How to organise against capitalism: networks or parties?
A contribution to the debate on organisation by Dave Stockton
The great recession has tested working class parties to the limit. Almost every social democratic and labour party has repositioned itself in favour of cuts and austerity. For a new generation of fighters, the Occupy movement and last year’s student rebellion seem to offer a way to beat the system without parties. Dave Stockton looks at the arguments
TEN YEARS ago, the movement around the World Social Forum (WSF) and the European Social Forum (ESF) took up the slogan, “another world is possible”. Even at the time Marxists noted its uncertain, plaintive tone, which prompted the question: what is it then? It was clearly meant to avoid the confident answer: Socialism.
The movement’s organisers plainly believed that socialism had been fatally discredited by the collapse of Communism, by the triumph of ideas like Tony Blair’s New Labour and Gerhardt Schroeder’s New Centre. They even insisted on calling it the “alterglobalisation” rather than the anticapitalist movement, identifying the enemy as neoliberalism rather than capitalism. In a conscious negation of the working class movement’s traditional slogan of “unity is strength”, they claimed: “in our diversity is our strength.”
The NGOs and trade union bureaucrats who controlled the WSF appealed to horizontalist principles to ban political parties from participating, and to ban world and regional forums from voting on calls to action or from creating representative bodies, except for the already existing and self-appointed WSF International Council.
The WSF and ESF attracted huge numbers to their early gatherings. In 2002-03, thanks to the pressure of the Marxist left, “unofficial” assemblies of the social movements in Florence and Porto Alegre called for a worldwide day of action to halt the impending war against Iraq. In response, 20 million people demonstrated worldwide on 15 February 2003.
The potential of these gatherings was evident. Its self-limitation was that there was no elected body between meetings to repeat and extend the call for strikes and direct action to block the war. In the end, as the radical surge that marked the years 1999 -2003 abated due the failure to stop the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the social forums –frustrated from taking any further initiatives – also faded away.
Horizontalism claims to allow everyone to become active and direct participants in the decisions and actions that affect the individual by decentralizing and fragmenting power. Top-down directives – or any obligations on the individual’s autonomy – can be avoided. Only mutual agreements and voluntary commitments that respect the diversity of individual capabilities and personal desires are permissible.
But the great horizontalist experiment of the anticapitalist movement does not bear this out. On the contrary, it highlights its shortcomings.
What is Horizontalism?
Marianne Maeckelbergh, author of The Will of Many, explains horizontalism as an alternative form of democracy to the “hierarchical, authoritarian democracy practiced or created by ‘vertical’ organisations”, like political parties. Its whole vision starts from its emphasis on a radically de-centred method of taking decisions:
“This is why one of the key values underlying decision-making in the alterglobalisation movement is ‘diversity’. Diversity is a rejection of unity as the guiding principle of cooperation… This multiple outcomes approach, however, requires that people realise that they have the option to act autonomously. This means that if they don’t agree with a decision taken, they don’t have to implement it and they can do something else…
“Autonomy between participants is essential to keep the ‘general assembly’ from becoming a source of centralised and hierarchical power. If equal outcomes are multiple outcomes then the best-suited political structure for horizontality is a structure that allows for multiple, separate groups of people to coordinate with only limited unity of purpose. Decentralised network structures are ideal for this.”
All those who participated in the Occupy movement will recognise these practices. Rigidly operated at first, these principles soon had to be loosened as the crippling effects of the paralysis they caused were felt. These included the initial impossibility of any detailed explanation of the movement’s objectives, of having spokespersons, etc. Initially too, as in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, not only was any participation by political parties banned, including those with a good record of fighting against capitalism, but also trade unions. This would have been a disaster.
The necessity of working class direct action –that is, strikes – seemed to escape the more doctrinaire horizontals, repulsed as they were by their “vertical” character and the lack of autonomy. Happily, in many of the occupations this tendency was overcome and strong links made with militant trade unionists. In New York it was the transport workers, in Oakland the dockworkers, in London electricians and public sector workers. Indeed the full potential of the movement could only have been realised if they did link up with workers, helping to build rank and file democracy in the unions and all out strikes against austerity and police repression.
