“..Patience – the first condition of learning anything – studying a matter thoroughly.” (Letter: Marx to Sorge. 1881.)
Whilst there is general agreement among revolutionary anti-capitalists that from a human, ecological and environmental perspective, there is a need to get from the present system of capitalism to a post-capitalist one, there is little agreement over what that system might look like, or the mechanisms for achieving such a transition. And, even though the system of capital is now in deep and prolonged crisis, there still seems to be very little appetite for exploring these areas in detail. Such anti-capitalist discourse, as exists at the moment, generally functions on two unhelpful levels. The first is replete with abstractions and logical deductions which bear no relationship to the real historical and contemporary context. The second level resembles the detailed textual exegesis normally associated with obscure scriptural studies.
The first noted level uses terms such as ’revolution’, ‘general strike‘, ‘socialist reconstruction‘, ‘building a party’, ‘austerity’, etc., which currently litter the pages of left publications, leaflets and are wielded in debates, with the assumption that everyone understands what they signify and agree with what they imply. Yet it is clear from the fragmentation of the anti-capitalist left, that there is no such agreement over what such concepts signify nor what they actually include or exclude. For this reason, these and other important matters, need studying thoroughly by contemporary adherents and recruits to this developing milieu. If those who openly declare themselves anti-capitalists are not sufficiently clear and/or contradictory on these important questions, how are the intended audience (new recruits to anti-capitalism along with workers and other oppressed sections) to make sense of it?
In contrast to the above, under the impact of the crisis, some on the anti-capitalist left have been drawn into detailed polemics over who ‘correctly’ understands what transpired in a meeting of the Russian Social Democratic Party in 1895 or events occurring in 1903. This type of literary archaeology, or sadly what begins to more resemble a Leninist form of soteriology (i.e. a doctrine of salvation via a particular iconic figure), might be useful if it were possible to get at the reality as it actually occurred, but of course it is not.
Even attentive participants in current events/meetings can come away with different interpretations of what occurred or what was meant, and within hours, let alone months or years, this gap can widen. Hence, despite the need for minutes and the acceptance of them later, there still arise disagreements over whether they represent a true and correct record – or not. These types of disputes are a regular occurrence – particularly on the left. How much more is this likely with regard to disputes over the minutes of meetings dating back a hundred years or so?
All that can be achieved in such esoteric, point-scoring debates is who can come up with the most plausible or convincing explanation out of the conflicting interpretations of the available evidence. And perhaps the interpretations are also conflicting precisely because – one suspects – the debates are being used to substantiate not just different but superior intellectual positions thus justifying a particular organisational form or perhaps even candidature for future leadership positions.
So it seems we are currently in the position where interested workers, new recruits to anti-capitalism and other oppressed sectors are urged to support problematic abstractions, such as those noted earlier, or follow impenetrable polemics, such as those noted above, on the mere say so of one or other of those fragmented elements. Is that at all likely? I think not. Particularly, bearing in mind the following.
These anti-capitalist fragments comprise of many of those who themselves have insufficiently considered the historical implementation of these concepts or evaluated their continued bearing (positively or negatively) on the contemporary class struggle. For example, I suggest that few on the contemporary revolutionary anti-capitalist left understand with any detailed and convincing clarity;
a) Exactly what they are fighting against. (austerity? – cuts – pension alterations? – too often these are also just abstractions – and as such are mere substitutes for serious analysis of the ongoing crisis. There is also a lack of analysis with regard to the readiness of workers and oppressed to engage in either sectional, partial or general forms of struggle.)
b) What form of post-capitalist society they are fighting for. (Socialism? – Communism? Both are terminally discredited practices and concepts – needing de-construction and any remaining revolutionary-humanist ‘essence‘ rescuing from those various forms.)
c) What means and forms are useful and trustworthy in achieving such aims. (Demonstrations? – petitions? – one day General Strikes? – all failed methods!: revolutionary parties? – Stalinist, Leninist, Trotskyist, and Maoist – so far all these have become moribund sects and need critical examination and alternatives found.)
