2 January 2021
System Crash: An Activist Guide to the Coming Democratic Revolution
Neil Faulkner, Phil Hearse, Simon Hannah, Rowan Fortune, and Nina Fortune.
Neoliberalism has been the dominant mode of capitalist rule for 40 years. The history of this period, especially since 2000, has shown repeatedly that the present political domination of the Far Right at government level was not inevitable.
On the contrary, the social system in which finance-capital is dominant, employment insecure, inequality massive, and racist and sexist ideologies running riot, all this is the product of conscious choices and the ideological/political struggle of right-wing governments, parties, and think-tanks.
Neoliberalism was made by people, and can be undone by other people. Capitalism itself was made by people – in the struggle of the rising capitalist class against the semi-feudal aristocracy of the 16th to 19th centuries. Human beings made capitalism. Human beings can unmake it. But it will not happen automatically: it will require conscious mass struggle.
Lenin said that there was no crisis the ruling class could not survive, provided the working class was prepared to pay the price. This is no longer true. The modern crisis of the virus, the economy, and above all the environment, could deliver an uninhabitable world and the destruction of human civilisation. The ruling class may be blind-sided by its vested interest in the system; it may indulge in fantasies about safe ‘green zones’; but the truth is that every human being is under threat.
In the movie Elysium, the capitalist class creates an artificial moon circling the Earth, to which they can escape from the social and ecological nightmare below. Such an option is not available to the capitalist class in the real world.
The deepening crisis has been marked by an enormous polarisation of political life. Especially since the 2008 economic crisis, rebel movements have mushroomed.
The Arab Spring brought millions onto the streets to challenge dictatorial regimes and overthrow the hated Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt. Savage austerity in Greece was met by repeated general strikes and pitched battles with the police in Athens and elsewhere. The Occupy! movement started in the US when protestors took their battle to the world’s premier financial centre on Wall Street and then went global. In Britain, anti-austerity protests were massive and notable for an uprising of school and university students over fee increases. And in Spain, the millions-strong movement of the Indignados occupied city squares across the country.
This generalised upsurge was paralleled by left-wing movements taking power in a number of countries in Latin America – the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The left-wing Syriza party in Greece won elections to become the government. And a new left party, Podemos!, emerged in Spain with mass support. Soon after, in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party with a massive majority.
In 2020, however, the landscape looks very different. The Arab Spring has been drowned in blood, with tragic consequences, especially in Syria and Egypt. Left-wing governments in Latin America have been overthrown, with the sole exception of Venezuela, and even here there is a deep crisis. The Syriza government capitulated to EU demands for brutal austerity in return for more bailout loans in Greece.
Sections of the capitalist class have unleashed a tidal wave of nationalism and anti-migrant racism designed to head off the Left. This has been coupled with intensified police repression and has enabled a rapid growth of street fascism.
How should the Left orientate itself in this new situation?
There are three interlinked issues to be confronted: we have to defeat the nationalism, racism, and fascism of the Far Right; we have to learn the lessons of defeats over the last decade and develop new strategies for the Left; and we must clarify the tasks ahead, both immediate challenges and longer-term goals.
All these issues raise the question of power – how the capitalist class exercises power, how the working class and the oppressed can confront that power, and how we, the people, can develop a countervailing power of our own capable of moving the world away from the abyss and towards a different future.
Power and the State
The Italian Communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci adopted the term ‘hegemony’ to
describe the domination of the capitalist class. His concept of hegemony highlighted the two
key aspects of capitalist rule – repression and ideology, force and fraud.
The capitalist state deploys force – the police, the army, the courts, the prisons – to repress revolt from below and maintain the status quo. In the last decade, state repression has been deployed in bucket-loads against rebel movements – most tragically, perhaps, in Egypt and Syria, where peoples’ uprisings were drowned in blood.
But the mechanisms of repression do not just target political protest movements; they are also used to enforce the structures of capitalist power and its attendant social-ideological apparatuses – racism, sexism, other forms of oppression, and the segmentation of spaces by class and ethnicity.
Mike Davis, in his book on Los Angeles in the 1960s, shows how the local police, the LAPD, enforced whites-only housing estates by victimising Black people who tried to buy houses in ‘white’ areas. In fact, the police enforced curfews against Black people in hundreds of US cities and towns as late as the 1960s. Even now, policing can be brutal in Black, Latino, North African, and other Minority Ethnic districts, not only in the States, but in many other advanced capitalist countries. The police are also available to repress ‘unruly’ or ‘deviant’ behaviour threatening to the social order – anything from truancy to minority sexual and gender identities.
