I recently stumbled upon a pair of articles by the US anarchist Wayne Price on the subject of demands. I think they’re worth reading and thinking seriously about, but I also have serious disagreements with his approach. These two pieces, which I’ll reply to together, are essentially an argument for anarchists to take up the Trotskyist idea of “transitional demands”. While this idea is by no means the worst thing to come out of the Trotskyist tradition*, I really don’t think there’s much use to be had from it either, for reasons I’ll set out below.
I’m not opposed to demands as an absolute principle, but I have serious differences with the approach advocated in Wayne Price’s articles. For one, I deeply disagree with the statement in the first article that “anarchists too should be for full employment demands, which speak to the existing needs of people.” We should be absolutely clear about this: employment – wage labour – is not a need that has to be met. Housing, food, and other resources are things that people need, and in this society the only way to meet those needs is through money, which for proletarians usually means employment, but it is a complete mystification to confuse the things we actually need with the wage labour we have to perform in order to get the money we need in order to buy the things we need.
This isn’t just abstract pedantry for the sake of it: this kind of card trick, shuffling up our actual needs with the work we have to perform to meet them, is a key part of capitalist ideology in the current era, one that has sadly infected much of the left, and anarchists should be absolutely clear in our rejection of it. The actual experience of job creation programmes in the current era shows that the only way we can expect governments to deliver “full employment” is by the creation of more low-waged and even unwaged work (as in the example of “workfare” programmes that make workfare recipients work for their benefits). “Full employment”, in the hands of the state, would inevitably become a weapon to force work on those too ill to work, those unable to work due to unpaid caring commitments, and – let’s be honest about this – those proletarians who just prefer to try and meet their material needs without selling their time to the bosses. On this point, it’s worth considering the fate of the slogan “right to work”, which is used equally happily by UK leftists demanding full employment and US right-wingers wanting to bust unions.
Do full employment demands “speak to the existing needs of people”? Well, yes and no. For instance, someone who is out of work, unable to pay their rent, and in danger of losing their house, would definitely benefit from finding employment that would enable them to pay their rent and keep their house; but this need could also be met by a state housing benefit scheme that guarantees rent payments for those unable to afford them, or by the development of a mass squatting movement that would enable people to live rent-free, and would be capable of resisting attempts by landlords and the state to evict them. All these solutions are alike, in that they would help this individual meet their need for a home; at the same time, there are differences between them, and the first one, as the only one that ties the right to a house directly to our ability to produce value for capital, seems by far the least desirable.
The next point of difference with Price’s article is a fairly complex one, so it’s worth quoting at length:
“Also funding should be provided for groups of workers to start their own non-profit cooperatives. For this, businesses should be expropriated (confiscated, taken away from their owners) without compensation. This should be done, the program should say, if they cannot provide employment, or if they pollute, or if they mainly make armaments, etc.. Who is being called on to take the firms away from the capitalists and turn them over to their workers and local communities? Most people will look to the existing state. After all, it has a lot of money and power, and it claims to represent the community. Why not challenge it to live up to its claims, they ask? And indeed, just as working people can make demands on a firm’s management (raise wages, recognize a union, etc.), they can make demands on the state, which is the overall management of capitalist society.
It is even possible that the government might make some minor reforms in this direction (say, tax breaks for worker-owned businesses). But the state would never carry out the main parts of this program, which would threaten the existence of capitalism. For the program to happen, workers and their allies would have to form a federation of workplace committees and neighborhood assemblies to replace the state with a self-managed society. Revolutionary anarchists must not try to fool people. They would need to openly say that this program would require a libertarian-socialist revolution—even as they expect people’s own experience to demonstrate that they are right.”
