Every once in a while the Socialist Courier blog comes across an article or book that reflects much of the same thinking as the World Socialist Movement. We, of course, do expect some differences of interpretation and emphasis since we have all made our separate political journeys along different paths and acquired our own baggage on the way. Nevertheless, we should appreciate what views we share in common and acknowledge that our goal to create a post-capitalist world other also strive to achieve. The following is an extract from “Getting Free: Creating an Association of Democratic Autonomous Neighborhoods” by James Herod.
We can’t destroy capitalism by running for office, by gaining control of the state apparatus through elections. It hasn’t been done and it won’t be done, even though numerous governments have been in socialist hands in Europe, sometimes for decades. It won’t be done because governments don’t have the last say, they don’t control society. Capitalists do. The government doesn’t control capitalists; capitalists control the government. Modern government (i.e., the nation-state system) is an invention of capitalists. It is their tool, and they know how to use it and keep it from being turned against them. Although building worker-controlled political parties, then using those parties to win elections and get control of governments, and then using those governments to establish socialism seemed like a plausible enough strategy when it was initiated in the mid-nineteenth century, it's way past time for us to recognize and admit that it simply hasn't worked. Capitalism goes rolling on no matter who controls the government.
We can’t destroy capitalism by taking over the government in a so-called revolution (i.e., capturing the state apparatus by force of arms). Beginning with the Russian Revolution, this has been the most widely used strategy (by national liberation movements) during the past century in countries on the periphery of capitalism. Dozens of "revolutionary parties" have come to power all over the world, but nowhere have they succeeded in destroying capitalism. In all cases so far, they have simply gone on doing what capitalists always do: accumulate more capital. They inevitably become in spite of their intentions just another government in a system of nation-states, inextricably embedded in capitalism, with no possibility of escape. Generations of revolutionaries devoted their lives to this strategy. It seemed like the best thing to do at the time, and maybe it was. But now, after nearly a century of trials, it's painfully clear that the strategy has failed, and more and more revolutionaries are coming to this conclusion. The few remaining die-hard leninists, who are still struggling to build a vanguard party to seize state power, are definitely and thankfully a dying breed.
We cannot destroy capitalism with guerrilla warfare. This strategy has been mostly deployed as part of national liberation movements in colonial countries in order to capture the governments there. It is a form of leninism. As noted above, leninism in general didn’t work. And now, guerrilla warfare as a particular tactic within leninism doesn’t work. Capitalists have learned how to defeat it. The strategy was based on the assumed unwillingness of the capitalists to murder the civilian population in order to kill the guerrillas too. Capitalists have shown no such reluctance. They are willing to murder on a massive scale, and uproot and displace whole populations, in order to defeat guerrilla movements. And they win. (The current wars in Colombia and Iraq will perhaps serve as the final test of this strategy.)
Some wild-eyed romantic revolutionaries have thought to adopt the strategy for use in the core countries, with disastrous results. Capitalists have been delighted to have a new enemy - namely, "terrorists" and "anarchists"- now that "communists" are gone. But of course they will malign any opposition movement, so this is not the reason guerrilla warfare will not work here. It won’t work because it is part of leninism (seizing state power), and leninism didn’t work. It will not work because of the overwhelming firepower amassed by every advanced capitalist government. It will not work because it doesn’t contain within itself the seeds of the new civilization. I would think twice before joining the underground.
We cannot destroy capitalism by seizing and occupying the factories and the farms, at least not in the way this has been tried so far. Nevertheless, of all the strategies that have failed, syndicalism (federations of peasant, worker, and soldier councils) is the only one that had a ghost of a chance, and the only one that even came close to creating a new world. It came close in the great Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. Unfortunately, that magnificent revolution was defeated. In fact, all syndicalist revolutions have failed so far.
