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north america / mexico / the left / opinion / analysis Wednesday December 30, 2020 07:55 byWayne Price
Liberals and others declare that the defeat of Donald Trump and of his coup-attempts demonstrate that "the system works," that the U.S.A. has an effective "democracy." I cannot see it that way.Among Democrats, liberals and more “moderate” types, there has been a huge sense of relief—even in spite of Trump’s post-election shenanigans. Whatever Joseph Biden’s imperfections they say, the crazed, corrupt, vicious, and incompetent Donald Trump has been thrown out of office. He lost both the popular and Electoral College votes by significant margins. And despite his post-election campaign to overturn the results (with court cases, pressure on state officials, and even threats of martial law), he has failed miserably to change the outcome. So the system worked. Thank God for “democracy”!
I cannot see it that way. To some extent this view is like being blinded by the fact that covid-19 vaccines have been developed. See, our system of health care works! But the only reason we are glad for the vaccines is that we had the pandemic. The pandemic was exceptionally awful in the U.S. due to our lack of universal health care plus the incompetence of the Trump administration. Millions of U.S. people were deliberately misled to oppose reasonable health measures. Even with the vaccines, an effective system of producing and distributing vaccines has yet to be implemented. Worst of all, is the probability that other pandemics will come. This is due to capitalism’s policies of industrializing agriculture, spreading urbanization, violating boundaries of jungles and forests, as well as the effects of global climate change on world ecological balance. So, yes, it is great that vaccines have been developed, just as it is good that Trump has been ejected from office. But don’t say, the system has worked.
Trump’s 2016 election was an example of the system breaking down. Obviously incompetent and bizarre, he beat some 14 other candidates for the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. The establishment of the party did not want him, nor did most of the big donors behind them. But they had so miseducated their base, that the Republican base saw no reason to reject someone who seemed likely to carry out their fantasies. Given that our politics are geared to only two parties (so if you don’t like one you have to support the other), and that U.S. people are educated to look for a great leader to solve their problems (whether Obama or Trump), he fit the bill.
Hillary Rodham Clinton was seen as—and was—more of the same-old same-old establishment which had left unemployment, poverty, and misery in vast stretches of rural and semi-rural industrial regions. Trump seemed as different as could be. Deeply “religious” evangelicals and others liked his opposition to abortion. And he was open about his racism and nativism, which attracted many (other supporters were not attracted by his racism but were not sufficiently bothered by it either). He talked a good game and was entertaining.
And so Trump lost the 2016 election. By about three million, he lost what is charmingly called the “popular vote” (which in most countries is simply “the vote”). But the geographical distribution of the votes was such that he won the Electoral College. The Electoral College is only one of the many undemocratic elements which are baked into the U.S. political system. Others are the Senate where every state, no matter its size or population gets two senators, elected for six years. The majority of the Senate represents a minority of the country. The judiciary is appointed for life. The House of Representatives is elected through highly gerrymandered districts, so incumbents are hard to get rid of. And don’t get me started on the structures of the state governments! This is even before considering the role of big money in elections. These undemocratic aspects are obvious and difficult to defend, but nothing is done about them. They all serve to limit the democratic elements of the system and to strengthen the actual rule of the capitalist elite.
Having been legally “elected” (much to his own surprise), Trump preceded to wreck the government and country. He pleased the corporate rich and their Republican minions by signing a huge tax cut for them, as well as cutting business regulations. He appointed hundreds of pro-business judges to every level of the federal judiciary. These actions led the capitalists and the Republicans to put up with his otherwise odd and destructive behaviors. He waged war on the environment (threatening the future of humanity). To the dismay of the imperialist establishment, he antagonized U.S. allies and cozied up to various opponent strongmen rulers, especially Putin. He betrayed the Kurds. He separated children from their parents at the border and threw them into cages. He degraded Congress by ignoring its subpoenas and oversight; he de-professionalized and politicized all aspects of the executive branch, from the FDA to the FBI, from the Department of Justice to the weather bureau. By actions and rhetoric, he whipped up racial and other divisions among the people. And he constantly, incessantly, and blatantly lied about everything. This last seems to be not just a strategy but a deeply ingrained personality defect. (This is a mere sample of the terrible things Trump did.)
In response, the Republican Party threw its support almost totally behind him, backing every vicious action and unhinged behavior. The Democrats chose to impeach him, using their majority in the House, on the basis of one of his lesser crimes. They made an overwhelming case for his conviction, but the Republican-controlled Senate rejected it without serious consideration. So he went on trashing and crashing the government and country. Even the ruling corporate rich got tired of him and worried about the costs to their country (and their investments in it). By the 2018 mid-term elections, his party was routed in the House—but kept, and even expanded, its majority in the Senate.
Then came the coronavirus. Donald Trump’s management of government responses to the pandemic was remarkably stupid, incompetent, dishonest, and just plain wacky. Other countries with conservative leaders managed to deal with the plague in more-or-less effective ways. But Trump went from denying its existence, to advocating weird treatments (injections of bleach!), to holding super-spreader events, to interfering with the scientists and doctors at the FDA and CDC, to simply ignoring the issue by the end of his term. The sickness and death rates of the U.S.A. led the world. The economy, which had continued a brittle “recovery” since the Great Recession, plunged downward.
Trump’s policies accelerated political trends in the country: the dissolution of a “moderate” middle. The Republicans, once a “moderate” center-right party, now developed into a far-right cult with a fascist fringe. There has been a growth of out-and-out fascists, U.S. Nazis and other white nationalists, who carry guns to rallies and advocate overthrowing the government.
The Democrats had been slowly moving to the right, until they became the new center-right party. But they had to accommodate an upsurge on their left. There were big demonstrations by young adults against global warming. Polls showed large numbers of young people identifying as “socialists.” Bernie Sanders twice ran for president within the Democrats, as a “democratic socialist.” (By this he meant something like the liberal-capitalist Nordic countries, such as Denmark or Sweden.) Sanders lost both times. The right wing of the party (“moderates”) threw its weight behind Clinton and then Biden, to deny Bernie the nomination. Yet a large part of the country’s youth has come to regard themselves as some sort of “socialist.” The Democratic Socialists of America surged to around 85 thousand. Meanwhile there has also been an expansion of people attracted to anarchism. All this signifies a swing to the left.
Then there was the explosion of mass protest over the police murder of George Floyd. Declaring Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations occurred all over the country, in spite of the pandemic, in cities, towns, and villages, raising issues of justice for African-Americans, with a large participation of white people. The left wing of the movement called for “Defunding the Police,” or even abolition of the police and prisons—really anarchist demands, since they would be impossible under capitalism and its state. The Democrats did all they could to channel the movement into the election. They opened up a “progressive wing,” for the admirers of Sanders, AOC, and Elizabeth Warren, to corral the frustrated leftists. To a degree this worked. But the anger and militancy has not gone away.
Would There Be a Coup?
It was highly probable (not inevitable) that Trump would lose his re-election bid. He had been unpopular since the beginning of his term (although there was a strange wide-spread belief that he had been good for the economy). Most of the capitalists had had enough of his incompetence and weirdness. They showed this by making most of their donations to Biden, by about two to one. (Had the Democratic nomination gone to Sanders or Warren, they might have felt differently—which is largely why Biden was chosen.) Their agents in the establishment felt similarly. Day after day, leading generals, civil service officials, national security specialists, and former Trump officials, declared their opposition to Trump.
As it became increasingly obvious that Trump was losing, he retreated ever deeper into denial and lying, insisting that he was winning, and indeed had won by a landslide. Republican efforts at voter suppression failed to overcome the popular vote (despite sabotaging the postal service to interfere with mail-in ballots). Trump and his minions sunk deeper into denial and farce. They were not just asking for recounts here and there but the overturning of the election. They asked for judges to annul various states’ popular votes. They called on state legislatures to cancel the results of their people’s votes and to create their own pro-Trump electors for the Electoral College. There was talk at the highest levels of Trump’s supporters, and Trump himself, of declaring martial law, seizing ballot boxes, and calling “new elections” (under the guns of the soldiers and police).
