About donaldparkinson

Internationalist Communist involved in organizing in the Tampa area.

Interview with the International Communist Party on the SICobas movement

Below is an interview done in collaboration with Croation Communist Iskra with members of the International Communist Party who are based in Italy and involved in the SICobas, a militant union that fights for class struggle principles rather than the corporatist arrangements that dominate unions in Italy. We publish this not only to spread awareness of this militant class movement, but to potentially provide insight into the task of building a classist labor movement in the USA and beyond. 

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QUESTIONS REGARDING THE SI COBAS

Introduction
The party did not form the SICobas: the SICobas arose entirely independently of the party and there are no ties binding the two organizations. The party is not now, nor has it been in the past, in the SICobas executive.

How did the SI Cobas come to be formed?

The formation of the SICobas is described in the article “A Report on Rank and File Movements in Italy” published in The Communist Party No.1

What are some of the more recent struggles they have been involved in?

A survey of the SI Cobas’s recent struggles  is included in the article ‘No “Christmas truce” for the struggles of the SI Cobas.: Against police and Confederates’, which is in The Communist Party, No.3 

You are a territorial union instead of a “company” one. What does it mean inpractice? How are the SI Cobas different from the mainstream Italian unions, which are integrated into the State? What differentiates them from the other rank and file “base” unions?

The reasons why trade union organization on a territorial basis is to be preferred is explained in a leaflet, ‘For territorial reorganization of the working class’, which also appears in the first issue of The Communist Party.

What methods do you use in your struggles? Are you using “direct action” or are you also using lawyers and other legal means?

This and other fundamental questions are covered in the speech made by one of our comrades at the First SI Cobas conference, which can  be found in The Communist Party, No.2.  

Do you cooperate with other organizations in your struggles? I saw you had joint general strike with USI-AIT.

The SI Cobas doesn’t offer preferential status or collaborate on a permanent basis with any particular trade union. Indeed, during a strike, it has show that it is prepared to unite the forces at its disposal with those mobilized  by other trade unions, supporting the principal of unity of action. This has happened in conjunction with other rank and file trade unions, as was the case during the last general strike on March 18 last year, when it organized alongside the CUB and the USI-AIT. But also with regards to mobilizations organized by the CGIL, the biggest of the Italian regime unions: on 14 November 2014 a thousand SI COBAS logistics workers joined the  march organized by the FIOM, the CGIL metal-workers’ federation and the main trade union in the category. A month later, on 12 December, it saw to it that the general strike in the category within which the majority of its members are concentrated – logistics – coincided with the general strike of all categories proclaimed by the CGIL.

In our view the latter policy is the right practical policy, and it is classist, because by uniting the workers it means strikes acquire greater force and that is the initial condition needed for them to break free from the control of the regime unions. Thus uniting with the mobilizations of these unions doesn’t in fact strengthen them.

This policy has been rejected by the other rank and file unions, which have always boycotted strikes when called by the regime unions, and organized their own ones in competition with them, on different dates, thus weakening the workers’ mobilization.

In our eyes this practical policy adopted by the SI Cobas is one of the positive elements which distinguishes it form other rank and file trade unions, as we have explained on various occasions, for example during our speech at the first congress of the SI Cobas.

A big debate amongst proponents of class struggle unionism here in the USA is on the use of paid staff. Do the SI Cobas use paid staff and if so for what functions?

It is not a matter of principle at stake here: large trade unions will always need a certain number of full-time organizers. The prevalence of a conservative, self-serving trade-union bureaucracy  isn’t therefore the cause of the conciliatory policies pursued by the union and of its betrayal, but the effect: the bulk of its members and organizers have not proved strong enough either to prevent the leaders from betraying or to get rid of them and replace them with leaders they can have faith in.

What does the organizational structure of the SI Cobas look like? How are decisions made?

The SI Cobas is a young trade union which wants to equip itself wit a more robust organizational structure. It is composed of committees [cordinamenti] and provincial and national executives. In the case of enterprises which are spread out over several sites across the country there are also Company National Committees. These organs are not always that effective

The Provincial Comittees are made up of delegates from the various forms in the province. The Committee elects a smaller group as its Executive. The provincial Committee is supposed to meet at least once a month and the Executive once a week.

As far as  know there are a lot of immigrant workers in your union. What is the union’s  position on the”European refugee crisis” and do you act somehow to help people arriving in Italy?

It is necessary to come up with a class, rather than a vaguely humanitarian, solution to the problem: the immigrants are workers and are doubly oppressed, as proletarians and as foreigners.

On 16 September the SI Cobas organization a national demonstration in solidarity with the the immigrants and refugees. We distributed this leaflet.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION IN THE USA

While in the USA the situation of the unions is radically different, are there any lessons to be learned from the experiences of the SI Cobas for militants in the United States who want to build class struggle unions and connect this with the struggle for a Communist programme? Are there any developments in the class struggle here that have caught your attention?

Communists do not pretend that the various forms within which the class struggle finds expression should conform to a fixed pattern.  The history of class trade unionism has shown that the types of organization that most lend themselves to leading the working class against the bosses’ State are the ones to be preferred, thus those open to all workers, independently of their ideas, political beliefs, party membership and religious faith. For the same reason are to be prefigured industrial trade unions as compared to those of a particular trade; those of a category as compared to those a particular firm; and national as opposed to local ones. The vast majority of the base unions in Italy apply, or attempt to apply, these organizational models.

On the history of the American workers’ movement we are publishing a long study in our English review Communist Left. the 5th installment of which will appear in the forthcoming issue. The general conclusion of this study confirms what the American working class has often lacked in its history is not trade unions, and examples of great mobilizations and bravery, but a communist party which is, 1) firmly founded on the uncorrupted doctrine of revolutionary Marxism, 2) which is committed to tactics which are intransigently anti-opportunist, and which, 3) lives according to a corresponding type of internal organization which is centralised, fraternal and anti-personalistic.

QUESTIONS REGARDING  PARTY AND TRADE UNION

In the USA many who identify with the Communist Left take a hard-line anti-union stance and argue that all unions inevitably become integrated into the state. The ICP, regarding the SI COBAs, takes a different stance. How did you did come to this political conclusion?

It is true that we have witnessed, since the end of the nineteenth century, the progressive submission of the trade unions to bourgeois ideology, to the nation and to the capitalist states, to the point that they participated in disciplining proletarians in two world wars and the defense of national capital in both peacetime and war. But this process, even if it has now become irreversible for many of the large existing trade unions, which have become virtually institutionalized as organs of the bourgeoisie, does not detract from the imperative necessity of workers’ defense against the growing pressure from the ruling class; this will lead to the rebirth of new trade unions freed from bourgeois conditioning. And in fact, we are seeing this rebirth. Whether they succeed in maintaining their independence will depend on the relative forces between the classes and the ability of capitalism to continue to hand out a few corrupting crumbs – something which today seems ever more unlikely.

What kind of political work does the ICP do within the SI COBAs? How does the organization work to politicize workers within the union?

This is the authentic Marxist position on the trade unions, summarized to the extreme:

The economic struggle is a necessary defensive and spontaneous response of those who sell their labor power: given the balance of forces between capitalists, who monopolize the means of production, and the destitute proletarians, if the latter stopped defending the level of wages and of working hours they would soon be reduced to conditions lower than those necessary for their own physical subsistence.

Because it soon became evident that this was not a matter of an individual dispute between single capitalist and working class citizens, but a clash between the opposing interests of two classes within society, from the very beginning trade union type organizations arose with the aim of defending more or less vast groups of workers.

These working class associations arose spontaneously, not through the will and intervention of a political party. The process by which the Marxist communist party, possessor of the doctrine and program of the working class, and the trade unions were born and developed was of no short duration, and though it happened side by side, it was not simultaneous as regards time and place. Over the course of the years there have often been situations in which the trade union movement and working class combativeness extended itself greatly on the level of economic demands, but there was minimal response to the communist party’s directives within the class.

To anticipate revolutionary or communist trade unions, as trade unions composed only of revolutionaries or communists, is to ignore the real historical revolutionary process. In the course of the transition from capitalist society to communism, that’s to say in the period when the dictatorship is exercised by the party, the wage-earning class abolishes itself. Where there are trade unions there is no communism, and vice-versa. The trade union emerges as and remains a product of bourgeois commercial society and remains subsumed within it, with many of its defects.

It is only when directed by the communist party that the trade union, functioning as a transmission belt between the party and the class in general, becomes a powerful and indispensable instrument for the revolutionary overthrow of bourgeois power; and, after the seizure of power by the party of the proletariat, for the reorganization of production and the distribution of goods.

How the communist party relates to the trade union movement has been definitively outlined by Marxism:
    Marx1871, London Conference of First International: “… Considering, that against this collective power of the propertied classes the working class cannot act, as a class, except by constituting itself into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all old parties formed by the propertied classes; That this constitution of the working class into a political party is indispensable in order to ensure the triumph of the social revolution and its ultimate end – the abolition of classes; That the combination of forces which the working class has already effected by its economic struggles ought at the same time to serve as a lever for its struggles against the political power of landlords and capitalists The Conference recalls to the members of the International: That in the militant state of the working class, its economic movement and its political action are indissolubly united”.
    In What is To Be Done (1901), Lenin wrote that Social-Democratic consciousness could only be brought to the workers from without. “The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers, and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.”.
    The Communist Left1957, The Fundamentals of Revolutionary Communism: Syndicalists “are actually far removed from Marxist determinism, and the interaction which occurs between the economic and political spheres is a dead letter to them. Since they are individualist and voluntarist, they see revolution as an act of force which can only take place after an impossible act of consciousness. As Lenin demonstrated in What is To Be Done? they turn Marxism on its head. They treat consciousness and will as though they came from the inner-self, from the ‘person’, and thus, in one deft movement, they sweep away bourgeois State, class divisions, and class psychology. Since they are unable to understand the inevitable alternative – capitalist dictatorship or communist dictatorship – they evade the dilemma in the only way that is historically possible: by re-establishing the former”.

Therefore the specific and principle task of the party within the union is not to politicize workers. The communist party does not work to make the trade union a watered-down version of itself, nor, in the revolutionary process, does the party dissolve itself and blend in with the trade union.

The communist party, from outside, with the support of the communist fraction within the trade unions, which is composed of the minority of communists among the militants and members of the union, comes to conquer its leadership. The working class, as an army, is already organized in the trade unions: the party sets out to lead this army; first in its defensive economic  struggle, and then, when the historical situation allows it, in its political and offensive struggle.

The guidelines for practical behavior that the party advocates inside the trade union, on how best to defend itself in a particular situation, entail no contradiction with the party’s task of reorganizing the forces of the proletarian class towards the general and vaster end of the struggle for communism.

Propagandizing the party’s general positions, the diffusion of its press, manifestos, invitations to public conferences, takes place, as in every other environment, but not at the same time s its trade union organizational work.

Only in this sense is “connecting class struggle unions with the struggle for a communist program” conceivable.

Some party comrades are militating within SICobas (as in other rank-and-file trade unions) and observing discipline to it: they bring their energy to bear as members and as communist sympathizers. Being known and respected, and  openly declaring their allegiance to the international communist party, they regularly make the party’s point of view known within the trade union with respect to the struggle under way, denouncing any possible strategic errors and indicating the best way to obtain the hoped-for results. They perform the organizational and propaganda work of the trade union: being present on picket lines, distributing the union’s flyers, building links, and editing and distributing press releases.

 

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Ghosts of Anarchist Past: a review of Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State

Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State provides an illuminating look into militant working class communities of immigrants in the United States but ultimately fails when it it comes to providing an explanatory narrative for their demise. 

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Kenyon Zimmer’s Immigrants Against the State (2015) came out at the tail-end of a surge in radicalism during which many young people found anarchist ideas of increasing relevance (or frustration). Anarchism continues to fascinate radicalized youth and Zimmer’s book does much to show that the ideology had a significant historic existence in the United States. He demonstrates that anarchist ideals were deeply embedded in certain militant working class communities, communities often dominated by immigrants with a specifically ethnic character.