I believe there are serious flaws inherent in the strategy itself. For one thing, the syndicalist strategy ignores households, as if households weren’t part of the means of production. Thus, it excludes millions of homemakers from active participation in the revolution. Homemakers can only serve in a supporting role. It also excludes old people, young people, sick people, prisoners, students, welfare recipients, and millions of unemployed workers. To think that a revolution can be made only by those people who hold jobs is the sheerest folly. Perhaps immediately after syndicalists seize the factories and make a revolution, this exclusion could be overcome by having everyone join a council at home or in school, but this is no help beforehand, during the revolution itself. The whole image is badly skewed.
Moreover, syndicalists have never specified clearly enough how all the various councils are going to function together to make decisions and set policy, defend themselves, and launch a new civilization. In the near revolution in Germany in 1918, the worker and soldier councils were for a few months the only organized power. They could have won. But they were confused about what to do. They couldn’t see how to get from their separate councils to the establishment of overall power and the defeat of capitalism.
In the massive general strike in Poland in 1980, factory, office, mining, and farm councils were set up all over the country. But these councils didn’t know how to coalesce into an alternative social arrangement capable of replacing the existing power structure. They even mistakenly refrained from attacking ruling-class power with the intent of destroying it. Instead, the councils merely wanted to coexist in some kind of uneasy dual structure (perhaps because they were afraid of a Soviet invasion; but a strategy that has not taken external armies into account is badly flawed).
Workplace associations would have to be permanent assemblies, with years of experience under their belts, before they could have a chance of success. They cannot be new forms suddenly thrown up in the depths of a crisis or the middle of a general strike, with a strong government still waiting in the wings, supported by its fully operational military forces. It is no wonder that syndicalist-style revolts have gone down to defeat.
Finally, syndicalists have not worked out the relations between the councils and the community at large, and to assume that workers in a factory have the final say over the allocation of those resources (or whether the factory should even exist) rather than the community at large, simply won’t do. Nor have syndicalists worked out intercommunity relations. Syndicalism, in short, is a half-baked strategy that has not been capable of destroying capitalism, although it has been headed in the right direction.
General strikes cannot destroy capitalism. There is an upper limit of about six weeks as to how long they can even last. Beyond that society starts to disintegrate. But since the general strikers have not even thought about reconstituting society through alternative social arrangements, let alone created them, they are compelled to go back to their jobs just to survive, to keep from starving. All a government has to do is wait them out, perhaps making a few concessions to placate the masses. This is what Charles de Gaulle did in France in 1968.
A general strike couldn't even last six weeks if it were really general - that is, if everyone stopped working. Under those conditions there would be no water, electricity, heat, or food. The garbage would pile up. We couldn't go anywhere because the gas stations would be closed. We couldn't get medical treatment. Thus we would only be hurting ourselves. And what could our objectives possibly be? By stopping work, we obviously wouldn't be aiming at occupying and seizing our workplaces. If that were our aim we would continue working, but kick the bosses out. So our main aim would have to be to topple a government and replace it with another. This might be a legitimate goal if we needed to get rid of a particularly oppressive regime, but as for getting rid of capitalism, it gets us nowhere.
Strikes against a particular corporation cannot destroy capitalism. They are not even thought to do so. The purpose of strikes is to change the rate of exploitation in favor of workers. Strikes have only rarely been linked to demands for workers’ control (let alone the abolition of wage slavery); nor could capitalist property relations be overcome in a single corporation. The strike does not contain within itself any vision for reconstituting social relations across society, nor any plans to do so.
In recent years, strikes have even lost most of the effectiveness they once had for gaining short-term benefits for the working class. More often than not strikers are defeated: their union leaders sell them out; the owners bring in scabs, or simply fire everyone and hire a whole new crew; the owners move their plants elsewhere; and/or the government declares the strike illegal and calls out the state militia. Strike breaking is a flourishing industry on consultant row. Decades of antiunion propaganda by corporate-controlled media has destroyed a prolabor working-class culture, which in turn helps management break strikes. Nowadays, for strikers to get anywhere at all, entire communities have to be mobilized, with linkages to national campaigns. Even so, strikers are still aiming only at higher wages, health benefits, and the like; they are not anticapitalist. With rare exception, they are not even fighting for a shorter workweek.
