Taking stock of the new anti-capitalism

Submitted by AWL on 7 May, 2006 - 10:02

Document passed at AWL conference 29-30 April 2006.

§1. The anti-capitalist or global justice movement has been an important milieu for the AWL to intervene in for many years.

As participants, we continuously evaluate the nature of the movement, its tendencies, its composition, the role of the revolutionary left within it - and try to shape its direction.

§2. Our conference in 2000 noted the fact that large numbers of youth were becoming politicised by demonstrations, meetings, direct action and other protests. We registered the opportunities to discuss ideas such as the nature of capitalism, class, privatisation, globalisation, etc, with significant numbers of young people. At our 2004 conference, we noted that "a new radical generation is emerging - piecemeal, fragmented and diffuse", evidenced in part by these mobilisations.

The development of the milieu

§3. The new anti-capitalist milieu started to emerge as a loose "movement of movements" from the mid-1990s around such initiatives as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the anti-sweatshop campaigns in the United States, and the Jubilee debt campaign, but involving much larger numbers of young people than the relatively small activist cores of those various initiatives.

§4. The Seattle demonstration in November 1999, attended by 50,000 people with the significant involvement of US unions and youth from environmental and single-issue campaigns brought the various strands together for the first time in a highprofile public way.

§5. Hopes that seemed reasonable at the time for "Seattle" to mark the beginning of a revival of the US trade union movement have not been realised: that movement has stagnated and now split. However, the milieu which identified with "Seattle" has expanded. Since then, notable mobilisations have taken place in Washington, Millau, Melbourne, Prague and Nice in 2000, Quebec, Gothenburg and peaking in Genoa in 2001, when 300,000 demonstrated. The anti-capitalist milieu also yielded many of the millions who marched around the world against the war in Iraq in 2003, and the hundreds of thousands who turned out against the G8 at Evian, the anti-Bush events in 2003 and the G8 mobilisations in Scotland in 2005.

§6. Another measure of the movement’s impact is its large gatherings and events. The first World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre in 2001 attracted 20,000 people. The second in 2002 was double the size. Since then the annual events have attracted around 100,000 participants.

§7. Regional events have also been well attended. Around 50,000 people attended the first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002, and were joined by a million people marching against the war in Iraq. The Paris Social Forum in 2003 was also well attended and the London Social Forum in 2004 attracted 25,000 participants.

§8. The global ruling classes have managed to circumvent most of the protests. The WTO and G8 continue to meet and promote neoliberalism. Nevertheless the new anti-capitalist milieu is still a large and vibrant, though amorphous milieu in which it is possible to make propaganda for our ideas and to engage some of the best people in joint work.

§9. There are numerous tendencies within the milieu, characterised by a distinct attitude to the working class and the state. The predominant politics is bourgeois reformist, exemplified by the leadership of ATTAC and most other nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). There are reactionary anticapitalist tendencies, including localisers and Islamists. There are ostensibly revolutionary groups, such as the autonomists and the nominally Marxist left. And there is a lot of "soft anarchism", characterised not so much by any doctrinal commitment to immediate abolition of the state as by a preference for one-off actions, affinity groups, - though some are involved in more long-term campaigning work.

The NGOs

§10. There are now millions of NGOs across the globe.

Some NGOs are very old and not even left-wing, for example the churches. But the number of NGOs, and NGO workers, has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. An increasing number of them provide information and material criticising neoliberalism and sometimes organise local activist groups (e.g.


§11. Some of these NGOs do important work in exposing the behaviour of firms and governments. Others want little more than a liberal face on 21st-century capitalism. Very few look to the working class as the crucial social agent of change, though a handful make solidarity with workers’ struggles.


§12. The most visible organisation representing the reformist trend in the anti-capitalist movement is ATTAC France.