Zimmer’s book was also published relatively recently, during a continuing hysteria over immigration (a key fixture in the national dialogue). Fear of “radicalized” refugees from the Middle East bringing terrorism to the country is consistently used by righitist to drum up xenophobia and immigrants are also used as a scapegoat for economic difficulties. One of the key arguments in Immigrants Against the State is that immigrants didn’t bring “radicalism” to the USA, but rather developed a fidelity to radical ideologies such as anarchism in response to the conditions of exploitation, ethnic oppression and social alienation they experienced as industrial workers. Nor was left-wing radicalization the “natural” and inevitable response of immigrants to these conditions; as Zimmer points out many Italian Immigrants chose to embrace fascism as a way to affirm white citizenship as opposed to a militant rejection of state and capital while many Jewish immigrants turned to Zionism. Many immigrants came to the United States expecting a democratic “city on a hill” often found the opposite of democracy in the part that dominated their life, work. Some would pursue integration, which in many cases meant joining the middle class and seeking to influence state structures for civil rights. Conservative and religious community leaders were just as much a part of working class immigrant communities as were militant anarchists and socialists. Zimmer correctly points out there was no “straight line” between immigration and radicalization, but a variety of factors at play, bringing nuance to the broader topic of immigration.

The book itself is structured around an exploration of three key strongholds of anarchism in the United States: the Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists communities in NYC, particularly the Lower East Side, the Italian-American community of anarchists in Paterson New Jersey, and the multi-ethnic but smaller groupings in San Francisco. After dissecting each community in a chapter, Zimmer looks at the trans-national character of anarchism during the period and breaks down how connections formed through immigration and familial networks created possibilities for internationalist collaboration. One example raised is the collaboration of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) with Partido Liberal Mexicano (PLM) in an attempted insurrection in Baja California, ultimately an unsuccessful putsch though somewhat admirable for its internationalist zeal. From here the book paints a picture of anarchism in decline, incapable of sustaining itself as a movement in face of authoritarian Soviet Communism and liberal capitalism. The overall timespan covered is from the late 19th century to around 1945.

The first half of the book is undoubtably the strongest. Zimmer’s exploration of these working class communities in a country where socialism supposedly “never happened” (according to the likes of Werner Sombart) gives the reader an insightful gaze into what militant working class communities dedicated to anarchist ideals looked like in the US during the first half of the 20th century. He also explores the roles that ethnic solidarities played in these communities, most specifically in Paterson and the Lower East Side. Zimmer points out that the kind of ethnic balkanization that marked the US anarchist (and broader labor movement) movement was not a matter of choice, but was imposed by the conditions workers found themselves in. In a situation where immigrant workers lived in close quarters (typically to be walking distance from their jobs) and spoke the same language while suffering discrimination in a xenophobic society, immigrant workers would develop a dual form of solidarity – one ethnic and one based on class.

This is exemplified by the entire culture of Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists, a culture partially constructed by intelligentsia immigrant radicals who in the homeland saw Yiddish as primitive peasant talk. Yet to reach out to workers in Jewish communities one had to know Yiddish, causing these radial intelligentsia to embrace Yiddish in response and publish newspaper in that language. Yiddish anarchists were also bonded by a common experience of diaspora from pogroms in Eastern Europe, further creating a form of ethnic solidarity that went beyond a common language.

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Yiddish Anarchist newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme

Zimmer is also quick to point out that anarchist ideology was one which espoused a world without borders held together by a cosmopolitan brotherhood of man. Yet this ideal was not counter to ethnic and even national forms of solidarity and communalism for all anarchists, as Bakunin’s writings distinguish between a nation which is a natural collectivity of “a people”, and the state which is a centralized institution imposed on “a people” to form a false collectivity. Zimmer is fairly uncritical of Bakunin’s views regarding nationalism which in many ways aim to reconcile anti-statism and nationalism by positing an “organic nation” against an “inorganic state”. He quotes Bakunin in the introduction saying “the spontaneous and free union of the living forces of a nation has nothing in common with their artificial concentration at once mechanistic and forced in the political centralization of the unitary state.” This reveals that Bakunin’s fondness for decentralization and federalism can largely be seen as a way to leave a door open for nationalism within his ideal future society. Further, Bakunin prefigures reactionary integralist nationalism by positing a transhistoric “people” that exist beyond the institutional state. Lacking a critique of Bakunin’s weaknesses regarding nationalism is a major blindspot, as one of the major weaknesses of the workers movement in the 20th Century was a strategy of taking the path of least resistance with regards to nationalism. Anarchist ideology, as much as it proclaimed cosmopolitan and internationalist ideals, did not fully preclude that solidarities produced by national or ethnic ties were inherently in conflict to their vision.

The contradictory nature of this vision comes out clearly in the parts of Zimmer’s book that discuss “anarcho-zionism” and the desires of some Jewish anarchists to combine nationalism with their vision of anarchism. While Yiddish speaking Jewish anarchists had developed whole subcultures around mocking Jewish religious practices they were still victims of Anti-Semitism, making an embrace of Jewish nationalism tempting for some. One Jewish anarchist who embraced nationalism was Hillel Solotaroff, who devised an ideology of “territorialism” while proclaiming that the purist internationalism that many Jewish anarchists embraced would lead to the destruction of their people (see pages 38-40 of Zimmers book for details of Solotaroff and territorialism). Territorialism was not understood by Solotaroff as a state-building ideology but rather a “federation of self-administered communes”. This was coupled with writings that endorsed outright chauvinism against Palestinians with claims that the presence of Jewish settlers would lead to the “primitive” society of Palestine benefitting from Jewish settlement and their “superior” culture. While still proclaiming adherence to anti-statism and internationalism, Solotaroff was heavily criticized by fellow Jewish anarchists, one of whom posed the question of whether he was a “nationalistic anarchist or anarchistic nationalist” in the Yiddish anarchist newspaper Fraye Arbeter Shtime. While only winning over a small following before his death in 1921, Solotaroff would foreshadow the shift towards Zionism that Jewish anarchists increasingly made after the Holocaust.

Of exceptional interest in this book is Zimmer’s chapter on Paterson, which was a heavily Italian-American proletarian community of silk workers where anarchist ideals became a way of life during the early 20th century. Zimmer notes that in Biella, a community which many of these workers came from, it was common to own a small plot to help sustain subsistence. In Paterson no such option was possible and Italian-American immigrants (many of whom without citizenship) had no stake in the political machine. Anarchism, especially in syndicalist variants, was a sensible alternative to electoral or partyist socialism offered by the Socialist Party USA or Socialist Labor Party. Syndicalism’s emphasis on workers self-management also harkened back to a sense of control over the labor process that was lost through the processes of proletarianization and immigration. This meant the IWW would have a strong organizational presence and would be instrumental in mobilizing workers during the tumultuous wave of garment and textile strikes that would take hold from 1909 -1913. Beyond the mere organizational presence of the IWW was a presence of an anarchist culture that thrived on translational networks with other militants where anarchism became a way of life. The chapter on Paterson demonstrates that mass strikes don’t appear out of nowhere. For workers to see themselves as part of a class and strike in solidarity they have to be socialized in such a way as to do so. The presence of a strong culture of working class collectivity manifested through organization building in Paterson and the militancy of the cities strike wave was no coincidence.

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IWW leader Bill Haywood and his squad in the streets of Paterson during the mass strike of 1913, a 6 month strike that ended in failure.

Not all anarchists in Paterson accepted organization building, with a trend of anti-organizational anarchists also existing in Paterson. The anti-organizationalists, while proclaiming the end goal of a federalist anarcho-communist society, argued that mass scale organization was inherently oppressive and that direct action by small groups (including but not limited to assassinations and bombings) would incite a spontaneous uprising of the masses that would abolish the state and capitalism immediately and inevitably spread worldwide. These political splits mirror those within the Marxist left as well, with the anti-organizationalist trends preceding the “councilist” tendency of ultra-left Marxism that places the spontaneous actions of workers at the point of production as the only authentic manifestation of legitimate working class organizations. By relying on a religious-like faith in spontaneity and hostility to organization both tendencies found similar fates of having little political importance, existing mostly as historical curiosities.

This brings to fore one of the main questions of revolutionary politics: how can organizations build up an existence within capitalism and gain influence without capitulating to the pressures of capitalist society and losing their revolutionary potential? Anarchists saw organization as either being the solution to this problem or the enemy itself. The anti-organizationalists put all their faith in the spontaneous action of the masses which would be sparked by the actions of the clandestine anarchist elite. On the other hand, the organizationalists tended toward syndicalism and believed that by only organizing unions they could keep “pure” by circumventing the political process and attract workers through their ability to win bread-and-butter demands, building up organizational strength to the point where a general strike could be called to shut down the city and transfer industry into the hands of the workers. Yet this strategy would also rely on a faith in mass spontaneity, as it is assumed and that the power vacuum created by a general strike would simply be left alone with an anarchist society freely arising in its wake. This ignores the political (as well as technical) complexities that come with organizing society in a revolutionary period, circumventing political power rather than grappling with its realities. How will people be won to an anti-capitalist programme for change? How will petty bourgeois specialists and civil servants whose needs are key to running society to be dealt with? Neither the organizationalists nor anti-organizationalists would be able to address, nonetheless answer, key political or practical questions and instead left their solution up to a faith spontaneity and the inherent goodness of mankind.

Zimmer’s politics certainly show in this work, which is in itself not a bad thing. Political partisanship is never reason itself to dismiss the value of a work. The fact that Zimmer has a strong affinity to anarchist ideology means his research is inspired to a certain extent by political passion and not entirely cynical careerism. Passion is no substitute for rigor however. Yet when it comes to constructing a narrative of the decline of anarchism in the US (and worldwide) Zimmer’s political leanings act as a blindspot. This is most apparent in the last chapter and conclusion of Immigrants Against the State, where Zimmer looks at the decline of US anarchism and its international counter-parts. However when it comes to producing a narratives that explains this decline Zimmer continues a flawed explanation that continues to haunt anarchist historians.

In Immigrants Against the State the blame for anarchism’s decline in the USA is ultimately put on Bolshevism and Stalinism (with little distinguish of course), whose rise to prominence meant one was stuck in a world where you either were in support of US imperialism or the USSR. Anarchists, victims of multiple betrayals from the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Stalinists in Spain, were therefore tragic victims of authoritarian forces which prevented the flourishing of anarchist libertarianism. This doesn’t mean Zimmer puts all the blame on anarchism’s Marxist rivals. Concerning the US Zimmer begins with the domestic repression of radicals in the period following the US’ entrance into WWI, the rise of Bolshevism and its factor in dividing the anarchist movement. The effects of domestic repression are not to be ignored; acts like the Anarchist Exclusion Act of 1918 banned anarchist immigrants and allowed naturalized radicals to be stripped of citizenship and then deported. In 1920 the Palmer Raids crippled the IWW and a budding Communist Party already torn apart by factional struggle. Zimmer is also willing to portray the Bolshevik Revolution as an energizing force in the United States, creating a vision of “soviet power” that many workers aimed (and attempted) to create. Yet the influence of Bolshevism on anarchism in the US is portrayed mostly as a negative one that divided the anarchist movement and sapped it of its energy.

Beyond the United States, anarchists were repressed in the USSR (though some still held office until Stalinist purges in the 1930s) and the CNT-FAI’s potential for leading a revolution in alliance with dissident Marxists was strangled by Stalinist repression and fascist defeat. Anarchist internationalism was in ruins at this point, ultimately having lost out to Stalinism and Liberalism as a dominating world ideologies post-WWII. Wherever anarchists had movements that threatened the prevailing authorities they certainly faced repression from the state, but this is to be expected. Repression alone cannot explain why movements fail.