I do not believe that this situation is temporary or can be reversed. So however important strikes are, or once were, in the unending fight over the extraction of wealth from the direct producers, they cannot destroy capitalism as a system.
Unions cannot destroy capitalism. Although unions were created by workers, mainly to help protect themselves from the ravages of wage slavery, they have long since lost any emancipatory potential. They were easily co-opted by the ruling class and used against workers as a disciplinary tool to prevent strikes, to prevent job actions, to drain power from the shop floor, to stabilize the workforce and reduce absenteeism, to pacify workers, to water down demands, and so forth. Almost from their beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century (and with rare exception) unions have been "business unions," working in cahoots with capitalists to manage "labor relations." There is an inherent flaw in this strategy. It is based on constructing a bureaucratic institution outside the workplace instead of a free association of workers inside the workplace. In any case, the heyday of unions is long since past and any hope of bringing them back is delusive.
In recent years there has been a movement to rebuild unions, even in the United States, which is notoriously lacking in labor consciousness, and where union membership is down to 8 percent in nongovernment workplaces. In other countries, though, especially poor ones, there are some strong union movements, arising in response to the industries that have moved there or to the appearance of sweatshops. With rare exception, these unions are not anticapitalist. Naturally, it's important to fight for better working conditions, higher wages, shorter hours, and health benefits. Such struggles do often highlight the evils of the wage slave system as well as improve the lives of workers. Who could not be excited by the rapid emergence in the late 1990s of the student anti-sweatshop movement on college campuses across the country? But something more is needed if we want to get rid of capitalism. Even if current labor activists succeed and rebuild unions to what they once were, can we expect these newly refashioned unions to accomplish more than previous ones did, at the height of the unionization drives of a strong labor movement - a movement that was embedded in communist, socialist, and anarchist working-class cultures that have now been obliterated? Hardly.
Insurrections cannot destroy capitalism. I don’t even think the ruling class is frightened of them anymore. You can rampage through the streets all you want, burn down your neighborhoods, and loot all the local stores to your heart’s content. They know this will not go anywhere. They know that blind rage will burn itself out. When it’s all over, these insurrectionists will be showing up for work like always or standing again in the dole line. Nothing has changed. Nothing has been organized. No new associations have been created. What do capitalists care if they lose a whole city? They can afford it. All they have to do is cordon off the area of conflagration, wait for the fires to burn down, go in and arrest thousands of people at random, and then leave, letting the "rioters" cope with their ruined neighborhoods as best they can. Maybe we should think of something a little more damaging to capitalists than burning down our own neighborhoods.
Acts of civil disobedience cannot destroy capitalism. They can sometimes make strong moral statements. But moral statements are pointless against immoral persons. They fall on deaf ears. Therefore, the act of deliberately breaking a law and getting arrested is of limited value in actually breaking the power of the rulers. Acts of civil disobedience can be used as weapons in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people, I guess (assuming that ordinary people ever hear about them). But they are basically the actions of powerless persons. Powerless individuals must use whatever tactics they can, of course. But that is the point. Why remain powerless, when by adopting a different strategy (building strategic associations) we could become powerful, and not be reduced to impotent acts like civil disobedience against laws we had no say in making and that we regard as unjust?
Moreover, civil disobedience is a tactic used primarily by the more well-off and securely situated activists who can count on friends and family to raise bail, and who can be pretty sure of not getting a long prison term. This is not true for those strongly motivated religious persons who sometimes embrace long prison sentences as part of bearing witness to a higher morality. But you almost never see poor people or minorities deliberately getting themselves arrested because they know that once in prison, they are not likely to get out.
Civil disobedience has the additional disadvantage that the movement has to spend a lot of precious time and money getting people out of jail. Enough people get arrested anyway, against their will. We don't need the added burden having to struggle to free persons who voluntarily put themselves in the hands of our jailers.
