Report on the Manchester Meeting of the CWO

The document that follows (Beyond Protest) is based on the notes of the introductory speaker for the CWO’s Manchester meeting on April 21. The meeting was also attended by members of the ICC and the Anarchist Federation as well as individual council communists and left communists.

The meeting was held in a fraternal manner with all seriously trying to grapple with the problem of the development of a wider class movement. The ICC comrade who replied first quoted extensively from the editorial in the last Revolutionary Perspectives (60) and stated that the ICC fully supported the introduction. He also agreed with the criticism of the democratist illusions of Occupy and emphasised the fact that it is only the international working class which can make the revolution. He also stressed that the working class still had to break out of union dominated ideology to face up to the crisis of today. He took heart from the Unilever strike analysed in RP60 as it was a place he knew well where paternalism had dominated the workforce for generations so it was good to see that even here workers were beginning to see through the system’s ideology.

A Manchester comrade then took up the point about how the working class which has no property to defend can materially alter its consciousness in the current situation and this became the main focus of much of the rest of the discussion. He argued that workers in struggle tended to reinforce their own embedding within the system and thus their struggles did not tend to develop their consciousness in a more general way. He gave the example of Greece where, despite the draconian cuts they had not yet found a way to resist. The only sign he had seen was that some people had started to take over hospitals but even this was fraught with problems. In Britain he pointed to the fact that the TUC is already using the idea of “solidarity” to get workers to accept some cuts.

Against this rather depressing view the meeting agreed that it was a real question sincerely posed but various comrades countered it by putting forward the notion that the acquisition of class consciousness was a process and we were only at the “starting line” as one comrade put it. Others pointed to the past history of the workers’ movement that just when the working class is written off as a historical force it suddenly proves everyone including revolutionaries wrong. The example of 1914 when the working class marched off in universal support for imperialist war only to begin the greatest revolutionary wave in history less than three years later stood out as an example of how class consciousness can be changed by material circumstances. In the current crisis the cuts had still yet to really hit home and all past indicators suggest that there is no immediate reaction to such things but only after a time lag when the actual burden of the new situation builds up.

In the meantime it was the task for revolutionaries to not only generalise any struggle but to point the way forward in the line of march towards greater class actions. Whilst some comrades were more eloquent in expressing a militant hatred of the capitalist system and its consequences which they could hardly wait to be ended the meeting agreed that class consciousness would be developed gradually through the increasing alienation from a system which could do nothing but attack us. It was also agreed that revolutionary consciousness would not arise overnight and that a degree of patience would be required. Class consciousness could not be developed by the revolutionary minority through a mere act of will. If there was a low level of class consciousness generally there was not a lot revolutionaries can do (as the last 40 years prove). As the Committee of Intesa wrote back in 1925 you cannot build a revolutionary movement “through expedients and tactical manoeuvres”. The sorry history of Trotskyism since 1938 is evidence enough for that.

There were also a couple of discussions which could be described as nominalist. The first was over the question of “party” and “revolutionary minority”. Whilst the ICT was quite happy to use the term “party” in terms of a class conscious political organisation it was recognised that for some (following Ruhle et al) the term had negative connotations given the experiences of the last revolutionary wave. Similarly the idea of “intervention” was a word imported from Italian and French comrades where it is common to describe any one individual’s contribution, but in English gives the unfortunate impression of someone speaking from outside the class. In both cases it was concluded that it is not so much the word but the idea behind it that was important and like our idea of “communism” itself such terms would always require explanation in order to clarify their content.

The only minor disagreement was when an ICC comrade said that things were changing and you would not have got the Communist Left addressing some sectors of internationalist anarchism ten years ago as today. The CWO comrades pointed out that they had worked with anarchists for twenty years in anti-parliamentary campaigns and No War But the Class War. The key dividing line in the current period was more about accepting an anti-capitalist revolutionary agenda and rejection of all types of reformism put forward by the left of capitalism. Whilst the Communist Left organisations were all agreed on this the problem was that not all anarchists understood this.