Despite hysteria among some liberals, a Trumpist coup was unlikely to be attempted. Trump had antagonized the leadership of all branches of the military as well as most of the “intelligence community” (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.). It is difficult to make a coup without the support of the military and national police. The capitalist class did not want it. All the big lawyers who were the top representatives of the capitalists stayed away from Trump’s legal comedy acts, and conservative judges threw his cases out with scorn. The majority of the population, which had voted for Biden, certainly did not want a coup, nor even, when it came down to it, did most of those who had voted Republican. However, it was important that the militant wing of the left (even some unions) prepared to call demonstrations, civil disobedience, and strikes, in case Trump made a serious attempt. .
What Trump gained by his campaign of denial (aside from his perverse psychological need to insist that he won) was the support of a huge minority of the population, which believes his lies about a stolen election. He may use them in the future. And a lot of money, which the old con man had grifted from his large base of suckers for his supposed “defense.”
While Trump’s coup attempts failed miserably, they exposed the fault lines through which a future coup may be more effectively attempted one day. Suppose the crises repeat until there is a mass movement calling for taking away the wealth and power of the capitalist class and creating a radically democratic political and economic system—a movement led by a united front of radical socialists and anarchists. Fearing for their wealth and status, the capitalists and their politicians (of both parties) will use the methods which Trump tried to use. They will overturn elections and ban popular protests, using their judges and gerrymandered state legislatures. Using the Insurrection Act, they will declare martial law. They will also mobilize a base of tens of thousands of hysterical, deluded, white people into an organized armed movement. Whether these methods will succeed (as they did in fascist coups in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Chile, among other places) depends heavily on whether the left-led mass movement has the militancy and organization to fight back in a revolutionary manner.
The “progressive wing” of the Democrats is already disappointed by the Biden-Harris administration. Others have praised Biden for his appointment of experienced old timers (compared to the Trump circus of crooks and arrogant incompetents)—but this also means continuing old policies and worldviews. Biden has tried to make this look good by choosing people with a variety of “identities”: not only straight white men but women, African-Americans and Latinx people, at least one Gay man, a Native American woman to head the Department of the Interior, children of immigrants, and so on. In itself, this looks good, but does not really make up for a limited range of political philosophies and policies. Sanders has already complained about the lack of progressives among Biden’s appointees. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been denied a seat on the House committee which handles the environment. The BLM organization has complained about being left out of conferences between Biden and Black “leaders.”
When issues come up in Congress, we can expect the progressives to lose out . They will be told that there is a need to compromise with the Republicans, who are intransigent about rejecting progressive policies. Further, there is a need to work with the more conservative “purple state” Democrats. These are already complaining about the effects of having socialists in their party, and about calls to “defund” their friends the police. They will insist on downplaying progressive demands in order to get re-elected. Unfortunately, these establishment arguments against liberal programs are not unreasonable, from a “realistic” political view. It was the progressives who believed in working within the system and moving things forward by using elections and offices—as opposed to working from outside and pressuring the centers of power through militant popular action from below. Now they must live with the consequences.
To understand the present political moment, it is necessary to look at the pattern of presidential elections. Start with Richard Nixon, a terrible but intelligent person, who was forced out of office over Watergate. This was widely seen as a great victory and the return of normalcy. His appointed successor Gerald Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter, part of the return of goodness. But Carter lost his re-election campaign to Ronald Reagan, a charming but fairly stupid reactionary. Reagan lasted for two terms, plus got his vice president, George H.W. Bush, elected. But after one term, Bush was replaced by Bill Clinton. Once again, liberals felt that the country had turned from darkness toward the light. Clinton had his two terms and then his vice president, Al Gore, ran but was defeated by the not-bright conservative, George W. Bush (actually Bush probably lost the popular vote but was crowned by the Supreme Court majority and the Electoral College). After his second term, Bush was succeeded by Barack Obama. Yet again, there was great rejoicing among liberals and leftists. A new day had dawned, so they thought. African-Americans were ecstatic (although few bought the claim that the U.S. had entered into a “post-racial” condition). But then Obama was followed by the vile and stupid Donald J. Trump.
During this time, progressives were mostly disappointed by the performance of the Democratic presidents. I won’t go into that. Even if they had been heroes of liberty, equality, and peace with all nations, my point is that the Democrats were invariably followed by reactionary Republicans. In fact, the reactionary presidents got more and more reactionary and more stupid and incompetent, as history racheted downward.
The problem, then, was not just Trump—although he was uniquely awful. Nor is it the Republican Party, although it has turned into a highly organized minority party with extremist reactionary views and a deluded hard base of followers. (There have been similar far-right, pseudo-populist, authoritarian, movements in other nations around the world, despite differing political traditions and personalities.) Nor is it simply the Democratic Party, as held by some leftists who want to build a new, third, political party. It is the system as a whole which is in crisis.
Overall, the capitalist economy has been increasingly stagnant and declining, since about 1970, with the end of the post-World War II prosperity. The capitalist class and its agents have sought to prop themselves up by lowering the living standards of the working class and by attacking the environment. Old evils, such as racism, cannot be overcome. Whatever gains have been made in the past are being driven back. This means increased suffering for masses of people—even among former (relatively) well off white workers and middle class people. It means wars and threats of wars. It means continuing danger of pandemics. And it means the emergency of global climate change, which threatens the ability of the earth to sustain its human and animal populations.
Under these conditions, people will not be satisfied by either of the twosemi-official parties. They will vote for one, to get “change,” and next time vote for the other—also for “change.” That is, “change” within the limits of what has been accepted as political reality. Not socialism. Not anarchism. Therefore electing Democrats, no matter how liberal, will not solve anything because they cannot stop the people’s dissatisfaction, which will continue to increase. Voters will continue to shuffle between the two parties (those that bother to vote, or who are not prevented from voting).
While Biden won with a solid majority, there was no “blue tsunami” as the Democrats had hoped. Trump still got tens of millions of U.S. people to vote for him. Many of them live in the political bubble of Trump’s lies and the propaganda of Fox News and similar media outlets, if they aren’t sucked into the fascist delusions of Q-anon. Many of these believe that the state and the media are illegitimate. Thus includes the majority of white men in the upper working class and lower middle classes. In other countries and in other times, such layers supported either revolutionary socialist movements or overt fascism. With de-industrialization and the decline of unions, their current leanings are to the hard right. This might change if they are offered a real choice.
Non-electoral alternatives will continue to grow at the edges of “respectable” politics. On the one side fascism will expand. On the other is the growth of various socialists, revolutionary anarchists, African-American activists, climate justice militants, new feminists, immigrant organizers, Native American warriors, and rank and file labor organizers. If they can avoid sinking into the tar sands of the Democratic Party and electoral politics, these and others offer hope of a way out toward a new society.
*written for www.Anarkismo.net
A fundamental thesis which all varieties of revolutionary socialists and anarchists once generally accepted: this state cannot be used to create socialism (communism or anarchism). It must be overturned, destroyed, and replaced by alternate social forms.Now that the 2020 U.S. national elections are past, I think it may be time to go over a fundamental thesis which all varieties of revolutionary socialists and anarchists once generally accepted: this state cannot be used to create socialism (communism or anarchism).
But first a comment on the presidential election. As I wrote before the votes, “While it will be good to see the back of the vile Donald Trump, electing Joe Biden will not really solve ‘the problem.’ “ (Price 2020.) Not any of the problems of capitalist-industrial society, which led to Trump in the first place.
Assume that we think that a new, post-capitalist, society is desired, that we are not satisfied with just trying to improve the current social system. This may be for moral reasons, because we think that this capitalist society is oppressive and prevents the full, free, and equal development of all humans. Or perhaps for a belief in necessity, that unless this society is replaced it will result in economic collapse, wars leading to nuclear war, and deadly ecological catastrophes including pandemics and global warming. For either or both of these reasons, we want a new social system, what has been referred to as socialism or communism (with a lower-case “c”) or anarchism. (I am not going to argue this assumption at this time.)
I am asserting here a fundamental thesis of revolution and the state (the basic structure of government): The state—the existing, capitalist, patriarchal, imperialist, state—cannot be used to create a socialist society. If socialism is to be achieved, this state must be overturned and dismantled and must be replaced with different structures .In older language, there is no parliamentary (electoral) road to socialism.
By “state” I am not referring to every possible form of social coordination, conflict resolution, and social protection. The state is the bureaucratic-military-police institution of our capitalist society, which stands above society, alienated from the mass of people, and maintains the hierarchical structure of “law and order.” Such a system has existed through all forms of class society, including slavery and feudalism. It has been perfected under industrial capitalism. It is an institution for maintaining the rule of the few, who drain wealth from the labor of the many. It cannot be used otherwise. (For discussion of the nature of the state, see Price July 2018; Sept. 2018.)
