Anti-capitalist, pro-what?

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This article is an extract from a response by AWL to the statement by the members who resigned from Workers Power earlier this year. The full version can be found here.


The ACI wants “unity and co-operation”; to “overcome division and sectarianism”; and “wider discussion”. This contribution offers some ideas about how those aims can be advanced and about pitfalls on the way.

United front and party

Every battle in the working-class struggle, or for liberation, requires broad unity. A strike has to unite workers in a workplace or sector irrespective of their views on the Middle East, China, religion, or even, say, cuts in general. Anti-cuts, anti-fascist, and similar campaigns require unity, too.

If our aim is not just to fight immediate battles, but to replace capitalism altogether by a free cooperative commonwealth, then, as well as the broadly-uniting campaigns, we also need a political organisation developing and advocating that wider aim.

Marxists argue that the social revolution finds its agency in the working class, and its force in the organisation and self-education that the working class develops through daily struggles. If that is so, then, to be effective, the organisation advocating the social revolution must develop and organise for coherent views not just on the future and general revolutionary aim, but on the strategy and tactics of working-class and other liberation struggles now. It must be an active party and not just a group making propaganda for a future ideal.

In other words, we need two different types of organisation simultaneously, On the one hand, unions and other united-front organisations, which have to be broad if they are to be effective, and which have more limited remits, shorter-term outlooks, and are looser. And, on the other, political party or proto-party organisations, which are smaller, but which, if lucid, may do valuable educational and catalytic work even when small.

Revolutionary-socialist parties or proto-parties, because of their more complex and long-term tasks, are inherently more likely to splinter than united-front campaigns. And those united-front campaigns need to draw in people with different, or no definite, views on longer-term perspectives.

The different revolutionary-socialist parties or proto-parties need to be able to cooperate with each other, and with reformist or agnostic-minded people, in unions and campaigns.

In the new network, we will be proposing that it cooperate with others to:

  • Set up a united coordination for campaigns for the NHS;
  • Build the new rank-and-file initiative among school workers (the initial conference took place on 16 June) and, where possible, similar initiatives in other trade-union sectors;
  • Revive and continue united anti-cuts committees based on local labour movements;
  • Develop the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts among students.

The network would do best to work with others in broad united fronts on immediate active campaigns, rather than constituting itself as yet another “rival” campaign group on cuts, the NHS, or whatever.

We will also be proposing that the network set aside time for self-education and structured debate on longer-term strategic questions, some of which we will indicate below in discussing the ex-WP grouping’s statement.

Some participants in the new network think it is a broad coalition, operating largely by consensus, maybe providing a forum for different left currents and unaffiliated activists to liaise and debate in a way they now usually fail to. The ex-WP group’s statement suggest they see it more as a “stepping stone” to a party-type group which is (as they put it) “clear on strategic questions”.

There is a risk of botching it so as to function well neither as united-front campaign, nor as broad forum, nor as party-type organisation.

What kind of organisation for what kind of unity?

The ex-WP statement is centred round the aim of establishing “a new plural and broader anti-capitalist organisation”, “a new group” (though “not overnight”).

One paragraph states the aim as “a united, plural organisation in which splits can be avoided and the inevitable differences are factored into the day to day practice… debate [but] practical unity where we agree”.

If the practical unity is only “where we agree”, then the model here is a loose coordination of different groupings, or a consensus-decision-making collective. It’s an organisation looser than, for example, a trade union, which often obliges all members to join a practical action even though not all agree. (Few strike votes have a 100% majority).

Another paragraph gives a different line: the new organisation would have “democratic centralism [but meaning] unity in action around democratically determined goals, and free and open discussion”.

This suggests something less loose than a union, and maybe more like a party, though maybe (it’s not clear) a deliberately loose party which would not strive for clarity on longer-term perspectives but instead agree to differ on such things and confine itself (as unions generally do) to taking decisions where a majority binds a minority only on selected immediate activities.