However this was minor issue in what was a positive meeting undertaken in a comradely spirit and we hope that future meetings will not only welcome more participants but also carry this level of discussion further.

Beyond Protest Manchester

For those of us who have dedicated almost all their adult lives to struggling for a movement which to bring about proletarian emancipation these are suddenly interesting times. Obviously they are not yet interesting times for most of the working class or there would be more people here to discuss how we can go “Beyond Protest” but there is no doubt that the speculative bubble which had been swelling for more than two decades until it burst in 2007-8 has been a major shock to the capitalist system, revealing it for what it truly is.

The collapse did not come as a shock to us. A young American sympathiser recently got back in touch with us on our website and reminded us what we wrote to him in December 2006.

The current speculative bubble which is distorting real capital values cannot last forever, and if the system goes through a new global crash, the working class will need to have organised instruments in place in order to fight the authoritarian barbaric solutions which the capitalists will themselves put forward.

Well it is still early in this crisis to yet see outright barbarism but what is going on in Syria is not far off it. However we should also point out that this crisis did not start in 2007 or 2008 but when we older comrades were young. It was the end of the post-war boom that brought our generation into the communist movement. More precisely it was the resistance of the working class to that crisis in the late 60s and early 70s which encouraged us not to join the traditional left but to found in Britain at least a new communist movement.

The key facts of the last 4 decades are that capitalism despite trying Keynesianism, monetarism and neo-liberalism has been unable to get out of its stagnation. This has been because to really start a new round of accumulation it would need destroy an enormous amount of value. But to do this it would have to inflict austerity the like of which we have not seen since the Thirties and which would provoke social confrontations to threaten the system or else a new global war would do the trick excerpt the consequences for the capitalist are so incalculable in the era of nuclear weapons that this too would threaten their long term survival (and that is all they think about, bugger the rest of us). The speculative bubble based on massive debt was their last trick and now that has burst the prospects for capitalism are indeed dire. Indeed we can currently see no other future for it but more of the same – stagnation, austerity, bailing out the banks to keep the system ticking over. Even the Governor of the Bank of England is talking of a lost decade. Lenin said there was no situation which capitalism could not get out of but the current situation is a bigger impasse than any we have seen so far. Managed decline is the course that has been chosen in the Micawberish hope that something will turn up. In the meantime speculation is once again being rehabilitated (but on commodities and currencies and not on housing and real estate).

The only other policy they have got is austerity – cuts upon cuts. We have already seen plenty of these. Everyone has there own favourite stats on the crisis but the ones we have printed in our latest Aurora from various sources give us a flavour.

“According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies:

  • This year’s tax changes mean the ‘average family’ will lose £511 per year.
  • A nominal increase in the minimum wage will leave it lower in real terms than it was in 2004. The government has taken the Low Pay Commission’s advice to freeze the minimum wage for young people from October. [£4.98 per hour for18-20 year olds, £3.68 for16-17 yr olds above school leaving age but under 18. The ‘apprentice rate’, for under 19s or 19+ and in the first year of apprenticeship will rise by 5p to £2.65 per hour.]
  • Inflation has also outstripped average income growth, leaving workers worse off in real terms. The Institute forecasts that real net income of the average household will be lower in 2015-16 than in 2002-3.

Meanwhile the TUC estimates:

  • By April 2013 families on working tax credit may lose more than £4,000 from changes to the credit system while 1.6m council workers will have their pay frozen for a third year in a row.

Consumer Focus estimates:

  • 4 million people have a Pay Day loan. A ‘typical’ monthly repayment on £100 is about £130 but higher interest rates, up to 5,000% p.a. are far from unknown. Tony Hobman, chief executive of the Money Advice Service, a government agency to help people in debt, is paid £250,000 a year before bonuses.