This is not to deny that reforms may be won from the state. Especially in times of prosperity, workers and others may pressure the state to grant improvements in their lives, higher wages, less discrimination, an end to specific wars, a slow down to climate change, etc. It is to say that fundamental change from capitalism to a new, more humane, society is not possible through taking over this state.
In an 1872 Preface to the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote that (contrary to their original opinion in 1848), “One thing especially was proved by the [1871 Paris] Commune, viz., that ‘the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.’ ” (Bender 2013; 48)
The Reformist Objection to the Fundamental Thesis
The objection to this thesis is that the state is not monolithic. It has conflicting parts and subsystems; these reflect clashes in the rest of society. Liberals and reform socialists argue that the working class and oppressed can use these internal contradictions to advance their interests. This is especially true, supposedly, under the system of representative democracy. The people can use their numerical strength to vote in representatives and policies which they want. Using their numbers, they can vote for changes which move in the direction of socialism. In fact, governments have (under popular pressure) granted reforms to the working classes and the oppressed—as I have admitted it can. Does this show that the working class can wield the ready-made state machinery for its own purposes?
In response, it may be pointed out that the management of any capitalist corporation has internal conflicts. These include differences among the top managers about how to treat their workers. If the workers make demands, say, for better pay or conditions, some managers may be willing to grant concessions. Others will be inclined to fight against them, tooth and nail. The workers can put pressure on the bosses, by strikes, boycotts, or other means. At times the workers may be successful in gaining their demands. This does not make the management any less an agent of capital and the enemy of the workers. The state should be seen as the collective capitalist management of society—not as neutral between the workers and the corporate rich.
Meanwhile those who attempt to change the state from within, by running in elections and by serving in government positions, will be affected by it—corrupted by it. Just running to win in elections means that a clear revolutionary program cannot be raised. Attempting to win a majority of the voters requires appealing to people who are still under the influence of capitalist propaganda and ideology (except during an actual revolutionary situation). The revolutionary program will have to be modified and compromised. And once elected to power, the revolutionaries would have to run a capitalist state and manage a capitalist economy. How could they do this without compromising their actual program?
Even the most democratic, popularly-controlled, state (which is not the U.S.A.!) exists in the context of a capitalist economy. This economy is not at all democratic nor does it claim to be (its ideological rationalization is that it expresses “freedom”). From the smallest shops to the semi-monopolistic, multinational, corporations, these are top-down institutions, with controls coming solely from above. Employees follow orders. The people may elect anyone they like to the government, but they have no real control over the decisions made by the auto industry, the steel makers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs , computer makers, the airlines, agribusiness, etc., etc. These in turn may be said to be dominated by the market, which no one controls.
The U.S.’s two parties run on rivers of money. Without money they cannot make “democratic” appeals to the voters. To imagine that even the most “progressive” politician could run for high office without oodles of boodle, from big donors (along with whatever they could get from little donors) is absurd. These big donors might be from the more “progressive” wing of the capitalist class (for abortion rights and a reasonable immigration program, for example) but they are still for…capitalism and won’t support a program for expropriating themselves.
But suppose a party rejects all big donors and manages to get elected anyway (as has happened in other countries with Socialist Parties)? Once elected, they have the job of managing a state in a capitalist economy. If they are too benevolent to the working class, the capitalists will object. Not only will they pour money into the coffers of the conservative parties, but they will go on a “capital strike.” They will stop investing, send their money overseas, fire large numbers of workers, and otherwise sabotage the economy. Large parts of the state will be on the side of big capital: bureaucrats, civil servants, intelligence agencies, police forces, and the military. These will also sabotage the Socialists’ policies.
Then the elected Socialist government will be in a quandary. If they go ahead with their reform socialist program, capitalists will cause the economy to tank. Then the voters will turn against them, not only middle class people but even workers. They could go further and socialize private corporations, but this is to go into revolutionary policies which they are not prepared for. They may be voted out of office at the next election. Or they may back down, faced with such obstruction. If they stick to their guns, the capitalists may feel impelled to get rid of representative democracy for a time: build up fascist gangs, whip up mass hysteria on sexual or racial or nativist grounds, cancel elections and shut down the socialist media. Finally they may call on some combination of the fascists and the military to stage a coup.
Is this all my own imagination? All these things have been done and done again, from the founding of the socialist movement to now. It is astonishing to me how often I read socialist theorists (not new activists but long-time radicals) who do not seem to have considered the history of socialist reformism.
Even in the most recent period, there was the 1981 election of Mitterand’s Socialists in France. This ended after the capitalists went on a “strike,” forcing the government to adopt an austerity program—and eventually to be voted out of office without creating “socialism”. Or consider the 1970 Popular Unity government of Allende in Chile. With the help of U.S. imperialism, the military overthrew and killed Allende, setting up a terroristic dictatorship. Or the 2003 election of the Workers Party of Lula in Brazil, which was eventually forced out of office through the judiciary and elections. Or the SYRIZA government in Greece of 2015, which was going to avoid all the mistakes of the social democratic reformists. It ended up overwhelmed by the European banks and governments, until it capitulated to the right and then lost elections. I could give many more examples. In one way or another, attempts by socialist parties to get elected to manage capitalist governments and economies have not worked out.
Running in Elections?
From the fundamental thesis, the anarchists draw the logical conclusion not to participate in elections. In 1910, Peter Kropotkin wrote, “The anarchists refuse to be a party to the present state organization and to support it by infusing fresh blood into it. They do not seek to constitute, and invite the working men not to constitute, political parties in the parliaments. Accordingly…they have endeavored to promote their ideas directly among the labor organizations and to induce those unions to a direct struggle against capital….” (Kropotkin 2014; 165)
This was not Marx’s conclusion. After the 1871 Paris Commune (and the quotation about the state cited earlier), Marx and Engels redoubled their efforts to get the First International to form workers’ parties in every European country, to run in elections and try to take over their governments. In fact, the split in the First International, between Marx and Michael Bakunin’s anarchists, was over this issue.
Apparently Marx did not expect these workers’ parties to peacefully and legally take over most of the European capitalist states (which in those days were also semi-feudal). But he thought that they would be able to make revolutionary propaganda and build up the strength of the organized workers and their allies. The problem was that it was impossible in practice to keep separate these two perspectives: building electoral parties with the aim of taking over the capitalist states vs. building electoral parties with the aim of overthrowing these states.
In fact, Marx and Engels speculated that workers’ parties might legally take over some states, particularly Britain and the U.S. They usually added that they expected this to be followed by attempted counterrevolutions by the capitalists—similar to what had happened in the U.S., when Lincoln was elected and the slaveholders had revolted, setting off a vicious civil war. Such beliefs made it hard to distinguish between “revolutionary” and reformist electoralism.
The Marxist David Fernbach writes, “ …Revolutionary Marxists and ‘political’ reformists were united by agreement on the immediate tactical priority—the need to build up the workers’ movement in the electoral arena. The label of ‘Social Democracy’ thus concealed from the start the crucial question that divided revolutionaries from reformists, and neither Marx nor Engels ever fully realized the nature of the parties to which they gave their blessing.” (Fernbach1992; 58)
As we know, the social democratic parties which were inspired by Marx and Engels were to become bureaucratic and reformist, mostly supporting “their own” imperialist governments in World War I, opposing the Russian and German revolutions afterwards, failing to resist the rise of fascism, and supporting the Western imperialists in the Cold War. After World War II they abandoned all claims to be advocating a new society called “socialism.” (Similar paths may be traced for the Eurocommunist parties and also for Green parties.)
What Would Replace This State?
Implicit in the fundamental thesis about the state and revolution is the issue of what would replace the state. What would be the “alternate institutions” which a revolution would establish when overthrowing the capitalist state?
Of those who see themselves as revolutionary Marxists today, the alternate they usually advocate is a new state supposedly representing the rule of the working class. This would be a centralized, bureaucratic, top-down regime, with specialized police and military. It would be managed by a single centralized, top-down, political party whose ideology would become the official ideas of all society. This centralized state would own the main parts of commerce, industry, and land. Whatever their subjective intentions, in practice the leadership would become a new ruling class and the economy would be best described as state-capitalist. I doubt that this is what Marx had intended. But it has been the result of every successful Marxist revolution so far (until the state-capitalisms have collapsed back into traditional capitalist forms).
