A proposition for how Marxists, communists and anarchists could, or perhaps should, consider the challenge of building dual-power, and counter-institutions in the UK. - reposted on request of the author from https://medium.com/@aralkosig/crisis-and-mobilisation-in-the-uk-a51ebe57b39c
A proposition for how Marxists, communists and anarchists could, or perhaps should, consider the challenge of building dual-power, and counter-institutions in the UK. The basic purpose is to try and establish that there are ways out of our present organisational predicament, and that they are derived from understanding the way that we got into it. This should not be conflated with a program to instantly establish revolutionary capabilities and one-shot the bourgeoisie. This is a limited proposal, based on an assessment of the current capacity of the Communist and Anarchist wings of the British Left, within a medium term time frame.
The far left in the UK, is caught in a strange moment. Scattered anarchists and isolated communists alike, have been ensnared by the confluence of structural forces, by movement leaders, and by our varied yet often antiquated choices of praxis, many of which have come to obscure the current predicament. This has coincided with a much more pronounced and visible crisis seizing the british state than is to be found in our post-War history — in other words, during a prime moment of opportunity for agitation. The need has never been more urgent, with the far right ready to seize hold of the centre of political gravity, for us to be organising and mobilising, not merely electorally, but as a class fighting for ourselves.
However we aren’t currently doing this. In fact it may very well be that we can’t do this, at least, not yet. Such a circumstance would require a degree of power that we do not have, and a degree of integration in communities which we do not have, with the bulk of socialist organisations having been, until very recently, focused heavily on protest-politics. In fact, any politics more radical than the Green Party is barely existent in britain, while the most recent wave of political radicalisation- the rise of Corbyn and the collapse of Blairite control of the Labour party has instead become the sink for such energies, forcing genuine radicalism into playing a tertiary role behind the main players on the field. Accordingly, instead of becoming the core of a multi-pronged civic force, fighting for class power, the Corbyn operation, largely run and characterised by Momentum, has realised an alternate destiny: as an electoral vehicle, with a highly organised media and ground operation, mobilised into a “permanent campaign mode”. Three years of energy, people and resources have been spent on this sort of effort since late 2015, resulting in electoral success for the labour party, but not in social institutions outside of it or independent of it. The strategy has been one of monomania, of building a huge political machine for one industrial task. All other projects have fallen by the wayside.
To create this, the left wing of the Labour Party was revived, revitalised, pumped full of recruits and given a singular unifying task, that nearly everyone new to the left in the UK circa 2012–2018 became, to one extent or another, a part of. This task- using Corbyn both as a vehicle for all our ambitions, and as a sociopolitical battering ram to clear the way for John McDonnells reform package- is now unachievable, due to the structure and culture of the labour party, as well as their role in the UK’s constrictive national political scene. The petty squabbles have piled up, the wretchedness and internal contradictions have reached a point of fulmination and Social Democracy has begun to let the mask slip. Increasingly, the labour party has again begun advancing increasingly conservative and regressive policies as it is forced to triangulate itself back to the centre ground.
This has lead us to a final point of decision: we must decide whether or not to kill the Jeremy Corbyn in all our heads.
Section 1: The Limits of Corbyn, And of ourselves.
Why must we do that?
Because continued pursuit of electoralism is preventing us from building the institutions that might form the backbone of a new effort to escape capital. In other words, the monopoly of the electoral project has driven the most radical of us from our true strategic goal: developing a method for actually getting things done, based on the much vaunted concepts of dual-power and mutual aid. These concepts are endlessly championed & maligned by their proponents and detractors, with needless partisan lines drawn between them that both create false differences and obscure crucial distinctions. But regardless of the state of our discourse the fact remains: We need to be building a coherent radical structure in Britain that combines the best of communist and anarchist ideology and practicebased on making physical institutions designed to be used as alternatives to the physical institutions created by capital. In other words we need revolutionary infrastructure, run for revolutionary purposes, existing as a part of a self sustaining project not reliant on any single party, union, candidate or rallying flag, and we need it yesterday.
We probably have very little time. We don’t yet know how to inflict a strategic defeat on the far right, yet they are diversifying their campaign strategies and obtaining transatlantic funding. Labour may well actually not win the next election at all, and regardless of that we also don’t know what to do collectively about Brexit and its related fallout, at least, not beyond vague parliamentary strategies, courtesy of Paul Mason et alia, a fact that is highly revealing of our current weaknesses. All the proposed answers for the destruction of society heaped upon us in the decade since 2008 are presented almost exclusively in terms of parliament, funding, and mandates. Furthermore these are not static problems sitting to be solved: they aren’t walls which we can wait to batter down later when we have the strength. Rather they are dynamic and changing factors in our general environment which for the most part are rapidly exacerbating. Operating without actionable forms of praxis, in a changing field of operations, is a difficult situation to escape, but it has to be done.
When, in late 2015, we moved to murder Blairism on its deathbed we couldn’t believe our luck. Labour had just lost a critical election, Cameron was smiling down at us, and our only consolation was the materialisation of our hatred for the Liberal Democrats in their obliteration as an electoral force, as compensation for a generational betrayal. However the electoral disaster opened up a radicalising opportunity when we gave vast amounts of resources, financial and human, to the radical liberal/ social democratic wing of the labour party, which had been beaten into the corner for decades. It seemed as if the centre of gravity was about to be seized back from the Blairite structure of the Labour party. While this was achieved, it didn’t work in terms of defeating neoliberal hegemony.. We do not now possess the Labour Party specifically, nor do we possess a unifying force under our control. Rather, it possesses power that we made for it, while our influence over its decisions is tangential and mediated to near extinction. Corbyn has outlived his usefulness. This has been the truth now for over a year, even by the most charitable measurements, and the point of diminishing returns has long been passed…
Structural concerns with Marxism and Anarchism:
“For decades the left has interacted with itself in a way dominated primarily by ideological relations: Trotskyist versus Stalinist, Anarchist vs. Marxist, Maoist versus Social Democrat. But in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union most of these relationships have persisted despite their signifying no material relationship. Despite the various vainglorious naming schemes, the difference between a Trotskyist and a Maoist reading group is mostly one of words and historical or literary disagreements, rather than a difference based on practice. This is the realization that the heart of organizational materialism: that by analyzing radical and mainstream politics through the lens of practices in organizations instead of the ideological justifications they build up around themselves we can build a materialist understanding of politics.”
