|New Internationalist off the rails|
self-organisation and power
whole of the September 2003 issue of New Internationalist is
devoted to arguing for changing the world by building alternative social
relations ‘from below’. According to Phil Hearse, this
strategy is unworkable and diversionary. In order to sustain their case,
he argues, people who hold the New Internationalist-type positions are
forced to caricature and distort the views of Marxists.
Internationalist has a decades-long record of fighting for peace and
social justice. Its marketing techniques and professional presentation
have enabled it to reach a wide audience. Alas, its current political
outlook, taken over wholesale from John Holloway’s book Change the
World Without Taking Power (1), abandons the political terrain to
the right internationally. If widely adopted, it would disrupt the mass
movements for social justice and sabotage the creation of real
alternatives. Why so?
keynote article in September’s NI is by editor Katharine Ainger.
According to her, we have to recognise than in fighting the powerful no
usable political alternatives exist:-
“For an opposing ideology around which resistance can mobilise today seems to be non-existent. Gone are the grand narratives that fuelled revolutions of the past – the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty and the ‘rights of man’ of the French and American revolutions; the Marxism of the Russian Revolution; the Maoism of the Chinese Revolution; the Third Worldism and nationalism of the fuelled the independence movements of former colonies…Worse the vacuum left by the death of an alternative ideology is being filled by religious fundamentalism and racism.”
notion of the ‘end of the grand narratives’ is a leitmotif of
reactionary postmodernist theory, one recycled in Fukuyama’s idea of
the ‘end of history’. It deliberately confuses defeats for
Marxism and socialist movements with their death; and it all too
easily conflates the end of Stalinism with the ‘end’ of Marxism.
I’m sure that Katharine Ainger knows very well that non-Stalinist
Marxist currents got 11% in the last French presidential elections.
Unfortunately for our radical-democratic opponents, we’re not dead nor
have we gone away. Go to any anti-war or global justice demonstration
and look around. Marxism isn’t dead because it is the most coherent
critique of capitalism, and theorisation of its overthrow, to have
emerged. As long as the fight to overthrow capitalist social relations
continues, Marxism will stick around.
claims: “What we need is not a new political theory, but to widen the
very notion of what politics is, to access the sources of our own power,
regrounded in the reality of our own lives and practices…The idea of
mutual aid is a potent source for the renewal of the Left, leading us
beyond the old dichotomy that social welfare is best provided by the
State or the market. Ideas of mutuality and co-production put people
back into the heart of local services; and these ideas are catching on.
Examples range from the much-vaunted participatory budget of the
Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, to the neighbourhood committees of
Argentina, all the way to the run down English social-housing estates of
Luton, Manchester and Newcastle, where as Hilary Wainwright shows in her
book Reclaim the State, people are initiating popular
participation in public services.”
arguments are given weight by contributions from radical activists in
Mexico and South Africa, basing themselves on community organisations in
both countries, and of course the experience of the Zapatistas in
Mexico. What they are saying is basically this: forget about conquering
the state to change the world – that leads only to co-option or the
brutal wielding of oppressive power – and get on with changing social
relations in the here and now by taking control of our own lives and
communities, building a co-operative economy, sharing our own resources
and making lives tolerable again. That, in the words of John Holloway,
is ‘the meaning of revolution today’.
line of argument has some positive things going for it, but is globally
unworkable. Take the situation today in the ultra-poor barrios of the
Venezuelan capital Caracas. There, because of the politicisation caused
by the left-leaning government of Hugo Chavez and his ‘Bolivarian
revolution’, self-organisation in the poor barrios is massive. People
are taking the provision of water, electricity and other basic services
such as the running of schools into their own hands. Administration is
in the hands of local committees – the poor are running their own
lives. A barrio activist recently told The Observer, “We don’t want
our own government to represent us, we want to be the
is a very progressive line of argument. But it omits crucial factors.
Why is there the massive agitation and self-organisation in Venezuela in
the first place? Because of the election of a left wing government.
That government has many limitations, but if it is overthrown from the
right – but local reaction backed by US imperialism – the
self-organisation in the barrios will be repressed and collapse. The
many activists in the poor neighbourhoods who express impatience and
hostility to the ultra-politicised debates in the Bolivarian committees
risk cutting off their nose to spite their face. It is in those debates
that the possibility of a popular political alternative, which links
local self-organisation into a national network of self-administration,
is being hammered out.
local activism seems very attractive because it addresses concrete
problems in the here and now, rather than apparently ‘abstract’
questions of national state power. This issue has arisen in all the
debates about the tremendous wave of struggle and self-organisation in
Argentina. According to Naomi Klein (2), this vast movement started to
decline because the revolutionary left organisations bored everyone to
death prattling on about a workers’ government. The truth is very
collapse, which led to the expropriation of the saving of millions of
people, mass unemployment and pauperisation, engendered a multi-million
movement of revolutionary proportions. Such a movement can easily
survive the boredom of sectarian interventions. It declined, not because
it had no more self-organised tasks to accomplish, but because it could
not hammer out a national political alternative, a real alternative to
Peronism at the level of government.
do the self-organised masses need a governmental alternative? Why
can’t they just ‘be’ the government? For two linked reasons:
first, the local self-organised committees pose questions of resources,
of employment, of investment, of infrastructure and security, which
cannot be solved at a local level. This is also obvious in the
discussion about public services in Britain. You can’t resolve the
problems of the NHS by local participation and administration, you need
massive national investment, and that needs the decision of government.