Anarchists want to replace the state with a federation of workplace councils, community assemblies, self-managed industries, and other voluntary associations. There would be an armed population (the original meaning of “militia”) so long as one is needed. Certain Marxists of a libertarian and humanistic trend also propose a system similar to the extremely democratic Paris Commune or the original soviets (councils) of the Russian revolution. In any case, time and again revolutions have thrown up such working class and popular forms of direct democracy and associated them as alternatives to the state.
“From the largely medieval peasant wars of the sixteenth century Reformation to the modern uprisings of industrial workers and peasants, oppressed peoples have created their own popular forms of community association—potentially the popular infrastructure of a new society—to replace the oppressive states that have ruled over them…During the course of the revolutions, these associations took the institutional form of local assemblies, much like town meetings, or representative councils of mandated recallable deputies…[based in] committee networks and assemblies….” (Bookchin 1996; 4-5)
All anarchists reject using the state to try to create a new society. They want the state gone and a new system of voluntary association in its place. But many anarchists may still be considered “reformist.” (I am describing, not name-calling.) They do not accept all of the fundamental thesis. They do not believe that a main aim of anarchist strategy must be to overthrow, smash, and actively get rid of the state; that this requires a revolutionary clash—at some point in time—with the forces of the state.
For example, the anarchist Kevin Carson writes, “ We want to build a counter-economy…leaving the corporations to die on the vine along with the state….The solution is not to seize the state, to seize control of the heirarchies…nor to displace the existing ruling class….The only solution is to secede from their rule, to bypass them,…to build a new society in which they are no longer needed.” (Massimino & Tuttle 2020; i-ii) There is also a trend among certain libertarian-autonomist Marxists for a strategy of “exodus.” This is a similar proposal to “withdraw” from capitalist, statist, society and create a new world.
Carson and other such libertarian socialists have offered valuable insights into capitalist-industrial society and what might replace it. But they underestimate the extent to which the state and the capitalist economy are intertwined. They know that they cannot take over the state, even the most democratic one. It is an institution of the capitalist system and deeply rooted in it. But they think that they can organize within the existing market, build a “counter-economy,” and “bypass” the corporate economy. Alas, the marketplace is also a capitalist institution (!). It has many ways to make small alternate enterprises “wither on the vine.” Even more, it has many ways to co-opt alternate businesses and to integrate successful ones into the existing economy. This has been repeatedly done with producer and consumer coops, which have been brought into the system—but at the margins. They are never threats to big business. And if they were, the state would intervene, outlawing “dangerous” businesses, perhaps just adding new regulations and taxes to crush them. I am not against community organizing, nor against building cooperatives and alternate activities—these may be good in themselves and do not need to be justified. But as a strategy for “building a new society” by itself, it is a fantasy. No, we do not want to “seize the state” but to overturn and dismantle it. There is no alternative to revolution.
(Advocating revolution is not a call for violence and bloodshed, as is often charged. How violent or nonviolent a revolution has been—or will be—depends on many factors. It would be less violent if the majority of the population is united and committed, if the ranks of the armed forces—daughters and sons of the people—are won over, if the ruling minority is isolated, and if it is demoralized—by successful revolutions elsewhere—and prone to give up.)
What I have called a fundamental thesis is, to repeat, that this capitalist state cannot be used by the exploited and oppressed people to create a new, non-capitalist, society. It must be overthrown and destroyed, and replaced by alternate institutions.
In some version, this thesis was central to the programs of the revolutionary anarchists, from Bakunin and Kropotkin to the communist-anarchists and anarchist-syndicalists. It was held by Marx and the early Marxists, and raised by V.I. Lenin (especially in his State and Revolution) as well as Leon Trotsky. It was believed by libertarian-humanist-autonomist Marxists (who rejected Lenin’s electoralism).
Of course, liberals do not accept the thesis, since they do not believe that a totally new society is needed. They are happy attempting to use the state to improve the people’s conditions—which is getting more difficult as the capitalism continues its long-term decline. Social democrats (or “democratic socialists”—more accurately reformist state socialists) also do not accept the thesis. They believe that the existing state may be turned into an instrument of the working class and oppressed—despite the repeated failures of such attempts. Various anarchists, from Proudhon to now, have also rejected the need to eventually confront and overthrow the state. They think that they can create a counter-society which can peacefully and gradually replace capitalism and the state. They underestimate the state’s ubiquity in society.
What is stranger is the way that militants calling themselves revolutionary socialists (Marxists, Leninists, Maoists, or Trotskyists) “forget” the thesis as soon as some radicals get elected to a government. They jump up for SYRIZA in Greece, insisting that it is not like social democratic parties. They went wild for Hugo Chavez’s Venezuelan regime, even though it was managing a capitalist state with its unreformed armed forces (which is not to deny the need to defend the Venezuelan people from U.S. aggression). When U.S. “democratic socialists” have successes in the Democratic Party and the national government (Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and others), they became foot soldiers for the capitalist Democratic Party. They get involved in the internal organizing of one of the two parties of U.S. imperialism.
Their main motivation is a lack of belief in the working class—in the possibility of a revolution by the working class and other oppressed people. Such skepticism is understandable, especially in the conservative U.S. However there was rarely a time when society was more unstable, when accepted political beliefs were being so questioned, and when the population was less quiescent. People of Color, working class people, women, young people, LGBTQ people, and many others are dissatisfied and looking for answers. It does them no favor to promote the lie that elections to this state can lead to a better society.
Bender, Frederick (ed.) (2nd. Ed.). Karl Marx. The Communist Manifesto. NY/London: Norton.
Bookchin, Murray (1996). The Third Revolution; Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era; Vol. 1. NY/London: Cassell
Fernbach, David (1992). “Introduction.” In Karl Marx. The First International and After; Political Writings; Vol. 3. (D. Fernbach, ed.). Pp. 9—72. London: Penguin Books.
Kropotkin, Peter (2014). Direct Struggle Against Capital; A Peter Kropotkin Anthology (Iain McKay, Ed.). Oakland: AK Press.
Massimino, Cory; & Tuttle, James (eds.). Anarchy & Democracy; Discussing the Abolition of Rulership. Center for a Stateless Society; Kindle Direct Publishing.
Price, Wayne (Sept. 2018). “Post-Anarchism on the State—An Anarchist Critique” Anarkismo.
Price, Wayne (July 2018). “An Anarchist View of the Class Theory of the State” Anarkismo.
Price, Wayne (2020). “Mary Trump on the Political Psychopathology of President Donald” Anarksimo. https://www.anarkismo.net/article/31996&comment_limit=0&condense_comments=false#comment16805
*written for www.Anarkismo.net
A review of the selected writings of Maurice Brinton.Maurice Brinton, For Workers’ Power
Publisher: AK Press
Released: August 4, 2020
Karl Bookchin, Murray Marx, Maurice Brinton.
As they used to say on Sesame St “One of these things is not like the other!”. While this trio of names is made up, only one had an actual person behind it. Brinton was the pseudonym of Chris Pallis (1923-2005). He was the Indian-born scion of an Anglo-Greek family, educated in Switzerland and a neurologist by training (try saying that sentence after 4 vodkas and a Molotov cocktail!). He lead a distinguished medical career while simultaneously engaging in revolutionary Left-wing politics in England, hence the use of a cover name. This saw him embark on a trajectory from ephemeral Communist Party membership caused by expulsion for questioning the leadership, to membership in one of the small Trotskyist sects. This too resulted in expulsion by the group’s odious leader, causing Pallis/Brinton and other expellees to establish the group Solidarity. This group was always small but gained a foothold on the Left in Britain, especially as the 1960’s progressed. Its position is probably best described as a kind of iconoclastic libertarian strain of Marxism.
Recently AK Press produced a collection of Brinton’s writings under the title For Workers Power. To some today that title will seem archaic and off putting. That’s partly because the neo-liberal Right has been very effective on a super-structural level in atomising working people, causing us to perceive ourselves as individuals. We are not encouraged to identify ourselves as a unified class, with agency and shared interests. Coming from a different perspective, some on the contemporary Left will balk at what they see as an implied class reductionism in the title. It doesn’t appeal to a sense of intersectionality, but comes across as a crude throwback to a late industrial age that hasn’t got much to say to us today. While the title may dissuade some from delving into the content of this collection, he arguably still has something to say to today’s Left.