Another passage offers a third variant, when it calls for “uniting sections of the left around a strategic perspective… clear on the strategic questions”, which implies a less loose “party”, with a defined “line” on strategic as well as immediate issues.

Other paragraphs suggest that the new initiative will bypass and eclipse the whole existing activist left, and catapult itself straight into the status of an electoral mass party, “into the mainstream” of politics, into becoming able to “present a credible alternative to the mainstream parties”.

“Galloway’s success shows what is possible, as does the support for Mélenchon in France”.

Recent polls show long-term mass disaffection with the long-established major parties.

But neither Galloway nor Mélenchon is anti-capitalist in the sense of fighting for the expropriation of the capitalist class and the replacement of market-based economy by a free cooperative commonwealth.

Galloway has said: “my main political mistake, in retrospect, was that state ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, in which I believed, and for which I campaigned, was a false God… I’m not saying, at all, that everything in the private garden is rosy. There’s just more flowers than there were in the state garden”.

Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche programme proposes “a public pole” in finance, “public poles” in industry, and, in the longer term, “new powers for workers in the running of their workplaces”.

Mélenchon’s vote represents a constituency of great importance for revolutionary socialists in France, but it would be foolish to read it as showing the rise of a fresh new left. The left-of-SP vote in France in 2012 was smaller than in 2002 or 1995. The main activist force behind Mélenchon is the far-from-fresh-and-new French Communist Party.

Galloway cannot be equated with Mélenchon, who is an honest left social-democrat. Bradford West shows, sadly, that it possible for the current disaffection to be channelled by a demagogue with a horrible record. It is possible for the disaffection to be channelled by the far right, too.

A revolutionary socialist party which had built a sufficient activist base and profile might well be able to use the mass disaffection reflected in the polls to make rapid advances through electoral activity. But not even Mélenchon shows us an example of how to leapfrog the difficulties of getting that activist base and profile in the first place.

We could pretend to leapfrog by attaching ourselves to the coat-tails of Mélenchon, or Galloway, claiming their electoral scores as somehow ours, and imagining that we are catapulted by proxy “into the mainstream”. But it would be self-deception. The SWP found that with Galloway in Respect.

In any case, what has the Galloway-Mélenchon tack got to do with the project of an “anti-capitalist initiative”? Nothing much, unless the term “anti-capitalist” be used so broadly as to cover all dissatisfaction with the obviously “capitalist” features of present-day society and desire to alleviate them in some way or another.

The negative term “anti-capitalist” (pro-what?) has drawbacks anyway. In the broadest usage it would notionally embrace a coalition stretching through the soft left to populist right-wingers.

The ex-WP grouping writes that for them the “anti-capitalist initiative” is “not an end in itself” but a “stepping stone for something greater”. Other activists in the initiative should ask the ex-WP grouping to think through, and spell out, more about whose boots will be “stepping” on them, and in which direction.

“Fusing” socialism with what?

The ex-WP group’s statement objects (rightly, we think) to WP’s rule which requires WP members to pretend publicly to be unanimous on all political and ideological questions.

Released from the rule, however, the ex-WP group have so far expressed no dissent from WP political positions. They accept WP’s version of Marxism. But they express doubt about Lenin and Trotsky. They seem (wrongly, we think) to identify WP’s public-unanimity rule as characteristic of “Leninist-Trotskyist” organising. They suggest it would be better to go back to the looser modes of the slow-moving, consensus-seeking social democracy of “before 1917”.

They also express doubt about Marx. “We still believe that the working class is a crucial agent of revolutionary change, though we want to explore new and more creative ways of fusing socialist ideas with the kind of struggles that are going on today” (emphasis added).