ATTAC was launched in 1998, following a call for an "Association for the Tobin Tax for Aid to Citizens" by the magazine Le Monde Diplomatique. It claims more than 30,000 members and was central to the mobilisations at Millau, Nice 2 and Evian. It overlaps with official politics, for example with the French Socialist Party. Some revolutionaries are active within it.

§13. The AWL believes that the Tobin Tax (a worldwide tax of 0.1% on all currency-exchange transactions) is not suitable as an immediate stepping-stone demand, because it does not start from grass-roots workers’ struggles. It would need a vast international mobilisation to enforce it on the world’s governments and the vested interests of international finance. It is not a full-scale answer to capitalism, because a mobilisation of that scale would not limit itself to taking only 0.1% from the super-rich.


§14. United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) represents the best example of a worker-oriented movement within the anti-capitalist milieu. It has groups in around 200 colleges in the United States, dominating student politics on campuses since it was founded in 1998. USAS has fought for campus workers to get a living wage and for college apparel to be made under non-sweatshop conditions.

§15. USAS has an office in Washington, with full timers and funding from unions. Before 2000, it was a conglomeration of different campus groups, lacking a national infrastructure to initiate campaigns. After a debate, USAS rejected the model of "consensus decision making", in favour of an elected governing body and majority voting.

§16. USAS has evolved into a broad-based student-labour solidarity group. It played a significant role in the victory of the Kukdong workers in Mexico. It has helped trade unionists in El Salvador and in the Dominican Republic and supported the formation of the anti-war campaign United for Peace and Justice in 2002.

§17. USAS is a good example of the potential of the anticapitalist movement. It is a model to inspire the Students Against Sweatshops and the No Sweat campaign.


§18. Autonomism originates in "workerist" currents of the Italian left in the 1960s. Autonomism has included a wide range of different tendencies, including anarchists, the Disobedienti, (formerly the White Overalls), supporters of Toni Negri and the Black Bloc. Others Zapatista tendencies such as People’s Global Action have an autonomist tinge. The goal of many of these people is ‘liberated space’ - pushing the state back and ‘do your own thing’, (compost toilets, allotments, alternative theatre, squatting, cycle campaigns, etc).

§19. Autonomists have shown imagination and exuberance at anti-capitalist events. They focus on the molecular rebellions developing underneath bureaucratised, media-filtered official politics, emphasising the role of activity from below. We should also give similar attention to what they call "the murmuring among the proletariat".

§20. However autonomists reject the idea of overthrowing the capitalist state power and replacing it with a workers’ state.

They also reject organising revolutionary parties as a necessary step towards working class self-emancipation.

The organised left

§21. The organised left is a minority within the anticapitalist milieu today. The largest organisations are Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in France and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) in Britain.

§22. These organisations argue that the enemy is capitalism - with neoliberal globalisation its latest stage - and the advanced capitalist states. They also argue, at least implicitly, that the solution is socialism.

§23. However they frequently engage in political and organisational self-censorship, arguing for negativism (anticapitalist, anti-imperialism, anti-war) without spelling out what they are for. They rarely put the working class at the centre of the politics of the movement. Organisationally some of this left often goes along with its worst practices of the reformists and autonomists rather than defending democratic procedures.

§24. For example Globalise Resistance in Britain is simply a transmission belt for the politics of the SWP, and now lacks even the veneer of a broad-based campaign. It has organised little solidarity with workers, nor has it sought to turn anticapitalist activists towards the labour movement.

§25. The anti-capitalist movement in Italy has been made up of a network of town and city "social forums" and the Rifondazione Comunista. At their peak in 2003, there were around 170 local social forums. The movement has organised large demonstrations in Genoa (and in response to the killing of Carlo Guiliani), Florence, against the Iraq war and against Bush’s visit.

. §26. However since 2003 Rifondazione has lurched to the right. It has decided to join the new left coalition L’Unione (Unity) and to participate in a Prodi government if the left wins the election in April. And the local social forums have largely disappeared.