Stylistically Brinton is at his best when describing events he personally witnessed. For example, he provides entries from his diary as a witness to a General Strike in Belgium in 1960. His use of the active voice and often short sentences “It is an impressive sight. The crowd swarms over the pavements, overflows the neighbouring streets.” (p.37), provides vivid descriptions that often put the reader in the midst of the action.
Likewise, his fortnight among the workers and students in France during the uprising of May 68 yielded a diary with a similarly propulsive feel. For example “We wave. They wave back. We sing the Internationale. They join in. We give the clenched fist salute. They do likewise. Everybody cheers. Contact has been made [between youthful workers and students]” (p.305).One vignette concerns an activist from a small unnamed Left group who arrives in a crowded street with a suitcase full of leaflets. “There is an unquenchable thirst for information, ideas, literature, argument, polemic. The man just stands there as people surround him and press forward to get the leaflets. Dozens of demonstrators, without even reading the leaflet, help him distribute them. Some 6000 copies get out in a few minutes. All seem to be assidulously read. People argue, laugh, joke. I witnessed such scenes again and again.” (p.285). At times he can sound quite poetic, like one of the slogans from May 68 itself “The reality of today, for a few hours, has submerged all of yesterday’s patterns” (p. 288).
Occasionally the writer sounds a bit clunky. For example the alliterative excess of “Those who are not prepared to allow workers to control their own organizations here and now serenade sundry simpletons with fanciful tunes as to their fate in the future” (p. 210). Mostly Brinton writes plainly, though assuming a readership familiar with the basic jargon of classical Leftist discourse. Given his target audience, which is not the political neophyte, this is largely excusable. A lot of the time acronyms are explained and this helps keep the actors in events clear. Otherwise it could be hard for those English monoglots not well versed in the Portuguese Revolution of 1975 to figure out that the IRA is actually the Institute for Agricultural Reorganization! (p.229). Oh and anyone who can say with absolute confidence that they instantly know what “edentulous” (p.231) means, needs to get more fresh air.
Moving from style to substance, it has to be acknowledged that Brinton was not a major theorist and never claimed to be. He was primarily a capable polemicist and populariser of ideas that had limited circulation at the time he wrote. In the early 60’s the UK Labour Party and authoritarian Left had the union bureaucracy and a lot of other institutions sewn up between them. This changed somewhat later in the decade as society as a whole and the student movement in particular became radicalised globally. However, Brinton and his associates’ contribution in keeping the spark going during the dark times should be more widely remembered. Likewise his often excoriating invective directed at the authoritarian sects was an important contribution to dissident Left-wing observation.
His close observations of the counter-revolutionary machinations of the Stalinists in France is a telling indictment of the latter. The Trotskyists also come in for moments of derision, as in this passage about events in Portugal “At the end of the procession a mass of red flags and a few hundred very young people shouting raucously: ‘Unidad sindical, unidad sindical’. One might be dreaming. They want the PCP [Communist Party of Portugal] and PS (Socialist Party) to take power, in order to expose them. And Intersindical [union] too. To form a government ‘without generals or capitalists’. Yes, the Trots. In their rightful place. The tail end of an Stalinist demonstration” (p. 239). Likewise the Maoists are blasted “The proletariat, as seen by the Maoists is clearly more brawn than brain the sort of animal any skillful Leninist could easily ride to the revolution!” (p. 238). For anyone thinking of being a Tankie, Brinton’s description of what happened in Portugal, where Left-wing elements in the military, Stalinists and Maoists interacted, will hopefully disabuse them of that weird modern inclination (pp. 248-251).
Lest any Anarchists get smug about Brinton’s choice of targets, he also had the occasional barb for some among our number. He rightly describes Bakunin as “muddleheaded” (p. 113) and the chronicler of the Russian Revolution Voline is accused of having “…an over-simplified analysis” (p.373) of those events. Possibly valid comments of individuals not withstanding, Brinton sometimes oversteps the mark a bit. For example, his comment in a preface of another writer’s work that “We won’t be examining what happened in Spain in 1936…because it only has limited relevance to the problems of an advanced industrial country, in the last third of the twentieth century.” (p.172) still seems uncharitable in 2020. Overall, Brinton’s Orwell-like iconoclasm towards the Left while still being on the Left, was a healthy quality many would do well to emulate now. As he points out “The revolution is bigger than any organization, more tolerant than any institution ‘representing’ the masses, more realistic than any edict of any Central Committee” (p. 285). Brinton was specifically referring to France in 68 but it still has general applicability as a warning to the present and future.
One of Brinton’s most useful contributions to historiography was probably ‘The Bolsheviks and Workers Control’ which was published as a substantive 100 page essay and is re-produced in this selection. It has been translated into a number of languages, seen multiple editions and has been widely read. It breaks down into slow chronological chunks the steps that lead eventually to the crushing of workers power and potential grassroots democracy and its replacement with a hideous one-party dictatorship. It isn’t a unique account, but its contribution of a Libertarian Socialist perspective to the vast historiography on the subject is one that should be appreciated. Likewise, The Irrational in Politics, a booklet that explores the role of sexual repression in causing political and social obedience via a Reichian paradigm, is testament to the fact that Brinton’s concerns were not solely related to workers in the workplace.
To conclude, if your sole concern is the use of personal pronouns, you won’t be happy with Brinton’s area of focus or style. However, if you are open to considering questions of the best and worst ways for working people to escape the current system of economic and political domination, he still offers something worth thinking about. Why? Well, the answer and last words should be Brinton’s…”But men and women have always dreamed ‘impossible’ dreams. They have repeatedly sought to ‘storm heaven’ in the search for what they felt to be right. Again and again they have struggled for objectives difficult to attain, but which they sensed to embody their needs and desires. It is this capacity which makes of human beings the potential subjects of history, instead of its perpetual objects” (p. 255).
The ongoing capitalist crisis, and the impacts of COVID19, have made it clear that the capitalist and state system we live under is neither efficient nor just. Inequality has hit record levels and a small elite has more wealth than ever, while the very basics – such as a decent healthcare, water, housing, sanitation, food and electricity – cannot be effectively financed, run nor delivered. Politicians in every state abuse their power too and corruption is rife, only its severity varies. We see this even when there is a pandemic – some local politicians have even sold food parcels meant to alleviate people’s hunger during the COVID 19 lockdown. Parliamentary democracy is largely hollow with a majority of people having no real political power. The oppression of women and people of colour continues unabated and imperialism deepens everyday. Due to the ever-expanding nature of capitalism the ecology is on the verge of collapse. It is clear a movement for change and an alternative to capitalism and the state system is needed.
One alternative that is proving to be viable in large parts of the Kurdish majority areas of the Middle East is Democratic Confederalism. In South Africa there is much we can learn, adopt and adapt from Democratic Confederalism for local movement building.
Democratic Confederalism and Movement Building in South Africa
IntroductionThe ongoing capitalist crisis, and the impacts of COVID19, have made it clear that the capitalist and state system we live under is neither efficient nor just. Inequality has hit record levels and a small elite has more wealth than ever, while the very basics – such as a decent healthcare, water, housing, sanitation, food and electricity – cannot be effectively financed, run nor delivered. Because of the profit motive of capitalism there was no real preparation for a health crisis such as COVID19 – it is not profitable for capital to prepare for long term threats - even though scientists warned as early as 2006 that the possibility of some form of viral pandemic was likely at some point due to the destruction by corporations of natural barriers, like rain forests. Politicians in every state abuse their power too and corruption is rife, only its severity varies. We see this even when there is a pandemic – some local politicians have even sold food parcels meant to alleviate people’s hunger during the COVID 19 lockdown.
Parliamentary democracy is largely hollow with a majority of people having no real political power. The oppression of women and people of colour continues unabated and imperialism deepens everyday. Due to the ever-expanding nature of capitalism the ecology is on the verge of collapse. It is clear a movement for change and an alternative to capitalism and the state system is needed.
One alternative that is proving to be viable in large parts of the Kurdish majority areas of the Middle East is Democratic Confederalism. In South Africa there is much we can learn, adopt and adapt from Democratic Confederalism for local movement building.
