprints are offered in the book; properly so as pre-conceived conceptions are useless. It would have been useful to have had more concrete examples in a book that is sometimes a little too abstract, but it does provide a thorough grounding in why the salvation of humanity and Earth itself rests on a transition to a rational, democratic system, one based on human need and not the profits of a privileged few. The form of that system will be different from 20th century systems that called themselves “socialist” and necessarily vastly different from any form of capitalism. We have a world to win, a goal for which Michael Lebowitz has given us an inspirational guide.

* Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now [Monthly Review Press, New York 2015]

Are we ready for the twilight of neoliberalism?

Not since the Great Depression have so many people in the global North called into question capitalism, yet among most of the advanced capitalist countries there is little organized pushback. Worse, parties of the Right appear to be gaining ground as voters who in the past backed the traditional parties of the center-left increasingly stay home, disgusted at their “me, too” approach to economics.

A decaying order increasingly reliant on repression that delivers immiseration to ever more people ought to be under more pressure. It can’t be said there are no serious challenges — social movements such as Spain’s Indignados and political coalitions contending for power such as Greece’s Syriza, for example — and the dramatic instant popularity of the Occupy movement demonstrated widespread discontent.

Still, the limitations of Occupy led to its demise and nothing yet has arisen in its place. Is there a weakness in our movements that is preventing them from organizing that discontent and channeling it into productive forces capable of challenging prevailing social orders?

We Make Our Own History coverAny answer to the puzzle of why Left movements have gained so little traction comprises multiple parts. Certainly the enormous institutional advantages that industrialists and financiers possess through their ability to exert decisive influence over governments, their domination of the mass media, the disposal of police and military forces at their service, and ability to infuse their preferred ideologies through a web of institutions can’t be discounted. Nonetheless, that does not relieve ourselves of the necessity to think about how we attempt to organize.

Activist knowledge has been “frozen” in specific forms, and today’s movements must be willing to break with past patterns and to build different styles of organization, argue Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen in their study of social movements, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism.* In writing this book, the authors, both of whom have long histories in activist work, set out to “reclaim” activist knowledge for today’s movements and problems.

The authors quite reasonably argue that the failure of neoliberalism is “evident” and that we are now living in the “twilight” of the neoliberal era. That neoliberalism is reaching its end does not necessarily mean that capitalism is reaching its end; merely capitalism’s latest phase. “There is no alternative” retains a powerful punch even as conditions continue to deteriorate around the world. Moreover, activists are at a disadvantage when operating within rules designed to maintain the status quo.

Theory does not derive from an armchair

Theory, Professors Cox and Nilsen write, derives from the activist work of making sense of, and changing, social experience. Theory helps grasp ideas in opposition to dominant discourses, helping us go beyond our immediate situation or experience. A “unity of theory and action, and not simply practice,” is a necessity. But theory is not a concept imposed from high above nor the province of a handful of philosophers. They write:

“The producers of theory are — potentially — everyone who reflects on their experiences so as to develop new and improved ways of handling problematic aspects of that experience. Theory, in this perspective, is knowledge that is consciously developed out of experience, and has been worked through using experience as a touchstone, that has become explicit and articulate, and which as been brought to a level where it can be generalised.” [page 8]

The everyday experience of creating new forms of organization during struggles itself provide bases for a better world.

“At their best and within wider movements for social change, the council, the assembly, the occupied factory, the social centre, the self-organised neighbourhood, or the liberated zone can simultaneously prefigure a different way of living together, represent an effective means of organising here and now, and embody a critique of key social relationships and institutions.” [page 11]

Building from abstract concepts in its early pages, We Make Our Own History steadily builds concrete scaffolding. A key concept of this scaffolding, introduced to emphasize the understanding that the current organization of the world is a product of human construction that can be disassembled and replaced through human agency, is that of “movements from above.” We are used to seeing grassroots activity as movements — movements from “below.” We Make Our Own History defines “movements from above” as the collective agency of dominant groups to reproduce or extend their power and hegemonic positions.

Movements from above draw upon a multitude of positions to cement their hegemony, among them their directing role in enterprises, superior access to state power, ability to extract “consent” from significant sections of the subaltern and ability to apply repression to those who refuse to consent. Movements from above are “forever moving.” the authors write, and are able to use a variety of tactics in their responses to movements from below: military force, police force, the law, and school and workplace sanctions. When necessary, concessions will be made, but only to some groups and in forms that reinforce clientalism and patriarchal relations while blocking self-activity and organization.

