‘What should radical political organisations look like today?’ at Occupy Sussex
Maia Pal reports back on a meeting on radical activism and organisation, held in Brighton at the Sussex Occupation. Below, Luke Cooper replies to the debate.
On Wednesday 6 March, activists put together a forum entitled ‘What should radical political organisation look like today?’, at the Bramber House Sussex Occupation. After contributions from Luke Copper (Anticapitalist Initiative), Jacken (Brighton Solfed) and myself (Brighton New Left Initiative), a group of 20-30 people engaged in discussion for an hour and a half.
The conversation was rich in different perspectives, extremely open and sympathetic, and covered many angles of the topic. Although disagreements were very early on established, the meeting was generally, in my view, a proof that sectarianism is, at this point in history, lagging behind us rather than blocking our way.
My aim here is to try and extract some of the leading themes around which different views were expressed, not dilute all the comments and questions raised into my own interpretation. Hopefully, though, this account can the basis for other interpretations to emerge.
Generally, it seems an important distinction was implicitly drawn throughout the meeting between one’s personal engagement and activism, and the shape and goal of the organisations some of us are or want to be part of. This distinction is crucial, because for many in the room, the order and manner in which we answer these questions is absolutely fundamental.
One of the first points to therefore be raised was the problem of personal engagement. In other words, how are we to reconcile a personal voluntary alienation from capitalism as an act of struggle, as a bodily act of resistance, with the slower, stumbling, less controllable but nevertheless ultimately necessary transformation of social relations through alternative organisations? Is radicalism a choice between these two directions, or how can activists espouse both?
Should activism be a way of life, and if so, how does one negotiate it as a balance between the duties it requires and its effect/affect on our social life choices and criteria? Most people seemed to agree that ‘the personal is political’, but how we define these terms remains a divisive issue.
A second important problem was that of leadership. Why do we need it? What do we actually mean by it? The problem of associating leadership with its pejorative historical legacy remains a stumbling block. If the Trotskyist left needs to be clear about its disaffiliation from past mistakes, the anarchist left also needs to account for the reality of leading personalities and roles in driving existing struggles. The interesting question is whether the new struggles and movements emerging recently (such as Occupy Sussex) are providing examples of innovative forms of leadership (apersonal, horizontal, with multiple heads, random selection, and regular swapping of roles).
Thirdly, the relationship between ideas and practice was also a recurring theme of the meeting. Can activists who differ on their primordial means of resistance and engagement (i.e. acts vs. discourse, or doing vs. convincing) be part of the same organisation? Is this duality what is missing on the left, or still what ultimately divides it? Are they mutually exclusive, on a collective but also a personal level?
In relation to this point, the problem of the language or vernacular used between activists but also between activists and non-activists remains a source of tension. How do we reconcile (natural and socially constructed) intellectual divisions in society with the left’s desire to reach, reconnect, and empower the masses?
In terms of the different approaches to organisation discussed, the contributors proposed the concepts of unity, cooperation and solidarity. If we all agreed on a general goal (the development into a communist model of classless and egalitarian society/ies), each referred to these different concepts as means to engage and/or accelerate the move towards this goal. These models range from 1) a more structurally consolidated union of different parties, organisations and activists into a coalition, 2) a cooperative network of local activists and organisations able to share contacts and experiences without being defined or determined by a central policy, and 3) a shared understanding of solidarity between organisations, able to work together on a ad hoc, single issue basis.
In sum, the meeting raised many more questions than answers. Specifically, Luke’s initial, and maybe most fundamental, question deserves particular attention: what will/should a post-capitalist society look like and how do we achieve it?
As the more anarchist tendencies articulated, having and promoting such a vision might be a hindrance to the way in which radical voices and actions can actually (i.e. organically) shape post-capitalist social relations. This argument tends to favour acts of resistance that shake up the existing order. ‘One only feels one’s chains when shaking them’. In other words, this implies that Luke’s question is problematically loaded and flawed. If one doesn’t first engage physically in acts that defy existing capitalist institutions, there is no way that individuals and groups can ever evolve outside those institutions. And the initial question will only be answered as the result and gradual collective ensemble of those acts.
On the other hand, it is difficult to maintain the participation and confidence of broader political and radical groups without providing means of resistance inside existing capitalist society and institutions. In other words, engaging people in their workplaces and through existing political and legal processes remains undeniably the way of accessing society at large. And to do this, radical groups need to be able to phrase and propose alternatives that seem plausible and in continuation of their way of life. For this approach, providing the model of an organisation that could offer radical social solutions to inequality needs to be at the forefront of the struggle, or at least cannot just be expected to arise from the gradual ensemble of acts of resistance.
The debate is, and will probably always remain inconclusive. But, today, it is an open debate, in which the large majority of activists want to engage. We are at a crucial juncture, where our generation has been woken up out of the slumber of the post-80s world order, when capitalism seemed to have covered all our imaginations with a thick paint of liberal inevitability. Economic crises, relentless militarism, political and cultural austerity, are having the effect of an electrifying alarm clock. ‘Old’ political ideas and organisations have lost their grip, and ‘new’ movements and means of struggle are being tested throughout the world. Whatever our positions on the preceding questions, let’s make sure we share them loudly, clearly and openly, so that people don’t go back to sleep.
Luke Cooper replies:
This is a good summary of some of the main points of contention at the meeting. I particularly like how you discuss a grassroots concept of political leadership (developing themes that you and Ishan put forward in this article). No one on the radical left should want to adopt the models of leadership that still characterise the Labour Party and the unions: a single ‘charismatic leader’, whose power is secured on the basis of a bureaucracy and largely unaccountable to an atomised and alienated base of the organisation. Neither do we want to replicate, obviously, the forms of organisation that resulted in the creation of one-party rule in the Soviet Union and other such states. The latter was consolidated by way of a logic that the young Leon Trotsky had actually predicted in 1904, “the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee”.
A new approach to leadership is needed. It should be de-personal, i.e. eschew the creation of leading personalities, should be based on participatory forums built from the bottom up, and use rotation and re-callability. The Sussex Occupation has shown what is possible in this respect. And it’s great to see people like Jerry Hicks developing these ideas and applying them to challenge the bureaucracy in the unions.
In the meeting, I tried to put the question of how we organise firmly in the context of what we are trying to achieve. Our goal, as you say, is the creation of a communist society. This is what Marx called the ‘free association of producers’, where ‘the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’. There has to be a relationship between this goal of human emancipation and how we organise in the here and now. In Beyond Capitalism? , we point out that there is too often the tendency amongst Leninists to draw very sharp distinctions between the strict hierarchical organisation that is advocated today and the future society we want to build. In contrast, the Occupy movement’s emphasis on pre-figurative politics has the merit of insisting that there has to be a relationship between the non-hierarchical vision and how we organise to achieve it. But, equally, we also have to develop effective organisations capable of mobilising social struggles and convincing millions of people that an alternative to capitalism is needed. The relationship between the effective and the pre-figurative is a concrete one.
As you know, I repeatedly emphasised in the discussion how a condition for transcending capitalism is convincing millions of people that an alternative to capitalism is necessary and possible. These millions don’t believe it is at the moment. Modern societies are blighted by the ‘widespread belief there is no alternative to capitalism’ (‘capitalist realism’) even as anger at the effects of capitalism becomes ever-more generalised. Working people have the power to control their lives democratically, to take hold of their own social reproduction. But they don’t realise it. So, the question of creating a ‘new imagination’, a new form of consciousness pushing for change, is, for me, the most important argument in favour of political organisation. Convincing people of an alternative is not only essential for any transition to a new mode of production. It also helps generate mass struggles against the attacks flowing from austerity. As I said in the meeting, it is no coincidence that countries where a belief in an alternative is stronger – where the tradition of socialism in the labour movement is less badly damaged – have seen larger anti-austerity mobilisations.
In response to this argument, I was repeatedly accused (in a very friendly way!) of philosophical idealism and adopting a political practice ultimately rooted in a “false consciousness” explanation of capitalist hegemony. To be clear, this is not my position. My problem with the notion of false consciousness is twofold. Firstly, I prefer more historically concrete explanations for the challenges to anticapitalist politics today, hence my take up of Mark Fisher’s notion of ‘capitalist realism’. Secondly, false consciousness implies a binary opposition. Your consciousness is either “good”, i.e. communist, or false/”bad”, i.e. capitalist. And this, in turn, can easily provide a philosophical base for the idea of the ‘monopoly in the sphere of politics’, the view that there is a single “right” answer in politics that is then defended by the leadership of a monolithic, top-down party.
Creating such a binary, good or bad, opposition can also have the effect of failing to identify the positive changes in human consciousness that take place even within the context of capitalism. For example, over the last three decades, we have seen a chronic crisis of totalitarian forms of political governance with a backlash against them in popular consciousness. We have also seen a dramatic change in attitudes to race and women encapsulated by sharp increases in inter-racial marriage and the entry of large numbers of women into the workforce, etc. These are all positive changes in human consciousness that an anti-capitalist vision of social change can actually build upon and develop. Understanding this spectrum of consciousness and approaching workers’ struggle from the perspective of ‘learning not lecturing’ is arguably crucial.
This, then, brings us back to the point of how to develop an anti-capitalist transition. You conclude by noting how, in order to reach out to wide layers of people, we have to engage with traditional workplace organisations and elections. As you know, I agree with this. I think to rebuild belief that there is an alternative to capitalism amongst millions of people who feel the effects of austerity, a political party is necessary. People do care about the future of society. That’s why millions vote in elections. Many also feel alienated by the existing political parties and don’t vote at all. All of the parties hover around the mainstream neoliberal centre ground – they accept the logic of capitalist realism and un-ending austerity.
A new political party of the left cannot be built overnight but we can start to discuss it, imagine what it would look like, how it can be different to the status quo, and aspire to ‘complete change’. It would need to link resistance in the workplaces to the building of mass social movements. It would need to be built ‘from below’ with participatory democracy, creating a space for working people to discuss and develop their own vision of the alternative. It would need also, I believe, to come to political conclusions, to adopt policy and push for changes that benefit working people (e.g. workplace democracy, a higher minimum wage, public ownership, and so on). Against many traditional conceptions of organisation on the left, it should be imbued with the spirit of free speech and autonomy – it should not create an organisation of robots parroting a single line. After, however, the fullest collective discussion, it should aspire to collectively implement policy that has been agreed by a majority. It should reject the idea of a leadership of parliamentary members with privileges over the members. Members should tell MPs what to do. Not vice versa.
And, in my view, it should also reject the idea that fundamental social change can come through existing parliamentary institutions or the nation-state. Nationalism killed the project of radical change in the last century – we need an internationalist vision. In my opinion, we should promote international federations of communes, or what David Harvey has recently called ‘socialist cities’, as the road to anticapitalist transition.
For all these reasons, I still hold to the “merger formula” – the idea that socialism or anticapitalism has to be merged with the working class movement – but I want to recognise that this is an inevitably “messy” and creative process. If it is done democratically and in a participatory way, then the socialism or communism that emerges will be plural and multi-dimensional. It will not create a leadership above the working class that “defends” this consciousness, but creates a space where people can come to their own conclusions and experiment with alternatives. A collective, coherent strategy can emerge out of this process, and it will surely be more meaningful if it is arrived at in a manner that recognises plurality.