The ‘Institute of Health Equity’ at UCL reports:

  • The gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest has widened in most areas of England. The largest gap is for males in Westminster where average life expectancy of the richest is 84 but for the poorest the average is 16.9 years less.

The ONS latest employment figures show:

  • The drop in unemployment is entirely due to the growth in part-time work.”

And on top of this we have to realise that over 90% of the planned cuts have not yet hit us.

Little wonder that we have seen movements like the Occupy and Indignados taking to the streets in scores of countries across the world. And little wonder that the bosses paper the Financial Times keeps writing articles wondering at how they are getting away with it without greate social unrest. The important thing about the Occupy movement more than anything else is that it has raised a political agenda. Everyone now talks about “capitalism”. 5 years ago it was only the “nutters” of the Communist Left who used that kind of archaic language. And this is important since we can have al the economic struggles you like but unless they raise a political dimension they are something the system can accept and cope with. The Occupy movement has also questioned the hierarchical nature of society and its structures. Its open forums have shown how discussions can increase people’s confidence and widen their horizons. Our comrades have been able to participate in them in various countries. In Rome for example our comrades have been asked to organise a school of Marxism so that people read Capital in an attempt to understand the real crisis.

However before it sounds like we are getting over-enthusiastic about the Occupy and Indignados movements we also have to recognise their limitations. On a political level, the ‘anti-capitalism’ of Occupy, like the Occupy movement itself, has no coherency or substance. When questioned about the meaning of anti-capitalism most Occupy protesters would say they are against the banks and multinational corporations. But there is no economic critique of capitalism and no understanding of why capitalism will inevitably create these hated institutions. The Occupy Wall Street website states on its home page:

OWS is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations. The movement is inspired by popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, and aims to fight back against the richest 1% of people that are writing the rules of an unfair global economy that is foreclosing on our future.

This sort of reformist perspective to ‘democratise capitalism’ in line with groups like UK Uncut who think that capitalism could be fair if only the government made the bourgeoisie pay their taxes, seems to be as close as the Occupy movement gets to having any political perspective at all. Such demands for a fair and democratic capitalism are rooted in petty bourgeois utopianism and serve only to peddle illusions about what is possible under capitalism, illusions that the working class must dispel if it is ever to wage an effective struggle against capital.

This brings us to the question of class. This is an issue that the Occupy movement chooses to gloss over, or perhaps even to deliberately obscure. Of course the inequality that exists in society is at the heart of what the Occupy movement opposes, but this is conceptualised in terms of the 1% of those that own and control the world’s wealth, compared to the 99% who don’t. This may be graphic representation of that inequality but it is just presented as a given, the consequence perhaps of the power of greedy bankers or megalomaniac multi-nationals. The fundamental point that capitalism is a class society based on the exploitation of the proletarian majority by the bourgeois minority is neatly overlooked, as this would undermine the Occupy movement’s utopian demands for a fair and democratic capitalism. Those who hold a Marxist understanding of the need for a revolutionary transformation of society led by the working class as the prime agent of change recognise that ther is no such thing as a fair and democratic capitalism.

So what is to be done?

The working class owns only the individual capacity to labour. It has no system of property to defend. For previous rising classes the question of revolutionary change was no problem. All they had to do was defend their form of property in every way they could and they coalesced into a movement which challenged the old order. The bourgeoisie in their struggle could even engender slogans which made it appear as though they we re fighting for all humanity (liberty, fraternity and equality). What they didn’t tell the workers was that equality was only for those who could afford it. In bourgeois society Orwell’s nostrum that some are more equal than others is a daily fact.

The only other weapon the working class possesses is its consciousness. This is nurtured and formed by its own struggles from its position in capitalist society but these sparks of consciousness rise now here now there and then die with the struggle. How can the perceptions of workers in struggle be carried from one point to the next? Marx was aware of the problem. He knew that the emancipation of the working class was “the task of the workers themselves” yet he also wrote that under capitalist conditions the ruling ideas are those who own the means of production, including intellectual production.