Seeing the efforts of elites as “movements from above” enables an understanding of our ability to change conditions, through the combined efforts of movements from below.

The building blocks of a movement

Movements from below must become strong enough to counter the hegemony of capitalist elites with a “counter-hegemony.” Professors Cox and Nilsen propose three “levels” of movements from below in distinguishing their ability to force structural change. Local, defensive struggles (the basic building block) can coalesce into much more effective offensives when they connect with other movements from below on the basis of common grounds to forge extra-regional or international coalitions that critique dominant ideas and projects.

Such coalitions, however, tend to remain field-specific and don’t necessarily relate to the social totality that shapes the issue being struggled against. If activists begin to examine larger structural issues, the authors write, they may go beyond field-specific campaigns to become a “social movement project” that targets the social totality. Thus,

“[S]uch a social movement project stands out from other forms of collective agency from below by virtue of its capacity to identify its own actors socially; name its central opponent; and recognizing that the social totality is the product and object of such struggles. In other words, there is a return ‘up’ the sequence from opposing everyday routines to opposing the structures that generate them, and finally to directly confronting the movements from above which have constructed the whole.” [page 83]

From this comes the question of: What is the nature of what we are fighting? To assist in answering that question, the authors divide the history of capitalism into three eras:

  • “Disembedded” market-centered liberal capitalism that lasted into the early 20th century. This era was marked by the violent incorporation of the colonized world into the world-system of capitalism, and concessions made to emergent middle classes split them from the subaltern, linking them to the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.
  • “Re-embedded” state-centered organized capitalism from the end of World War II to the 1970s. This period arose out of the breakdown of the previous era and in response to mass uprisings carrying the potential to sweep away capitalism. Some measure of development was allowed for the global South through import-substitution industrialism; workers of the global North received increasing wages and concessions in exchange for de-politicizing their demands.
  • “Disembedded” neoliberal capitalism since the 1980s, a project to “disembed” capital from institutional regulations. The turn to neoliberalism is grounded in changed conditions, in particular the profit squeeze that set in during the 1970s, and is organized globally through alliances with capitalists in all regions of the world and links among trans-national capital. Capitalists’ attempt to restore previous profit levels centers on breaking the power of labor and a strategy of “accumulation through dispossession” — the conversion of common property into private capital.

The victory of neoliberalism is “pyrrhic,” the authors write, because the accumulation strategies that restored power for capitalists are the root of the present crisis. Thus, we are in the twilight of neoliberalism. That elites can offer nothing new is a sign of their brittleness, but the simultaneous weakness of movements from below has led to an unusually long period of stalemate.

Learning from one another, not blindly following

How then will this logjam be broken? As no movement, organization or leader has a monopoly of ideas, Professors Cox and Nilsen envision a “movement of movements”: The coming together of independent movements without the intention of submitting to the leadership of any single party or of privileging narrow definitions of working class interests. This necessitates not only learning from one another to increase the body of knowledge that can be drawn upon but also learning from the past. It also stresses the full incorporation of struggles against racism, sexism and all other forms of oppression.

Winning, the authors write, means defeating the state, breaking up at least some power relations and instituting new ones, but doing so through the masses, not a vanguard. Success, then, is the collective achievement of people going beyond what they previously believed possible.

“These situations share a potential for human self-development to flourish beyond the normal limits set by exploitation, oppression, ignorance and isolation, creating institutions driven by human need rather than by profit and power. … These ‘everyday utopias’ do not need to be installed from above by decree; what they do need is a breaking of power relations within communities, workplaces, state institutions and globally, which stand in their way.” [pages 186-7]

Building the “counter-hegemony” that can check and then supplant the hegemony of capitalists is far from an easy task. Those who benefit from the current world order spare no exertion in attempting to convince us that no other world is possible. Realizing that such assertions are nothing more than self-serving ideology helps to give ourselves the necessary consciousness to liberate ourselves:

“[I]f we do not see not see neoliberalism as a complex, contested, fragile and ultimately impermanent achievement of elite agency we are taking the intentions of its makers as given fact — and in essence conceding permanent defeat.” [page 142]

Professors Cox and Nilsen set themselves the audacious goal of reclaiming activist knowledge through filling a void in studies of social movements. They have succeed: We Make Our Own History is recommended reading for activists serious about bringing into being a better world.

* Laurence Cox and Alf Gunvald Nilsen, We Make Our Own History: Marxism and Social Movements in the Twilight of Neoliberalism. [Pluto Press, London, 2014]