It is my opinion that there has developed something of a confusion on the left between the essence (or content) of our anti-capitalist struggle and the changing form it often takes. In general it is obvious that there is a conceptual as well as a real practical difference between the form something takes and the essence or content of which it comprises. However, this distinction is not always consistently applied particularly on issues which are emotionally charged or counter-intuitive. A recognisable everyday example would be the fact that the liquid H20 can take a number of forms without changing its essential essence of being a mixture of gasses. Gasses, which in this combination, can move from liquid (water), to solid (ice) and gas (steam) and back again. The various forms can be chosen according to the application we require – ice for drinks, water to wash and steam to iron. In general the form the essence takes, or the form we choose to use it in, depends upon the purpose we intend.
It is also almost trite to say that other aspects of life, emotions such as love and anger, for example, can also take many forms as can generosity. When we choose to share the essence of such aspects of life, the form we decide upon is guided by what we think is appropriate or ‘fit’s the purpose’. And of course, there are many, many other things which this distinction and selection applies to. What has this generalised distinction to do with our anti-capitalist struggles and discussions, you might ask? I suggest we need to be careful in our anti-capitalist theorising and activities that we keep this ‘form fit for purpose’ in mind as well as the distinction between essence and form. In general I would argue that for our own side in the struggle against capital; the form should not subvert the essence and the essence should not be undermined or derailed by the form we support. For this reason it is worth reviewing an important essence of the nature of capital and the struggle against it.
When we consider the question of the capitalist form of society, the human content and essence of the socio-economic system is the existence of classes. In politics and law all citizens of capitalist countries are formally equal – one vote whether you are rich or poor. The inequality of humanity within global capitalism lies not in the political nature of capitalist society, but in its economic structure. The essence of the problem created by capitalism and solution for working and oppressed classes is determined by their historic separation from the means of production and separation from the surplus value they create. The problem for the working and oppressed, living under capitalism is to end this separation. It is the fact of this economic division and separation, which is also the actual and potential basis for their unity. The form that necessary unity takes can and does differ according to the circumstances developing within capitalist society. However, the further ’content’ (or ‘essence’ of the struggle – the need for unity – remains basically the same.
This is because, as we know, only a large degree of unity on a large-scale will suffice to overcome the rule of the capitalist class and end the historic separation of the mass of citizens from the means of production and the surplus they create. So in the struggle of the working class and oppressed, against the power and influence of the capitalist class and their supporters, the essential content and essence of that struggle is unity. But we also need to recognise that the form this unity takes changes with the changed circumstances and needs to change – particularly if the form is no longer fit for purpose. For the sake of brevity the following broad, and somewhat crudely drawn, sections may illustrate the question of retaining and developing the essence by a constantly changing form of workers unity.
A) Unity under a boom period for Capitalism.
In times of capitalist boom, there unavoidably exists an assertive sectional struggle for enhancing the wages, salaries and working conditions. There are also campaigns for or against other such social issues. The basis of success in this ‘boom’ stage of the class struggle lies in the relative strength of sectional and fragmented forms of unity. The forms of this sectional type of unity are trade unions, political parties, and single issue campaign groups. The success of otherwise of these forms, depends upon the degree of strength and unity in action which they create and the weakness of the forces they oppose. [This section is intentionally very short section as we are no longer in a boom period.]
B) Unity during a crisis period for Capitalism.
In a crisis period when the wages, conditions and social benefits are under attack, the above form of sectional unity is usually insufficient to defend any attack by powerful forces, wielded by the employers and the state. Even during the 1970’s, when the first attacks began upon the European working class, the trade union form of organisations was in many instances impeding the fight-back. In the UK, for example, workers at Lucas Aerospace produced a detailed plan of alternative production, to avoid redundancies. They promoted the plan to management and union bosses, with little success.
“The workers at Lucas Aerospace actually saw their aspirations trampled under the feet of many of their full-time officials who used inadequate, out of date, trade-union structures to fight their own members. The management loved it.” (J. Rooker. quoted in ‘The Lucas Plan’ H. Wainwright and D. Elliot. Pub Allison and Busby. p 13.)