How to escape the dilemma – the political party.

The solution to the dilemma lies in the formation of a revolutionary minority or party if you like. This turns the consciousness of those individuals within the working class who already see what is at stake into a material force. A material force which fights within the wider working class to increase both the depth and the extent of its class consciousness. This revolutionary minority is entirely consistent with Marx’s own vision of a future international party. Many people quote Marx’s insertion into the rules of the IWMA in 1864 the nostrum that “the emancipation of the working class will be the task of the workers themselves”. What they usually claim is that this shows that Marx was against the idea of a revolutionary minority altogether. But this is an error. After all why would Marx include this in the rules of the International if it was an anti-party statement. What he meant here was that the workers had to forge their own organisations independent of all the bourgeois parties. Without an organisation representing the historic acquisitions of the working class the bourgeoisie will be capable of imposing its own solution on any movement however militant.

However Marx could not have envisaged all the false starts that the workers movement would make on its road to emancipation.

The revolutionary minority we have in mind will have to be unlike any other produced in the past. In the first place it will not fall into the social democratic error of trying to have a mass party which can only be achieved by capitulating to the immediate demands for reform and take on a parliamentary agenda.

Professional revolutionaries are not the answer either. This was advocated by Lenin for the Bolshevik Party when it was clandestine and under the brutal Tsarist dictatorship. He wanted revolutionaries to be “professional” in sense of not being bunglers who betrayed themselves and the workers to the secret police. We are against it for several historical reasons. Having party organisers who are employees mean they can be disciplined by the mere act of cutting their source of salary as Gramsci did to defeat the Italian Left majority in the Communist Party of Italy in the 1920s. However there is also another profound reason for not accepting this model and that is that the class party has to be a party of the class and the members remain with the class either in the workplace or in the community.

There were some good things about Bolshevism: before 1917 it was obviously an organisation which not only had a wide ranging debate but encouraged individual initiative at the local level and within workers’ organisations. It was its roots inside the working class established well before the revolution that were the key to its decision to drop its social democratic programme in April 1917.

Obviously though the next revolution will not be a rerun of the revolutionary wave of 90 years ago. Obviously too we have to learn from the errors of the revolutionaries of the past.

We have catalogued those of the Bolsheviks many times. On Day One Sovnarkom was set up which was really just a bourgeois cabinet with another name. The real revolutionary ruling body should have been the Executive Committee of the Congress of Soviets. Other examples are well-known. In June-July 1918 soviet elections in Petrograd were rigged for the first time and the isolation of the revolution and the continuing social democratic ideas about socialism which still lingered in Bolshevism ensured by 1921 that the class had disappeared and the party was the class. Anarchists have used these errors to argue that all along Bolshevism was a plot to defeat the spontaneous revolution of the working class. But the anarchists themselves lacked cohesion and organisation – personalities rather than polices dominated. When the Bolsheviks rigged the Petrograd soviet elections in 1918 it was to keep out the reaction not to prevent a move to a third revolution. And this is why some anarchist alter recognised that they had failed too and decided that they too needed organisation and a Platform which they produced in 1926. This remains controversial amongst anarchists, even to this day, but it is a recognition that a revolutionary minority is needed. And today the Anarchist Federation carries in its paper an outline of revolutionary action and organisation that is not too distant from our own. Similarly we have read on the ICC website of a group called the Birov Collective which calls itself anarcho-syndicalist but its ideas of syndicates are very close to ours of workplace groups as both are essentially political in character (this contrast with the Solidarity Federation in the UK) . Today the debate is not so much between Anarchism and Marxism but between revolutionaries from both camps and the traditional left which are all based on the restoration in one form or another of social democracy.