No sane Marxist would argue that the failure of the USSR was due solely to external pressures from US imperialism and that the state had no internal flaws of its own that played a role in its demise. Yet Zimmer’s history of anarchism presents a narrative where anarchism has no internal flaws, only external failings due to the tragedies of state repression. This is a consistent theme in anarchist literature, echoed in the works like Sam Dolgoff’s The Anarchist Collectives or Ian Mackay’s collaborative Anarchist FAQ document. Rather than trying to understand the internal problems and flaws that may have led to the decline of anarchism, Zimmer places all of the blame on external authoritarians. This is of course reflected in Zimmer’s own ideology as a committed anarchist; if humans are simply left free of the state then they will be naturally inclined to act with good will and cooperate with “mutual aid”.

Marxists do not deny that human nature exists, but also understand that human nature is something that is historically constructed through an ensemble of social relations that develop historically, often through conflict. Anarchist ideology generally fails to see this and instead envisions an eternal instinct to freedom. Yes, the human is corrupted by institutions, but once such institutions are swept away humanity will return to a “natural state” of freedom says the anarchist. Yet Marxists realize that social relations must be transformed for human nature to be transformed, which means grasping with political, strategic and transitional questions.

Zimmer’s work shows the most positive aspects of historical anarchism: its ties to working class communities and its ability to fuel militant actions against capital and the state. His work is also a good starting place for those interested in immigrant anarchism in the United States as well as labor militancy in general. While anarchist history as a rule of thumb is far more interesting than anarchist theory, those unfamiliar with the theories behind anarchism and how they connect to practice will learn something from reading this book.

Where Immigrants Against the State falls short is explaining why the historical movement of anarchism has faded away, a question of importance to anyone who is a political partisan. If one accepts that external repression isn’t a sufficient answer on its own, then Zimmer fails to really add anything new when it comes to answering critical questions and instead simply paints a vibrant picture of a world long gone, where anarchists are tragic heroes in a corrupt world set against them. Its a history of “bad guys who are authoritarian” vs. “good guys who believe in freedom”, ideological but not critical. It aims to ignore rather than grapple with questions like political decision-making, authority, and developing mass constituency. This isn’t to say Zimmer is blind to any of the unsavory aspects of anarchism, with this critique of their backwards gender views regarding the “virile syndicalism” of the IWW as well as his willingness to discuss the connections between anarchism and Zionism. Yet like so much anarchist writing, Zimmer’s book sets out to prove that anarchism is more than bomb throwers and rebellious denials of authority. In doing so, it is more of the same in a long line of attempts to prove that anarchism is relevant- not the kind of serious attempt to explain and understand anarchism as a historical phenomena that we need.

Debate on the world party: a response to the ICC

This is a response to the International Communist Current’s review of Donald Parkinson’s essay Why We Need A World Party. The article being responded to can be accessed here.

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2nd World Congress of the Comintern

To begin, I would like to thank the ICC for their comradely tone in their response. All too often, debates in the communist milieu begin with bad faith assumptions and insults, making principled and constructive dialogue between partisans of the communist mission difficult if not impossible. Ultimately we believe that, despite our differences, the Communist League of Tampa (and our affiliated groups and sympathizers, who we are working with to form an organization beyond the local level) would be on the same side of the barricade in the class struggle.

Since the article “Why We Need a World Party” was published, we have added the following to our Points of Unity, which all members are expect to adhere to and argue for: In order to triumph in the class struggle the proletariat must organize into a world-wide political party around a programme that expresses its exclusive class interest. However, as you’ve correctly noted, there is not unanimous agreement on how this party will be structured or function and what it’s role will be. We see developing a more precise position on this as a longterm project, one that will develop through debate and discussion within our own organization and with other organizations.

Now on to the critique. Part of my reason for counterposing a mass party to a vanguard party was to put forward an alternative to the models that dominate modern Leninist groups, where a tight theoretical unity is imposed on the rank and file, typically from above, and where ideological conformity is favored above open debate and discussion. Such Leninist groups will often presume the inherent correctness of their sect’s ideology and analysis, and that such correctness makes them a “vanguard” or “elite” of the class struggle. What follows from this is a model of organization where any kind of internal dissidence is silenced and the central leadership is able to use conformity to a strict theoretical line in order to purge any kind of opposition. And as an additional clarification, by advocating for a mass party I don’t advocate for “a party of the whole class” that would include the reformist wing of the workers movement either.

A mass party, as I visualize it, wouldn’t impose a strict theoretical line on all members. For example, the specific mode of production that dominated the USSR, the nature of capitalist crisis, how one periodizes capitalism or sides in various historical debates are issues that are up for discussion. Rather the party would be open for all who can agree with the principles and programme of the organization and are willing to collectively work towards them in an ethical way (defined by a clear code of conduct). This would mean that workers who may not know the ins-and-outs of Capital or have not studied the history of the workers movement in depth, but are willing to fight for the programme, are welcome.

Of course, this leads to the problem of whether the more educated will be able to boss around the less educated and create a situation where people unthinkingly take orders from them. To solve this problem the party must have active educational institutions that are free to all members as well as internal democracy, which means open debate and discussion for all members. The working class can only learn to rule as a class by taking part in political life itself, even if it makes mistakes on the way there. The only way to learn is by doing.

So a mass party, as I state in my article, wouldn’t be based on changing its positions and principles in order to chase popularity with the masses (as the Maoist ‘mass line’ formula would have us do). Rather, it would stick to its principles and programme and start as a minority, patiently doing work within the broader class struggle to build up its forces and become a mass party. By mass party we mean that its programme has mass support, that it will have support for its programme from a near-majority of politically active workers and work toward that majority without conceding anything to populism or other forms of bourgeois politics. To me, the argument that a mass party is impossible without surrendering its political principles strikes an elitist tone, doubting that the masses of proletarians are capable of being won over to communist politics unless some kind of crisis whips them into shape and makes them desperate enough to follow the lead of a small minority party.

Without a party that has developed a strong political culture within the working class, how are the masses of workers to engage in political life on communist grounds before a revolutionary period? If a party dedicates itself to only including the proletarian elite (on what grounds does one determine who belongs to the elite anyway?), then how are those, who may agree with the party’s programme and want to get involved in political life, supposed to participate? Building a mass party on principled grounds, (excluding the social-patriotic and reformist left, alliances with nationalists, tailing the latest political fad, etc.) won’t be easy work, but it’s essential if the proletariat will be trained as a class in the art of politics.

On the question of soviet rule and party rule, the actual history of soviets show that the two have always gone together and aren’t really to be counterposed. We can imagine ideal soviets where all workers aren’t affiliated with parties and the small revolutionary minority takes the backseat and gives them all advice that they listen to while ignoring the various reformist and reactionaries that other parties will be mobilizing as well. But this is never how actual soviets have functioned in the real world. If the revolutionary party wins a majority of the workers to its programme and the majority of delegates elected in the soviets are party members then the party is essentially part of the government. It doesn’t make it a single party-state, as its rule is not completely monopolized and uncontested. But the policy will come from the party and ultimately it will be a system where the party shares power with the soviets/assemblies. What would be the alternative? To refuse to win a majority in the soviets and let more reformist parties take the majority out of fear of taking power? To me, this fear of the party holding power is reminiscent of anarchism, and shows a superstitious fear of political authority.

To clarify, in a revolutionary regime there will most likely not be a single party ruling, but rather a coalition of revolutionary parties and factions of these parties. If the entire revolutionary working class is actually centralized in one party we can imagine there would be factions within this party, which in a revolutionary regime would essentially become different tendencies that would be voted for. Ultimately what matters is that the workers control their own organizations, and that the organs of government, whether soviets or some kind of communal assembly, are based on radical democratic principles of governance (all officials are elected, recallable, kept on short term limits, freedom of assembly, ending of political careerism, ending of rule of law constitutionalism). This is why having support from a majority of the politically active section of the proletariat is key to revolution, because without this support a regime cannot hold onto power without making attacks on political democracy. Unlike all other ruling classes the proletariat cannot rule without political democracy, a lesson revealed by the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalinism.

Given our general differences on the nature of the party, we don’t necessarily believe that organizations of revolutionaries today need to be based on a strict theoretical centralism. In fact, we see the ICC as embodying the kind of theoretical centralism we would want to avoid. A revolutionary organization should be based on a general platform (for us our points of unity) and from there develop theory through debate. Having one theoretical vision that is imposed on the organization seems to be a way for the leadership to impose a crippling centralism and close the organization off to sympathizers who generally agree with politics but don’t agree with a single theoretical take on marxism. For example, CLT doesn’t impose a line on something like decadence theory or state-capitalism. For us what matters is that we don’t have illusions about Stalinism, electoral roads to socialism, or the mainstream trade unions. How one comes to these positions through theoretical analysis isn’t really as important as the positions themselves.

On the question of the minimum and maximum programme, I derive my approach not so much from Kautsky and Lenin, but rather The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier written by Karl Marx and Jules Guesde in 1880. It is my belief that this document lays out the proper understanding of the min/max programme. Here the minimum programme outlines not measures meant to “complete the historic tasks of the bourgeoisie” but rather a series of demands that, if enacted, would establish a “communal state” where the working class is the ruling class in society at large.

The Programme of the Parti Ouvrier begins with a general outline of the final goal of communism, that “the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” and that “the producers can only be free when they are in possession of the means of production”. The actualization of these accomplishments is the maximum programme. Followed by this is a set of political demands, which could only lead to an overthrow of the bourgeois state and the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat (or “workers republic” as some of us like to call it) if enacted. They include most notably “Abolition of standing armies and the general arming of the people” and “The Commune to be master of its administration and its police”. Such measures are not completions of the bourgeois revolution against feudal remnants, but rather would lead to changes in the form of the state that would create the institutional means through which the proletariat could exercise political power in society at large. Following these political demands are the economic demands, containing things like “Prohibition of all interference by employers in the administration of workers’ friendly societies, provident societies, etc., which are returned to the exclusive control of the workers” and “reduction of the working day from eight to six hours” which do not necessarily nationalize all property or even contradict the value-form but rather aim to empower the position of the working class within capitalism to more effectively wage a war on the capitalist system at large.

A minimum programme is largely compatible with money and markets, though its enacting will inevitably lead to policies that suppress their rule over society. For example, industries already relatively centralized by capital and basic public services can be collectivized and distributed by need relatively quickly, while small proprietors will have to be collectivized more gradually and on a more voluntarily basis. The main preoccupation of the transition period will be to maintain the political rule of the proletariat and help wage global civil war on the capitalist class rather than immediately communize society.

Because no one really know what communism looks like, it makes more sense to unite a revolutionary party over a specific programme and strategy for enacting it rather than a vision of what communist society itself will look like. Better to unite the party behind a minimum and a maximum programme of communism based around more abstract notions like “collective planning of production by society according to need, abolition of money, class exploitation, gender oppression and national divisions, etc”. To form a party unified around a description of communism would take the risk of falling into utopianism. The same problem would happen with a party that based its unity around an interpretation of Das Kapital or a specific interpretation of dialectical materialism. Ultimately, it is unity around loosely defined long term goals and a tight minimum programme which matter.

As for the accusation that the text does not situate ourselves in relation to the past, I find this rather confusing. The text does contain historical references to the Bolsheviks, as well as other organizations such as the IWW, the KAPD, the PCInt, and even the SPD. While a detailed analysis of historical debates over the nature of the party and so on is necessary, I believe this would be a much lengthier project to pursue. Rather than seeing the historical lessons of the proletariat as a tradition codified through a set lineage of organizations, I believe it’s better to do a broader overview of the entire history of the global labor movement and synthesize these lessons from a perspective of radical class independence and internationalism.

To hell with democracy?

