Can’t we all just get along? Thoughts on class unity and anti-capitalist unity

A number of new radical groups have emerged over the last year. Among them is the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, which seems to have been set up by a number of activists who come from a Trotskyist background, but are willing to reassess some aspects of that tradition. It’s always healthy to take a critical look at what you’ve been doing to work out where you might be going wrong, but I’m not that convinced by the ACI’s answer: judging by the fact that they’ve just published an article on their own site calling for left unity, and another on the Commune’s website making essentially the same case, it seems that calls for greater left unity are going to be a major defining feature of the new group. The anarchist critique of “left unity” is one that’s been made a number of times before, most sharply in the article “Why left unity is a noose around the neck of the working class in struggle” but also in my own pieces “No to cuts, yes to what?” and “On ‘infighting’ and the left”. Having said all that, it’s also quite likely that we’ll continue to see calls for unity for as long as tiny leftist groups continue to exist, which may well turn out to be for as long as capitalism does, so it’s worth returning to the subject from time to time, especially since my own views might have developed a bit since I last wrote about it.
Essentially, one of my main problems with left unity drives is that they focus on the tiny minority of people who already have revolutionary ideas, and not the huge majority of the population who don’t. This focus is, in many ways, entirely understandable: when talking to other activists, we can guarantee that we’ll share certain cultural reference points that’ll make communication smoother. It doesn’t really matter whether those reference points are shared memories of early-2000s summit protests, collections of Crass Records 7”s, or an interest in organisational debates in the First International: what matters is that they’re there, and knowing we have these shared interests gives us a comfort zone that we don’t always have when talking to other people. If everyone else at your work spent the evening before watching the X-Factor, and you spent it discussing Kronstadt or reading up on value theory, that can seem like a pretty major obstacle to creating the kind of bonds that are so vital to successful workplace organising.  Of course, this article in itself is another expression of the tendency for revolutionaries to write for other revolutionaries rather than for the unconverted. The desire to stick to places where we feel comfortable is something that shouldn’t be sneered at: considering how homophobic, racist and sexist mainstream society often is, it can be really important for us to have some safe spaces where we can feel reasonably confident that we won’t be made to feel uncomfortable for who we are.
But however understandable this tendency can be, it’s also pretty useless as a general orientation: the revolution won’t be made by the few hundreds or thousands of people who’re already anarchists or Marxists, but by the millions who aren’t. The active, deliberate participation of the great mass of the population is absolutely vital to any revolution worth the name: their conscious involvement isn’t just the difference between a revolution that succeeds and one that fails, it’s the starting point that’s necessary before we can even really be said to have tried.
To focus on building unity with other activists first and foremost is essentially to stick with the “if we build it, they will come” approach to organisation, where we first need to get our own house in order, and then everyone else will flock to us. Whether the problem is diagnosed as disorganisation, theoretical confusion, or squabbling and disunity, the important thing is that it’s something internal to the movement, that we can put right and all will be well. But sadly, I don’t think things are as easy as that. I think the problem is that our ideas don’t make sense.
That’s a bold claim to make, so I’ll explain it a bit: I do believe that our essential ideas are correct, but I don’t think they fit with the reality that most people live in. In a culture where it’s normal for people to take collective action to improve or defend their standard of living, then communist/anarchist ideas are naturally going to make sense to people, as the most consistent and coherent expressions of those struggles. But in the UK, those kinds of collective struggles are mostly absent from our cultural memory. The definitive narrative of a mass working-class struggle in the UK in recent history is still the Miner’s Strike. Considering how that one ended, is it any surprise that people aren’t exactly flocking to our banners when we call for more class struggle?
This means that the point isn’t to fine-tune and perfect our arguments, or to find more attractive ways of presenting them; it’s to make the shift from a culture where our ideas don’t make sense to one where they do. As a materialist, I don’t believe that struggles come from consciousness, but vice versa. Whether we’re in work, claiming benefits, or studying, we all face problems that directly affect our own lives, and the lives of the people around us; it’s by focusing on these issues that we can start to build the unity we really need, one based on our class position rather than our ideological identity. The student movement that just defeated fee rises in Quebec and the successes achieved by the Sparks network of electricians are the two best recent, large-scale examples of this kind of material unity; more recently still, thinking about the demonstration on October 20th, some of the best action on the day came not from any of the competing political vanguards seeking to sell their version of leadership, but from the Black Triangle/Disabled People Against Cuts contingent who blockaded Park Lane.
The fact that a group of people defined by their shared material position as benefit claimants were able to provide better practical leadership than any of the revolutionary political groups defined by their ideological positions is something that should cause serious reflection among anyone who still hopes to offer political leadership to the working class. If members of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative focus on building practical, day-to-day unity with their fellow workers, claimants or students, following the example set by groups like DPAC or the Quebecois student association CLASSE, then they may be able to play some part in creating a culture where anti-capitalist ideas sound like common sense; if they choose to make left unity their main priority, then they may find out that they’re chasing a pipe dream.