- What is Organisational Materialism, by Jean Allen, 2018
It is too simplistic to say that this problem is solely about the Labour Party, or to lay all blame at the feet of Corbynism specifically, despite its role in focusing left wing mobilisation into a strictly electoralist project. Just as crucially there are inherent structural weaknesses in the UK left as a whole. It is largely dominated by the offshoots of 20th century trades unions, an inveterate parliamentarism, a variety of socialist parties whose histories do not need recounting, and a chronically diminished anarchist/libertarian left milieu. I suspect most readers can imagine in further detail at least some of the in built ills of the UK left wing scene based on their own experiences. Against this there are a few options for moving the trend of left wing militancy and communist agitation away from parliamentary routes, all of which come with their own inherent characteristic traits.
The boilerplate ideologies and forms of the various aging UK Marxist-Leninist sects are not technically sufficient. No party actually existing in the UK claiming the title of “vanguard” is capable of dealing with the challenge, for the simple reason that they do not possess the capacity to create a decision making system capable of dealing with their situation. There are historical reasons for this, much of it going back into a sordid and silly history of splits, bankruptcies, and political ineptitude. But, equally critically, the general state of affairs is also not particularly conducive to even an idealised vanguardist project: Leninist formations have a great deal of difficulty getting off the ground in the modern era, and frequently default to a position whereby their doctrine is inherently limiting and tends to lead to organisational ossification.
Combined with a tendency to move towards the most radical wings of Social Democracy and reformism, this makes the successful establishment of new party-formations very difficult, encouraging those who feel wedded to that ideology to default towards established groups. As the pre-existing groups in the UK are rotten to the core, this dynamic essentially demobilised this component of the left entirely, making it an auxiliary arm of larger interests. Concurrently, the SWP, AWL ,CPs (of all denominations) and their various spin-offs and fronts aren’t capable of doing what we want, and their increasing marginalisation is not only beneficial, but is also likely their long term fate- this has been the trend for the last half century and it will not be changing now. Singular vanguard parties in our current historical circumstance have an inherent brittleness: they tend toward internal breakdowns, and rely too much on winning key confrontations, pitched battles with capital and state. What is to be done? Probably not that again.
This is not to say that all Marxist start-up projects are doomed by natural law, merely that they are subject to the conditions prevailing within their environment at a given time: there are examples that can be copied from the USA in the current political scene of new models for these projects seeing moderate success. However the most successful of them are so new that it is difficult to draw any kind of conclusions as to their long term viability, and even they are just as much haunted by the sins of the past as ours often are, frequently replicating isolationist stances, being vulnerable to breakdown and so on. The failure of this section of the far left should be seen for what it is- too few people, using outdated machinery to enact an obsolete policy programme.
On the other side of the coin we see similar-but-opposite truths about the present state of development of anarchism in britain. The main difference is that the general milieu is in better health overall, is generally capable of flexing more operational muscle ( unless you count the SWPs endless sea of placards handed out at summer protests) and has better adapted to trends in modern politics. The scene is capable of self sustainment and engages in various interesting projects, including the continued existence and militancy of groups like the Anarchist Federation or Solidarity Federation, and the reformulation of the anarchist bookfair after recent ignominy, as well as the resurgence of a non-centralised approach to antifascism. This latter is particularly useful as an example. The new antifascist approach has been based on collaborative work between a number of groups, including the large but dispersed anarchist/libertarian socialist contingent, which is spread throughout a number of organisations, a crop of new recruits trickling in over the last few years, and various organisations determined to wrestle antifascism away from SWP co-optation.
A key behavioural difference is that this component of the left tends to be more willing to engage in inter-group cooperation, and while arguments certainly occur, they tend to be far less acrimonious than the type of events that occasionally pop up within the remaining trotskyite rearguards and socialist coalitions that still mill around the landscape.
However there are still a variety of issues at the moment: firstly, the actual numbers of people involved is still very small. For another matter it is extremely regionally varied, and like all other leftism in the UK, appears to be somewhat London-centric, though the libertarian left is certainly better on this matter than most political activist sects. Regional patchiness in terms of activity is a matter often tied to how prevalent a tendency is overall, as smaller tendencies will be less able to organise outside of larger population concentrations. These problems are basically co-morbidities, reinforcing each other.
Libertarian communism and Anarchism in the UK faces recruitment problems, but, like with the issue of regional variation, this seems to be very much linked to the fact that it is small anyway and therefore has limited energy to expend on expanding the small number of active organisations. In any case, this would be difficult when the rise of the new social democratic movement has dominated the field for coming up on 4 years now. In fact, the anarchist scene has faced a tough challenge in attempting to compete with the draw toward Corbyn and Labour, and has struggled to reach a point of increasing returns to scale on its operational efforts. However, compared to the fate of their state socialist cousins, Anarchism has held its own here, even accounting for the undeniable issue that anarchist theoretical positions on organisation have not adapted much in the modern UK context beyond their classical formulations. Thankfully we now see this changing, albeit very slowly: the small but growing influence of groups like Plan C, and some grassroots libertarian socialist movements in Brighton, London and other urban centres, plus the trickle of ideological influence from international solidarity networks and transatlantic connections is encouraging the development of new growth in the subculture.
