Some thoughts on Anti-Capitalist Strategy
- Pankaj Mehta
Any serious anti-capitalist strategy must start by situating itself with respect to failure of the two major leftist projects of the last century, the Social Democratic project and the Real Socialism of the Communist bloc. 1 Such a strategy must also recognize the successes in which the American left played a crucial if not leading role: the end of segregation and the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the formation of the C.I.O. (Congress of Industrial Organizations) before its subsequent cooption by the AFL, and the Vietnam anti-war movement and its ability to permanently change the psyche of the American public. Internationally, one can add to the list of successes the formal victory of the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggles of the periphery.
In order to outline a specific anti-capitalist strategy, we must understand the aforementioned successes and failures. As pointed out by Nicos Poulantzas, in spite their differences, Social Democracy and Stalinism both are "marked by statism and a profound distrust of mass initiatives, in short a suspicion of democratic demands." 2
Poulantzas goes onto convincingly argue that the statist roots of Stalinism lie in the Leninist analysis of the state itself. He argues that in the Leninist conception, the state is too instrumental in nature. "The state is not traversed by internal contradictions, but is a monolithic bloc without cracks of any kind…Class contradictions are located between the State and the popular masses standing outside the State. This remains true right up to the crisis of dual power, when the state is effectively dismantled through the centralization … of a parallel power, which becomes the real power (soviets)." 3 Hence, the Soviets act not so much as an anti-State but a parallel one. It is argued that this is the root of Stalinist statism. It is worth noting that the Leninist model lacks the idea of a "process" towards socialism in which the masses slowly conquer and transform the state apparatus. 4. Instead, the state is merely an extension of the bourgeoisie and must be smashed.
Without doubt, the state is a coercive class apparatus. This does not however mean that it is without contradiction. The class forces and mass movements in society affect the state. The state is a battleground like any other which we cannot abandon in spite the instance of our anarchist comrades. We must instead work for the democratic socialist alternative. We must seek to transform the state apparatus permanently and combine this transformation with new forms of direct-democracy, worker self-management, and decommidification. We must reemphasize what Rosa Luxemburg so aptly pointed out to us in all her writings; the road to democracy is an essential part of the road towards socialism. 5
It should be noted that by democracy we do not advocate the parliamentary road. In fact, the limits of the liberal, parliamentary strategy is clearly seen in the failure of the social democracy to bring any substantial, fundamental change in capitalist property relations. By democracy, we shall mean "the direct interference of the masses into historic events." 6
For any democratic socialism to be possible, we must build up a vibrant civil society working towards democracy and socialism. 7 Not only is this necessary to undermine capitalist hegemony but it is essential to avoid the statist traps that led to the failures of the left in the twentieth century. 8 We must build institutions that encourage the self-valorization of the masses. We must "lay siege to civil society." 9
As João Pedro Stedile, leader of the MST in Brazil points out:
"It seems that the Left has forgotten that the only force that can bring social change is the organized mass of the people, and that people organize themselves through struggle, not through the vote. A vote is an expression of citizenship, not a form of struggle. The Left has to regain the belief that we alone are going to alter the balance of forces, through mass struggles against the bourgeoisie. There is always a preference for negotiations, for accommodating to class pressures." 10
Of course, encouraging mass struggle and mass participation is easier said then done.
So what are the tasks before us:
1. The left must debate and have a clear project and coherent strategy.
2. We must get back to grassroots organizing. We must reach out to the depoliticized working class.
3. We must have mass education of activists and workers. We cannot afford to abandon the great intellectual and practical legacy that our predecessors left us.
The first point is beyond the scope of this essay. Therefore I will concentrate on the latter two. In order to organize the depoliticized, the left must weave itself into the social fabric of everyday working class people. We must create new civil society institutions that encourage mass participation and educate activists and the masses alike. As pointed out by many activists, a strong civil society is also crucial to rebuilding the trade union movement in America. They have argued that we need to shift from narrow economic trade unionism to a broader social-movement trade unionism. 11 In order to do so, we must connect civil society community groups with the bureaucratic AFL-CIO structures.
The great lesson to be learned from the CPUSA and Trotskyist movement of the twenties and thirties is the way that the parties were able to embed themselves into the lives of ordinary working class people. Today, the left has largely stopped trying to reach out to these same people because of the difficulty involved. We do not organize them because they are difficult to reach. Most working class people do not want to hear about socialism or revolution. They are concerned merely with surviving in these reactionary times. The neoliberal counter-revolution is slowly is creating greater inequality and shifting the burden upon the working class.