The replacement of Marx’s idea that the working class is the gravedigger of capitalism by the vaguer term, “a crucial agent”, cannot be a writer’s accident here, since it is given emphasis by the qualifications “still” and “though…”

The proposition that the working class is a crucial agent of revolutionary change has nothing specifically Marxist about it at all, and would hardly be questioned even by, say, anarchists of Murray Bookchin’s stripe, who explicitly reject Marx’s idea of the working class as the only really revolutionary class.

The qualifying clause is odd: “though we want to explore new and more creative ways of fusing socialist ideas with the kind of struggles that are going on today”.

New and more creative ways of promoting socialist ideas are always desirable. How can the idea of better agitation, explanation, and dialogue be a qualification – a “though…” clause – to the proposition that the working class is a crucial agent of change? It makes no sense.

“Fusing” is an odd word for bringing ideas into struggles. It must have got into the sentence by being picked up, consciously or unconsciously, from its best-known use in the revolutionary socialist tradition, in Lenin’s writings in the Iskra period, 1900-03.

Lenin in turn took it from Karl Kautsky’s 1892 commentary on the Erfurt Programme, a text which was the main handbook for socialists across the world in its time.

For Kautsky and Lenin the term fusion was about the merger of two movement: the coming-together into a single movement, in the late 19th century, of the socialists (previously mostly groups of conspirators, colony-builders, or sketchers of schemes for future society) and trade-unionists (previously averse to explicit politics). What made “fusion” possible was Marx’s idea that socialism is not just a good idea, but also the consistent expression of the logic of working-class struggle within developed capitalism.

The “though…” clause in the ex-WP statement can only signify that the writer thinks that “the kind of struggles that are going on today” are not working-class struggles of the sort Kautsky had in mind, but more diffuse “social-movement” things. Despairing of finding an organic workers’ movement with which to “fuse” the socialist movement, the writer expresses a vague hope that the socialist movement can instead be nourished by non-worker struggles (although with, still, “a crucial” contribution from the working class).

Revolutionary socialists absolutely should support, intervene in, and seek to win activists in non-worker struggles for liberation.

But “socialist ideas” can be “fused” (merged, amalgamated) with all those diverse struggles only if those socialist ideas are diluted into a vague and generic opposition to oppression.

Rethinking the wrong things?

In our view, elements of the ex-WP group’s statement of political position derive from insufficiently-rethought recycling of what they were taught as “Marxist ideas” in WP.

And yet the statement contains a passage which points to some of what is wrong with WP’s version of “Marxism”. “The way that Marxism came to be conceived as a result led to a narrowness; thinkers outside of the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky (and partially Luxemburg) axis tended to be subjected to a form of black and white critique that undermined the kind of engagement necessary for a living and evolving body of thought to develop. This naturally places constraints on critical thinking as the concern to ‘get it right’ tends to undermine the development of an attitude that recognises that a degree of plurality in the evolution of ideas is necessary to try and uncover objective truth…”

Over the years since its formation in the 1970s, WP became among the worst of Trotskyist groups in this respect. For it, a narrowly-defined doctrinal tradition became a source of quotabilities to rationalise positions. All theorising outside that canon became items to be ticked or crossed – “black and white” – in somewhat the same style as the name index in old Moscow editions of Marx and Engels would list thinkers, each checked as “idealist” or “materialist”.

Workers’ Liberty works to be more “doctrinaire” than the other tendencies, in that we work to educate our members in the Marxist classics and constantly to check our ideas against the classics. We also work to be – and are – the least doctrinaire, in that we are frequently willing to say that a classic “text” is inapplicable to a current problem, or another classic “text” is wrong.

For instance: on the 1930s Trotsky analysed the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state”. By the end of World War 2, with the USSR overrunning Eastern Europe and the emergence of new Stalinist states, it was clear that the argument had to be reassessed, and in fact Trotsky had been wrong.

“Orthodox” Trotskyists ossified Trotsky’s position into a rigid and nonsensical dogma, in which the Stalinist states remained workers’ states, whatever the position of the workers, as long as the means of production were nationalised.