I am of the position that various Libertarian-Communist and Anarchist projects currently ongoing, form a good footing for some, but definitely not all, of our purposes. My main reservation is that they too are limited as a movement, that there is still a fairly well ingrained activist mentality in some areas, and that due to low numbers they have not got the capacity to break out of the general trend without re-situating themselves along different strategic lines. Accordingly i don’t endorse unilateral investment in the anarchist scene either, but rather think that its strategic future lies in its ability to be integrated within a wide and general radical left project, focused on revolutionary politics.
Section 2: Transatlantic comparisons.
There are elements of the american leftist sphere which have sprung up since about 2016 which are worth looking at. They are not without their (often extreme) problems but they are there and are worth examination for both what might be borrowed and what might be avoided.
To give context for this comparison it is worth mentioning the following: the broad scope of our shared history, while having dissimilarities, had the same general traits before it hit a period of radical galvanisation in the period between 2016 and the present day, at which point they have noticeably diverged. Both scenes put significant effort into using a very rapidly mobilised young generation of new activists, radicalised by failed liberal leaders and the ongoing economic crisis to push for central big-name candidates- Corbyn and Sanders. Sanders was then totally frozen out by his Democrat opponents following his primary defeat, leaving a massive force without any ability to operate within the Democratic party institutions, while the Corbyn campaigning machine not only won his fight with the internal opponents in the labor party, but repeated that victory in several major confrontations and even fought the Conservatives to a flat draw in the general election. In short the radical wing of social democracy conclusively defeated the electoral power of left-liberalism in Britain and is still attempting to contest space with its institutional wing, while in the USA, it was conclusively told to fuck off. In the States the mass of new activists had to go somewhere. Here the difference between the UK and USA is very noticeable.
The Sanders campaign and Trumps victory against Clinton, combined with nearly a decade of radicalising experiences started a maelstrom of socialist activity. Instead of moving the entirety of the effort into a Momentum-like-project, the response from the US left has been to create dozens of new institutions. These have expanded to include a wide array of reinvigorated Marxist and radical socialist formations, a multi-tendency Communist coalition called the Marxist Center Network, and the internally fractious yet massively influential Democratic Socialists of America, an old organization which was blessed by a massive explosion in membership in the months following Sanders defeat, and again after Clintons failed bid. That is not to say that social democratic reformism did not profit: it obviously has, as the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proven. Rather it is the case that the extremity of political crisis in the US and the degree of disenfranchisement created a large new constituency for revolutionary politics.
Arguably tied to the Democratic Party, yet on the whole far to its left, the DSA is the closest thing to Momentum that the American scene has, yet is also about as different to it as is possible in many regards. It is particularly notable for its internal politics being defined by a plurality of membership generated caucuses, often based along ideological lines, with the Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC) being one of the most influential, both within the organisation and also in the american libertarian left as a whole. (Incidentally the LSC has recently released a major policy document outlining their adherence to a strategy of Dual Power, something which i doubt we will see from any of the UK Momentum branches any time soon). While a superficial similarity between UK Momentum and DSA is obvious due to the importance of their respective unifying figures, the fact that DSA contains groupings explicitly engaging in street level revolutionary politics sets it apart, with no equivalent tendency existing in UK Momentum, despite the aspirations of the various dead-end Trotskyite projects.
DSA has a wide variety of internal problems in its modern post-2016 incarnation, but also has an inherent strength not found in any current grouping in the UK: the massive influx of new members has de-facto created a large, diverse and totally new organisation which is engaging in multiple simultaneous campaigns, outside of electoralist expectations of how socialism is supposed to operate. It also is inherently highly pluralist, and contains within it organised Marxist groups ( such as the Communist Caucus, which recently affiliated with the Marxist Centre Network), alongside the more anarchist-adjacent LSC, and a variety of reformist socialists. This has given it a limited strategic capacity to adopt both electoral and more revolutionary political projects, with the caveat that these have begun to clash with each other for priority as the DSA begins to see internal lines drawn between its factions. Much of this is built off of the membership having worked to grow roots in a variety of struggles, and an ability to mobilise large numbers of commited, and increasingly experienced activists on behalf of multiple campaigns. It is also closely integrated with radical grassroots union struggles, as well as the new wave of militant anti-fascism. Amongst its more interesting policies from the perspective of the UK is its institutional commitment to a certain degree of minor-to-mid level mutual aid programs. This may prove to be a point of internal tension, as the right wing reformist faction of the DSA seeks to de-mobilise these efforts, and wrestle power over the organisations base away from the more radical wing, which wishes to fully commit strategic resources to them.
With that we see that there are still significant issues with the DSA: as an ad-hoc project, and one bound to the Democratic Party, the internal factions in favour of revolutionary politics are yet to fully confront the limitations of their surroundings. Until this is resolved, the potential for a split looms. Given that the price of removing the influence of centralist reformers would be the separation of mutually compatible projects like the Communist Caucus and LSC from each other, and from the apparently quite useful integration with a wide variety of local chapters, this could prove to be a damaging eventuality, should it eventually prove necessary. In contrast, the second of the two major projects of note, the Marxist Centre network, has come about as a result of an agreement between multiple small local communist and socialist. organisations.