I think there’s a tension here: On one hand, the phrase “funding should be provided” makes it sound like this funding is going to come from an external actor (the state) rather than being raised by workers themselves, and Price adds that “just as working people can make demands on a firm’s management…, they can make demands on the state, which is the overall management of capitalist society. It is even possible that the government might make some minor reforms in this direction” – all of which seems to suggest that making demands on the state is a reasonable thing to do and something anarchists should support. On the other, there’s the statement that “Revolutionary anarchists must not try to fool people. They would need to openly say that this program would require a libertarian-socialist revolution.” Clearly, there’s a contradiction between encouraging people to demand something from the state as a plausible reform that might well be granted, and saying something is a demand that the state will never meet and that “workers and their allies” need to organise ourselves to fulfil it directly, without expecting any external body to do it. The latter option is perfectly legitimate, if that’s what you want to do; but it seems wholly compatible with the “dual power” strategy that Price is apparently writing to criticise, and very far from a “mass movement” strategy, if the latter is defined by making demands of the state.
In the second piece, there’s a further example of where Price’s position appears not so far different from the arguments he aims to criticise:
“Instead Crimethinc proposes that we “implement the changes we desire ourselves, bypassing the official institutions.” (1) I am all for building alternate institutions, such as coop groceries, credit unions, community centers, bike clubs, worker-run enterprises, etc. They are good in themselves. But, as a strategy, these do not threaten the capitalist class enough to force it to implement changes. Our resources are just too limited as against the class which controls the market and the state (which is why it is called the ruling class). It is another matter when workers take over, occupy, and start to run, factories and other workplaces! That really would threaten the ruling class and force it to make deals—or, if widespread enough, lead to a revolution.”
This is a particularly bizarre example: Price rejects the idea that we should “implement the changes we desire ourselves, bypassing the official institutions”, and, as an alternate strategy, proposes workplace occupations – that is to say, a strategy that bypasses the official institutions and involves taking action ourselves. It’s hard to see what, if anything, Crimethinc could disagree with here – occupying workplaces is, in itself, not a demand made of the state, even if it can be a way of backing them up.
Another point of convergence is, ironically, in the section headed “What is Wrong with Crimethinc’s Statement.” Here, Price picks out a statement that he thinks sums up the problems with Crimthinc’s approach:
“Crimethinc concludes this section by asserting that it “believe[s] that the fundamental problem is the unequal distribution of power and agency in our society…. No corporate initiative is going to halt climate change…no police force is going to abolish white privilege.” (3) This gets to the heart of what is wrong with Crimethinc’s statement. Sure, Crimethincers believe this, and I believe it, and all revolutionary anarchists agree with this view. But most people do not believe it. This includes the hundreds of thousands who marched against global warming as well as the militant demonstrators who protested angrily in Baltimore. It is not enough for a marginal minority of radicals to be super-militant; it is necessary for broad numbers of people to participate in militant action. There is virtually nothing in this document which discusses what can be done to win over the majority of working and oppressed people. They too should “believe that the fundamental problem is the unequal distribution” of power and wealth, and that significant, lasting, reforms cannot be won through the system. Crimethinc’s statement is all self-centered: what actions should be done by the few people who already agree that the system needs to be overthrown. Instead, the question is how can this anti-capitalist minority win over the many who are oppressed and exploited so that they too will believe that the system needs to be overthrown.”
The problem is, this section feels not so far different from Price’s earlier statement that “Revolutionary anarchists must not try to fool people. They would need to openly say that [their] program would require a libertarian-socialist revolution.” In particular, I’d be impressed if anyone can explain why saying “the state would never carry out [our demands]” (Price) is fine, but saying “No corporate initiative is going to halt climate change…no police force is going to abolish white privilege” (Crimethinc) is self-centered. If Crimethinc stating that fundamental change is needed means that they’re not interested with communicating with other people who don’t share their views, then surely the same goes for Price’s statement that a revolution is required; on the other hand, if Price can argue the need for revolution as part of an attempt to “win over the majority of working and oppressed people”, then surely Crimethinc’s statements can be viewed in the same light.
Price then sets out a taxonomy of three different kinds of demands:
“the reformist or liberal version of demands: only demand things which the bosses can deliver… Alternately, there is the view which is (perhaps unfairly) ascribed to the Trotskyists, of making demands which they know cannot be won. The aim is to devilishly trick the workers into making such demands and thus being forced to learn that only a revolution will solve their problems.