What is Democratic Confederalism?Democratic Confederalism is a revolutionary ideology, practice and way of organising that has arisen in the Kurdish Freedom Movement in parts of Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Democratic Confederalism is a form of socialism that looks to eventually replace the state and capitalism with a radical democratic form of People’s Power. It involves people organising themselves into communes, councils and committees to democratically run every aspect of their lives – including education, safety, politics, healthcare, housing and food - and to create a communal economy based on co-operatives that are democratically controlled through street communes and confederated councils of mandated delegates.
This is not only a vision that activists aim for in the future after a revolution, but is a way of organising today. The aim is to expand People’s Power into a dual power, while diminishing the power of the state and capitalism, and to eventually replace these through a social revolutionary process with the communes and councils’ people have already created.
Democratic Confederalism argues that self-defence is a right of the communes, councils and assemblies if they are attacked by capital and/or the state. Democratic Confederalism, therefore, aims to build a dual power peacefully if not attacked by the state, but is not a pacifist movement in that Democratic Confederalism promotes self-defence against capital and the state. Democratic Confederalism is not just about the Kurdish liberation struggle – it aims ultimately for an international social revolution through building structures of radical democracy outside the control of states and capitalism, which can replace these systems one day
Pillars and principles of Democratic ConfederalismDemocratic Confederalism has three main pillars that are underpinned by a number of principles.
The first pillar is women’s liberation. The Kurdish Freedom Movement feels that this is the most important pillar. The reason why is that they analysed that the oppression of women and the exploitation of women’s labour was the first hierarchy that arose over 5000 years ago when states and classes first arose in the Middle East – states are instruments of minority ruling class rule (historically the ruling class were only elite men). It was the oppression of women on which the later oppression and exploitation of impoverished men was built too. To free everyone, therefore, women have to achieve liberation
The second pillar is to build an ecological society. Democratic Confederalism views human beings as part of the ecology, not above it. Capitalism, however, views the ecology as something to exploit in the pursuit of ever-increasing profits. Indeed, capitalism is based on the principle of growth or death. If the human species is to survive, capitalism needs to be replaced by an ecological economy to meet peoples’ needs, without oppression and exploitation of humans and the destruction of the ecology. Hence, Democratic Confederalism’s commitment to social ecology
The third pillar is to extend a participatory democracy into all areas of life be they social, political and economic to overcome patriarchy and all hierarchies including class and race. The key principles and practices underlying these pillars are solidarity, mutual aid, respect, dignity, collective discipline, self-reflection, communalism and self and collective criticism
Why these principles and practices?Democratic Confederalism as an ideology, political vision and way of organising developed out of a reflective process by activists within the Kurdish Freedom Movement.
Before the late 1990s, activists that were linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) aimed to achieve national liberation through armed struggle and founding a workers’ state with the PKK as the vanguard.
In the late 1990s these activists began to critically analyse whether this was the best path by examining the history of national liberation struggles and past revolutions - including the Russian Revolution. Activists also studied the history of the Middle East and how patriarchy, class and states arose and why. Through this, they came to see that hierarchies and states could not bring about liberation. The activists also looked at other revolutionary traditions beyond Marxist-Leninism.
They drew on the social ecologist and libertarian socialist writings of Murray Bookchin (who was an activist in the USA who started as a trade unionist, moved away from Stalinism to libertarian socialism and developed the theory of social ecology). They also drew elements from activist-analysts like Immanuel Wallerstein (who was sociologist who was deeply impacted by the worldwide revolutionary upheavals of 1968 and who helped develop the world system theory that views capitalism as divided into a core and periphery. The core are high tech producing developed countries; while the periphery are countries that offer low wage production and are producers of primary goods. In this theory too, capitalism is seen commodifying every aspect of the social and natural world). As part of the reflection, activists in the Kurdish Freedom Movement also looked at some of the practices of movements like the Zapatistas (the Zapatistas are a non-hierarchical movement that also broke with Marxist-Leninism and are struggling for self-governance, autonomy and a cooperative economy against capitalism and the state in Mexico).
Through reflection, mass education and critical thinking the activists in the Kurdish Freedom Movement formulated Democratic Confederalism and moved away from trying to create a Kurdish socialist state. They rather chose to build a mass movement to win struggles for housing, water and sanitation today, but with the aim of also creating socialism without a state based on structures of direct democracy and an economy to meet the needs of all, called communalism, in the future
Democratic Confederalism, ideology and educationIdeology and political education are seen as vital within Democratic Confederalism. The reason being: if a movement does not have its own very clear ideology it will come to incorporate aspects of the dominate ideology linked to hierarchies, capitalism, racism, patriarchy and nation states.
Therefore, a clear ideology is vital for struggle and provides a practice, vision and aim. Through extensive analyses of the problems of capitalism, nation states, past revolutions and critical self-analysis, reflection, discussion and debate Democratic Confederalism became underpinned by a clear ideology. To ensure all activists and people can analyse and participate in the movement, based on the ideology of Democratic Confederalism, mass education is central. Education to assist build the consciousness, the abilities and confidence of activists is vital so that everyone can collectively and actively create new forms of organisation and implement the principles and aims of Democratic Confederalism, rather than rely on “big men” or so-called messiahs to bring liberation.
To undertake mass education, every street – which is a commune - where Democratic Confederalism is organised in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq has an “academy”. Academies are spaces of learning and reflection – it can even be someone’s house – where political education is undertaken and where there are ongoing educational sessions on women’s oppression, limits of the nation state, critiques of capitalism, social ecology and importantly on Democratic Confederalism. Academies also have practical courses that benefit each street commune collectively such as healthcare.
States and capitalism aim to educate members of the working class to obey orders and be useful to produce profit for bosses and taxes for the state. Activists need to educate each other for liberation and this is at the heart of Democratic Confederalism.
Democratic Confederalism as a resistance movement and way of organisingDemocratic Confederalism as a resistance movement to capitalism, patriarchy and the state involves organising at a street level where between 20 to 400 households form a “commune”. The commune meets regularly and is open to everyone regardless of gender, age, religion and race and is based on direct democracy. In the commune there are different committees through which people run the politics, law, economy, healthcare, women’s organising, youth organising, media, safety and political education at a street level. Communes are then federated together at a neighbourhood level, a city level, a provincial level, a national level and even an international level through mandated and recallable communal delegates to councils. This differs from representative democracy (seen today in political parties, many social movements, trade unions, parliaments and the state) where power is given to representatives to make decisions.
Rather in Democratic Confederalism communes have the power: delegates to structures such as city, provincial and national councils carry mandates. This means delegates are given instructions by the communes and under those mandates they co-ordinate and carry out administrative functions. If they go beyond their mandates, they can be recalled and replaced. Through these structures protests are undertaken and broad self-defence organised.
At an economic level, in places where Democratic Confederalism is a resistance movement, worker and women co-operatives are established to meet very basic needs on a street level, such as bread. They assist people to meet very basic needs even though capitalism remains in place – in other words they help communities alleviate the worst aspects that capitalism causes, such as hunger, whilst actively resisting the system.
Democratic Confederalism and the Rojava RevolutionOne place where activists have fully replaced the state with Democratic Confederalism through a revolution is in Rojava in north eastern Syria. In Rojava people overthrew the Syrian state in 2012 through mass protests and taking over military bases and state buildings as part of the Arab Spring. There a new society without the state has been organised based on communes and there are different committees at street level to deal with healthcare, housing, women’s liberation etc.
The communes are confederated together through delegates to neighbourhood assemblies, city councils, provincial councils and an overarching coordinating structure called the Syrian Democratic Council. The delegates at each structure are always comprised of two people: a man and a woman. The delegates do not have decision making powers on their own – decisions are made by the communes and coordinated by delegates in the councils.
There are also women’s formations in the communes, assemblies and councils that are confederated under the banner of the women’s movement called Kongra Star. If a majority of women within any structure feel a decision is wrong, even if there is an overall majority of men and some women, the women can override the decision, which is aimed at addressing patriarchy. Each commune has its own structures of community self-defence – in which women of all ages play a key role - and a participatory court to ensure community safety. There is no police force as there would be in a state as through self-defence by all at a commune level safety is ensured.
In Rojava it is not just Kurdish people who are involved in the communes and councils, but also Arab, Assyrian and Turkish people. Democratic Confederalism has, therefore, started to overcome racism within northern Syria (the Kurdish people were racially oppressed in northern Syria but view Democratic Confederalism as central to everyone’s liberation).