The Marxist Centre:
The Marxist Center Network is much newer than DSA, having unified itself in a conference in the winter of 2018. It is not a conventional vanguard party, has not aligned itself with any single ideological bloc of the old-school, and does not appear to be a front group, but rather is comprised of multiple small regional communist, socialist, and anarchist groups united around points of unity, and shared practices. Most of the groups claim to adhere to established theoretical positions- Maoists, Anarcho-Communists, Marxist-leninists and so on- but no particular classical tendency dominates it. Much like with DSA, this has brought together both the pre-existing benefits and the pre-existing ills of its varied membership. Organisationally it is functionally a patchwork of pre-existing local socialist parties, and is consciously multi-tendency. It is not a centrally controlled organisation, but is more akin to a co-operation alliance between its members, committed to a strategy of building dual-power and pursuing the fruits of the newly emergent “base building” trend in American socialist and communist praxis.
To my mind, its commitment to those strategies, as well as its having deliberately avoided the instantaneous declaration of itself as the one true party, are facts to recommend the Marxist Center, as well as the fact that it too is a pluralistic organisation. It is faced with a serious challenge, especially in terms of the base-building strategy that it has united around, and this formulation hopefully provides it with an increased likelihood of pulling together and developing as a project in the face of that task. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, its pluralism is different from the DSA, where the system is formalised in a different manner, and where the caucuses can be organised around almost anything, from unifying principles to regional coalitions, to internal pressure groups, rather than as distinct independent Party organisations. In an amusing twist of fate this puts the Libertarian Socialist caucus, one of the more influential anarchist-adjacent organisations in the USA, in a more centralist and bureaucratic umbrella organisation than a self declared Marxist project. This is because the various organisations that have joined with the Marxist Centre, have done so out of a shared sense of a need for some degree of unification between pre-existing unified projects, hence creating a situation where Marxists of a variety of stripes are in a national body alongside Trotsykite parties, Anarchists, and scattered Maoist contingents, whilst being united by a shared praxis in contrast to divergent grand-theories being the main focus of interest. As it is in an early stage of existence, and contains such an eclectic mix of group, I am still highly unsure as to its long term prospects, but it does seem promising so far.
The last emergent phenomenon in the USA is one that i have already touched on in relation to the two organisations that I have mentioned, namely that of a general trend towards dual power organisation. I suspect that this approach, and the similar trend of base-building, which i explore in more detail later, stems from being a reaction to there being simply no political infrastructure available for leftists to enact their political will through. There was simply no other choice for committed communists to make other than to start from the ground up: the alternatives were the US equivalents to our SWP.
While most far left organisations capable of mobilising in any degree whatsoever experienced the benefits to their membership counts of Trump appearing on the scene, this has led to one group seizing the limelight, but rather by the emergence of ground level political work. The development of this capacity is reflective of a fundamental difference between our situations in a way that the presence of two large new socialist bodies is not: it is reflective of a general trend of change in what strategies are being favoured, and therefore of the culture of american leftism as a whole, at its very base. There are many examples to be found of this, particularly in the two major organisations mentioned, as well as a wide constellation of Anarchist mutual aid networks. Also notable is the connected issue of anti-fascist work, which in the current climate is inherently linked both conceptually and organisationally to these trends, whilst still being very much its own animal. In this regard the degree of divergence between the UK and US left is striking, with the american left having mobilised increasingly large groups of anti-fascist activists. In the UK we are also rapidly ramping up antifascist organising, but the nature of the threat that the far right faces here is fundamentally different to how it operates in the States, where the situation has exacerbated to the point where the left is engaging in what essentially amounts to an arms race with its fascist opponents. Far right militias have grown massively, as has been well reported on, and now the Left has got to the point where left wing gun clubs are rapidly proliferating, such as Redneck Revolt or the Socialist Rifle Association, the latter being extremely new.
Naturally, much of this last issue derives from differences between American and British culture as a whole, rather than being purely the product of internal left wing matters. For example the recreational-militia/gun ownership culture in the US is has no cultural equivalent here, is impossible to replicate in the UK and is strategically undesirable, for reasons that I hope are obvious. With that in mind it is still worth noting that the UK left has not even attempted a rapid mobilisation program on that scale of any sort in recent memory: it is my opinion that this speaks to a severe lack of overall organisational capacity, and a general demobilisation and a moderate but rapidly vanishing lethargy even in the face of increased predations by the State and Capital. This is a material problem and has a material solution which we must act on: if we can’t mobilise en-mass, for a protracted period of time, with a specific goal that builds our collective power, and follow through with it successfully, then we are of limited political value in terms of fighting capitalism.
The general lesson i wish to draw from the current dynamics of American communist/anarchist organization is that something akin to what Sophia Burns outlined in her piece “The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies”. Namely that the historical basis for the main species of political stance on the far left has at this point completely withered away. However an American critique will not import itself particularly handily to a UK context. The general model that Burns outlines is that it is the type of action which makes the movement, and that the cultural trends towards different types of praxis denote emerging lines of division that have much more relation to practical reality than the membership counts of given parties. In other words, while Ideological positions are still highly important in terms of determining much of our politics, the changing face of our situation has made the practical expression of many of the more antiquated positions increasingly less important in relation to the importance of how given groups organise and fight.
A similar model of analysing the structure of left wing politics has been put forward by Jean Allen under the title of “Organisational Materialism”, in which the author argues that “a rarely discussed lens of analysis, an ‘organizational materialism’ which places the conflicts between different forms of organizing front and center, ahead of theoretical and ideological differences.” is capable of providing a useful way to attack the problem of figuring out what goes on at the heart of movements. I would tend to broadly agree with the general trend of thought of both authors. With this in mind i think it is high time for Marxists and Anarchists in the UK to begin applying something along these lines to the pressing political questions facing us, for while our situations have wildly departed from each other, the information we may glean from these analyses of the american socialist movement is possibly of use to us.