The lessons of these and other struggles indicate that the essence of the struggle is still the same – the need for organisational unity – but for success the previous form needs to change in order to be ‘fit for purpose’ in the new conditions. Across-sector unity is at this stage required. Across-community social and welfare solidarity is also required, for which the old sectional, trade union, single issue campaigns and political party affiliation are generally insufficient. Many of these previous forms can also stand as a barrier to be overcome rather than as units supporting or morphing into the new forms. The new forms required are such initiatives as the contemporary ‘Unite against the Cuts‘, Unite the Resistance’, ’Coalition against the cuts‘, the ‘occupy’ movement etc., etc.
However, the old forms may (or will to some degree) persist in the hands of those who mistake the form for the essence or worse still think – the form is the essence – and therefore will not let go of, or subordinate the old form, to the new. Particular obstacles to this development are the entrenched Trade Union Bureaucrats as in the case of the Lucas workers. Other obstacles are presented by the sectarian party builders who think they and their party are the leadership ‘essence’ of the unity the working and oppressed need. Both therefore often sabotage the new forms by hi-jacking them on the one hand or boycotting them on the other. Consequently a difficult struggle is currently taking place to initiate the new forms and create, at least in embryo, broader structures for enhanced forms of unity.
C) Unity during a pre-revolutionary period.
Obviously, the essential need for unity and developing it in such a pre-revolutionary period remains the same, but is the above form sufficient?. The working class need even further levels of unity as the system plunges into severe crisis. In such circumstances the crisis threatens not just their previous aspirations for good wages, conditions, full employment etc., or even the modified aspiration to defend the existing conditions. In the new circumstances their very livelihood and that of their children is in serious jeopardy.
In this situation, the need for across sector general unity presses in the direction of a flourishing and expansion of the grass-roots and across-sector initiatives mentioned in the previous section. However, if conditions deteriorate, alongside these, unity of the oppressed may also take the form of, factory occupations, politicised strikes, uprisings, general strikes and mass demonstrations of civil disobedience. All of which have occurred in the Middle East and North Africa and are again kicking off in Greece – as they will elsewhere sooner or later! These quickly emergent forms of assertive unity may flow past, through or around the previous unity campaigns and give the appearance of pre-revolutionary chaos. If these forms remain separate, competing and disunited, they will dissipate the energy and commitment of the masses, which needs to unified and focussed. A new form of organisational unity is therefore then required, and if achieved, leads to, or points beyond, this pre-revolutionary stage.
D) Unity during a revolutionary period.
It was during pre-revolutionary and revolutionary periods in the past that further innovative forms of unity were created from within the ranks of the oppressed. Workers and the oppressed produced the innovative and creative form of ‘workers councils‘, ‘peoples assemblies‘, ‘community action and defence squads’ etc. Soviets as they became known in Czarist Russia. The reason these new forms were created, is because the previous forms were insufficient or ill-equipped to achieve the required unity and breadth of operations needed in the new circumstances. In many cases previous forms had become an actual bureaucratised impediment to achieving and maintaining the ‘essence’ of the growing unity. With these new forms, each factory, office, shop (supermarket now), public service organisation, unemployed, pensioners etc., would create its own rank and file workers or peoples committees or assemblies to discuss their situation, initiate practical measures and link up with other such organisational bodies.
At some point in such a rapidly developing situation, a regional council of councils, or assembly of assemblies will need to be formed in order to co-ordinate and unify the separate councils. All these organisational forms have been created in the past and at that point – if it is reached – a situation of dual power will exist, in which, the local, regional and national assemblies, increasingly take the economic and social affairs of society into their own hands. At the same time the existing oppressors organs of state will become neutralised and then abolished by the workers and peoples assemblies.