The advent of neoliberalism also brings with it new contradictions and consequently, new opportunities to organize. The neoliberal project is more than anything about class warfare. 12 As such, the many hard won reforms won by workers are being scaled back or scrapped altogether. Hence, the needs of the working class once met by the quasi- Social Democratic state are no longer fulfilled. It is precisely this new contradiction that presents the largest opportunity. The left must help the working class build civil society institutions that address these new needs and at least partially, make up for the failings of the neoliberal state. By helping build institutions that address these needs, the left will be able to reach out to the unorganized and integrate itself into the fabric of working class life. These institutions will then serve the dual purpose of political education and self-valorization.
Concretely, this means different things for different groups. One segment of the working class that must be organized is the unskilled immigrant-labor. These immigrants are primarily in the low-wage sector of the formal economy and in the informal sector. The left must reach out to growing number of immigrants in every large and medium size city. It is not enough simply to advocate for immigration reform and legal change; the left must build civil society institutions that integrate themselves into the everyday lives of these workers. To do so, we must steal a page from right-wing social movements throughout the world. 13 We must provide tangible help to these workers in their everyday struggles. We must, under the auspices of a party or other left organization, set up an outreach wing. This wing should do what at first does not seem to be overtly political work. This includes teaching English as second language classes, setting up workshops on how to fill out a job application, visa application, and other legal documents. Integrated with these sorts of programs can be seminars on workers rights, immigrant rights and other mass education of a political nature. The importance of such work is that it integrates the left into the fabric of immigrant communities. It helps create civil society institutions through which genuine mass struggle can be channeled. 14
Another segment of the population that must be reached is working class youth. We must reach out especially to community colleges where youth organizing is largely absent. We must set up institutions that not only perform political education but also make up for the increasing failings of the neoliberal state. It is clear that education is slowly becoming a privilege not a right. In conjunction with unions, we should set up programs to provide SAT tutoring and college counseling to kids of union members and other working class communities. Such projects should also be viewed as ways to start forcing union in the social-movement unionism directions.
The examples above are just two of many concrete projects along these lines. What is important is the essence of the strategy outlined above. In this essay, it is argued that the left must build civil society in order to move forward in the quest for socialism. The transformation of the state under the neoliberal project offers new opportunities. We must reach out to depoliticized working class by making up for the shortcomings of the neoliberal state. By helping the working class build institutions that educate and meet its needs, we catalyze the development of mass conscience and mass struggle essential for the democratic socialist project.
Pankaj Mehta, 25, is a Graduate Student in Physics, Rutgers University, and can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org
1. This is the starting point of Nicos Poulantzas in his brilliant article Towards a Democratic Socialism NLR I/109, May-June 1978, pp. 75-87.
3.Ibid . The Lenin model refers to the strategy outlined in "What is to be done?"
4.The process towards socialism is also emphasized in Boris Kagarilitsky's The Dialectics of Change, Verso Press, New York, NY: 1990
5.For example, see Rosa Luxemburg "Reform or Revolution". The connection between democracy and socialism is a long one. In addition to Rosa, this thinking can be found in the various Eurocommunists, George Novack (especially Democracy and Revolution), and even Lenin himself.
6.Leon Trotsky in preface to "The History of the Russian Revolution"
7.Note we do not use "civil society" as it is used by the IMF and World Bank where it has come to mean NGOs. For a Marxist definition of civil society see Gramsci's "The State and Civil Society" in his Prison Notebooks
8.We use hegemony in the sense of Gramsci in "The State and Civil Society"
10.Interview with João Pedro Stedile, New Left Review 15, May-June 2002
11.Among others see the work of Bill Fletcher, Kim Moody, and Labor Notes
12.This was argued convincingly by G. Duménil, D. Lévy, in "Neoliberal dynamics - Imperial dynamics" available at 2003 http://pythie.cepremap.ens.fr/levy/biblioa.htm
13.Here I think especially about the Islamicists just as Hezbolla and the Hinduvata forces in India.
14.This line of thinking has evolved directly from teaching English in the immigrant communities in New Brunswick, NJ. The workers in these communities are both the most exploited and most instinctually radical workers I have been privileged to know.