We should bare in mind that despite the various differences, the political distance between our situation and that which the American left found itself in between 2016 and 2018, is not as vast as one might believe. It should be plain that there is the very high probability that we are about to enter the eye of the storm in terms of the modern crisis of the British state. This will come to pass alongside severe medium term economic degradation, largely aimed at social services and the working class, and massive rifts opening up in the culture wars, setting the stage for both serious strategic challenges, and opportunities to create options for a combined Communistic political programme. To piece this together we need to use a general method which accounts for how we got to where we are, what organisational practices conditioned it, and what our basis for developing new ones should be: a theoretical framework that has a direct link to the most basic levels of organisation.
A new approach:
“Base building, as it matures, will also come with developing new theory. We believe that rather than simply “applying” an ideology codified nearly a century ago, we will need to create new Marxist theory based on a “concrete analysis of our concrete situation” in the United States in 2018. While we do not know what this new theory will look like, it will have to account for the peculiar contours of the United States… …It would do us well to take seriously the lack of knowledge and experience we have to draw from, while not forgetting the lessons of history. We believe that in order to do this we must break from ML orthodoxy and not be afraid to be “heretical” in our approach.”
- Excerpt from “So What Do We Do Now", a subsection of the essay “Where’s the Winter Palace? On the Marxist Leninist trend in the United States” by Avery Minnelli and Eliezer Levin
It is clear that we need to totally overhaul the way we operate our politics. We should be able to offer a credible alternative to Labour and liberal politics as a whole: it is not an impossible task, and has been done before. We can do it again, but we need to identify clear goals and act towards them.
If we are to take what is good and discard what is broken from the inheritance left to us by several decades of rear-guard actions we need to be selective both theoretically and practically. It is fairly clear that we need to abandon a wide array of cherished positions and groups, and commit to turning things around. It is essential that we dispel the status of the left being merely a subculture, and turn it into a much more self directing political force, with a defined long term revolutionary objective not tied to any single project or party.
As regards this matter my opinion is that it is not a question of Party against State, of cells against the police, or of the guerillas against the occupiers. We should look at the problem of developing an effective communist political force in Britain as a matter of a distinct system-against-system conflict. These systems have physical properties, and as sociopolitical entities can be subjected to material analysis. But materialist analysis, just like all other analysis, does not occur in a vacuum of pure intention, but rather has to be performed towards a given purpose. The purpose with which I have proceeded is as follows: The recent history of the UK left has presented us with a problem which confronts us all personally, so we must personally confront the future of the communist project in turn. If prior projects are unable to provide a model for our present conditions, then it is due to a failed ecology of politics within the system of the communist movement. Therefore we should analyse how these systems are produced at the most basic level, and the direct implications on how we should construct our revolutionary strategy for the current climate. I have attempted a start at this process, drawing on a number of influences
Section 3: System-against-System and the Revolutionary Complex
With limited numbers, left wing political actors also have limited options. At present though we have a variety of communist, anarchist and syndicalist projects in operation in the UK, they are tend to only be comprised of small numbers of people. However there are often social ties between these groups, which exist in constant interaction with each other in the course of political activity. It is critical to view things within a realistic scope- our numbers are incredibly thin and we simply can’t expect to get to anything kind of seriously aggressive footing for years. However, a revolutionary model is establishable even with the modest numbers that we have at present, where often the most promising communist or anarchist projects in large cities are essentially derived from the work of a dozen people or so.
The radical left, whether we choose to view it as a subculture, a movement or an ideological bloc, is essentially an ecosystem in its own right existing within a political context. All political systems, from those that dominate our lives, to the subsidiary systems within them, are powered by active cycles of production and reproduction. Work groups within companies within national economies- all of these together comprise the nested layers of capitalist social organisation. Within the broad territory of the left we can see examples of a variety of different species of organisational forms: activist groups, art collectives, would-be vanguards, the larger parties, anarchist affinity groups and so on. Human collective activity, via the means of concerted effort is what defines these groups- in other words they are defined by the work put into them by their members, who are the ones who produce and reproduce the organisations they belong to. Parties, camps, subcultures and political campaigning groups utilise the efforts of their constituent members to follow programs of social reproduction.
Social, Simple, and Expanded Reproduction
In capitalist society the continuous day to day existence of the economy is reliant on two types of productive activity, specifically the continuous maintenance of the industrial working class by its own members and the production of the physical goods that circulate within the economy once those workers have made them. These are referred to as social reproduction- the work that is done within society to maintain the existence of the working class, such as child rearing, meal preparation etc, and to maintain the ability of the worker to perform labour day in and day out- and simple reproduction- the level of commodity production performed by those labourers and circulation of the material needed to maintain a growthless status quo.
These two types of production rely on each other. The ability of the working class to make commodities is continually renewed by socially reproductive labour- cooking, housekeeping, emotional labour and so on, which in turn requires means and materials to be made in order to be performed: if food is to be cooked to feed the worker, then food must be circulating as a commodity. In the case of simple reproduction, which in turn needs social reproduction to occur in order to happen, we are referring to pure commodity manufacturing. Specifically we refer to the maintenance and manufacture of the means of production, as well as of consumable materials of production, as well as the section of the production output which is destined to be used for the sustenance of the workforce- this also being a specific kind of means of production. This is to say that the means and materials of social reproduction sector are part of the output of the act of simple reproduction. The other section of its output is its own means and materials of production.
In other words there is not only a cyclical subsystem required for even a hypothetical stagnant capitalist structure to exist, but also the sphere of social reproduction is a part of the reproduction scheme within capitalist society as a whole. Upon the foundation of use-value centric reproductive labour which interacts with commodity-centric imple reproduction we see the capacity for expanded reproduction - where increasing production of commodities becomes the motor of economic growth- which is the poisoned chalice of capitalism. The ever expanding cycle of commodity production is the standard state of affairs for capitalism, as we all know.