Rather than blanket rejection or blind leftist worship, communists should aim for a more nuanced position on democracy that recognizes its importance in working class organizations as well as its limitations. 

greatmomentsinleftism

Almost every leftist worships at the altar or democracy but is very unclear about what it means or why exactly we need it. Some, taking up an “ultra-left” position influenced by the likes of Bordiga, Camatte and Gilles Dauve take a stance contrary to this and argue for a complete rejection of democracy, claiming it to be a purely bourgeois form. Against both the blind leftist worship of democracy and the flat out rejection of it by many ultra-left communists I’ll attempt here to argue for a more nuanced take on the democratic question.

The question of democracy is a question that communists need to address with care and precision. We need to define our terms carefully and be careful to avoid purely semantic debates to map out where legitimate differences arise and where they are purely questions of how things are worded. Is democracy merely a bourgeois mirage that we should fully reject? Is the dictatorship of the proletariat, the phase of working class rule to abolish capitalist relations, democratic in character? Answering these questions requires a closer look at what democracy actually is and what it means in different contexts. They are also questions that carry immediate relevance, not a matter of abstractly imagining a far off communist future that has no major importance today (what some would call ‘LEGO socialism’). Today, when the left is dominated either by bureaucratic and corrupt sects or activist cliques dominated by the informal rule of charismatic individuals, such matters are practical questions that relate to how we organize now.

Communist organizations as well as other institutions of the working class need to be able to make collective decisions on a mass scale. For organizations to truly express the will of its base and therefore the proletariat as a class there must be a basic adherence to the notion that decisions are made by the entire group, that essentially everyone has a say and participates in the decision making process, even if this is through delegation and representation. Furthermore it entails accountability and transparency in decision making processes, not merely procedural norms like voting or majority rule. This is the definition of democracy that communists should stand for, rather than bourgeois notions of democracy which are really just rule-of-law constitutionalism. It’s also the definition of democracy that the Communist League of Tampa and its affiliates call for in our basic Points of Unity: “We uphold the right to open debate, factions and accountable collective decision-making within revolutionary organizations, especially our own. This means opposing bureaucratic centralism and working against the development of unaccountable caste-like layers of leadership.”

Individuals with unaccountable decision making power within an organization are essentially small-proprietors, with the organization being their property. It is unavoidable that decision-making authority will have to be delegated to certain individuals, as not every single decision made can be voted on in larger bodies. What matters is that these individuals who are delegated decision-making authority are accountable to those affected by these decisions. This decision-making power, essentially intellectual property in the form of specialization and control over information, must be collectivized. There is not one formal mechanism that can guarantee achieving this (such as majority rule), but as a minimum requirement the basic standards of accountable democratic decision-making must be the general basis for how our organizations conduct themselves.

Basic democratic standards of operation are not important because of abstract universal principles, but because they are necessary for the healthy functioning of organizations that are capable of organizing the proletariat to act as a class. Democracy for communists isn’t an ahistorical ideal, but an instrument. That said, it’s an instrument we can’t afford to not use. Organizations that do not function with internal democracy will develop a layer of unaccountable bureaucrats who are essentially small proprietors which have objective class interests alien to the proletariat. They are not representatives of an alien class due to their specific political lines but because they essentially treat organizations as a form of property and will have a tendency to protect this property. This in turn will lead to a silencing of all dissent within the organization, capitulation to reformist politics in order to keep organizational growth at a maximum and meaningless splits due to bureaucrats aiming to maintain control over what they see as their property when they can’t get their way. From there it’s a straight road to racket-ville, where organizations are either completely ineffective or so hindered by corruption that we would prefer them not to be effective.

It is also of importance that people are free to criticize decisions and voice alternatives without being silenced or expelled. The “Leninist” notion that disagreements within the organization should only be expressed internally while externally one can only express the official party line should be rejected. Rather than this, debates within the organization should be performed in the public press or in public meetings unless they are regarding information that puts individuals at risk of repression. The notion that “freedom of debate” merely opens the door to opportunism is more often than not a means for the central leadership to silence criticism, enforce rigid ideological centralism and assert control over what they see as their property. Of course reactionary positions can be defended under the guise of “freedom of debate” but it is important for any collectivity to come to a general agreement on where the margins of acceptable debate lie.

The unhindered rule of bureaucracy affirms the mental/manual division of labor which is at the core of class society and must be abolished in the future communist society. While our organizations will never be able to fully prefigure communism (as they exist under the structural pressures of capitalist society), the communist movement must relatively prefigure the kind of society we fight for. If our movement is to show a way forward out of capitalism towards a better world and capture the support of millions of workers it must in some sense prove that life after the revolution won’t be a repeat of current miseries. It is partially because of the failures of Stalinism and labor-bureaucracies in the 20th century that class consciousness today is inhibited. Workers aren’t stupid, and if our movement presents itself as a repeat of the bureaucratic rackets and personal tyrannies that define Stalinism, the bourgeois state and capitalist enterprises they won’t be interested (and rightfully so). As a result communists as a force in society cannot afford to organize through bureaucratic structures that directly reproduce the divisions of class society. The only alternative to this is to produce democratic structures.

Not only must our organizations pre-revolution be democratic in the sense described above, but the form of the state under the dictatorship of the proletariat must also be democratic. To quote Lenin, ….Dictatorship does not necessarily mean the abolition of democracy for the class that exercises the dictatorship over other classes; but it does mean the abolition of democracy (or very material restriction, which is also a form of abolition) of democracy for the class over which, or against which, the dictatorship is exercised.” Dictatorship in the sense that Marx used it was not to be counterposed to proletarian democracy but relied on it.

The dictatorship of the proletariat, contrary to the claims of anti-communists, is not the rule of a minority clique above the proletariat. This point is made many times but it nonetheless stands. If the working class is going to politically rule it must be legitimately in control of the state. This ‘commune-state’ must be organized and function in such a way as to prevent the petty-bourgeois labor bureaucracy from expropriating political power from the working class. This will require democratic norms such as representation through recallable delegates, strict term limits and freedom of speech (though in civil war situations it is inevitable exceptions will have to be made for this rule). These were the characteristics that Marx praised the Paris Commune for holding.

While using democratic forms, the rule of the proletariat is a dictatorship and anti-democratic in the sense that it must break with bourgeois constitutionalism and repress capitalist property rights that are considered basic freedoms in the eyes of the bourgeois ideology. An expansion of political freedom to the proletariat can only be coincided with restricting the political freedom of the propertied classes. This will certainly mean taking measures that will be seen as dictatorial in the eyes of the exploiters. It is for this reason that Engels claimed that democracy would be the rallying call of the counter-revolution. Yet democracy for the bourgeoisie is mostly that: a rallying cry, a means of legitimizing their class rule through the state that is never extended more than is necessary.

Rather than the logical form of capitalist rule as such, there is much reason to believe that for the capitalist class democracy is just as much a liability as it is means of legitimation to integrate antagonistic classes. Democracy plays an ideological role in the bourgeois revolutions to unite “the people” (the peasantry, other small producers, semi-proletarians and the bourgeoisie) as a whole against the aristocracy and clergy under the banner of the national republic. Through the ideology of democracy the bourgeoisie aims to present its rule as the rule of the entire people, not a single class. Yet too much substantive democracy where the oppressed classes are actually given real participation in political decision-making proves to be a liability to bourgeois rule and must be suppressed. We see this in the French Revolution, with the suppression of the Sans-Culottes and then the suppression of the Jacobins followed by the rise of the Directory and then Bonaparte. We also see this in the suppression of the radical abolition-democracy during Reconstruction in the United States when the Industrialists who were the backbone of the Republican party feared the growing power of the laboring classes. This tendency is also visible in the rise of fascist regimes during the inter-war period, where sections of the bourgeoisie threw in their lot with anti-democratic political movements to crush both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary workers movement. So while democracy certainly plays an important role in the ideological arsenal of the capitalist class it is also something they are more than willing to do without and suppress when needed. For the capitalists class political democracy is a means of masking its rule as a class under the guise of political freedom. Yet at the same time they recognize that too much of this political freedom in the form of substantive democracy is dangerous and must be kept in check.

Despite the fact that the proletariat very much needs political democracy to organize and rule as a class there is certainly a danger of fetishizing democracy, making the mistake of thinking that democratic forms as such are revolutionary and desirable without class content. This is the strength of the ultra-left critique of democracy, which is that a fetishization of democracy emphasizes procedural form at the expense of actual political content. These critiques have their root in the works of Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga, who went as far to claim he rejected the democratic principle and argued that a vague notion of ‘organic centralism’ where democracy would be transcended should be the core principle of communist organization. The roots of these critiques can also be found in the works of Marx and Engels themselves. For example, in the 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, Marx and Engels warn the workers they “should not be led astray by empty democratic talk about the freedom of the municipalities, self-government, ect in a country like Germany, where so many remnants of the Middle Ages are still to be abolished.” In an 1884 letter to August Bebel, Engels claimed “In any case our sole adversary on the day of crisis and on the day after the crisis will be the whole of the reaction which will group around pure democracy, and this, I think, should not be lost sight of.” So while Marx and Engels certainly recognized the importance of democracy and advocated it in its most radical forms they were no fetishists of democracy that viewed it as always inherently progressive to the goals of the proletariat. It always exists within a certain class context and must be understood with that in mind.

The problem of fetishizing democracy can be exemplified with a simple thought experiment. Imagine a political change which merely involved simply implementing a form of localized direct democracy in place of the current state, as imagined by Murray Bookchin’s ‘libertarian municipalism’. In many contexts this would result in a less liberatory society than the one we currently live in. For example, in the United States a system of decentralized direct democracy without a change in class relations could simply result in suburban communities choosing to pass laws allowing for segregation or banning abortion.

Modern proponents of “direct democracy” seem to overlook these problems and argue for a form of democracy without the mediation of representation and political parties. This ideal of decentralized mass assemblies making all political decisions is appealing to those disenchanted by the betrayals of political parties and the emptiness of bourgeois democracy. Rather than governance through representative institutions, local face-to-face assemblies are suggested as a more legitimate form of social decision-making. Yet mass society cannot make decisions purely at the local level, and even at a local level the complexity of society would make it unfeasible to put every decision up to a popular vote. This isn’t to say that localities shouldn’t have control over decision-making, and in fact there should be self-government of localities to whatever extent is possible. But beyond this the need for decision-making at larger regional and international levels necessitates forms of political representation and mediation, as well as centralization. The question shouldn’t be whether or not there is representation, but rather how representation can be kept accountable and under the control of the rank-and-file/base.

The experiment of Occupy in 2011-2012 verifies the problems of experiments in direct democracy as well as democracy devoid of any kind of class content. At the core of Occupy was not a basic political programme or class base so much as a democratic form, “horizontalist” consensus decision making. The result was that the project could find no basic agreement on politics and ended up at the lowest-common-denominator of unity. Many camps became dominated by libertarian conspiracy theorists or Democratic party hacks who took full of advantage of the fact that democratic process took precedence over any kind of political unity other than the most vague populism (99% vs 1%).

Given the experiences of Occupy and the fetishization of direct democracy by certain currents of modern anarchism, the ultra-left critique of democracy has reason to be taken seriously. Yet there is also a danger of taking this critique too far and completely dismissing the need for democracy within working class organizations. This is exemplified by the text Against Democracy by Wildcat (UK) which does indeed take its critique this far.

The text begins agreeably enough with a critique of democracy as the rule of rights and equality, which is premised on the existence of the state and citizens who are atomized into legal individuals. Communism, by doing away with the state and class stratification, would therefore make talks of rights and equality meaningless. It also makes the point that when in combat with class enemies, we don’t afford them democratic rights and instead ruthlessly crush them. You can’t respect the rights of a cop if you‘re beating him to death! If a trade union leader tries to address a meeting and we respond by shouting him down or dragging him off the stage and kicking his head in, it’s absurd for us to say that we believe in freedom of speech,” says the Wildcat text. So far this is mostly agreeable, though expressing this point in the most edgy possible way does come off as a bit silly. Communists advocate for a dictatorship of the proletariat, which means that certain bourgeois rights that are afforded to the propertied classes under capitalism will be suspended and trampled upon. We don’t respect bourgeois constitutional legalism (which is really what they mean when they talk about democracy) and often we are in the minority when we take this stance. The revolution is not going to be decided on in the halls of congress or parliament through a majority vote where 51% of the vote make seizing power legitimate while 49% doesn’t.