It is clear that the form of the essential unity will have necessarily changed radically from the situation faced during the boom period. At each stage of development there will be those who having become accustomed to the form they feel best or most comfortable with, will resist the changes necessary. They may cling onto old forms in an attempt to perpetuate them. If they succeed in this endeavour they will most probably hamper the full development of the essence of the working class struggle to overthrow the system. Revolutionary-humanists and other such anti-capitalists, will need to assist the working and oppressed to resist such reactionary attachment to old forms and assist, as far as they are able, in these revolutionary transformations and developments in the form of unity.
E) Unity in any future Post-Capitalist period.
The success of the situation described above as ‘a condition of dual power‘, will depend upon a number of factors, beyond the scope of this article. In their efforts, the combined workers and oppressed, in their assemblies and councils, will either first, undermine the basis of support for the existing regime and then destroy the remnants of its power base (the state and political parties) take over the running of the economic and social affairs of society or they will fail. If they fail, for lack of unity and achieving an appropriate form for that unity, they will be devastated as a class and be returned to the old, and even worse conditions than before. However, that possibility aside, since the problem under capitalism is the separation of the people who work, from the means of production and access to the surplus value created, the new form of unity will have to allow this creative, grass-roots-owned activity to commence and develop. The form for the new post-capitalist phase will therefore be essentially a modified model of the form created during the revolutionary period with a relinquishing of those aspects which become unnecessary and redundant. It would not be a return to the forms of organisation fitted to previous stages of possible unity, but a further advance to the new.
F) In conclusion.
At each stage in the above roughly outlined phases, the forms of workers unity achieved at one stage of the capitalist economic cycle are rarely sufficiently useful for other stages. Indeed some, if not all, previous ossified forms, if not sufficiently altered or even abolished, can become vested-interest barriers or impediments to further forms of unity. The fetishisation of one form and its elevation to a principle can in fact undermine or subvert the essential unity required by the new circumstances as they unfold. The role of revolutionary-humanists and other revolutionary anti-capitalists, I suggest, is to assist the workers in recognising, nurturing and augmenting the ‘essence’ of the working class struggle for unity – in all its stages – in opposition to the capitalist system. Although we are far from a revolutionary situation at the moment, as revolutionary anti-capitalists we should not cling to ineffective ‘forms’ of unity or struggle, out of some abstract past loyalty or familiarity to an existing or preferred form. Nor should we necessarily perpetuate or create forms suggested or approved by the ruling class, particularly those which may impede, misdirect, divide or confuse the working and oppressed. At each stage we should also bring to the workers our anti-capitalist ideas on the limitations of the capitalist mode of production, its contradictions, its blind alleys and its limitless drive to exhaust and impoverish the masses of people and the ecological welfare of the whole globe.
Finally. Given the current debate on political parties, I suggest in the light of the above and generations of experience, the political party method of obtaining the required workers unity, whoever originally championed it, should not be viewed as a form set in concrete. It has proven in the past and in contemporary practice to be a divisive, exclusive, elitist form and has failed to achieve even a modicum of workers unity over the last 100 years. It is a form which was excellent for the tasks of the Greek Aristocracy who invented it based on the ‘polis‘; great for the capitalist class, who can corrupt party leaders or destroy them; great for the sectarians who can control and manipulate their members, but so far a dismal failure for the unity of working and oppressed people. Indeed, it should not come as a surprise to also mention that political parties are often explicitly or implicitly sectarian, precisely because of the following.
Their members and founders; a) assume by forming one or joining one they know better than anyone else what needs doing; b) they de-facto exclude those who do not support their programme and platform, often expelling those who disagree; c) engage in a consistent recruitment warfare against other parties and groups; d) promote loyalty to a particular organisational form and to a party line, rather than to a class, principle or essence; e) are frequently characterised by extreme bitterness toward those who speak out against them; f) successfully divide the working and oppressed on the basis of being voters for different parties; and g) create leaders out of the talented and followers out of the rest. So on the question of working class unity I suggest we need to seriously champion the notion mentioned above that whatever organisational form we support, the form should not subvert the essence and the essence should not be undermined or derailed by the form we support.
R. Ratcliffe (February 2012.) http://www.critical-mass.net