From the Russian Revolution we take the lessons that to make the revolution the class will have to create a revolutionary minority which is the material expression of it consciousness. That minority will fight in the class wide organs for the communist programme but being a minority it cannot wield power. As Onorato Damen wrote in the platform of the PCInt after the break with Bordiga “the working class does not delegate its power to any one not even its class party”. And the revolutionary minority has other tasks than to rule in any one geographical area – spreading the world revolution takes precedence and if its members are elected to posts of responsibility they are elected on the same basis as other delegates i.e. revocably.

Today we are seeing the beginning of a revival of an anti-capitalist consciousness. It is only a beginning but those of us who have been fighting for a revolutionary class outcome all our lives have an enormous responsibility to the new generation. Up to now communist have separated over issues largely of historical creation. Past errors have become current shibboleths. Rather than a source of understanding history has largely been a nightmare weighing on the living and magnifying differences which are hardly ever properly explored. Today we are on the edge of new situation and we need to re-examine our practices. We have been saying for many months that the issue is not just to fight the cuts but to fight the system that produces them. This is the starting point for all revolutionaries and we have declared ourselves willing to work with anyone who shares that basic premise. Out of common work comes common respect, out of respect comes real dialogue, and out of that a more effective working class resistance.

Jock

Monday, June 11, 2012

Comments

I heartily welcome this report and it's optimistic tone. It contains a number of positive indications for our proletarian future.

"Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!" Otto Von Bismarck

I also appreciate the tone of this article as it is clearly anti-sectarian. I feel like I have more in common with proletarian-based anti-capitalist anarchists then all of the perversions of Marxism like "Maoism" or Stalinism/Marx-Leninism. If there were ever a "united front" which would be reasonable it would be "anarcho-communists" and the communist left. In my country anarchism is the only anti-capitalist movement which has any vitality, although as discussed, often times they are hideously confused and often seem to lack any sort of theoretical understanding, although their heart is in the right place. Rather than oppose them, attempt to subvert them, or ride their coattails, we must recognize similarities and common ground and provide a clear alternative to the bourgeois left, albeit one wracked by internal debate. I applaud you for including them in your meeting, and being as inclusive as possible, sectarian elitism usually goes nowhere or when it is rarely successful it leads to a new form of the old system. Often times the differences seem superficial and many ways a hold over from a different era with different material realities. The language will make revolutionary "anarcho-syndicalism" seem contradictory to communist leftism and yet in essence our goals seem clearly similar, it is how to accomplish them which causes such debate. I chuckled being described as a "young American sympathizer" lol, and I am glad if I somehow contributed to the meeting or something. Perhaps someday I will write something valuable or make it out to Britain to attend one of your meetings, I have a friend who lives outside of London who I could stay with. Obviously as historians who are not brainwashed by capitalist propaganda we can all be comforted by one obvious fact: capitalism began, therefore it shall end, and not to haughtily glorify ourselves, whether or not our names are remembered by history we shall forever be the people who had the nerve to question and oppose the status quo even though it is inconvenient to do so. We are the people who had the nerve to look to the future amongst the brainwashed lemmings and boldly attempt to lead our species to a new, sane era. Apparently you folks are older, so know this: your writings have become a part of me and then those who are willing to listen to me. If you are to pass on to the next life without seeing an end to capitalism, you shall still live on through your actions, and be integral to a revolution you may very well not participate in. Most do not know of the liberty bell party but there would have been no radical republicans had they not existed, and therefore no end to slavery. Of course as Marxists we look at material realities as the driver of history, not personalities, but the simple fact is people must decide how they live their lives, and it takes boldness to oppose that which is entrenched. You have never given up on our task even through decades with seemingly nothing positive for the left. And now I take up your struggle, perhaps my children will continue it. You are all in me, and I am in them, and for that we shall all exist until the end of our species as great men worthy of praise, without whom there would be no future.

Mr Sandman I hope that what your children may have to continue is post- rather that pre-revolutionary fervor, otherwise we're all in deep shit. I am you and you are me and John Lennon was the walrus. Or was it Paul?

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