This is replicated in the greater and smaller bodies within the capitalist economy that have any degree of internal organisational sophistication- organisms must have internal motive forces that power them, and for social organisations that motive force is the people who make the organisation. In the case of capitalist organisations that feature need not have come about by design, but rather by the evolutionary pressure of time whipping away those forms of capitalist organization that couldn’t survive the predatory forces of the market, of extractive production, or the political upheavals of recurring crises. The market may not really be capable of finding the equilibrium that the liberal economists yearn for, but it exerts constant, destructive, selective pressure upon all existing institutions, expropriating and totally consuming all parts of those that cannot maintain themselves.
Based on this my thesis is as follows: Communism and Anarchism are not forms of business and those who follow that variety of politics are not employees. But such people are performing work- political work. The work is divisible into similar stages of reproductive labour: the social reproduction of the political Communist or Anarchist, the simple reproduction of active Communist politics within our general political culture as performed in a variety of manners, and the expanded reproduction of a militantly Communist and Anarchist political system. All workers should have the means of their activity held in common among them: this means that communism must be realised from the ground up, and that the political struggle should not, and on a sheer structural level cannot be alienated from them via structures that mediate the output of their energies and alienate their efforts. Otherwise the organisation doing so enters a stage of capitalistic self replication. I believe this is the pattern that the old formations fell into, and that it is now critically important that a new method of constructing the base of Communist politics is required.
Reproduction within the singular organisation and The Left as an ecosystem:
Within the Left political scene we again start with social reproduction at the base, and through stages of expanding reproduction, the organisations in question have developed themselves, some successfully, some falteringly, with nearly all having died off or having been amalgamated within successors. Such social reproduction schemes are the basis for all organisations, whether they are firms making commodities, or campaigning structures, active and mobilised in society. Political movements have to internally reproduce themselves or they die. However, much anti capitalist political work occurs without those doing it actually controlling the mode of reproduction. In other words, those within the movement do not truly determine its future, or the direction that their reproductive efforts go in until that changes.
That is the essential state of affairs within a singular organisation. However the problem isn’t down to just that: it’s not about getting the ideal vanguard, and designing the constitution of the party just so. In fact within certain bounds the constitution of given organizations has limited relevance on a system wide basis unless they totally dominate the movement. Despite this, a perfectionist idealism pervades a lot of communist thought on these matters- “the party must uphold solidarity and democracy and maintain its theoretical rigour on these matters” — and so on and so forth. This stance, which is posited as an attempt to solve some of these problems, misses the point. The reality is that any such party was never just a lone island- it always existed within a sea of communist and anarchist activity, and many other islands shared its archipelago.
Organisations as systems, sharing a social environment within the left, necessarily compete with each other within that greater system for political prominence and power over movements, as well as cooperating with each other against external pressures or for joint planned campaigns. Part of this behaviour will be a matter of directed policy- the establishment of doctrines to exclude given groups, or expel internal factions, alongside the establishment of shared strategies against particular external enemies, or directed at given goals. Essentially the left-ecosystem also has its own traits that define how it behaves, and therefore its ability to combat capitalism. These characteristics are partially determined by the organisations that maintain prominence within this ecosystem, but are also based on how those organizations relate to each other, and to leftists at large within the milieu. Furthermore, the matter of the continual production of the movement again appears at this level: reproduction also occurs in an abstracted form, now performed by organisations which are the constituents of the larger ecosystem as well as by the activists-at-large mediated via the spread of ideas, the work output of those organising events and spaces, the planning of marches, the changes of internal culture brought about by new struggles coming to the fore, with all the work in those struggles affecting the left as much as it affects the targets of those struggles. This second tier of political reproductive effort is derived from the work done at the base of the movement and as the base changes, so does the superstructure in which this second cycle occurs. If the previously dominant, and currently decaying forms that we see in the leftist landscape are inadequate then only change at the base can kill them, a fact which should be made more and more obvious the more and more we see the symptoms of their uselessness and alienating characteristics manifest themselves in the political scene.
None of the dead parties became that way without reason: historical forces claimed them, either after they were taken out by the competition of an emerging rival, by the chance, by having ending up on the wrong side of a particular losing struggle or by having exhausted their revolutionary potential. A new strategy, divorced from the party form and free from the alienating work of the professional liberal activist is required, and its main target is the communisation of the base of revolutionary politics. In other words, communist projects must exist in a state whereby those within them, who do the work to reproduce the organisation, control the cycles of reproduction which they set in motion. No movement for class power seeking to build a new world in the ashes of the old can do so if its own internal reproduction scheme is not consciously planned and controlled by the reproductive labourers. This is the chief error in the flourishing scene we see in the United States, and we still have enough lead-time to correct it here. In recognising this we recognise the existence and shape of production relations within our own movement, which is a critical first step in building a more effective liberatory politics. We have not done this up til now.
The base, reproduction, & a pluralist revolutionary strategy:
In the current context this gives the scattered cells of the communist and anarchist currents in the UK one primary strategic goal: building a structure between them, in a way that breaks with frozen models, and in so doing, making maximum use of the present and coming political upheavals. The system needed is neither that of a loose activist confederation, nor of anarchist leagues, nor that of the traditional maoist or leninist vanguard forms. It might, and in my opinion should, contain aspects of these forms of organisation, but in reality none of those forms can be completely transplanted into our current context and actually offer us a viable growth strategy. We can no longer attempt to organise based on the notion of the perfect tendency, the true claimant to the throne, or the central party whose role it is to condition the proletariat. What is required is a combination of some of the more successful existing tactics within a new, multipolar system of operations.
Accordingly we should attempt to build the communist and anarchist currents into this more unified network, building multiple poles of operation, each having the capacity to act reasonably autonomously, yet linked cooperatively by their common goals and infrastructure, as well as overlap between the people that make them up. These poles of operation will be our purpose-specific counter-institutions: the constituent pieces of dual power.