Advertisements

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Activism, Anarchists, Bit more thinky, Debate, The left and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Can’t we all just get along? Thoughts on class unity and anti-capitalist unity

  1. Hi! Thanks for your comment on the ‘Commune’ blog and the link to your article above. I have considerable agreement with your position and it reminds me of the reasons behind an article I wrote earlier this year on my blog entitled ‘Politics and the Working Class’ at [http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/politics-and-the-working-class/] which tries to address the fantasy on the left of ‘leading’ the working class. Regards, Roy

  2. Aren’t they just!
    I would be interested in your opinion of another couple of articles I wrote on my blog entitled ‘The Riddle of History Solved’ and ‘Marxists against Marx’ for both are in different ways making similar points to the substance of your article. Regards, Roy

    • Thanks. On those articles, I’d say that while the Paris Commune may have solved some major riddles of history, we’re still left with the unsolved questions of how we get there from here, and what, if anything, those small minorities who consciously desire such a situation can do to contribute to it. There will never be a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to that question – meaningful activity in Britain today will take forms very different to those that worked in other places and times – but that shouldn’t stop us trying to find the practical forms appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in.

  3. Annos says:

    Sadly, I think your right. The ONLY way would be for all the true left parties to come together and form one big party, problem is they are all too busy fighting each other to be bothered about the people, they hate each other more then they hate the Tories!!!.

  4. Without wanting to sound too harsh, that wasn’t the point I was trying to make at all. The point isn’t to concentrate on the tiny number of people who are in left parties, but the vast majority of people who aren’t.

    • Annos says:

      Thanks for the reply, a really good site. I have bookmarked it.

      I know the point you are making. I was pointing out that such an undertaking would need the foundation of somekind of organisation behind it, problem is I cannot see where it will come from!. For myself, I am thinking the world we want will come by evolution and not revolution, I fear we are in for a long wait, if mankind is still around ???.

  5. I have a feeling we are trying to do a bit of both, or at least I am. As nothingeverlost notes some of the ‘small minorities’ are trying to work out how to relate to the large majorities without giving in to commonly held illusions on the one-hand or perpetuating sectarian dogmatic vanguardism on the other. In trying to understand the problems of forms of struggle as noted by nothingeverlost some time ago I wrote a contribution called ‘form and essence in the anticapitalist struggle’ which argued for flexibility in terms of form but without letting out of sight the essence of the anti-capitalist struggle. Its at
    http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/form-and-essence-in-the-anti-capitalist-struggle/ if anyone is interested. To my understanding the internicene hatred noted by Anos is the unfolding of a set of characteristics (at least ten fundamental ones) under the heading of sectarianism which I researched and outlined in the following. http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/2011/07/18/sectarianism-and-the-question-of-a-general-strike

    Regards, Roy

    • As noted in the article, I’m being slightly self-contradictory here, since this article – and, indeed, my blog in general, wouldn’t be of much interest to most of the people I’ve ever shared a workplace or a jobcentre with, and is very much only aimed at people who already have some anti-capitalist ideas. Having said that, I don’t think the contradiction’s too damning – this blog is essentially a hobby that I do in my spare time, and is as much about developing my own ideas and writing style as anything else. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sometimes writing stuff aimed at the anti-capitalist “scene”, as long as your main orientation is more outward-looking.

    • Annos says:

      I went to a Socialist party meeting a few years ago, I was already in another left party at that time, my aim was to try and get them to come together with other left parties and form just one big left party, I told them we were going nowhere divided, I was put down big time, as good as told “don’t come back”…I didn’t!.