As someone reviewing Toni Negri’s famous book Empire put it,
“you can’t remake society with a Stanley knife”.
second, if the radical self-organised poor and their allies abandon the
political terrain of the national (and international), capitalism will
use its state to crush them, either politically, or if necessary,
militarily. That’s what happened during the ‘dirty war’ in
Argentina in 1974-6, that’s what happened in Chile in 1973, that’s
what happened in Catalonia in 1937. Massive levels of struggle, big
experiments in self-organisation, utter and complete defeat.
then can we avoid the terrible experience of the Stalinist state, or the
experience of social democracy in power, utterly capitulating before
neo-liberalism? Ultimately the only answer is a different type of state,
a self-organised state, an anti-statist ‘state’ if you want. This is
what revolutionary marxists argue; that in a post-capitalist society it
is possible to build a national state structure based on the
self-organisation of society, federated at a regional and national
level. A ‘state’ with its roots in ‘civil society’, with elected
officials subject to instant recall of their electing bodies. A state
based on the sovereignty of the self-organised working people.
fight for such a political alternative will involve the creation of
myriad organisations of popular mobilisation, self-organisation and
local control. Through such a self-organised movement, social relations
at a local level can begin to be changed. But to be consolidated, to
effect a real and permanent change in social relations, capitalism has
to be defeated and replaced.
is the Achilles heal of New Internationalist-type theory, which has its
origins in the ‘autonomia’ currents in Italy, and theorised by Negri
and Tronti, of whom, despite minor differences, John Holloway is a
second-generation student. The idea of withdrawing from the world of
labour and creating our own autonomous spaces, into which capitalism
cannot penetrate and where we can create our own alternatives, ignores
and underrates the power of capital and the capitalist state, especially
the enormous coercive and ideological power which it wields today.
Ainger claims the power of the state is declining, that “the nation
state is less able to deliver than ever.” To substantiate this, she
quotes the way Brazilian president Lula has capitulated to the power of
international capital. The myth of the powerlessness of the national
state is used by the radical right to justify the idea that “you
can’t buck the market”, and by co-thinkers of New Internationalist
to justify their idea that national states can’t do much, you have to
‘do-it-yourself’ at a local level. But it is a total myth, as the
example of the Chavez government, with all its limitations, shows.
states, even capitalist states, have enormous power to re-order their
local economies. The real question – the ‘Lula question’ – is
whether they are prepared for the political fights and international
confrontation which challenging the dominance of capitalist priorities
involves. (Of course Lula has definitively answered this question in the
political battles and confrontations involve two things to have any
chance of success – mass mobilisation and internationalisation. A
radical government of any sort can only survive the anger of local and
international reaction if it puts its fate in the hands of the
self-organised and mobilised masses. That, indeed, is precisely what
saved Hugo Chavez during the two attempted right-wing coups. Ultimately,
a besieged radical government needs to fight for international aid and
support as well.
Katharine Ainger can’t resist the wholesale caricature of modern
Marxism based on its descent from Lenin: “Lenin was fixated on the
centralized hierarchy as the means of revolution. He wrote about the
difficulty intellectual revolutionary vanguards faced in raising the
consciousness of the masses without being ‘degraded’ to their level,
as he put it. Neither approach shows any faith in the value and
intelligence of ordinary people. This is the crucial failure of the Left
in the last century, yet it still has its it’s adherents today.
Political parties, whether Left or Right, see the homogeneous ‘mass’
as raw material to legitimise their own power.”
could only be written by someone who has never read Lenin and doesn’t
know anything about modern revolutionary Marxist movements. It swallows
hook, line and sinker liberal theories about the ‘totalitarian’
character of Lenin’s thought, pushed further by the Parisian nouvelles
philosophes for whom Karl Marx leads directly to the Gulag. And of
course it is in liberal political theory that the theories we discuss
here have their origin. As such they can never be useful for
base themselves on self-organisation and mass mobilisation, but the
political party remains a crucial instrument in that process. As I wrote
at the end of a review of John Holloway’s book:
in a party-less world, five or six friends in different parts of any
country, involved in anti-war coalitions, get together and discuss
politics. They find they agree on many things – not just war, but
racism, poverty and capitalist power. They decide to hold regular
meetings and invite others. Next, they produce a small newsletter to
sell to comrades in the anti-war coalitions. In six months they discover
a hundred people are coming to their meetings, and decide to hold a
conference. In effect, they have formed a political party. And –
obviously – if nobody else on the left forms an alternative, they’ll
have hundreds of members in a year. Revolutionary parties cannot be done
away with, not until the work they have to do is done away with as well.
The sooner the better.” (3)
Pluto Press 2002. See my review in International Viewpoint 355,
displayed at this site. Click here.
This article is displayed at Naomi Klein’s website, www.nologo.org
3) Op cit.
This article will be published in the January issue of Socialist
Resistance. For an appreciation of the
Zapatistas, see Contours of the Mexican
Left on the Latin America page of this
site, and also the interview with Jaime Gonzalez and Manuel Aguiler
Mora, on the same page.