Latin America

§27. Events in Latin America have provided great inspiration to the anti-capitalist movement across the globe. The uprising in Ecuador, the water war and gas war in Bolivia, the uprising in Argentina and even the Chávez regime in Venezuela have all been setbacks for neoliberalism.

§28. There have been some notable successes for working class organisations in this process. The piqueteros, asembleas and occupied factories played a vital role in both the downfall of the old regime and the continuation of struggle in Argentina, despite the restabilisation under Kirchner. The uprisings in Bolivia were organised by the El Alto Regional Labour Confederation (COR), the COB trade union federation, peasant organisations, students, miners, teachers and the neighbourhood associations.

§29. However none of these movements have been able to threaten the rule of capital. Although vital defence organisations have been built and elections won by leftists, none of these movements have these cohered into mass revolutionary socialist organisations.

Differences within the milieu §30. Right from the start there have been widely differing strands within the "new anti-capitalism", ranging from people close to the mainstream of the French Socialist Party or of the Brazilian Workers’ Party - who are at best anti-neoliberal, and scarcely militant even about that - to various forms of ultraleftism.

There have been a certain number of set-piece debates at Social Forums and at other levels; but, maybe because of the extreme diffuseness of the milieu, these debates have not led to some views vanquishing others, or new syntheses being formed, or the different views evolving through interaction and conflict with their rivals. Rather, the different viewpoints continue to exist alongside each other, not very much changed.

§31. The catch-all slogan of "Another World is Possible" is deliberately ambiguous, masking huge differences about the kind of alternative that is desirable. Some simply want a return to the kind of Keynesian economics and bipolar politics that dominated before 1973, or a softer, more humane capitalism.

Others are opposed to globalisation rather than to capitalism, wanting to retreat into alternative communities cut off from the global market, either locally or nationally. Very few fight for a perspective of turning the anti-capitalist milieu towards the working class and towards the task of rebuilding the labour movement to fight for socialism; but a much greater number are open to that perspective.

§32. Arcane organisational structures have dogged the development of the anti-capitalist movement. The consensus model of decision-making has kept self-appointed leaders in place and tended to reinforce the lowest common denominator politics of negativism. It results, as at the London Social Forum, in the SWP and Socialist Action, hiding behind Livingstone, carving out opponents and impose their own politics. It also inhibits links between the movement and democratically organised workers’ organisations, such as trade unions.

§33. The ban on political parties has had a similar effect, despite being a polite fiction in practice. The PT have organised most of the WSFs, Rifondazione organised Florence the LCR largely ran the Paris Social Forum, and the SWP and Livingstone’s office had a big part in shaping the London ESF.

Yet political parties are formally barred from the movement.

This not only reinforces the limited democracy in the movement, but also hampers its influence on the electoral terrain.

§34. Bourgeois commentators, in the Financial Times for example, speculated that the wave of rallying to the flag which followed the 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda attack on New York would drown the "new anti-capitalism". It did not. In fact Bush’s "war on terror" has become unpopular among a much larger constituency than the "new anti-capitalism", and probably thus provided it with a supportive periphery rather than quashing it.

§35. On the other hand, the activist section of that "anti-war" constituency has often been dominated by a negativist "antiimperialism of idiots" (SWP in Britain; WWP in USA; less so, but still significantly, in many other countries). The intermeshing of the "new anti-capitalism" with the "anti-war" constituency has thus tended to melt its anti-capitalism into "anti-Bushism" rather than developing it towards a sharp positive working-class focus.

The activists

§36. An important question for the impact of the movement is what the activists have gone on to do. The "movement" in its broadest sense is now over ten years old, dating back to the beginnings of solidarity with the Zapatistas (1994) and Reclaim The Streets in Britain (1995). Over those ten years there must have been some hundreds of thousands of young people drawn into politics by one or another activity associated with the "new anti-capitalism". As with any broad, loose radicalisation, many of those hundreds of thousands will just have joined one or another action and taken their political commitment no further.