“Dual Power is about giving people a second option. The two kinds of Dual Power institutions do this from different (but complementary) angles. Alternative institutions meet a need directly. Counter-institutions challenge capitalism’s way of doing things. Alternative institutions start making a system that’s just, while counter-institutions work against one that’s unjust.” Excerpt from the Dual Power FAQ published by Seattle communists
This is in order that these poles of operation exist within the leftist milieu in such a manner that they are subject to control from the bottom, and that an overall strategic capacity is retained within the revolutionary system to replace any one of them should they be defeated, dissolve themselves, or become useless. This provides that redundancy, and would significantly enhance our position. Instead of having a dominant unifying party to lead to a point of revolutionary advantage, we should build something more akin to a complex of mutually reinforcing and beneficiary institutions: A system with an internal ecology, with a form of revolutionary communist pluralism, designed to evade the inherently counterproductive nature of the monolithic party-project whilst also ensuring that the strategic fragility of purely horizontal modes of organisation is also avoided.
Dual Power, and Crisis Mobilisation Capacity
“There is a special type of mobilization base which I will call a “Preattack Mobilization Base.” This can be extremely important. It is a capability for being able to improve rapidly our ability to fight or to threaten to fight either a limited or a general war. It includes preparations for putting in adequate civil defense ‘programs, It also includes the procurement of very long lead time items for our strategic… defense and …offense, so that by just spending money rapidly we could bring all of these capabilities up to an adequate level. There is a very broad spectrum of preparations possible here. “
- Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 1960.
The purpose of the multipolar system is in order to cultivate a capacity to exercise dual power in a highly responsive and controllable manner. Normally dual power and mutual aid networks are conceived of as being force multipliers in revolutionary struggles rather than as tools of maneuver. However this does not have to be the case, and is not necessarily even a view that is accurate in relation to historical examples.
If we begin to think about a situation where we are pursuing the development of an inter-organisational system, via the means of base building and dual-power, we get to a point where we have a system capable of reacting to crises on a more conscious, coordinated, and planned level, with a reasonable degree of speed in terms of decision making time, and a reasonable degree of speed in terms of time required to physically mobilise. Mobilisation means work. That means human labour-hours exerted into erecting new purpose based projects, possibly at short notice. This concept is designed around combining the relatively well established strategies of base-building toward dual power with general concepts of systemic elasticity and redundancy- in other words an argument fundamentally based on technical characteristics of a system.
Accordingly, the ability of the complex to detect potential areas of focus before they become critical becomes of increased importance. All political projects include some degree of future planning, but in the current context we are not giving much thought to some critical aspects of this crucial area of strategic study. The technical skill for this task is actually already present: most politically active revolutionary leftists that are engaged in projects basically have this ability in relation to what is in front of them. The degree of skill in exercising it will vary, but that is a solvable problem. A path to mixing this latent capacity into the complex itself is to build a general awareness of key concepts into the lexicon of the communist left which i believe are conducive to this general idea. When tied to the broader concepts that I have outlined in this piece- the role of social reproduction in the formation of revolutionary organisations, and the strategy of long term dual-power construction- the role of each of these should become clear.
Deciding versus drifting:
Supposing a situation where three types of crisis, X,Y and Z are deemed to possibly be around the corner, and that strategies A, B and C are actionable methods to confront them, the issue becomes one of prioritisation and its relationship to prediction. With this in mind it is worthwhile to consider the following 4 concepts: Lead time, Hedging, Pre-crisis Investment, Ramping Up/Ramping Down, Crash Programs, and Operational Gaps.
1. Lead time:
While predicting a crisis or a revolt in any particular or specific detail is a mugs game, the whole raison d’etre of our movement is that recurring crises, on the micro and macro level are the hallmark of capitalism. Due to the general qualities of the capitalist system we know that crises take certain distinct forms, such as military defeats in major wars, large global recessions, regional or national economic stagnation, or constitutional political crises arising in the formal structure of the State, and so on. These will differ in their details from instance to instance along the historical record, but the various different varieties of crisis have roughly similar patterns. Accordingly, for the kinds of ciris that can at least be roughly predicted- particularly economic crises- we have a little time to play with during which we can see the major areas upon which we might capitalise. Lead time is therefore the production time period we have been blessed with for any one of our dual power systems to be established within before a given crisis becomes unmanageable. In other words we have to make use of lead time before event X occurs to build Dual Power structure A. Structure A will almost certainly have to be tailor made to suit the circumstances so we need this lead time in order to study the situation, design and prototype the structure, and expand it into active operation. As we know from our current situation we often have to do this process all at once. This is often non-ideal, so if we can build our forces to the point where it isn’t needed in every situation then we may see significant benefits
2. Hedging & Pre crisis investment:
While reasonable information can give us forewarning of event X, sometimes event Y happens first, or happens immediately after and is far more important. For example if we prepare for an expected series of industrial strikes but then are blindsided by a sudden total stock market crash which leads to major commodity circulation failure, the situation has obviously changed to a point where our strategic priorities may need to be altered, either by increasing investment into the existing strategy, or by bolstering other options to compensate for its limitations. If a single organisation has poured all its resources into a strategy based only on structure A to prepare for this then there is only a problem if that organisation dominates the entire sphere of militant political operations. However, a plurality of projects means that we will have an increased tendency to build simultaneous projects, and thus hedge our collective bets against less likely scenarios Y and Z playing out. If this can be achieved in even a very limited degree then we will retain some amount of reactive fluidity in the face of unexpected changes. By investing small amounts of effort in building the skeletons of hypothetical structures B and C we build a long term capacity to react when chance presents us scenario Y, delivering us that perfect storm of danger, or that perfect moment of opportunity. Pre-crisis investment is therefore both usable in a defensive capacity to protect against threats, and also useful in an offensive capacity, in as much as a given effort stakes out a claim on territory occupied by State and Capital. Furthermore, while engaging in strategic hedging mitigates some of the risks of unexpected disasters it does not totally remove them. The problem with this is that getting to this level of expanded reproductive capacity is in itself a challenging long term goal.
