Socialism: defensive reflex or conscious creation? - Solidarity

Solidarity's response to Henri Simon's 1974 text "The New Movement".

Submitted by Fozzie on January 3, 2023

Henri Simon's Nouveau Mouvement was first published in 1974. This is a translation checked and agreed by the author. It is an interesting and provocative text, and we strongly urge all our readers and supporters to get it, to distribute it, to study it, to argue about it.

With many of its propositions we would find little to disagree. Long before 1974 both I.C.O. (Informations, Correspondance Ouvrieres, the group with which H.S. was associated) and Solidarity were explicitly stating that the very functioning of modern capitalism was forcing people - and would force them on an increasing scale - to break with the established order on a very wide front: a 'new movement' was developing around us, visible for anyone with eyes to see. This new movement was not only challenging the institutions of existing society (nation states, parties, unions) but also its values, its priorities, its modes of thought. Starting with a challenge to authority at the point of production (in which area it partly echoed the age-old struggle of working people against exploitation, but also introduced new elements of critique), the new movement carried its challenge (either explicitly or implicitly) to every assumption of the dominant ideology, creating thereby a deep-going crisis in the authority relations on which class society was based.

Autonomy was certainly one of the cardinal features of this new movement. People were beginning to break with the habit of asking others to do things for them (the government, the TUC, the leadership of the Labour Party). They were starting to do things for themselves, often discovering themselves in the process. Revolutionary politics were falling into contempt. People who still talked in terms of 'making the left MPs fight' only covered themselves with ridicule. The process is continuing, although old attitudes die hard.

We in Solidarity certainly felt part and parcel of what was going on. In our involvement in the Direct Action wing of the anti-bomb movement and in the struggles of the homeless we were doing things with people, not for people. The new movement was not something external to us. On the contrary it was at the very center of our political existence and of our political preoccupations. This feeling of involvement influenced the content of our paper, the themes we thought worthy of fuller discussion in our pamphlets, the issues on which we would argue heatedly both with others and among ourselves. We even sought to explore its historical roots; in earlier explosions of self-activity.

As a logical consequence of all this we fully endorse what seems to us to be the main thesis of Henri Simon's text, namely that no one has the right to aspire to becoming a leader merely because he thinks he has a better understanding of events than other people.

But it is on this issue of political judgments and criticisms that our perplexities also begin. One the one hand (section 30) Henri Simon stresses that

”the transformation of attitudes towards the traditional values of capitalism and the institutions bound up with them is at least as important as the struggle itself and is linked closely to its evolution”

, and describes this transformation of attitudes as 'an important part of the revolutionary process'. With both of these assessments we would agree.

On the other hand, H.S. seems hard (section 9) on those who dare criticise the new movement because of its 'lack of consciousness' or 'ideological backwardness'. Although we have never used these words, if we are honest with ourselves we must include ourselves, at times, in this category. The dominant ideology has very deep roots indeed (it wouldn't be the dominant ideology if it hadn't). It seems obvious to us that if the new movement possessed the attribute of socialist consciousness in high measure, the process of social change would be more advanced than it is. We have repeatedly stressed that the crisis of modern society was a crisis of consciousness, not a crisis of leadership, and see no reason to modify this assessment.

Simon also seems suspicious (section 19) of those who 'give priority to certain forms of thought concerning action itself'.

Two interpretations of these statements are possible.

The first is that H.S. is here merely attacking the practice of traditional organisations which, because of their belief in their exclusive possession of truth, feel entitled to castrate or at least manipulate all struggles which express different aspirations or use different methods from theirs. With this critique of the traditional left we would fully agree.

But H.S. might alternatively be suggesting (and this is the second possible interpretation of sections 9 and 19) that the mere possession of a coherent system of ideas, of a frame of reference from which to make critical comments, of itself constitutes some form of elitism.

If we accepted this second interpretation the concept of elitism would be completely trivialised. To think before acting is not elitism. It is what distinguishes man from most other species, and enables him to dream of - and eventually to create - another kind of world. Nor is it elitist to judge, to weigh things up, to evaluate, to compare and, if necessary, to find certain forms of autonomy unacceptable. (When millions of ordinary people voted for National Socialist candidates in 1933, or supported the two imperialist wars, should revolutionaries have refrained from comment, on the ground that such comment. implied 'denying' people their autonomy?) To us the term 'elitist' has a very specific meaning. It implies the belief that without a revolutionary elite ordinary people are incapable of meaningful action, either in destroying existing society or in building a new one. This belief is patently absurd and deeply reactionary. We have repeatedly stressed that it is this vision which makes of politics a technique of manipulation. This leninist belief is moreover controverted by a whole historical experience, in which the masses in action have repeatedly revealed themselves more revolutionary than the most revolutionary of existing revolutionary groups.