In fact horizontalism – in its most dogmatic form – is clearly influenced by individualist anarchism, which is an expression of layers and classes whose position in capitalist society gives them no natural unity: the lower middle classes, students, long term unemployed, precarious workers, intellectuals and cultural workers, who seek to escape cut-throat capitalist competition but at the same time feel collectivity, especially discipline imposed by a majority, an intolerable violation of their freedom.
The notion of “counter-power” is a key concept of horizontalism. Counter-power does not seek to seize power or to smash the bourgeois state. Rather it seeks to create an alternative to it within bourgeois society. It is prefigurative in the sense of being a model of the future classless and stateless society: a form of utopian socialism, trying to build the new society and create a new human personality in the middle of the old society.
This shows horizontals are reformists not revolutionaries: but reformists who hardly ask themselves how the necessities of life will be produced or distributed except on the smallest scale and for incredibly short periods of time. For consistent horizontalists even these mini-utopias must not become “institutionalised” or they will lose their emancipating character, becoming instead a new oppressive power.
Working class principles of organisation
The principles of the workers’ movement run directly counter to those of horizontalism. The history of all countries since the development of capitalism shows workers have an objective predisposition towards collective action, to united and indeed centralised organisations – trade unions but also political parties. The working class is organised by the social production, exchange and service provision, which they are essential to. Workers have been holding mass meetings and assemblies and electing delegates from the earliest days of capitalism. Over a century ago the workers’ council or soviet emerged from this essential process and has reappeared countless times.
Trade unions – even anarcho-syndicalist ones – could not exist for five minutes under horizontalist principles. How could a strike ever be decided on if it had to wait until all the workers involved agreed? How could it be maintained if the minority decided to exercise their autonomy and not strike? In fact horizontalism is not democratic since it would allow a minority to block the majority.
Leadership and delegation are made necessary by the concentration of private property in the hands of a tiny minority and by the centralised state. Workers – propertyless except for limited means for reproducing their ability to work – have no strength except their numbers As Marx wrote in 1864, “One element of success they possess – numbers; but numbers weigh in the balance only if united by combination and led by knowledge.”
The class struggle in fact quite simply does not allow for horizontalist principles. The picket line is an institution of authority, a means to exercise it. It seeks to persuade the minority if possible but to force them if need be, not to break the strike – not to become a scab. At this moment it is the police and the bosses who proclaim “the right to work”, the “freedom of the individual.”
How too could any strike be effectively organized without the principle of delegation? To avoid this virtually all the strikers would have to be assembled in one place all the time. On strict horizontalist principles strike committees would be impossible – they represent vertical organisation, they are leaders.
But out of workers’ mass meetings must arise leadership – the democratic choice of the people best equipped to direct the struggle to victory. Of course these people must account for their actions, retain the support of those who elected them, be instantly recallable by them when their actions are not approved of. This is why the struggle for mass meetings with the power to vote on policy, delegate based councils of action to unite across workplaces and unions, and rank and file control of all negotiations and strikes are key demands in the workers’ movement.
The necessity and the danger of parties
The German Social Democrats from the 1860s to the 1890s perfected an organisation that could not only mobilise millions as voters, but win hundreds of thousands to actively fighting for an anticapitalist and socialist programme, It was able survive heavy state repression (thousands arrested and imprisoned, or dismissed from their jobs). It also transcended national limits, helping to form two international organisations in the space of three decades. In Russia, the Bolsheviks built an even more effective type of party that founded a Third International and enabled the working class to seize power.
Of course the history of workers’ parties and trade unions has a bleak side to it – the history of bureaucratisation. In the trade unions, the twentieth century saw the rise of a layer of full time officials, paid considerably more than their members, controlling the process of negotiating with the employers and thwarting democratic control over themselves by the rank and file. Anarchists claim this arises from the central purpose of a party – the struggle for power and from the creation of any sort of leadership. Marxists have a different explanation.
In Labour and Social Democratic parties, members of parliament, local councillors and full-time party officials – often with the help of the union bureaucracy – also lifted themselves above the control of the membership. The reason for this is that under capitalism the working class is not a spontaneously homogeneous class.
Skilled and better-paid workers gravitate to the view that capitalism only needs gradual reform, not the dangerous solution of revolution. This social layer – the aristocracy of labour as Marx called it – is a natural base for bureaucracy and reformism, if bureaucracy and reformism are not combated by revolutionaries and controlled by the more harshly exploited and oppressed majority of the working class. Where this has happened, revolutionary parties have arisen, and in the case of the Bolsheviks been able to seize power and establish a workers’ state.
In Russia, however, the isolation of the first workers’ state led to the rise of a caste of state and party officials, which then repressed all opposition, creating a monstrous totalitarian regime that ruled by terror.
After the Second World War these two bureaucratic forces – Social Democracy and Labourism on the one hand, Stalinism on the other – dominated the workers’ movements for decades. Once established, their leaderships restricted their parties to the horizon of reforms within capitalism.
They were able to do so because capitalism in the West stabilised itself, and the reformist parties presided over serious gains for the working classes – health and education services, social housing, higher wages. At the same time the Communist Parties in Russia, Eastern Europe and China developed industry and social services in a way that backward capitalist economies could not.
The prestige of mass consumer Fordist capitalism (the long boom) and the proof positive, so it seemed, that reformist welfarism or Stalinist bureaucratic planning “worked”, combined to isolate and marginalise the remaining tiny revolutionary forces.
The serious crises for world capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s led to a revival of left forces that sought to build revolutionary parties. Unfortunately they turned out to have absorbed too many of the ideas and practices of Stalinism and reformism. Their internal life either mirrored the bureaucratic centralism of the Stalinists or the loose discussion clubs and permanent factions of social democracy.
Moreover these conflicting sects engaged in sectarian “party building” schemes that often broke up the unity of action needed to take the class struggle forward. Indeed this situation still exists in Britain today, with three or four rival anticuts “united fronts”, the secret of whose separation is their sponsorship by one or other of the “revolutionary” sects.
A revolutionary party today
However this unfortunate situation does not prove that we do not need a revolutionary party. The historic crisis of capitalism is threatening to destroy all the working class gains of the post-Second World War period. So we need a resistance that is revolutionary and dares to say clearly that the alternative we need is socialism.
The basis for such a party is not only a resolute fight against bureaucracy, but also a revolutionary strategy accepted and understood by all of their members and by wide layers of the working class. We will not do this simply by building up small propaganda societies of dozens, hundreds or even thousands but by winning the most resolute activists to the project of creating a real mass party on a revolutionary programme.
In addition we need to make sure that such a party does not succumb to bureaucracy, and that means establishing real democratic centralism. Apologists for capitalism, reformists and anarchists alike say this is a bureaucratic and undemocratic way of organising. This is not true. Democratic centralism – as the Bolsheviks practised it – means the maximum level of debate and discussion within the party over the correct strategy and tactics to adopt. But when a decision has been reached, it requires unity in its implementation.
Then, after the results can be seen, it allows for full and democratic discussion of them. Against this background a revolutionary party elects its leadership, trying to select the best organisers, theoreticians, speakers, those who act honestly and loyally to one another and to the membership. If leaders prove inadequate or if better individuals emerge, they can be replaced.
Such revolutionary leadership can break the hold of the reformists and win the support of the working class, as the Bolsheviks did in 1917, not by tricks or deception but by proving themselves the most consistent fighters for the interests of the working class and all the oppressed and exploited.
For without revolutionary leadership, the revolution cannot triumph. For example, in Egypt a powerful uprising by young people and rank and file workers overthrew a rotten regime. It mobilised millions for change.
But revolution lacked leaders who knew where they were going and who were able to organise the masses around such goals. So other “leaders” emerged, who did not fight on the streets or take risks, and who used their links with the masses through the mosques to steal the revolution from those who did.
Only a leadership – organised as a revolutionary party – can take these movements forward to a victory not only over the military regime, which still runs Egypt, but over capitalism that spells misery for millions.
This article first appeared at Workers Power