Yet the Wildcat text goes a step further in saying that democracy “within our own ranks” is also to be rejected. This is defined as three basic principles: Majoritarianism (that nothing can be done unless a majority agrees to it), separation between decision making and action (nothing can be done until everybody has had a chance to discuss it), and embodiment of the view that no one can be trusted (delegates are to be revocable because they may not be trustable). Yet what this is arguing against is almost a straw-man, as no organization I know of actually puts every single action performed up to a complete majority vote. There is of course a danger of getting bogged down in formalities, but when decisions have to be made on a mass scale there needs to be some baseline formal process of decision-making to regulate these processes in a way that maintains accountability to those effected. The alternative is either a tyranny of structureless, where personalistic and unaccountable charismatic cliques dominate, or bureaucratic centralism, where an unaccountable leadership calls all the shots and no apparatus exists to challenge these decisions.

The fact that Wildcat extend their critique to mocking the idea of recallable delegates and faction rights further reveals the poverty of their complete dismissal of internal democracy. The argument for recallable delegates and term limits doesn’t necessarily stem from the idea that “no one can be trusted” but that delegates should express the needs of constituencies and these constituencies should be able to recall them if these needs aren’t being met. The alternative is that the organization is basically the private property of the bureaucrats and there is no means of keeping this in check. And even if the idea behind recall-ability is that people can’t be trusted, the argument against recall-ability rests on an idea more absurd than the idea that no one can trusted, which is people can always be trusted.

Regarding the right to form factions within an organization, Wildcat basically dismiss this as the province of Trotskyists who want “the freedom to plot and conspire against other members of what is supposedly a working class organization.” This claim that the right to form factions is basically the territory of “trot wreckers” sounds like something coming straight from the mouth of a Maoist sects central committee. It was partly the banning of factions in the Bolshevik Party that prevented it from regaining any kind of genuine connection to the proletariat, and in fact while Wildcat claim to oppose “majoritarianism”, the right to form factions is a safeguard against the problems of majority rule. It is only with the right to form factions that minority positions in an org (which may be the correct position since majority rule isn’t a magical tool for discovering the truth) can be defended and argued for in a way that prevent unnecessary splits and expulsion of any dissent. This isn’t to say any and all factions should be tolerated – for example the Communist League of Tampa wouldn’t tolerate a faction giving critical support to Putin’s Russia or any kind of US intervention in the Middle East – but we certainly would tolerate a faction advocating for a harder stance against electoralism.

Ultimately the Wildcat critique of democracy is useless because it offers no alternative on how to run mass-scale political organizations other than “trust and solidarity”. Instead we are presented a fetishization of militant minorities that act against democratic norms, as if these actions on their own are able to offer a real threat to capitalism. The actions of small minorities coupled with spontaneous upsurges can only lead to a conspiratorial tactic of “invisible dictatorship” ala Bakunin. Rather than elite anti-democratic vanguards that rely on spontaneity, the proletariat must create its own mass scale organizations within capitalism that can pose the question of political power.

Mass scale organizations within capitalism will inevitably develop some sort of bureaucracy of paid full-timers. A small propaganda group like CLT can obviously operate on purely volunteer labor, yet at a certain point organizations will get to a scale and level of activity where the level of work cannot be done on an all volunteer basis. Because we live in capitalism, workers have to work for wages to survive and are limited in how much time they can volunteer to an organization. As a result there will be a strata in any large scale organization that have to work as salaried as full-time officials. As stated earlier this strata is essentially petty-bourgeois because they will treat the organization as their property if unchecked. To counter this tendency there must be standardized norms of democracy, accountability and transparency that collectivize decision making in the organization as much as possible. This is the only real alternative to the rule of experts and decision-making dominated by an elite.

Tackling the ‘democratic question’ requires nuance and precision rather than pseudo-radical sloganeering. Rather than claiming that all democracy is merely a bourgeois mirage that is to be wholesale rejected, communists should aim for a more nuanced position that recognizes the importance of democracy within working class organizations while not fetishizing democratic forms or conforming to bourgeois constitutionalism.

The Mythology of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and the Chinese Ultra-left

Since we haven’t come out with any new material this month (next month should be a different story), here’s an older piece by Donald Parkinson critiquing Maoism and the role of Mao in crushing ultra-left opposition movements in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Little Red Day

The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution is claimed by many Maoists as the highest point of communism in the history of mankind. Maoists such as the RCP and Kasama and even anarchists like Michael Albert see the event as evidence of the liberatory potential of Maoist thought. Much of the New Left in general was enamored by the events in China and radical newspapers from the era are full of Mao portraits and quotes from the Little Red Book. “It is right to rebel” being taken up as a slogan made the Maoists seem like they were more anarchist than the anarchists, the “hardest” of the revolutionaries.

If anything, the Cultural Revolution exposes the poverty of Maoist politics. Maoism only promised “the right to rebel” to the extent that rebellion stayed within the confines of Maoism.

To call what happened during the years considered the height of the GPCR (66-69) a revolution, nonetheless a proletarian one, is certainly a misnomer. A more apt description would be that it was a bureaucratic power struggle that in many cases got out of hand. Gaps in authority were certainly created by Mao’s chaotic tactics of consolidating power and workers certainly took advantage of these gaps in authority. But in the end Mao’s Cultural Revolution wasn’t much different from Stalin’s – an attempt to solve the problems of socialism-in-one-country through purging the state leadership of corrupt “capitalist roaders” rather than changing the social relations that led these corrupt positions to develop in the first place.

The very concept of Cultural Revolution is foreign to Marx’s conception of revolution. Marx viewed proletarian revolution as a process that is not merely political but social. There is no separate category of Cultural Revolution differentiated from the revolution which transforms the totality of social relations.

Marxist-Leninist dogmatism claims that the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, nationalization of property and establishment of central planning under the rule of party eliminates the basis of class antagonisms. Yet it was clear that China in 1966 was no workers utopia that had rid itself of all social contradiction. In Mao’s eyes the remaining contradictions of society were contained strictly within the political/cultural superstructure, for the economic base no longer contained class antagonism. Maoist theory claimed that the superstructure was “relatively autonomous” from the base and hence a “cultural revolution” was needed to purge the revisionist leadership within the CCP. This was not a Marxist theory of revolution, but rather a populist theory that was not dissimilar from Bismark’s Kulturkamf.

In no way was the GPCR a spontaneous event. After the enormous human toll of Mao’s failed policies in the Great Leap Forward much of the CCP took a more conservative stance on economic issues. Voluntaristic and extremist policies were avoided and Mao was reduced to a more symbolic “father of the country” style figure in the party, though his theories were still official state doctrine. Like the ruling bureaucracy of all the classic Stalinist nations we can see two general factions in the CCP – those like Mao who wanted to maintain autarky and a command economy, and those like Deng Xiaopeng who favored the continued existence of internal markets and gradual development. Mao had been looking for ways to purge the party of the more rightist faction years before the Cultural Revolution using internal party channels but there efforts were to no avail. Such a task would require mobilizing the masses outside the party, who had no shortage of reasons to gripe about the disconnect and corruption of the state bureaucracy. Yet it was not from the masses where the GPCR would have its origin, but from within the CCP with the founding of the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group. This group only had a limited influence with the party as it was only composed of Mao and his closest cohorts. By going outside of the party and channeling mass discontent Mao’s faction concocted a strategy to not only consolidate power but to further refine his ideological hold over the nation.

At first the Cultural Revolution was very similar to earlier anti-rightist campaigns that aimed to persecute former bourgeoisie. Many students engaged in criticisms of professors they viewed as overly traditional and conservative. Head of state Liu Shaoqi’s very much tried to keep the movement within these bounds, avoiding criticism of the party members themselves. It was in May 1966 when Mao suggested that rightism was a trend within the party itself, that party committees at all levels should be subject to criticism.

It was in the summer of 1966 when the Red Guards formed. These groups of youth were united by an ideological adherence to Mao-Zedong Thought and their legitimate grievances with the CCP. Many Red Guards were the children of state bureaucrats who saw themselves as the “cream of the crop” of China, while others came from more “lumpen” backgrounds. While the Red Guards were divided into many factions, some of them gang-like, one can make a general divide between the more revolutionary and conservative Red Guards, with the more revolutionary typically from less privileged strata of society. Some factions of Red Guards found themselves attacking party committees for rightism, while other Red Guards found themselves defending party committees from supposed rightists. Eventually the movement fell out of Liu Shaoqi’s control and Mao had many of the more conservative factions of the Red Guards banned.

As the movement grew social turmoil intensified and Red Guards began to to even carry more power than Party committees in some areas. Bureaucrats who were used to being unhindered lording over society were now being socially persecuted in public struggle sessions, some which were so intense that suicide was the final result. Mao was giving the masses a chance to express themselves while still ultimately maintaining the structure of the party-state. In Shanghai, December 1966 the movement spread beyond the criticism of bureaucrats into a mass strike of apprentices who were asking for better pay and working conditions. A movement that originated in the party to mobilize students and lumpen was now impacting the disaffected proletarians of China, with order in Shanghai now withering away.

Now that workers were engaged in struggle their demands were simply regarded as economistic for merely being wage demands. The ideological propaganda coming from Mao and cohorts now focused on attacking the “economism” of workers who were refusing to restore order. Red Guards were ordered “to take power” in Shanghai, but this was not a move to transcend the party-state but rather one aimed to quell the dissent of the working class. Millions of Chinese workers were temporary contract workers from the countryside that were denied the benefits that full time workers received, finding themselves in an economically un-stabile position. While the demands of these workers revolved around issues of egalitarianism and were essentially socialist in content they were dismissed by Mao as “rightist”. According to Maoist propaganda these workers were merely agents of rightist bureaucrats who were trying to restore “revisionism” to power. Yet it  is clear these temporary migrant workers were amongst the most exploited strata of the Chinese proletariat and were voicing legitimate demands that exposed the continued existence of class contradictions in China.

Mao’s orders for the Red Guards to “take power” in Shanghai was certainly a move that had more to do with consolidating authority and getting the workers to shut up than with establishing any kind of dictatorship of the proletariat. From attacking party bureaucracy in general to denouncing the “economism” of workers, Mao’s propaganda then went to urging Red Guards to “unite with all who can be united”. What this meant was making peace with the majority of party bureaucrats, for now it was just a handful of bad apples that needed to be worried about. “Narrowing the focus of attack” meant that criticism was now concentrated on Deng Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqi and often went to absurd lengths. Any shared political positions that Mao and Liu had in the past were denied, for all positions that Liu held were inherently rightist. Focusing the political energy of the movement on attacks against Liu and Deng rather than a critique of social relations helped Mao further restore order and bring the Red Guards closer under the ideological control of his faction of the party-state. The real intentions of the movement became clearer when Deng and Liu were no longer influential in the CCP and Mao ordered an end to free transportation for Red Guards throughout the country. With the emergence of “ultra-left” currents that saw the need for actual revolutionary change Mao seemed to lose interest in the mass movements that had developed. The next step was to call in the army.