Whilst a) is an area of struggle negotiated within the wider class struggle, the areas covered by points b) and c) are matters of crucial concern to those calling for unity amongst the anti-capitalist movement. And, as the crisis deepens, they will also be of crucial importance in discussions with the more far-sighted elements among the working and oppressed. The limitations of reforming capitalism (hence really understanding its economic structure – not just a few of its current financial symptoms) and thus the need to go beyond it – will need convincing explanation by those describing themselves as anti-capitalists.
If we cannot convince workers and others that capitalism is systemically degenerate and that there is alternative form of post-capitalism, which does not replicate the trajectory of the Soviet Union, or Communist China, then they are hardly likely to support a revolutionary anti-capitalist or post-capitalist project. Likewise if we cannot convince workers and other oppressed sectors that there are forms of organisation which do not produce authoritarian, elitist, sectarian and bureaucratic monstrosities, then they are unlikely to become a coherent part of the struggle – even if they were convinced of the need to go beyond capital.
For these reasons, one of the most urgent requirements of the anti-capitalist movement, in my opinion, is a thorough, critical, evaluative study of; i) the degeneration of the Soviet Union and China, from the stand-point of the working and oppressed – and how this outcome could be avoided in future. ii) the ‘core values’ of, and the subsequent degeneration of, the concept and practice of the revolutionary ‘party’ into its reactionary opposite, needs further examination – again from the standpoint of the working and oppressed classes. This study would need to include a consideration of just what form of organisation could prevent this fatal defect in future.
Most people, (but sadly not all) learn from experience and of course, experience will present itself as events unfold. Mistakes made now can hopefully be rectified later. However, sensible people – even in the heat of struggle – also learn from the past experiences of others, which are embedded in the historical and literary records of past struggles. For anti-capitalists, to fail to seriously study, such embodied experience and knowledge from the past, and relate this to the present and future situation, can only serve to disarm and discredit them among their peers and among the working and oppressed classes.
Only the examination of different perspectives and competing, relevant evidence-sources on these questions can provide a more than one-sided and therefore useful, evaluation. Hopefully the new interest in anti-capitalism will produce new research undertaken not to select evidence which substantiates a pre-conceived or habit-formed opinion, but research which is not afraid of accepting evidence contradicting present inherited beliefs. And for that more than sound-bite, face-book and twitter conversations are necessary. Hence the importance of initiatives such as provided by Greater Manchester Anti-capitalist coalition blog and other initiatives of similar intent. Otherwise there is a danger of modern recruits to anti-capitalism, repeating the examples of those who went before us, of whom Marx also had this to say.
“Instead of first of all thoroughly studying the new science themselves, each of them preferred to trim it to fit the point of view he had brought along, made himself forthwith a private science of his own and at once came forward with the profession of wanting to teach it.” (Marx and Engels to Bebel and others September 1879.)
I will argue, in a further article, that any constructive evaluation of the party and the post-capitalist debacle in the Soviet Union and elsewhere cannot be adequately done, without a good understanding of Marx’s humanist position on economics and politics. In my view, a critical evaluation of Lenin and Trotsky, without a foundational understanding of Marx, (since they claimed to be following Marx) will yield results of little benefit to the progress of the anti-capitalist struggle. All that can be realistically achieved by exclusive recourse to, or commencing with, Lenin and Trotsky, as sources for study, is a continuing recycling of the sectarian, dogmatic myths and distortions, promoted and histrionically distributed, during the past half-century of anti-capitalist division and failure.
R. Ratcliffe. (March 2012.)
See also ‘Form and essence in the anti-capitalist struggle.’ Capital and Crisis’, and ‘Revolutionary Party (Help or Hindrance)’ the last two accessed via clicking on the titles above.