The original Workers Power group had drifted away from Cliff’s version of state capitalism without settling on an alternative. As it sought to solidify itself after the 1976 split, under vigorous pressure from the then-bustling Spartacist group, it needed an orthodoxy.

It eventually announced that events had convinced it the USSR was a workers’ state – and when? Of all times, in 1979/80, after Russian invaded Afghanistan! On that basis it refused to call for Russian troops to withdraw.

Ancient history? No. Today WP and all its splits continue to maintain that North Korea is a “bureaucratically deformed workers’ state”, the only place outside Cuba where the working class still somehow rules!

That view skews the WP/ex-WP overview of the whole history of the last century. It skews their picture of where we, they, and the working class are in history. It must have helped nourish the thought that socialist ideas can be “fused” with diverse non-worker struggles just as well as with working-class battle.

And it also sets a template for the WP/ex-WP view on forces like the Taliban, the Sunni-supremacist Iraqi “resistance” of 2004-8, Saddam Hussein, etc.: by virtue of the negative fact of coming into conflict with the dominant advanced-capitalist power, the USA, they fill the role (left vacant by the collapse of most of the Stalinist states) of big forces, ‘objectively’ on our side, though not as we would wish.

In 2004, at the European Social Forum in London, WP took part in an attempt to ‘no platform’ an Iraqi trade unionist because of the Stalinist/reformist Iraqi Communist Party’s collaboration with the American occupation authorities. They insisted that this representative of Iraq’s really existing workers’ movement, re-emerging after more than thirty years of repression, be not allowed to speak. At the same time they supported the “resistance” militias which as well as fighting the occupation were conducting sectarian terror and harassing and murdering union activists.

The ex-WP group is right to call for “critical re-evaluation” and “open, ‘blue-skies’ discussion”. But they may be rethinking the wrong things. If their project amounts to pulling together a loose regroupment, politically broadly WP but tacitly less “Leninist-Trotskyist”, tacitly less insistent on the centrality of working-class struggles, that will be wrong.

As it develops, the ACI needs to debate these issues.

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8 Comments

  1. July 6, 2012 at 6:26 pm · Reply

    The link to the full version is broken. Use this:
    http://www.workersliberty.org/story/2012/05/17/anti-capitalist-pro-what

    • Dan Fisher
      July 7, 2012 at 3:21 am · Reply

      Thanks for the link!

      I think this article from the AWL makes some valid points (as usual) but also misses the point in some areas (as usual). I often feel like they’re so close to getting it but fall at the last hurdle.

      “we are frequently willing to say that a classic “text” is inapplicable to a current problem, or another classic “text” is wrong.”

      “Those groups collapsed, shrivelled, or fell back not because they were too Trotskyist, but because they were not Trotskyist enough.”

      Sigh. Clearly no true ‘Trotskyist’ organisation could fail to gain mass support, because that would make ‘Trotskyism’ an incorrect approach to take. And that would be… kind of a demoraliser, for a ‘Trotskyist’ organisation, wouldn’t it? Therefore, all the many (many) organisations which claimed to follow the theories of Trotsky were merely mistaken. Logically, it follows that the general interpretation of Trotsky’s theories must be incorrect. And at that point… you have to admit reading Trotsky seems more likely to confuse than to enlighten.

      When a small group claims to have a monopoly on the correct interpretation of some popular work, and that everyone else is just reading it wrong, you might as well treat their reading as an entirely different, independent work, and evaluate it on its own merits.

      In that light I agree with a lot of the AWL’s thinking. I just wish they’d claim it as original thought, because we’d all be better for it.

      And at the risk of potentially offending my comrades, I think this is a lesson a lot of us could stand to learn.

      • billj
        July 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm · Reply

        The AWL are notorious for supporting the foreign policy of the Israeli government, once you know that all the rest can go in the bin.