Lin Biao, the commander in chief of the People’s Liberation Army, had done much to indoctrinate his troops with the ideology of Mao-Zedong Thought. Lin was an ideologically dedicated Maoist, one of the bureaucrats most sympathetic to the extremist policies of the Great Leap Forward. He was also a key figure in crafting the Mao Cult as it existed during the Cultural Revolution by compiling what is known as the Little Red Book, a compilation of quotes by Chairman Mao that served as ideological poetry for the Red Guards. Though Lin Biao would later be accused of plotting a coup against Mao his allegiance to Mao meant that the PLA could be used to establish state authority amongst the political chaos that had taken over the country. In February of 67 New state organs called revolutionary committees, or three-in-one committees were ordered to be established throughout the country, containing 1) representatives from the army, 2) representatives of Red Guards and 3) old party bureaucrats.

Essentially the masses were now being called on to ally with the party bureaucrats they had so eagerly criticized and mobilized against when given the chance. As one can imagine the establishment of the revolutionary committees was met with mass opposition and it took a while for the state to fully establish authority. Mass demonstrations and strikes had to be put down violently in many cities. In Shanghai the revolutionary committees had to assure ascendance through the democratic mystifications of the “Shanghai People’s Commune”.

The founding of the Shanghai People’s Commune was not a product of a proletarian uprising like in the Commune of Paris 1870. It was founded as the result of compromises between factions of Red Guards and the restoration of order by the PLA. The founding of the Shanghai People’s Commune claimed to deliver the radical political democracy that the Cultural Revolution originally promised. Yet without the political content of actual proletarian rule the short-lived Shanghai People’s Commune could merely mimic the form of the legendary Paris Commune. Ultimately its authority was derived from Mao and the PLA. Point 9 of the 16-Point Decision written upon its founding promised:

“a system of general elections, like that of the Paris Commune, for electing members to the cultural revolutionary groups and committees and delegates to the cultural revolutionary congresses. The lists of candidates should be put forward by the revolutionary masses after full discussion, and the elections should be held after the masses have discussed the lists over and over again.” 

The elections never even happened, for the Shanghai People’s Commune lasted less than a month and was merely a way to transition into the rule of the three-in-one revolutionary committees.

After Deng Xiaopeng and Liu Shaoqui were no longer ideologically an influence in the CCP much propaganda from the Maoist Center focused on demonizing the growing “ultra-left” that took Mao’s call to rebel seriously. Any ruling group will never be able to fully establish the complete hegemony of its ideology and the Maoist bureaucracy was no exception. Army commanders aimed to fully incorporate Red Guards into the 3-in-1 committees but many refused, correctly seeing that these committees were not organs of proletarian dictatorship but class collaboration. This lead to clashes between “ultra-left” Red Guards and the army, complicated by the fact that many soldiers in the PLA were sympathetic to the ultra-left. By end of summer 67 Ultra-left Red Guards were in many cases taking the offensive, with tens of thousands of engaging in an organized siege of government buildings in Beijing for a month. By September Mao and Lin Biao made it clear that they were sympathetic to the army commanders aiming to restore order. Purges occurred and weapons were seized. The more rebellious Red Guards held off for a bit, consolidating themselves and organizing into more effective units. Others opportunistically vied for seats in the three-in-one committees.

Many on the ultra-left viewed much of the factional fighting between Red Guards as essentially gang warfare, which it essentially was in many cases. In many cases factional fighting between Red Guards simply amounted to which leaders would occupy seats in the three-in-one committees. Taking a break from the ruthless power politics of before meant a chance to reflect and refine theory. Many currents of thought developed, such “Communist Group” in Bejing, “October Revolution Group” in Shandong, Sheng-wu-lian in Hunan and the more peasant oriented Dei-jue-yang in Wuhan.

The Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, or Sheng-wu-lian, was the most influential and notable of the Ultra-left currents that developed. Sheng-wu-lian may have written in the language of Mao Ze-Dong Thought, yet clearly espoused ideas that threatened the political supremacy of Mao himself. The currents most famous document, Whither China, written by Yang Xiguang, made bold statements such as:

“What is the reality? ‘Peaceful transition’ is only another name for ‘peaceful evolution.’ It can only cause China to drift farther and farther away from the ‘Commune’ depicted in the May 7 Directive, and nearer and nearer to the existing society of the Soviet Union. . . ..The rule of the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie must be overthrown by force in order to solve the problem of political power. Empty shouting about realization of the May 7 Directive, without any reference to power seizure and complete smashing of the old state machinery, will truly be the ‘utopian’ dream.”

Whither China is full of references to Marxism-Leninism, revisionism, and Mao-Zedong Thought yet is more theoretically adept in its class analysis than the populist poetry of Mao. Mao merely called for the masses to criticize and perhaps replace the party bureaucrats that managed their exploitation, a program of populist reformism. Whither China called for revolution in permanence, for the continuance of the class struggle. Sheng-wu-lian saw the CCP as a “class of ‘Red’ capitalists” that had “become a decaying class that hindered the progress of history”. The three-in-one committees were merely a “product of bourgeois reformism” that would lead to a dictatorship of the army and bureaucracy if established. Worker struggles dismissed by the Maoist Center as “economistic” were granted support, for Sheng-wu-lian aimed to assert an actual class perspective in its analysis rather than the ideological muck of typical Maoist thought. Calls for the formation of a political party independent of the CCP were made, for it was clear the current state machinery was to smashed rather than reformed from within.

What is strange about Whither China is the fact that Mao and Lin Bao are still treated with reverence as heroes. In historical perspective this makes sense – the tropes of Mao Zedong Thought were the only reference points to Marxist theory that were available at the time, so it makes sense that even the most ultra-left groups would be steeped in it. Ultra-lefts in the GPCR used the sayings of the “great teachers” in ways that were never intended. While these currents believed themselves to be accurately following the tenets of Mao-Zedong Thought they were actively working against Mao himself. As a result some explained the obviously counter-revolutionary actions of the Maoist Center as proof that Mao was being taken hostage by rightists.

The continued Maoist influence on Sheng-wu-lian was ultimately its greatest weakness. Maoism, being a variant of Stalinism, rigidly holds to the doctrine of “socialism-in-one country”, where national development is prioritized above internationalism. Throughout Whither China one finds no understanding of proletarian revolution as a phenomena that occurs on an international rather than national level. Of course one must keep in mind that during this period China was very isolated from the rest of the world, an autarky by all definitions. There was no contact between the Chinese working class and their comrades throughout the world, making the establishment of solidarity across national borders very difficult. It is easy to imagine that even if ultra-left currents were able to overthrow the CCP and PLA many of the same problems of Chinese society would remain, for China would still have to operate according to the laws of global capitalism. In fact 20 years later Yang Xiguang recognized this, claiming that what Sheng-wu-lian was advocating probably would have amounted to a mere “Dynastic change”.

Despite their flaws, the Chinese ultra-left demonstrated that a proletarian class perspective existed in China was willing to express itself through both theory and praxis when possible. One can only imagine how they would have further developed if it weren’t for state repression doing all it could to wipe them out.

Despite its proclaimed adherence to Mao, Whither China infuriated the Maoist Center, who proclaimed immediately that it was “counter-revolutionary big hotchpotch” and a “extremely reactionary trend of thought”. Ultra-leftism was viewed by Lin Bao as a force to be crushed, especially in the Hunan province. A major educational seminar set up by the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group early 1968 in Bejing focused much of its time denouncing ultra-leftism and Sheng-Wu-Lian. At this time the three-in-one revolutionary committees were hardly functioning as effective agents of state power in but a couple cities. Working class ferment was at a height with strikes and violent demonstrations spreading from Shanghai to other cities. What began as a purge led by Mao and his cohorts to consolidate influence in the state was spiraling into a movement that now terrified Mao.

The solution of course was to unleash a wave of state repression, with the army taking the initiative to crush the ultra-left nationwide. Leaders of Sheng-Wu-Lian were imprisoned or murdered and pockets of resistance were liquidated. Ultimately those who suffered the greatest during the Cultural Revolution were not those who wished to maintain capitalist relations, but those who aimed to transcend them.

This wave of repression was coupled with what some Maoists call “one of the greatest attempts to solve the capitalist division of labor.” Millions of students and youth were forced into the countryside to engage in manual labor, greatly dispersing the various political movements that had formed in the past two years. These “rustifcation” campaigns did nothing to actually change relations of production in agriculture but did put many youth to work and out of the streets.

The triumph of the revolutionary committees was ultimately the triumph of the PLA and the final establishment of a military dictatorship. The following years of Chinese political history are mostly internal bureaucratic squabbles and very confusing, leading to some very bizarre foreign policy such as being the only “socialist” nation to recognize Pinochet’s Chile. It was ultimately the PLA that won out in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, a vital tool for assuring that working class activity never got out of hand. It is during the GPCR years when the Chinese working class was crushed to the point where Deng Xiaopeng’s market reforms could be instituted without major resistance.

Multiple 1st world leftist groups obsessed over the Cultural Revolution in the 60’s and early 70’s (see Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air), which seemed to coincide with events in Czechoslovakia, Paris and the US student movement. Yet the ideologies of third-worldism and the Mao cult that came to entrance much of the New Left was merely “the explosion point of ideology” to the Situationist International. For the Situationists what was occurring in China was the fracturing of the bureaucratic ruling class, a fracture that allowed the working class to assert itself as revolutionary force for the first time since 1927. Judging from much of the propaganda from the era they seem the exception to the rule, with even some Trotskyists from the era sympathetic to Maoism. The student New Left, formerly obsessed with participatory democracy, was now forming rigidly dogmatic anti-revisionist groupings, self appointed vanguards that would form what was known as the New Communist Movement.

The mystique that accompanied the Cultural Revolution did indeed make Maoism appear to many as a legitimate alternative to Stalinism and the Soviet Bloc, especially in its anti-bureaucratic rhetoric. Mao’s thought was held up as a less “deterministic” form of Marxism, even a synthesis of Marxism and anarchism. Yet many of these young leftists were unaware that Stalin also called for “Cultural Revolution” and called for attacks on managers and bureaucrats. While Stalin was able to purge political opponents using internal party mechanisms Mao called used the mystique of ideology to call on the masses for his purges. Both Mao and Stalin crushed whatever worker self-activity existed under their regimes and their calls for revolution from above were ultimately useless at addressing the real social antagonisms that existed in their societies.

It is important to not only look beyond the mystique of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution but to also look deeper into its social content. Both right-wing and left-wing narratives of the event often ignored that those who suffered most in the events were not rightists but rather revolutionary workers and youth who dared to venture beyond the confines of Mao’s power struggle. The militancy of many struggles during the GPCR shows how little the rule of CCP had actually transcended class relations in China, class relations with antagonisms that are still exploding in Chinese society to this day.

Further Reading:

Notes Towards a Critique of Maoism

The Explosion Point of Ideology in China

The Rise and suppression of the ‘ultra-left’ in the Chinese cultural revolution 

“New Trends of Thought” in the Cultural Revolution 

Whither China by the The Hunan Provincial Proletarian Revolutionary Great Alliance Committee, or Sheng-wu-lian

Nothing new to look at here: Towards a Critique of Communization

Donald Parkinson takes a look at some of the theorists under the label of ‘communization’ and takes a stab at their ideas. 

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Awaiting the release of Endnotes 4 I decided to write a critique of the broad tendency of communization, focusing on Dauve and TC in specific. Quite a few people have asked about my critique of Endnotes and Communization theory more broadly, as I mentioned these things briefly in my earlier piece Towards a Communist Left. As a result I decided to elaborate on my critique of these currents as well as provide a critical introduction to communization in general.

Communization must be placed in the context of the overall defeat of the proletariat’s wave of struggles in the 20th century. This defeat has in many ways led to a crisis of Marxism, where increasingly isolated theorists look to make innovations and breaks from orthodoxy in hope of ‘saving’ Marxist theory and politics. Sometimes breaks with orthodoxy are necessary, yet there is also a danger of needlessly breaking with orthodoxy with the hope that one is making real theoretical innovation when instead the result is just a repeat of past bad politics. While communization theory does make the occasional interesting insight and serve as a useful theoretical foil it largely is the case that what it offers is not a fresh new perspective for marxist politics but a repeat of Kropotkinist and Sorelian critiques of Marxism with more theoretical sophistication.