But not all. Over those ten years, what have those who are still politically-engaged gone on to do? A few have joined the revolutionary left, but in general, so far, no revolutionary Marxist group has recruited large numbers from the milieu.

§37. More reformist left currents show no signs of a large influx of new young activists, either. Some activists now do paid work for NGOs, small not-for-profit businesses or the voluntary sector. Others, for example from USAS, have gone on to become organisers and officials in trade unions. Many have gone to work but have not become active trade unionists in their workplaces.

§38. It seems that a lot of "new anti-capitalists" remain engaged, but see activity as a matter of being available to join this or that one-off "action", rather than as building an organised movement. They may call themselves "anarchists", but often what they mean by that is not adherence to one or another anarchist theory, group or publication, but rather just the "oneoff actions" mode of politics. This means that the "new anticapitalist" milieu remains pretty much as "piecemeal, fragmented, and diffuse" as it was five or more years ago. It makes for continuing difficulties in developing organised activity within this milieu, identifying activists, and drawing them towards revolutionary politics. But the size of the milieu means that those tasks, though difficult, are still vital.

No Sweat and the anti-capitalist milieu

§39. The best attempt to connect the anti-capitalist milieu to working class politics has been No Sweat in the UK, and other organisations like it such as USAS. The principal virtue of No Sweat is that through direct links with actual workers struggles, it has helped workers win against capital and the local state in Indonesia, Mexico, Iraq, Haiti and elsewhere. Its focus on the working class marks it out from other anti-corporate NGOs such as the World Development Movement and War on Want.

§40. National unions CWU, NUT, RMT, Unison, GMB, Usdaw and PCS, plus NUS and other local branches are affiliated. No Sweat has brought together activists from different strands within the movement and worked constructively alongside existing campaigns, such as Labour Behind the Label, Haiti Solidarity Campaign, the Argentina Solidarity Campaign and others. It has also done positive work with unions such as the GMB. It has organised lively conferences, direct action, taken activists to demonstrations and is recognised by a wide layer of young people and trade unionists as a vibrant campaign.

§41. No Sweat has developed a student campaign, Students Against Sweatshops. There is an important milieu among students, typified by People and Planet, which have moved to the left following the G8 protests. Students Against Sweatshops is vital for relating to that milieu. It has organised a sweatshopfree campus campaign and a successful anti-sweatshop week of action featuring a Zanon worker in February.

§42. The full potential of No Sweat has yet to be realised.

Although some local groups exist, there is not yet a full functioning network of local supporters. No Sweat has a large contact list, but it is sustained by a relatively small layer of activists. Although a few No Sweat activists have become working class socialists, most have not taken that step.

Tasks of the AWL

§43. The anti-capitalist movement shows no signs of diminishing in size or activity. The AWL should continue to relate positively to it. Our politics include valuable experiences and lessons for young activists, which will help make their political endeavours more effective. We have answers to the basic questions for anyone who wants to change the world.

§44. We also have much to learn from the creativity of the movement and for making our politics accessible and relevant to a new generation. We need to engage consistently with the political ideas and debates that go on within the movement.

§45. We cannot predict exactly how the anti-capitalist movement will evolve. With the intervention of Marxists like ourselves, we can help galvanise an important section of a new generation to become working class socialist militants. If the politics of the reformists triumph, the movement will peter out into mainstream bourgeois politics. With the politics of the SWP, it will turn youth away from progressive politics completely. Our intervention is therefore vital to the future of the movement.

§46. Our approach should continue along the lines set out by past conferences. We aim to turn the best activists towards the labour movement and to our revolutionary socialist politics. We support demands raised by the movement that are consistent with our politics. We don’t evade arguments e.g. on the Tobin tax, where we disagree. We build No Sweat and Student Against Sweatshops as broad-based, internationalist, workers’ solidarity campaigns. We take part in mobilisations and conferences like the ESF to make propaganda for our politics and to engage activists in joint work as far as possible.

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