In terms of the economy, state owned land in northern Syria (which was the dominant form of property) has been redistributed to agricultural co-operatives that have been established and linked to the communes. The only big industry in Rojava is oil and it has been socialised under the Syrian Democratic Council, and it is mandated to produce to meet the needs of all people in Rojava. As a way to overcome capitalism, many worker co-operatives have been formed to produce for need and not profit – these too are directly linked to communes. Some of these co-operatives are large: there is one housing co-operative for women that has 20 000 members and is organised through Kongra Star, but most are small or medium sized. Small and medium sized businesses still exist and even still outnumber the co-operatives, but they are accountable to communes to ensure they have role to play in meetings people’s needs. While they can make some profit, communes have the power to prevent profit gouging as businesses are answerable to the community in the commune if they do so.
Capitalism, therefore, has not been fully ended but the idea is to continuously weaken it and push it towards an end. So in Rojava the forms of organisations and structures that were built by activists as a resistance movement have, after a social revolution, become the structures through which people collectively and democratically govern society.
Lessons of Democratic Confederalism for South AfricaThere are a number of lessons we can draw for South Africa from Democratic Confederalism and its ideology and form of organising. Perhaps the most important lesson is that it is possible to build organisations of People’s Power that are participatory and based on direct democracy – since 1994 there has been an ideological onslaught from the state, capital, political parties, and even some trade unions against this. We do have experience with such structures of People’s Power in the form of street committees, or what are called communes in Democratic Confederalism, that were so prevalent in the 1980s in South Africa. A lesson is we need to once again begin to organise extensively at a street level through mass meetings and street-based structures like assemblies/committees/communes if we are going to build a new movement to bring about liberation. In other words, we as activists have to intensify organising people on our streets and building structures, such as street level assemblies, that draw people into a movement based on the challenges and problems they face and want to themselves overcome – which are caused by patriarchy, racism and ultimately the state and capitalism. This means energy must be focused on building structures and organising at a street level as opposed to a situation where many activists currently spend time trying to build centralised organisations, and only once these exist attempt to recruit people
A further lesson is that building a new movement based once again on street committees/assemblies or communes, as Democratic Confederalism shows, has to be based on progressive principles and practices such as accountability, self-and-collective-discipline, direct democracy, self-organisation and communalism. Therefore, we as activists should not only be promoting such principles, but living them as far as possible in practice. It is only through building grassroots structures of People’s Power that we can transform society in a progressive direction through focusing first and foremost on struggles in our communities, on our streets and as will be discussed, also in workplaces.
Political parties and a big man who are often self-appointed leaders cannot address the inequalities, poverty and lack of real democracy for a majority of people as they are based on state logic and hierarchy – only building new forms of organisation and organising can help to bring liberation. Democratic Confederalism, along with our own experiences locally, gives us a model to use and adapt.
Democratic Confederalism shows that once street level structures – street assemblies/communes - and community movements have been built, they also have to be confederated and linked via recallable mandated delegates in structures like township wide councils, city level councils, provincial councils, a national council and perhaps even an international council.
The reason for this is because if we do not confederate structures like street assemblies/committees/communes, our organising and presence will remain isolated, the state could easily keep struggles localised too, and our struggles could become hostile to anyone outside our community (which in the end is self-defeating). If we are to achieve liberation and overcome state structures (which are oppressive) and capitalism (which is exploitative) we need a dual power based on confederated street level structures, like assemblies, that involve large numbers of people as active participants. What Democratic Confederalism shows, therefore, is we need a collective power, but one where people at the grassroots hold and exercise such power.
So people should not be representatives who are given power to make decisions if they are sent from the street assemblies to township wide councils for example. Rather they must be delegates who carry mandates from below and must be accountable to the people that have given them their mandate. It is only through delegates that are mandated and that co-ordinate the wishes of the street assemblies/committees/communes that a truly participatory dual power can be built. We should though not fool ourselves into thinking that the task of building this will be easy. It will be hard work and will take time. There is, however, a base (although small) in the form of existing social/community movements to begin to rebuild such as People’s Power in South Africa.
Democratic Confederalism shows mass political education has to be central to movement building based on reflection, critical analysis and developing a coherent and truly progressive ideology. Too often in South Africa activists adopt modes and ways of organising like parties and trade unions that have failed to achieve liberation, and/or look to imitate past revolutions that too have failed. So, the lesson is education has to develop critical thinking and to do that we have to honestly critique past revolutions and where they went wrong – including South Africa’s liberation struggle – and even our own practices and beliefs. It is only through education, reflection, discussions and debates that a clear ideology that guides struggles can be developed for the context of South Africa. Unfortunately, in some struggles in South Africa there has been a recent trend to stop debates, critical discussion and even freedom of speech – this is counter to liberation and needs to be reversed.
The task, therefore, is for activists to build spaces and programmes of education for each other, but more vitally for the people in the areas and streets where we live. Another important lesson is that there also needs to be spaces of reflection at every level, as without reflection mistakes are often repeated, strategy never effectively developed, and appropriate tactics deployed. Indeed, without political education there cannot be a mass movement that is participatory, that is clear about its objectives, and that has progressive principles, values and practices. Without political education, in short, there can be no liberation .
We can also draw lessons from Democratic Confederalism about the need for women’s liberation to be central. This does not mean that we forget about fighting other issues such as class and racism – all hierarchies, oppressions and exploitation must be actively fought through ideology and praxis. Far too often however, structures, formations, trade unions and political parties replicate patriarchy and are permanently headed by messiahs or big leaders that permanently hold power. This needs to change and to do so practices such as direct democracy and accountability are needed along with political education.
Indeed, a broader women’s movement is needed within People’s Power that can push for the centrality of women’s liberation - central to direct democracy are women. This should not be some form of token organisation, but an organisation that is central to all struggles and that participates in all structures. True freedom is not to be confused with the right of an individual to selfishly do as they please because no one is free until we are all free and patriarchy needs to be overcome – along with class and racism – for this to become a reality. In society everyone is damaged by hierarchies and oppressions – even oppressors are distorted as human beings by them – but it is only the oppressed that can truly liberate everyone and central to this are working class women.
One major difference between South Africa and Rojava is that the development of capital in in South Africa has been extensive. Workers within Democratic Confederalism in Rojava are organised through communes into economic committees. While in South Africa workers should be part of street assemblies/communes and organised through these structures, this in our context will not be enough. There is a strong capitalist class in South Africa – mostly a small part of the white population who owns the means of production, but also a smaller BEE elite.
This class is powerful, and in class terms are allies of the politicians that head the South African state. If we are to defeat capitalism and the oppressive state system - and capitalism’s accompanying racism - in South Africa there is a need for workers to also organise at their workplaces. Workers need to win demands that better their wages and working conditions, but also stop the erosion of their rights that they face today. These are the hard struggles that we need to fight.
But workers’ struggles cannot just stop at day to day fights. Rather through day to day struggles we need to consciously build towards a longer struggle that aims to socialise the means of production in the future under a People’s Power based on confederated assemblies/communes, councils, and forums. Without such an ideological vision we may win some gains, but we will fall back to either begrudgingly accepting private property or hoping for nationalisation – nationalisation means the state owns and controls workplaces and when this has happened in the past workers were still oppressed and exploited, but by states and their managers .
For workers, however, to organise today we need new forms of organisation in workplaces. Trade unions today have proven not to be the most effective organisations to organise workers anymore – indeed they have repeatedly failed to organise the majority of workers who are precarious, because it does not pay to do so. The majority of unions are also tied to parties and, at best, have the mistaken notion that if the party they back comes to head a state (whether capitalist or a “workers’” state), then that state will bring liberation – which historically has proven false.
Importantly, new forms of worker organising and organisation have started to emerge in South Africa and in these are the seeds too of liberation. These have mainly been formed by precarious workers who built structures such as worker committees and forums. In 2012/13 there were the farm and mineworker committees, and today there are worker forums amongst precarious workers in Gauteng and farm workers in the Eastern Cape. In reality, why worker forums and committees are so important is that they were and are effective – through these farm workers and miners won huge gains - and they also potentially carry the seeds of change within them. There, therefore, needs to be a focus amongst activists of building more new forms of worker organisations in the form of committees and forums based on principles and practices of direct democracy and accountability. It would be important too, once many worker committees and forums have been established, to begin to confederate them through delegate systems and structures, which could be industrial area wide councils and city-wide councils etc. This would be to ensure that individual struggles at a workplace cannot be isolated by capitalists and the state and to ensure the co-ordination of workers’ struggles across the country.