But the final criticism of the conception that there is something essentially elitist in ideas would come from the fact that it would make H.S.'s pamphlet self-contradictory. Let us assume, in fact, that this is what H.S. means. Then his text would assume the form of a coherent attack on 'coherence', full of interesting ideas, despite the assumption, that the mere formulation of ideas is, somehow, 'vanguardist'. 1 Although it would condemn those who analyse events (in attempts to achieve an overall view) it would do so in a deeply analytical manner. In its implicit emphasis on coherence and analysis, and whether H.S. likes it or not, his text is in the' best tradition, of what ICO used to produce. One of the functions of a group like ICO was, after all, 'to discuss general problems such as state capitalism, hierarchy, bureaucratic management, war, racism, socialism, the abolition of the state and of wage labour'. The group advocated 'the establishment of committees, actively associating the greatest number of workers'. It defended 'non-hierarchical demands and not those of particular categories of workers'. It stood for ‘anything that enlarged the struggle,' and against 'anything that tended to isolate it'.

One may agree or disagree with these views. One cannot pretend however that they are not political judgments, made from a certain viewpoint. The same applies to H.S.'s text on the New Movement. Whether the author likes it or not his text is a political statement. It will become a political rallying point, a stimulus to political differentiation (those who agree with it and those who don't), possibly even, for a while, the ideological garb of the very movement he is so accurately describing. There is nothing wrong in this. Ideas have always played an important role in human history and to suggest otherwise is to reduce human beings to less than their full stature.

In spite of the contradictions inherent in this second interpretation of sections 9 and 19 we wonder whether it isn't in fact quite close to H.S.'s views. We. say this because this particular interpretation would seem to follow quite logically from H.S.'s uncritical exaltation of autonomy as such. Here again his text is unclear. The absence of any critique of the aims of autonomous struggles may be taken to imply that autonomy per se is the one and only criterion for revolutionary politics. It is true that the examples given of New Movement activities (section 8) all have a socialist content. But there are other problems. What is part of the New Movement, and what is not? How are we to judge whether a struggle reflects, or not, (section 6) 'a. tendency to destroy all hierarchies'?

Autonomy, although extremely important, is not enough. There can be autonomous reactionary dissent as well as autonomous revolutionary dissent. Solidarity has never given a blanket endorsement to people 'doing what they wanted, by themselves and for themselves'. Rightly or wrongly (and we think rightly) we sought to apply certain yardsticks our political judgments of what people were doing. We saw a connection between means and ends. We had a certain vision of the kind of society we wanted (a non-alienated, non-hierarchical society, in which wage labour has been abolished) and that vision deeply influenced the criteria we applied to what we saw happening around us. Without illusions as to the effect it would have, we gave what support we could (in terms of propaganda for their ideas and creations) to the self-managed upsurges of Hungary 1956 and of Paris 1968. We did this because we saw in them the harbingers of meaningful revolution, in the bureaucratic capitalist societies of East and West alike. But in 1975 we condemned the reactionary assumptions underlying the self-activity of the Ulster Workers' Council. And we repeatedly warned against the limitations (and stressed the recuperability) of localised forms of self-management within capitalism.

We have never felt it was enough for an activity to be autonomous for it to warrant our uncritical endorsement. We are not 'autonomy fetishists’. We are opposed to racialist strikes, however autonomous. When part-time hospital consultants seek to wreck the National Health Service in order to enhance their privileges, or when 'doing one's own thing' consists of signing up for Angola, we feel entitled, collectively, to make political comments. The same applies in many other areas. Terrorist activities, for instance, however strongly directed against established-society they may be are, in our opinion, deeply counter-productive. These are political judgments, which are the legitimate concern of a political organisation.

This isn't nit-picking. At stake in discussions of this kind are some very fundamental questions. Is socialism 'man's positive self-consciousness'? If the phrase means anything at all, it surely means that people have achieved some understanding of their environment and themselves - and know what they want. Is socialism something which will have to-be consciously fought for and collectively created?. Or is there some God in the revolutionary Pantheon who, in His wisdom, has allocated a revolutionary content and a socialist destination to all 'struggles' and 'conflicts' within existing society?

Will mankind evolve into socialism through coherent, creative action or through a series of defensive reflexes directed against the oppression of existing society? Are Lenin's preconditions for revolution, namely that the rulers no longer have the confidence to rule and the ruled are no longer prepared to put up with the old system, really sufficient? (We are obviously not implying that there is anything leninist in the views expressed in the New Movement.) Or should one add a third precondition, namely that those who no longer accept the existing society should have at least some notion in their minds concerning what they would like to replace it by? In our opinion the 'classical' preconditions may produce the collapse of the old society. They will not - and have not - ensured that it will be replaced by a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian classless society. In fact, left to themselves, the classical 'preconditions' will almost inevitably guarantee that one form of class society is merely followed by another. But if one accepts this proposition, certain things follow. Judgments will be called for. Choices will have to be made. Revolutionaries are not mere surf-riders on the tides of history.

  • 1This would perhaps then best be epitomised in H.S.'s use of expressions like 'it is important to emphasise', ... 'it is futile to criticise'... Important? Important to whom? To an abstract historical process? Or to real individuals, in a real movement, whom he is seeking to convince? But, if he is seeking to convince people...