Instead our idea is to demand what the people need—whether or not the system could provide it. The people need a decent standard of living. Since the capitalists claim the right to run society, we demand that they provide jobs or a guaranteed income for all. If the capitalist state provides what we demand (or at least some improvements), then great! The people will have learned that mass pressure works, and anyway life will be better. If the state says it cannot provide such (needed) benefits, then revolutionaries argue that the capitalists and their state must be replaced by institutions which can provide them (that is, by the self-organized working people).”
There’s a problem with this: when we issue any specific demand, we need to have some kind of idea as to whether it can be met or not. There are lots of demands that we can issue and think it’s reasonably likely we’ll be able to win them: for instance, a lot of syndicalist and solidarity network activity, like fighting wage theft or demanding landlords make repairs, falls into this category. But these clearly aren’t what Price views as truly radical demands, since they can be met short of a revolution. He also rejects the traditional Trotskyist model of transitional demands – that is, asking for impossible things while presenting them as possible. But it’s hard to say what that leaves: should we demand things from the state that we know the state can’t provide, while openly saying that the state won’t be able to provide it? This might be more honest than a traditional Trot transitional demand, but it still sounds hopelessly confused – “What do we want? [This demand!] When do we want it? Whenever, we know we’re never actually going to win it anyway!” is hardly the most inspiring of slogans. On the other hand, if we accept that the state and capital can’t meet our needs, and look for ways to fulfil them directly together… we seem to be back at the “dual power”/Crimethinc model Price is polemicising against.
In summary, Price seems to waver between two different models: the absurd “transitional demand” method of encouraging people to demand things we’re confident they won’t get, and then the method that he alternately warns against and embraces, of organising directly to meet our own needs without making demands of external forces. If Crimethinc’s inflexible hostility to demands cuts them off from tactics that can be useful in building a movement, Price’s revolutionary ambitions seem to point to either some confused sub-Trot idea of raising impossible demands, or back to Crimethinc’s decision to favour “goals and objectives” over external demands.
This ambiguity comes up again and again: despite stating earlier on that he rejects the idea that we must “devilishly trick the workers into making such demands and thus being forced to learn that only a revolution will solve their problems”, in his conclusion he claims that “to build a militant, participatory, and angry movement of many people who are prepared to fight against the capitalist class and its state… requires a willingness to openly demand a better life for all from those who rule, and when people see that they cannot provide it, to overturn and dismantle all their institutions”, which sounds suspiciously similar.
To be clear about my own views on this matter: On the question of short-term, immediate demands, I do agree with Price’s view that “overall, I think that it is better for a movement to win its demands than to fail to get them. When it comes to building a movement, winning is better than losing!” That’s precisely why, when it comes to bigger, more ambitious objectives, I favour the Crimethinc approach of relying on our own abilities to find ways to meet our own needs, instead of asking the state for things that it can’t and won’t give. The “transitional demand” seems like a simultaneously confused and cynical idea, an unhelpful inheritance left over from the many twentieth-century groups that aimed to offer a leadership no-one wanted or needed.
A post-script: Although Price deals mainly with demands made of the state, there are, of course, other forces that one can make demands on. In the approach of most Trot groups, the correct way to escalate a dispute is always to “call on” the official union leaderships to do this, that or the other: “call on the unions to make this wildcat dispute official… to organise nationally to support this local strike… to turn this sectional dispute into a general strike” and so on, even when this course of action would involve breaking the law and so would put these institutions in serious trouble, something they’re clearly not willing to do. In contrast, the strategy favoured by anarchists and syndicalists has usually to been to try and bypass official union structures as much as possible and reach out to other rank-and-file workers directly. It would be interesting to hear Price’s views on this subject.
*for a much worse example, see this exchange between US anarchists the Utopian and May 1st, which features an attempt to argue that anarchists should adopt the utterly ludicrous idea of offering the Ukrainian government something called “military support” that doesn’t actually involve any actual military support.