We cannot destroy capitalism with single-issue campaigns, yet the great bulk of radicals’ energy is spent on these campaigns. There are dozens of them: campaigns to defend abortion rights, maintain rent control, halt whaling, prohibit toxic dumping, stop the war on drugs, stop police brutality, stop union busting, abolish the death penalty, stop the logging of redwoods, outlaw the baby seal kill, ban genetically modified foods, stop the World Bank and the World Trade Organization, stop global warming, and on and on. What we are doing is spending our lives trying to fix a system that generates evils faster than we can ever eradicate them.
Although some of these campaigns use direct action (e.g., spikes in the trees to stop the chain saws or Greenpeace boats in front of the whaling ships to block the harpoons), for the most part the campaigns are aimed at passing legislation in Congress to correct the problem. Unfortunately, reforms that are won in one decade, after endless agitation, can be easily wiped off the books the following decade, after the protesters have gone home or a new administration comes to power.
These struggles all have value and are needed. Could anyone think that the campaigns against global warming, to free Leonard Peltier, or to aid the East Timorese ought to be abandoned? Single-issue campaigns keep us aware of what's wrong and sometimes even win gains. But in and of themselves, they cannot destroy capitalism, and thus cannot really fix things. It is utopian to believe that we can reform capitalism. Most of these evils can only be eradicated for good if we destroy capitalism itself and create a new civilization. We cannot afford to aim for anything less. Our very survival is at stake. There is one single-issue campaign I can wholeheartedly endorse: the total and permanent eradication of capitalism.
Many millions of us, though, are rootless and quite alienated from a particular place or local community. We are part of the vast mass of atomized individuals brought into being by the market for commodified labor. Our political activities tend to reflect this. We tend to act as free-floating protesters. But we could start to change this. We could begin to root ourselves in our local communities. This will be more possible for some than for others, of course. There can be no hard-and-fast rule. Yet many of us could start establishing free associations at work, at home, and in the neighborhood. In this way, our fights to stop what we don't like through single-issue campaigns could be combined with what we do want. Plus, we would have a lot more power to stop what we don't like. Our single-issue campaigns might prove to be more successful.
What is missing is free association, free assemblies, on the local level. If we added these into the mix, we would start getting somewhere. We could attack the ruling class on all fronts. There are millions of us, plenty of us to do everything, but everything must include fights on the local level, especially at the three strategic sites mentioned earlier.
We cannot destroy capitalism by staging demonstrations. This most popular of all radical strategies is also one of the most questionable. As a rule, demonstrations barely even embarrass capitalists, let alone frighten or damage them. Demonstrations are just a form of petition usually. They petition the ruling class regarding some grievance, essentially begging it to change its policies. They are not designed to take any power or wealth away from capitalists. Demonstrations only last a few hours or days and then, with rare exception, everything goes back to the way it was. If demonstrations do win an occasional concession, it is usually minor and short-lived. They do not build an alternative social world. Rather, they mostly just alert the ruling class that it needs to retool or invent new measures to counter an emerging source of opposition.
But even if demonstrations rise above the petition level, and become instead a way of presenting our demands and making our opposition known, we still have not acquired the power to see that our demands are met. Our opposition has no teeth. In order to give some bite to our protests we would have to reorganize ourselves, reorient ourselves, by rooting ourselves, assembling ourselves, on the local level. Then when we went off on demonstrations to protest ruling-class initiatives and projects there would be some strength behind the protests, rather than just shouted slogans, unfurled banners, hoisted placards, street scuffles, and clever puppets. We would be in a position to take action if our demands were not met. Then when we chanted, "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" our words might represent more than just a pipe dream.
Demonstrations are not even good propaganda tools because the ruling class, given its control of the media, can put any spin it wants to on the event, and this interpretation is invariably damaging to the opposition movement, assuming the event is even reported since the latest approach to these events is simply to ignore them. This is quite effective.