We also need to recognise that the building of worker forums and committees has, however, sometimes been a stop-start process. For example, the farm and mine worker committees collapsed partially because the state and capital attacked them. But they also collapsed because the workers involved failed to see how powerful these structures really were due to an ideology not existing amongst the majority of workers that held the vision that these new forms of organisation could be political alternatives to trade unions. Like the street assemblies/communes, therefore, workers’ forums and committees would need to focus on the day to day struggles on the workplace floor, but also need to be influenced by a vision or ideology that takes us beyond capitalism and prepares the structures we are building today to become structures to take over the economy in the future. The forums and committees, therefore, also need to be seen as structures that can in the long run fight for and take over the means of production for all through a process of socialisation. For this political education is once again central.
To ensure genuine socialisation during a revolutionary process and to also connect day to day struggles of communities and workers together before such a process, worker forums/committees would need to be directly connected to street assemblies/communes. A confederated structure that has mandated delegates from the street assemblies/communes and worker forums/committees is one way to do this. Another way is also to organise workers in the communes/street assemblies where they live – as workers are also community members. Through this, direct links can be created between street assemblies/communes and workers’ forums/committees and so become one movement.
For too long we have copied hierarchical ways of organising, like political parties and today’s trade unions, that have divided worker and community struggles. Expanding the organic forms of organisation – in terms of street assemblies/committees and worker forums/committees - that have emerged amongst the working class in South Africa past and present, and combining these with the practice of confederalism and a long term vision of a new society offers a way to move beyond the ideologies and forms of organising that have divided. Democratic Confederalism and Rojava shows such a way of organising through direct democracy and confederating various structures is not impossible – it has been done and it is possible.
As a famous revolutionary once said: We have a world to win.
This text was originally published by the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG).
In 1974, the United Nations General Assembly passed a New International Economic Order (NIEO), which was driven by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). The resolution laid out a clear plan for the structural transformation of the world system, which was in the throes of a crisis at the time. However, the NIEO was set aside and the world order was shaped in a neoliberal direction; this neoliberal orientation furthered the crisis and brought us to this current cul-de-sac of human possibilities.Our team at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research has developed a ten-point agenda for a post-COVID-19 world. Last week, I presented this agenda at the High-Level Conference on the Post-Pandemic Economy, organized by the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). We are certainly in need of a New International Economic Order.
1. Tackle the global pandemic
Our priority is to tackle the global pandemic. To this end, enhancing and pivoting public-sector production toward masks, protective equipment, ventilators, field hospitals, and tests for the entire population must be central – as it is already in places such as Vietnam and Venezuela. It is essential to establish worker control over working conditions so that workers – who are best placed to make these decisions – can be guaranteed a hygienic work environment. In the absence of adequate public action, governments need to create work plans to hire people for projects to break the chain of infection and to ensure that people are fed, clothed, and in good health; such public action can learn from the cooperatives in Kerala (India) and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba. The workforce in shuttered sectors – such as tourism – should be immediately hired into jobs that are geared toward countering the pandemic.
2. Broaden medical solidarity
A united front of the Global South must reject the IMF and creditor-driven limits placed on government sector salaries; because of these limits, former colonized countries have been losing medical personnel to the North Atlantic states. States must use their precious resources to enhance public medical education and train medical workers within communities to provide public health services. ALBA’s medical internationalism, with the Cuban brigades in the lead, must become a model for the world through the World Health Organization (WHO). Chinese medical internationalism would play a key role here as the US departs from the WHO. The entire private health sector must be nationalized, and smaller medical centres need to be created so that people can easily access public health facilities. Governments must withdraw public insurance from private healthcare; in other words, no more public subsidies for private healthcare. Public health systems must be strengthened, including the production of medical equipment and medicines and the distribution of essential medicines (whose prices must be controlled by regulations).
3. Create an intellectual commons
The Global South must push for the annulment of the TRIPS Agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), which provides unrestrained property rights on goods that must be part of the global commons. This applies directly to the COVID-19 vaccine, which must be offered for production in countries without consideration of profits or intellectual property rights. This applies equally to any pharmaceutical drugs, many of them publicly financed – the profits of which are then privately appropriated – and to energy technologies that would swiftly move us from fossil to renewable fuels as well as to more efficient communications technologies (such as 5G). In the short term, the states of the Global South must enhance mechanisms for science and technology transfer among themselves.
4. Cancel debt
Reasonable estimates suggest that the ‘developing countries’ owe $11-trillion in external debt, with debt service for this year alone estimated to be $3.9-trillion. With the coronavirus recession, such payments are unthinkable. Debt relief must go beyond the forty-seven ‘least developed countries’ and include all of the states in the Global South; this relief must not only postpone debt, but it must cancel debt (from both public and private creditors). An international alliance must be formed on a broad front to pressure creditors to cancel the debt so that all resources that go to service the debt can be channelled fully toward the dire needs of society.
5. Expand food solidarity
Half of the world’s population struggles with hunger. Food sovereignty and food solidarity are essential antidotes, as has been shown by platforms such as Via Campesina. Corporate control over agriculture must be challenged, and food production must be made into a human rights priority. Funds need to be marshalled toward enhancing the production of food; these funds need to be spent on infrastructure for agrarian production (including to enhance such projects as the ALBA Seed Bank). Universal public distribution systems must be strengthened to provide higher incomes for farmers and to ensure distribution of food to the people. A more robust rural landscape will decongest cities and draw people to live meaningful lives in rural areas.
6. Enhance and invest in the public sector
The CoronaShock has shown that the private sector is simply not capable of addressing emergencies, let alone human needs. States of the Global South must lead by offering a robust defence of the public sector, not only for the production of key goods and services (medicine and food), but for anything that is essential for modern life – more public housing, more public transportation, more public Wi-Fi, and more public education. Allowing the profit sector to commodify these parts of human life has eroded our capacity to build a civilized society.
7. Implement wealth taxes
Currently, roughly $32-trillion is sitting in offshore tax havens, and untold amounts of money are simply not counted toward taxation. Two measures are necessary: first, that illicit financial flows be recovered, and second, that wealth taxes be properly imposed on the upper echelons of the bourgeoisie and the wealthy land-owning elite, as well as financiers and those engaged in financial speculation. These funds would be enough to redirect priorities to eliminate poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, and indignity on a global level.
8. Enact capital controls
Without capital controls, a country has no effective economic sovereignty. States of the Global South must create an international platform that binds each of them to undertake capital controls; this is a political issue that cannot be implemented by a single country. Capital controls are measures taken by a government to regulate the flow of finances into and out of a country. Such controls include transaction taxes, minimum stay requirements, and caps on the amount of currency that can move across borders. Capital controls and democratic control over the Central Bank will prevent capital flight and should give governments sovereignty over their currency and their economy.
9. Shift to non-dollar-based regional trade
Dedollarization is an essential part of a new agenda. Sixty per cent of the world’s reserves are held in dollars, and world commerce is largely conducted in dollars. The Dollar-Wall Street Complex has a near stranglehold on international finance and trade; it is no surprise that US unilateral sanctions are having a catastrophic impact on countries not necessarily because they rely upon the dollar, but because their trading partners are enmeshed in it. The dollar has become a weapon to undermine development. Experimental alternative payment systems like the SUCRE need to be dusted off, and new global financial institutions need to be created to facilitate wire transfers. In the short run, this could begin with non-dollar-based regional facilities, although there is a need for global institutions to set aside the immense advantage provided to the United States by the dollar being used as a global currency. Relatedly, there is a need to strengthen regional trade blocs that would honour barter as a mechanism for payment.
10. Centralize planning, decentralize public action
The pandemic has shown us the power of central planning and the importance of decentralized public action. Economies that are not allowed to plan their use of resources have floundered before the virus. There is a need to establish participatory central planning mechanisms on an ever-increasing scale and to recast social production toward need – not toward profit. These plans must be derived from maximum democratic input and must be transparent to the public. Central planning would enable the nationalization of sectors such as mining (including energy production), the large-scale production and processing of food, and tourism; these would be placed under worker control of cooperatives. It would be an instrument to minimize waste, including profligate military expenditures. The enhancement of local self-government and cooperative production, as well as of associations and unions of the people, will allow social life to become increasingly democratic.
Wed 27 Jan, 12:09
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