Communization refers to relatively broad tendency of writers and journals that don’t all agree on everything. When referring to communization one has to be careful what they say, as there is as much divergence amongst ‘communizers’ as there is ideological unity. Overall what unites this tendency is a belief that revolution will have to immediately establish communist relations of production from day one, that an immediate break from waged labor, commodity production and the value-form is to be favored as opposed to an approach where the working class holds political power and dismantles capitalism in a transition period that may temporarily maintain aspects of capitalism. Added to this is a general hostility to organized politics and anything resembling “old forms” like parties, councils, and unions.

Overall communization can fall into two camps: Gilles Dauve’s “normative” communization and Theorie Communiste’s “structuralist” theory of communization. The key differences between these tendencies can be found in Volume 1 of Endnotes, essentially a debate between Dauve and TC. In his pamphlet When Insurrections Die Dauve puts forward the thesis that the proletariat failed in past revolutions because it didn’t make a sufficient break with waged labor, opting for self-management and collectivization instead where labor vouchers replaced money. Using Spain as his example, Dauve argues that these revolutions failed because they aimed to manage the proletarian condition rather than abolish it, therefore reproducing capitalism in a different form. Therefore the idea of a transition period where the proletariat raises itself to the ruling class within a decaying capitalism is to be rejected in favor of the immediate ‘self-abolition’ of the proletariat.

Dauve’s work is in many ways an attempt to square the insights of old school left-communists like Pannekoek and Bordiga with ideas of the Situationist International. Dauve is just as critical of workers councils managing production as he is critical of the party-form, opting for an approach that focuses on the content of revolution, this content being an immediate break with waged labor and money aka communization. For Dauve the abolition of value is key to revolution, something that can not be achieved gradually or “by half steps” but in the process of insurrection itself. This means rejecting any kind of scheme involving ‘labor vouchers’ or ‘labor notes’ where labor-time is directly measured to determine the worker’s access to the social product, even if these measures are merely temporary transitional steps towards communism.

Dauve makes many important points, many of which are re-iterations of classic left-communist politics (for example, rejecting the anti-fascist popular front). Bringing value and its abolition back into the picture is certainly important, reminding us that communism is not simply a better way of managing capitalist forms but a radical break from waged-labor and the commodity-form itself. His critiques of councilist formalism and workers self-management also are welcome as antidotes to many ideas among the anti-stalinist left that act as if stalinism would work if more self-management existed (PARECON comes to mind). It’s also a move away from traditional leftist workerism, that valorizes workers as workers rather than a class which abolishes itself and all other classes. Putting the transformation of social relations at the heart of communist revolution is certainly a step forward. Yet Dauve has little to suggest how this can be achieved, only stating that Kautksy and Lenin’s formula of merging socialism with the workers movement is to be avoided because communism is imminent to the struggle of labor against capital.

TC responds to Dauve by accusing his argument of essentially being tautological: the communist movement failed because it failed to produce communism. For TC Dauve sees communism as a normative essence within the proletariat itself, and that past revolutions failed because the proletariat failed to live up to this essence or are betrayed by managers and chose to manage capitalism instead of create communism. Dauve fails to answer the question of why the workers didn’t create communism, and instead simply states the obvious. Rather than being some essence to the proletariat, TC see communism as a product of the historical periodization of capitalism, which is itself a series of cycles of contradictions between the proletariat and capital.

For TC the “why” question of why workers didn’t create communism is answered by the concept of programmatism. Programmatism basically means the “old workers movement” which was all about affirming the proletarian condition rather than abolishing it. This is meant to describe the entire workers movement of the past, not just its more reformist elements, describing all politics where “revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a “society of associated producers”. Programmatism in this theory  is not a means towards communism, but a product of capitalism in the phase of ‘formal subsumption’ transitioning into the more advanced phase of ‘real subsumption’. This phase decomposed in the period of the 20’s to the 70’s, leading to today’s modern phase of ‘real subsumption’ where capitalism has fully dominated the proletariat. Programmatism created a ‘worker identity’ that allowed for the affirmation of the proletariat that is now no longer possible, and therefore there can only be the complete negation of the proletarian condition through its immediate self-abolition.

This argument, while more sophisticated than Dauve’s, essentially reduces the entire workers movement to a means of capitalist development and claims that all along communism was impossible until (conveniently) now. Yet why this era will produce communism when all class struggle in the past simply affirmed capital is never explained. Without the millenarian expectations of apocalyptic revolution TC’s theory simply would argue that communism is impossible. It also completely writes off the actual possibility of organizing politically and developing a real strategy to defeat capitalism, since any attempt to organize the proletariat to abolish itself would mean organizing it as a class within capitalism and therefore affirming it. As a result the only way forward will be spontaneous outbursts that develop to the point of some kind of “rupture with the wage relation”. TC and Dauve have very similar positions when it comes to their actual political conclusions, which is that revolution will not have a transition based on a dictatorship of the proletariat organized in parties and councils but see an immediate move towards communism, where value is abolished and free access to all goods is established. They just come to these conclusions from different theoretical reasonings. TC are ultra-determinist, almost to the point of being fatalist, while Dauve seems to suggest communism was possible all along if the workers made the right choices.

In this sense they theorize the conclusions of the anarchist Kropotkin, who imagined a revolution taking the form of local communities spontaneously establishing common access to all property and federating with each other as needed without any kind of transition where the proletariat would hold state power. Kropotkin came from a time where self-sufficient peasants were far more prominent as well as their spontaneous outbursts, making his politics a bit more believable and easier to sell. While Dauve and TC don’t spell out the localist implications of their theory, the idea that there must be immediate communization does strongly suggest that in a revolutionary situation isolated regions would attempt essentially autarkic communism rather than making any kind of compromises with the old order. Other adherents of Communization, like Jasper Bernes in his essay Logistics, Counterlogistics and the Communist Project do essentially spell this out. Bernes argues the complexity of the global division of labor means revolutionary zones would have to trade with other nations to operate capitalist means of production. Bernes writes off the idea of trade since this would entail temporarily holding onto aspects of capitalism, instead suggesting that revolutionaries won’t be able to operate most capitalist forces of production. How this strategy will be capable of feeding people in a crisis situation never seems to cross his mind. At least Communization theorist Bruno Astarian in his article Communization as a Way Out of the Crisis openly admits that people may have to starve for his schemes to work out:

“Finally, there is always the chance that the supply of flour for our bakers will be sporadic, at least at first, if the proletarians at the mill prefer to discuss the meaning of love or life instead of grinding wheat. Would this lead to chaos? We shall be told that today there will be no bread. You just have to accept it. Another alternative is that someone conceives a plan, quantified and taking time scales into account, and someone else complies with its terms. In such a case not only is value reestablished. In fact, a proletarian experience of this kind has no future: if it works the proletarians will rapidly lose their rights (restoration of wage labor in one form or another); if it does not work they will return to the old framework of unemployment and unpaid wages. It is likely, in any event, that the communizing solution will not be considered until various chess matches of this kind have tried and found wanting.”

What all of this ignores is that communism isn’t possible on a local scale, and that “true” communism where value has been completely abolished will require the co-operation of all of humanity utilizing the the worlds collective productive forces. This reason alone explains why immediate communization is not possible, with transition being a necessity imposed by objective circumstances rather than the will of revolutionaries. It also misses the basic Marxist insight that it is capitalism that creates the conditions for communism in the sense of creating a globalized society (with a global class, the proletariat) with forces of production that are developed enough to allow humanity to pursue a life beyond endless toil and starvation.

Immediate communization is also impossible because of the realities of specialization under capitalism, where a large and essentially petty-bourgeois strata of professionals with skillsets necessary for the reproduction of society (surgeons for example) are able to use their monopolies on skills and information to assert a privileged position above proletarians in society. This strata would have much reason to resist communism and withhold their skills at the expense of society to assert material privileges. As a result concessions would have to given to this strata until their skill monopolies can be broken through the collective reorganization of production and education in a way to challenge the very basis of the mental/manual division of labor. Such a process would not happen overnight, problematizing the notion that a immediate transcendence of capitalism is possible. In other words transition isn’t something revolutionaries choose but something imposed by objective conditions. Communism must be created from the raw material produced by capitalism, raw materials that aren’t as malleable as the ‘revolutionary will’ of communists would like them to be.

Some communization theorists go as far as to reject the notion that the proletariat is a ‘revolutionary subject’ at all, while offering only ambiguity as to what could replace it. While Dauve seems to maintain some notion of the proletariat as the revolutionary agent other writers like Woland from SIC write about a ‘revolutionary (non-)subject’ that takes from the form of the rioter. A common theme in modern communization theory is the riot as the main form of struggle in this period. According to the communization group Blaumachen we are currently living in the ‘Era of Riots’, where the absence of strikes and prominence of riots signals the replacement of proletarian affirmation with proletarian abolition. The rioter doesn’t affirm any kind of proletarian identity through forming class-based institutions, but instead directly acts to negate capitalist relations and the state. It is seen as a form of practice that cannot be recuperated, as though the content of the riot itself is the content of communism. While it is not clear who this new subject is, it is clear what it will do: riot. The Endnotes groups seems to suggest the basis for this new revolutionary subject lies in the existence of ‘surplus populations’, or those formally excluded from the wage relation.

There is nothing new about rejecting the proletariat as the revolutionary subject yet trying to maintain some kind of revolutionary anti-capitalist ideology. In early 20th century in intellectuals like Georges Sorel, Edouard Berth and Robert Michels responded to the popularity of reformist and electoral social-democratic parties as opposed to a more active and violent class struggle by questioning the notion of socialist revolution being based in the rational class interests of the proletariat. This circle of intellectuals, detailed in Sternhell’s The Birth of Fascist Ideology, developed out of the syndicalist movement and diverged from classical marxism in a variety of ways. Sorel would develop a cult of action based on the general strike as the myth that would drive the proletariat to rebel rather than any kind of objective class interest. Berth and Michels took it a step further and argued the working class was not a revolutionary agent at all, with working class organization no longer a necessity for socialism. This abandonment of class and embrace of vitalist voluntarism led many intellectuals in this circle to embrace the nation as the revolutionary subject, becoming ideological influences on fascism.

The New Left of the 1960’s and 70’s also saw similar ideas that aimed to abandon the proletariat, the most notable being Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. While Sorel and Michels were responding to the rise of reformism Marcuse saw consumer society as the main factor integrating the working class into capitalism and pacifying it. Robbed of any dialectical opposition to capitalism by the lures of consumer society the proles were simply “one-dimensional men” with no antagonistic relation to the system. Yet for Marcuse there was still hope in the “great refusal” which would be led by third world resistance movements, student rebellions and a vague ‘oppressed’. What this looked like in practice was a fractured collection of identity and nationalist movements that were incapable of finding a commonality in the basis of class and instead became integrated into public-interest liberalism.

While the communization theorists who express doubt or even disdain for the potential of the proletariat to act as a revolutionary subject operate in a different context and with a different discourse from the Sorelians and Marcuse they are both generally informed by a sort of ‘worry about workers’. While the Sorelian lamented the rise of parliamentary reformism in favor of a more directly antagonistic syndicalist inspired by heroic myths, Marcuse was responding to the ‘post-war compromise’ where Keynesian policies were able to temporarily win a better deal for (sections of) workers under capitalist democracies. Today communization theorists are responding to the general tendencies of de-industrialization in the core economies, where a shift towards service and retail type labor in favor of manufacturing has largely made traditional labor organizing impotent. There indeed is no denying that in the US the typical proletarian is not a muscular factory worker who identifies with their labor and wants self-management but rather someone working in a call center or Mcdonalds under precarious conditions.