      • Hi Annos!
        My experience also – and many others I have met over the years! I made myself so unpopular with those type of arguments I was expelled from a couple of groups before giving up on the idea and re-examining all the so-called left certainties. In the process going back to study Marx in detail and writing a book based on those experiences. Its a good thing that some of us stayed within the anti-capitalist paradigm and didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater – so to speak. Yet I haven’t entirely given up trying to persuade many of the sectarians they are treading a worn out path to a cul-de-sac but these days via my ‘critical-mass.net blog. Roy

  6. Thanks I enjoyed the blog and the replys

  7. Hi There! I have previously suggested that much of the left have erred in the direction of wishful thinking with regard to organising mass opposition to austerity. In a new contribution entitled Crisis! So what else can we do?‘ at http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/ I have argued further why this is so. It is very much in line with important observations you make. Given that non-sectarian anti-capitalists are as yet a very small minority I have also suggested the tasks that the logic of the current situation points toward. Regards, Roy

  8. Hi there! Considerable interest has been recently shown in an earlier analytical article of mine entitled ‘Sectarianism and the question of a General Strike’. For those interested in this phenomena I have added an updated supplement to this article entitled ‘The Subtle Characteristics of Sectarianism’ at http://www.critical-mass.net and suggested some guidelines on how the left could break with this tradition and introduce a new culture to anti-capitalist dialogue and co-operation. Regards, Roy

  9. Annos says:

    Whenever I hear the word “commune” I remember this…

    I remember reading many years ago about a group of people back about the early/middle part of the 20th century who had, had enough of the system and decided to start up a self sufficient commune, if memory serves it was based in the UK Midlands. This commune did not operate on money, people who joined gave their skills and worked for the commune, in return everyone looked out for everyone else, it was a stunning success!, so much so that it grew and grew, it had its own housing, school, hospital, shoe, clothing making shops, and of course at its heart was farming. It operated outside of the system, never needed anything from the outside, it became truly independent, once again if memory serves it had two to three thousand people when it was destroyed!!!. That happened when the powers that be started to get VERY worried, stories started to appear in the newspapers that sinister goings on were happening inside the commune, all proved to be false in the end, but, the damaged was done, a very large police operation was put into place and then one morning they moved in and destroyed the commune.

    You don’t hear about it today, I wonder why, might give people ideas!!!. Such was not to be allowed…

    Cautiously pessimistic web site might like to research it and do a write up ?.

  10. In an article [Crisis! So what else can we do?‘] published a month or two ago, I argued that among the anti-capitalist left there was much discussion of ’revolution’ and what initiatives given the developing crisis, might galvanise the masses into struggle. In it I asserted the following;

    “However, some of these initiatives stem from a mistaken view, that small groups, with the correct orientation and ideas can stimulate  significant and sustained actions, involving large numbers of people – before the vast majority of the population are ready to do so. In this case, such attempts are bound to fail….. A parallel problem is that promoters of these initiatives generally appear to have insufficient understand of the dynamics and evolution of protest, uprisings and revolutions.”

    This article itself gave rise to some criticism and discussion, particularly after its further posting here on the Commune blog. Because that particular article was suggesting what could be done, much of the reasoning behind the last sentence of the above extract was not included. However, a further article has been posted entitled ‘Uprisings and Revolutions’ which hopefully attempts to make good that deficiency and make clear my own reasoning behind the original assertion. If any of your readers would be interested, it can be found at; http://criticalmassdotnet.wordpress.com/uprisings-and-revolutions

    Regards,
    Roy

  11. PS. The words ‘here on the commune blog should have read ‘on the commune blog! Apols.

  12. Pingback: As soon as this left unity appeal finishes… | Cautiously pessimistic

  13. Annos says:

    “SWP crisis: who is saying what”

    http://www.jimjepps.net/?p=273

    I have for many a year thought that SWP was infiltrated at the top by members of the security forces, these people can make things happen. Strange is it not that all this has happened when for the first time the SWP was starting to make some real progress with all that the far right are doing, strange indeed!!!….”The definition of a coincidence is an example of two things relating to each other or having some connection that was unexpected.”

    • Annos says:

      Remember what happened to the SSP, they made GREAT progress, got six MSP’s elected and on the verge of getting a lot more elected, then…We know what happened…”strange indeed!!!”….”security forces, these people can make things happen.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s