3. Ramping up & ramping down:
Resources and time being limited, we can’t fill out the entire alphabet with focus projects. Sometimes large projects extend beyond their use by date. This is almost never the case for some kinds of project, particularly those relating to dual power, but other varieties are highly prone to them For example if there’s little to no fascist presence in a city, then activists will tend to prioritize this are in favour of other projects. Shifting the priority of a project can be a very strategically difficult decision in a crunch, but in reality we will need to institutionalise the capacity to make these decisions both within and between organisations within the communist and anarchist currents. This process is organisational in nature and does not directly relate to the front line of struggle against capital due to its role as being a management principle for our support structures. There must therefore be a workable model of the relationship between ramping up project B and ramping down project A when the earth shifts under our feet. That model must be inextricably linked to the principle of ground up democratic control over the reproduction of the complex.
4. Crash Programs & Operational Gaps:
When the emergency hits, and the unexpected crisis emerges, we have to utilise resources quickly and decisively. How quickly depends very strongly on the type of event: recessions don’t immediately take down social services for example, so there is a longer lead time there, but other forms of crisis, such as partial collapse of a state or a crackdown from authorities can happen very quickly. Regardless of how meticulous the vanguards of the past were, or how adaptative anarchist formations can be, sometimes we are presented with problems that we are not prepared for- an operational gap between our ability and our goals that is greater than expected. This may be due to sheer lack of resources, in which case its game over in terms of an offensive approach and is purely a matter of holding on for dear life. However it may also have opened up due to a collective doctrinal or intellectual lag in relation to changing circumstances on a level that we have not been paying attention to. This is inevitable: it will happen. Sometimes we will be caught without even a plan A, and there will have been no pre-crisis investment at all. In fact this is our normal mode of operations, due to the power and oppressive qualities of the capitalist system. If such events are not to be fatal then the only option is to engage in a crash program, essentially an extreme form of the ramp-up concept, whereby we simply have to immediately focus a vast portion of our resources on defensively adapting to a disaster. The crash program is therefore distinguishable from the inherently premeditated pre-crisis-investment concept by the fact that it starts after the crisis has hit, without pre-planning, is therefore done very quickly, and is entirely a reactive and defensive measure.
The application of these specific ideas in the praxis that characterises a revolutionary complex effectively constitutes the Crisis Mobilisation Capacity of that complex. This capacity exists whether we have consciously built it or not: we make many of these decisions already, as a group, often without cooperation between organisations to plan much of it other than the very large mobilisations. The purpose of institutionalising this capacity is to control and democratise a behaviour that is happening collectively anyway, so as to better make use of it for our long term purposes.
This is not an attempt at invincibility- that is not possible. Material forces will always exert their pull and will heavily influence the shape of the system: the enemy gets a vote in each confrontation, and so does the physical environment of operations. However that doesn’t mean that collective effort in this regard can’t make the most of the dissolution of all of the dead tendencies of the 20th century, as the ideological mess that is the current communist/anarchist scene in the UK begins slowly the reconstitute itself. This dissolution and reconstitution has led to an explosion in theoretical work in online circles, due to the flurry of syncretism between previously disparate Communist and Anarchist schools of thought. Where we can produce new theories, we can and should produce new praxis, whether it is generated from new combinations of existing and tested forms of praxis, or via fresh approaches to challenges. It is my position that the political context in the UK, particularly with regard to the medium term future ( the next 5 or so years) gives us a big opportunity to establish a complex that can invert the mechanics of sectarianism, cast off our old skin, and nurture a material capacity to respond according to pressures, via the selective prioritisation of multiple projects. This combination of redundancy and elasticity would give us a fairly good position compared to what we have now and is probably manageable in several significant areas of concern. Notable examples include the expansion of Industrial unionism, antifascist work, solidarity unions, food and housing security, and the sharing of skills and material capacities amongst organisations. Many projects along these lines are already afoot and cross-pollinating with each other, but we are a very early stage of reconstructing the UK left wing scene.
Singular projects are weak as a strategy for the simple reason that they are singular, that there is no redundancy and that there is a single point of failure which dooms all the points of strength. There can be no single institution too vital to fail, or without which all the others will wither when we know that the obliteration of any given party, campaign, union etc is always a distinct possibility, and can happen at any time in a point of crisis. This necessitates the abandonment of the old forms of vanguardism, which set up single high profile targets, which have historically been highly vulnerable, in favour of a commitment to a material pluralism. Much of what is needed is already there, we just have to identify and contact it. A revolutionary complex of grass roots communist operations is achievable in a limited form in the near term, but we have to do serious preparatory work to build it.
Post script addendum:
A lot of feedback has mentioned various examples of promising initiatives and organisations already existing in the UK. These include IWW, Angry Workers of the World, IWGB, SolFed, UVW, various issue-specific groups, formations like the Womens Strike Assembly and the emerging new models of antifascist organising. I am currently involved in two of these myself, and would love to hear of more. If you have any examples, please leave a response to this article or post on twitter using the hashtag #crisisandmobilisation- this isnt so that I can create some wretched tweetstorm, its more so that I can catalogue examples.
Related links and resources:
Some writings on political dynamics within the left, dual power and base building in the united states:
Further writings on the Marxist Centre,including two alternate accounts of the conference, and three response pieces from writers on different sides of the internal theoretical deabate: