Anti-capitalist, pro-what?

Submitted by Matthew on 11 July, 2012 - 2:51

On 14 July activists meet for the first big public event of the “Anti-Capitalist Initiative” set up on 28 April and primarily initiated by a group of people who had just quit the Workers Power (WP) organisation.

Ambiguities in the initiative could be harmful. 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

Every battle in the working-class struggle, or for liberation, requires broad unity.

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. That could be useful. The ex-WP group’s statement suggests they see the network more as a “stepping stone” to a party-type group which is (by their lights) “clear on strategic questions”.

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 point a fourth way: 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”.

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.

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 Two, 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 of the 1970s had drifted away from Tony Cliff’s version of state capitalism without settling on an alternative. Separating off fundamentally on a clique self-protection basis, and suffering vigorous pressure from the then-bustling Spartacist group, it needed an orthodoxy to cling to.

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 help nourish the thought (in the ex-WP statement) 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 Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, the Sunni-supremacist Iraqi “resistance” of 2004-8, 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.

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 Americans (for a while), were also (and more durably) 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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