And what are the gains? An issue can sometimes be brought to the attention of the public, even if only a small minority of the public. Also, more people can be drawn into an opposition movement. For those participating, a demonstration can be an inspiring experience. (In many cases, though, this high is offset by a sense of dispiritedness on returning home.) Demonstrations can thus contribute to building an opposition movement. But are these small gains worth it? Large national demonstrations drain energy and resources away from local struggles. And even local demonstrations are costly, requiring time, energy, and money, which are always in short supply among radicals. Are demonstrations worth all the work and the expense they take to organize? No matter what, they remain just a form of protest. They show what we're against. By their very nature, demonstrations are of limited value for articulating what we are for. We are against the World Trade Organization, but what are we for?
Rather than taking to the streets and marching off all the time, protesting this or that (while the police take our pictures), we would be better off staying home and building up our workplace, neighborhood, and household associations until they are powerful enough to strike at the heart of capitalism. We cannot build a new social world in the streets.
New Social Movements
The so-called new social movements, based on gender, racial, sexual, or ethnic identities, cannot destroy capitalism. In general, they haven’t even tried. Except for a tiny fringe of radicals in each of them, they have been attempting to get into the system, not overthrow it. This is true for women, blacks, homosexuals, and ethnic (including "native") groups, as well as many other identities - old people, people with disabilities, mothers on welfare, and so forth. Nothing has derailed the anticapitalist struggle during the past quarter century so thoroughly as have these movements. Sometimes it seems that identity politics is all that remains of the left. Identity politics has simply swamped class politics.
The mainstream versions of these movements (the ones fighting to get into the system rather than overthrow it) have given capitalists a chance to do a little fine-tuning by eliminating tensions here and there, and by including token representatives of the excluded groups. Many of the demands of these movements can be easily accommodated. Capitalists can live with boards of directors exhibiting ethnic, gender, and racial diversity as long as all the board members are procapitalist. Capitalists can easily accept a rainbow cabinet as long as the cabinet is pushing the corporate agenda. So mainstream identity politics has not threatened capitalism at all.
The radical wings of the new social movements, however, are rather more subversive. These militants realized that it was necessary to attack the whole social order in order to uproot racism and sexism - problems that could not be overcome under capitalism since they are an integral part of it. There is no denying the evils of racism, sexism, and nationalism, which are major structural supports to ruling-class control. These militants have done whatever they could to highlight, analyze, and ameliorate these evils. Unfortunately, for the most part, their voices have been lost in all the clamor for admittance to the system by the majorities in their own movements.
There have been gains, of course. The women's movement has forever changed the world's consciousness about gender. Unpaid housework has been recognized as a key ingredient in the wage slave system. Reproduction as well as production has been included in our analysis of the system. Identity politics in general has underscored just how many people are excluded while also exposing gaps in previous revolutionary strategies. Moreover, the demand for real racial and gender equality is itself inherently revolutionary in that it cannot be met by capitalists, given that racial and gender discrimination are two of the key structural mechanisms for keeping wages low and thus making profits possible.
Boycotts cannot destroy capitalism. They have always been an extremely ineffective way to attack the system, and are almost impossible to organize. They almost invariably fail in their objectives. In the rare cases where they have succeeded, the gains are minor. A corporation is forced to amend its labor policies here and there, drop a product, or divest somewhere. That’s about it.
In recent years, boycotting has become a way of life for thousands in the environmental movement. They publish thick books on which products are okay to buy and which must be boycotted, covering literally everything from toilet paper to deodorant, food to toys. All these activists have succeeded in doing is to create a whole new capitalist industry of politically correct products. They have bought into the myth that the "economy" will give us anything we want if we just demand it, and that it is our demands that have been wrong rather than the system itself.
It’s true that it is better to eat food that hasn’t been polluted with insecticides, to wear clothes not made with child labor, or to use makeup not tested on rabbits. But capitalism cannot be destroyed by making such choices. If we are going to boycott something, we might try boycotting wage slavery.