  2. John Bowman
    July 7, 2012 at 5:11 pm · Reply

    I’d like to write a longer comment to this soon, but whilst im procrastinating on work, IMO a major problem with it is that it actually repeats quite a dogmatic line on the relationship between left organisations and the movement.

    So key to the argument is the paragraph which states – “In other words, we need two different types of organisation simultaneously, On the one hand, unions and other united-front organisations, which have to be broad if they are to be effective, and which have more limited remits, shorter-term outlooks, and are looser. And, on the other, political party or proto-party organisations, which are smaller, but which, if lucid, may do valuable educational and catalytic work even when small.”

    It is quite a limiting dichotomy, based on 1970s assumptions that particularly in a recession, workers will spring into conflict with capitalists, probably over economic questions – with a majority being reformist – and the socialist “party or proto-party” (which? Surely this is not a negligible difference?) will come in and win workers to its longer term revolutionary perspectives and grow through the united front tactic.

    It is said explicitly that the united front has a more limited remit, and probably a shorter term perspective than a socialist grouping.

    Does that really reflect what is happening today? Reformism has taken on a character of accepting the logic of cuts and austerity, trying to mediate the worst effects by lobbying in boardrooms.

    On the other hand, alternative movements which we’ve seen springing up in numerous countries have actually, not just been broad, but have an extremely far-reaching remit in terms of social and economic change as seen in the round table discussion on the GlobalMay Manifesto on this website.

    So you could argue that resistance to capitalism in many countries with a weaker working class movement, or more right wing reformism, are actually organising more upon opposition to capitalism than on single issue, or limited issue politics.

    It makes perfect sense if you think about it, as any anti-cuts groups dealing with single issue service or jobs cuts, will immediately come up against central government policies, and needing an answer to ‘the deficit problem’.

    Seeing things in this limited way, we then get the proposals for the Anticapitalist Initiative, that whilst good and supportable, are very, very limited!

    “Set up a united coordination for campaigns for the NHS;
    Build the new rank-and-file initiative among school workers (the initial conference took place on 16 June) and, where possible, similar initiatives in other trade-union sectors;
    Revive and continue united anti-cuts committees based on local labour movements;
    Develop the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts among students.”

  3. John Bowman
    July 7, 2012 at 5:29 pm · Reply

    Then rather than deal with the important issues at hand, we get an attempt at what business studies students would call ‘market differentiation’, where the AWL explain their differences with Workers Power through holding a bureaucrat-collectivist analysis of the Soviet Union, rather than the ‘degenerate workers’ state theory of Stalinism.

    I have to say I do think that these issues are completely irrelevant to most people in Britain and worldwide who want to see a revolutionary organisation or party that can represent them by challenging the grossly unfair system in which we live.

  4. July 7, 2012 at 5:37 pm · Reply

    My eyes glazed over when I got to the part about Galloway, Melenchon, and haggling over the proper terms to characterize each. I couldn’t even make it to the good stuff — North Korea, degenerated vs. deformed workers’ states, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan — you know, the burning questions facing our movements.

  5. Dan Fisher
    July 8, 2012 at 12:24 am · Reply

    Excellent, John! Maybe you could do a full article as a response and rebuttal?

  6. Kevin Gingras
    November 8, 2013 at 5:54 am · Reply

    i am a third generation anti capitalist, and have come to the conclusion that it is time for all humanity to finally grow up and do away with money all together, it is a sick game of monopoly that is holding humanity back . all i ever here is how the problems of the world are just a matter of money, a cure for cancer is just a matter of money, cleaning the enviroment is just a matter of money, then get rid of it, we need a system based on one principle the betterment of humanity, which includes the enviroment. throughout my life people have asked how will we motivate people to work, dont see a problem there, most of the world population is still living in the dark ages, and would gladly work if society was to give them the nessities of life, and we could divid the extras equally, and as our computer and robot take the work over we could acttualy end up working less and less, which will happen anyways. i am looking for others that can and do see farther in the future. we need a giant leap foreward.

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