It is clear that the class composition and terrain of class struggle today is different from the past, and that a simple strategy of building labor parties out of trade unions won’t cut it. Yet pointing to the decline of unions and todays explosive riots to claim that ‘programmatism’ is now impossible seems like an overreaction to new conditions. Truth is that the shift towards de-industrialization, service economies and precariousness is a big blow to the traditional forms and tactics of organized labor. Yet the inherent antagonism between capital and labor and the need for workers to organize as a class within capital is there as much as ever. So while the need for class based organization on the economic front is still with us workers as a class have yet to learn how to struggle on this new class terrain. This won’t happen overnight, but will be a trial and error process that will require a break with the traditional union apparatus to open room for experimentation in tactics and strategy. It is arguable with the recent strikes in Spain of “pseudo self-employed” telecom workers that this process is happening before our eyes. We have to realize that the proletariat is not a class ready-made for revolution at any moment in history but rather must form as a class into a collective subject through creating its own institutions in society. The proletariat derives it’s social power not from the ability to shut down production but from its ability to organize as an entire class and pose an institutional alternative to the old society. This will mean reviving the ‘programmatism’ that TC claim is now permanently dead.

The “worry about workers” that haunts communization theorists is hardly a new phenomena. During any period of reaction or slow-down in the class struggle impatient revolutionaries will question the notion of a proletarian revolution and look elsewhere for revolutionary subjectivity if not completely giving up hope in marxist politics. This is not necessarily consistent among all adherents of communization however. As mentioned earlier, Gilles Dauves tends to maintain the notion of a proletarian subject while Endnotes has a more ambiguous position. Yet what all the proponents of communization do seem to have in common is a hostility to any of the ‘old forms’ of worker organization, such as parties, councils and unions. In fact there seems to be a hostility to the very notion that the proletariat can form mass organizations within capitalism that can be a basis for the overthrow of capitalism. The whole approach seems to hinge on a spontaneous rupture with the value-form that will create entirely novel forms in the process of struggle itself, with struggles themselves taking up communizing measures of out necessity. While there is legitimacy to the notion that new forms of class organization arise in struggles, this reliance on spontaneity offers little to conscious communists in terms of moving forward in formulating a coherent revolutionary strategy. Overall communization theorists are too quick to dismiss the “old forms” as completely obsolete due to new conditions. When it comes to pointing out these new conditions journals like Endnotes do have much of value to say, yet when it comes to explaining why exactly these changes make old forms fully obsolete the answers are very abstract and unconvincing.

In the end communization theory isn’t a progression or advancement in Marxism, but a repeat of past bad politics. In the same way that 1970’s Urban Guerilla groups like the Weather Underground repeated the arguments of Nardonik terrorists from Russia in the late 19th century, arguments regarding the transition period are mostly a return to the ideas of Kropotkin but phrased through citations of Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse. On the other hand the search for a ‘revolutionary (non-)subject’ that some communizers like Woland of SIC espouse is just repeat of pessimism about the working class from the Sorelian revisionists or the Marcuse inspired wing of the New Left.

Breaks from orthodoxy may not always be as innovative as they initially seem and simply open the door to confusing or dangerous ideas instead of a way to move forward. Communization theorists in many ways create a vision of revolution so idealistic and abstract that revolution basically becomes impossible. The vision of a millenarian rupture that immediately breaks with capitalism may be an appealing fantasy but in the end is simply a fantasy. The result of recent waves of spontaneous riots in Ukraine and Greece was Euromaidan and Syriza’s government respectively. Solving political questions and changing society requires positive programme and the organizational capacity to pose an alternative to the current regime. If it is indeed true that these are relics of the past (‘programmatism’) then communism is basically impossible.

My Political Journey: On Left Communism and Isolation in 21st Century

Here’s an article from a Croatian communist group Svjetska Revolucija (World Revolution) that makes some basic critiques of the diffuse tendency that is modern day ‘left-communism’. While left-communism has been an important influence on CLT’s politics we also feel it is necessary to engage in critique of this tendency and to develop a communist politics that can address current conditions and build a real alternative to the current leftist swamp. While the critiques in this article are by no means complete nor do they represent the views of all members in CLT we reposted it because we believe it’s a good start for a conversation that needs to take place. 

Original article can be found here.


It is important to state how the following text represents the view of one member in our collective and is not necessarily the views of the collective as whole. Even though we tend to publish material that represents the collective as whole, the nature of this text is polemical and it’s coloured in the personal remarks of one our members.

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I’ve started writing this text a few times and stopped to ask myself “is there any point in writing this?”, mostly because I am not the type of person that likes to attack political movements or “milieus” that I used to be part of. Still, I believe that sometimes, when a person is at a certain turning point in their political consciousness it is good to write down some thoughts in order to clear things out, not just with themselves, but also with people that they’ve communicated with over the years – and with which they’d like to continue to communicate with.

After few years of trying to organise a group in my country (which is actually working better then I’ve expected) and communicating and visiting other left communists and left communist groups, I’ve grown apart from left communism. In this article I will try to present why that happened to me and what are in my opinion some of the problems with left communism of today. I recognize that for some left communists I might not be the one of “them”, because I was never a part of “the big groups” but a member of small collective. Nevertheless, I’m not particularly interested in such nitpicking as I don’t think that one should be member of one of the “international” groups to be a left communist but one should be engaged in class and political struggle to be so.

This text is a critique of the left communism of today as I’m not interested in politics of 20th century as much as I’m interested about our present. Also, the point of this text isn’t “to bash” left communism and scream some sectarian nonsense, but to raise a certain critique and ask certain questions that many younger left communists, especially those that are not affiliated with any of “the big groups”, are asking these days. The ideas presented in this article are aimed at opening up a discussion around what we can do today instead of talking about how we can defend yesterday.

LEFT COMMUNISM TODAY

I want to start this critique by saying how it is really weird to call yourself a left communist in the 21st century. When I first heard of left communism I asked myself “what does the left stand for?” And even to anyone who knows a little bit about left communist history it is perfectly clear what the name of tendency stands for, but we can still ask the question: what exactly are left communists the left of?

To continue, I believe that left communism as a political tendency and as a tradition, does not belong in 21st century. In my understanding, it is an ideology that belongs to 1920’s splits and opposition within the Communist International. During that time left communists were the real tendency of the real communist movement and their activity, lessons, and history are really important for us if we want to understand the Russian Revolution, struggles within the Bolshevik Party, and the Comintern.

However, today we don’t have the communist working class movement (we can’t even talk about labour or union/syndicalist movement, because unions compete more than they work together), so there is nothing to “be the left of”. In other words, left communist politics demands strong social-democratic movement so that it can offer its alternatives to its militants.

We could say that left communist ideas have a historical significance and how some of their lessons are really important for communists of today. But at the same time, a lot of the political ideas of today’s left communist are inherited from the 20’s and they haven’t evolved much with the times. In that I mean that the conditions of capitalist reproduction have changed, class dynamics has changed, but nobody has adapted to it. Except perhaps in the cases of ideas that were put up by left communist groups formed in the 70’s, but those ideas, for example the idea of decadence, were merely used to canonise the infallibility and stubbornness of a lack of analysis and involvement with the class.

ABSTRACT POLITICS AND SECTARIANISM

One of my main problems with left communism is its focus, and even sometimes obsession, with ideological and abstract politics. That focus makes left communism both appalling and unattractive at the same time, but to different types of communist “militants”. On the one hand, it is really developed and shaped “thought system” that, once you embrace it, makes perfect sense and has an answer to an every question. On the other hand, it is a very closed and dogmatic system based upon “true believer principles” that is increasing its hostility towards the rest of the left and every class action with every minute. It is a system that is based on ideal conceptions of everything; from ideal class action, to ideal intervention, to ideal organisation, to ideal discussion, but it offers very little experience in actual practice.

As I’ve stated, left communism focuses on ideological and abstract politics rather than on class dynamics, struggles, needs, problems, etc.

For example, among certain “Internet left communists” we can see a constant need for quoting he writings of Amadeo Bordiga as an example of such behaviour, mostly because his closed ideological system doesn’t motivate people to leave their rooms, leading people to the belief that they are doing something important and significant. Indeed, it is an ideological krokodil that destroys the flesh of young generations of political militants that have overcome classical leftist voluntarism and activism. Also, these kinds of politics depend on the isolation that most communist “militants” are facing every day.

Left communism focuses on building of an ideal political platforms and is quite hostile to outside world – especially to the left. And by the left I’m not only thinking about other various political currents that were created as an answer to defeat of October Revolution, but I’m thinking about left communism itself.

A lot of us younger communists wanted to join existing organisations rather than creating our own groups and collectives. There are numerous reasons, from the fact that it’s easier to be part of something that already exists and has its own functions and protocols, to the fact that it is incredibly hard to start off as a new group. In most cases, what we have got from those groups were dogmas and sectarianism.

 ACTIVISM, CLASS STRUGGLE AND PARTICIPATION

 As I’ve stated before in the text, the problem with left communism is that its class dynamics is rooted in the 1920’s instead of our present. It is for this reason that their political judgements are clouded with almost a century old political decisions and discussions that affects their present, especially when discussing class action, activism, and interventions of communists in the struggles.

And while the majority of other left political tendencies tend to be voluntaristic, and tend to do “actions for sake of actions”, left communism subscribes to another extreme. That is, as I’ve said already in text, waiting for ideal class action to make ideal intervention. If there is no such class action to intervene to left communist stay on the side criticising, observing, discussing, but never participating. So, even we understand the need to criticise activist voluntarism, we also understand the need to criticise ideological idealism that results in total inactivity.

Indeed, what we need today is neither activism nor ideology, but communist politics and action based upon concrete foundation and class dynamics. In other words, we need a political action that comes from the class, but we also need political action from communists to which a working class can relate to. Communists must stop thinking about their petty fights on “the leftist scene” and concentrate on answering the question: how is our political activity relevant to the working class? When one answers that question there will be no more need for hiding behind activism and ideology.

Expecting ideal class actions and interventions is also pointless, because today in the 21st century, the peak of class action are spontaneous wildcat strikes or struggles of workers whose companies are facing lock downs (this is written mostly from a Croatian perspective). These struggles have their good and bad sides, in the sense that while they unite workers outside of institutions of capitalist management, they are also doomed on failure because they are isolated from the rest of the class. Nevertheless, this article is not the place where I’d go into detail about these struggles. My main point was to indicate how one should take every struggle into account and try to learn from them, especially if the type of struggle is repetitive in various workplaces. Only by understanding class dynamics can we affect new struggles with our knowledge and experience.

Also, one shouldn’t be afraid of reforms or struggles for reforms. A lot of reformist struggles have “revolutionary” potential, because people are united under a common goal because of problems that affect their lives. There is nothing wrong if they fight and win. There is nothing wrong in gaining something, no matter how big of an “illusion” it might be. If it improves lives of the working class then it is worth it.

IS THERE ANY ALTERNATIVE?

So, is there any alternative to left communism?

As I’ve repeated few times in this text, in my opinion the key is to have communist politics based on clear and concrete foundations and class dynamics. It is necessary to abandon ideological and activist approaches and start to think about the class and how our activity may be relevant to it. This of course, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have positions or discussions about abstract subjects, but it means that our course of action and preoccupation must be the class.

The best way, at least how I see it, to achieve that goal is trough our own workplaces, unions, and everyday life. Of course, there is necessity for local groups of communists, but we should also be aware that we too are workers and that we need to act in our workplaces. In that way one is not just a distant observer of class action, but an active participant. Of course, there is nothing wrong in being and observer but a lot of communists just stay in that role instead of embracing the active role of conscious proletarian.

By analysing class dynamics and other factors that affect it, we are not only deepening our own knowledge about how capitalism functions today, but we are developing an “archive” of struggles, and attempts for the future. Documenting workers struggles and their failures or gains gives us opportunity to learn from the class and to understand the way in which capital defends itself.

Iskra