We cannot destroy capitalism by dropping out, either as an individual, a small group, or a community. It’s been tried over and over, and it fails every time. There is no escaping capitalism; there is nowhere left to go. The only escape from capitalism is to destroy it. Then we could be free (if we try). In fact, capitalists love it when we drop out. They don’t need us. They have plenty of suckers already. What do they care if we live under bridges, beg for meals, and die young? I haven’t seen the ruling class rushing to help the homeless.
Even more illusory than the idea that an individual can drop out is the notion that a whole community can withdraw from the system and build its own little new world somewhere else. This was tried repeatedly by utopian communities throughout the nineteenth century. The strategy was revived in the 1960s as thousands of new left radicals retired to remote rural communes to groove on togetherness (and dope). The strategy is once again surfacing in the new age movement as dozens of communities are being established all over the country. These movements all suffer from the mistaken idea that they don’t have to attack capitalism and destroy it but can simply withdraw from it, to live their own lives separately and independently. It is a vast illusion. Capitalists rule the world. Until they are defeated, there will be no freedom for anyone.
As wonderful as luddism was, as one of the fiercest attacks ever made against capitalism, wrecking machinery cannot in and of itself destroy capitalism, and for the same reason that insurrections and strikes cannot: the action is not designed to replace capitalism with new decision-making arrangements. It does not even strike at the heart of capitalism -wage slavery - but only at the physical plant, the material means of production. Although large-scale sabotage, if it were part of a movement to destroy capitalism and replace it with something else, could weaken the corporate world and put a strain on the accumulation of capital, it is far better to get ourselves in a position where we can seize the machinery rather than smash it. (Not that we even want much of the existing machinery; it will have to be redesigned. But seizing it is a way of getting control over the means of production.)
Moreover, luddites were already enslaved to capitalists in their cottage industries before they struck. They were angry because new machinery was eliminating their customary job (which was an old way of making a living, relatively speaking, and thus had some strong traditions attached to it). In current terms, it would be like linotype operators destroying computers because their jobs were being eliminated by the new equipment. Destroying the new machinery misses the point. It is not the machinery that is the problem but the wage slave system itself. If it weren’t for wage slavery we could welcome labor-saving devices, provided they weren’t destructive in other ways, for freeing us from unnecessary toil.
We can draw inspiration from luddism, as a fine example of workers aggressively resisting the further degradation of their lives, but we should not imitate it, at least not as a general strategy.
We cannot destroy capitalism by publishing, although I doubt if anyone believes that we can. I mention it here only because publishing constitutes for so many of us our practice.This is what we are doing. We justify this by saying that radical books, magazines, and newspapers are weapons in the fight against bourgeois cultural hegemony - which is true. But we are permitted to publish only because the ruling class isn’t worried one jot by our "underground press." Their weapons - television, radio, movies, and schools - are infinitely more powerful. It’s conceivable that capitalism could be destroyed without any publishing at all. The strategy of reassembling ourselves into workplace, neighborhood, and household associations could catch on and spread by word of mouth from community to community. Destroying capitalism is more a matter of rearranging ourselves socially (reconstituting our social relations) than of propagating a particular set of ideas. So instead of starting our own zines, why don't we call a meeting with co-workers or neighbors to form an association?
We cannot destroy capitalism through education. Not many radicals recommend this strategy anymore, although you still hear it occasionally. New left radicals established free schools and even a free university or two, and there was a fairly strong and long lasting modern school movement among anarchists. But these are long gone. The notion, however, that education is the path to change and the way out of the mess we're in is quite common in the culture at large. This is like the tail waging the dog. We don't even control the schools or what is taught there. Schools and education are artifacts, and minor ones at that, of the ruling class, and are a reflection of its power over society. It is that power that must be broken. This cannot be done through schools. Even the very notion of education as an activity separated from life needs to be overcome. Learning among free peoples will be strikingly different. When we have achieved our autonomy, by directly engaging and defeating our oppressors, that will be the time to worry about how to conduct our learning.