During 2020 the American state responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with tear gas, rubber bullets, and armoured cars. At the time of writing, Donald Trump had sent gangs of federal agents to Portland, Oregon, to attack Black Lives Matter protestors. Any idea that the capitalist state is somehow ‘neutral’ can be tested right now, on the streets, whenever radical movements mobilise against injustice and oppression. Time and again throughout history, when the ruling class loses control, or fears it might, it resorts to violent repression.
But even the least sophisticated capitalist leaders understand that repression on its own is not enough. If ruling elites lose the confidence of most of society, the biggest armies in the world may not save them. They are liable to be overwhelmed by revolution from below as their armies – made up of real people – dissolve into the popular movement.
That is why they combine repression with ideological manipulation. The Nazi Party did not come to power in Germany in 1933 because of the ultra-violence of its Brownshirt street-fighters, but because it had built a mass political base, especially among middle-class people whose lives had been wrecked by the economic crisis, and among the desperate legions of the unemployed. That political base was built on a foundation of German nationalism and anti-semitic racism.
World leaders today combine police repression with reactionary ideology: this is the defensive wall around continuing class rule. More and more, as the crisis deepens, ruling-class ideology takes the form of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia – with the alien ‘Other’ demonised as scrounging, predatory, fanatical, undemocratic, crypto-terrorist, and so on.
If the capitalist state acts as the central focus for repression, it also acts as a relay for reactionary ideology. It could not do that effectively without the extraordinary power of today’s mass and social media. Fox News was the main TV mouthpiece of Trump in the United States. His Twitter feed reached 80 million people. Facebook is awash with far-right conspiracy theories.
In Britain, BBC news coverage is increasingly craven in the face of Tory threats to the licence fee, sales of Tory rags like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express dwarf the sales of serious newspapers, while most social-media content is a drip-feed of trivia about celebrities, crime, and consumerism.
Pro-capitalist ideology is also relayed by employers and corporations, by schools and colleges, by religious and recreational institutions, and by families and peer groups. A competitive, consumer-oriented, fashion-conscious individualism focused on ‘getting on’ and ‘not missing out’ is a recurring subliminal message percolating through every pore of capitalist society. As Marx said, the dominant ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class.
The battle of ideas
But this is a culture war that the ruling class must wage with relentless determination if their soporific ideology is to maintain its grip on people’s minds. One of the extraordinary consequences of the campaign of social-democrat Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has been the huge increase in the number of people in the United States who have a favourable view of socialism. Gallup reported in 2019 that four in ten Americans had a positive view of socialism – which, given the wall-to-wall reaction in the US media, is an amazing figure. It demonstrates the importance of mass campaigning, electoral intervention, and having recognised public spokespeople to challenge pro-capitalist propaganda.
Radical change is impossible without a battle of ideas. That has to bring together two things. First, raising anti-capitalist ideas in struggles in the workplace, unions, communities, and radical movements. Second, developing radical media as an alternative to the corporate media. Socialist papers, campaign bulletins, union posters, and agitational leaflets all help, but a left-wing presence on the internet and social media has a much wider reach and is now much more important.
Social media are subject to rampant corporate manipulation. They are highly atomising and alienating forms of communication. They are addictive and malignant. But we have no choice but to use the means of communication available to project an alternative socialist message – otherwise, we will be voices in the void.
Free speech for democratic and radical ideas has to be defended. It is no accident that Donald Trump made threatening noises about social-media content. He did not have racist and far-right content in mind, but that of radical critics.
In his book Can Democracy Survive Capitalism?, Robert Kuttner argues that ‘democratic capitalism is today a contradiction in terms’. Empirical reality bears this out. Everywhere, democracy and democratic rights are under attack.
In Britain, the democratic rights of trade unionists and immigrants are severely constrained. In the United States, the right to protest comes under police attack. In the Philippines, the murderous regime of Roberto Duterte has carried out the judicial execution of tens of thousands of alleged drug-dealers. In Turkey, more than a hundred thousand opponents of the Erdoğan government have lost their jobs or been thrown in jail. In Syria, the degenerate regime of Bashar al-Assad, supported by his Russian and Iranian allies, have killed hundreds of thousands of civilians to stay in power. In today’s conditions of rising authoritarianism and repression – of what William I Robinson calls a ‘Global Police State’ – the defence of democracy and basic human rights is a central task for the Left .
Power and the working class
Some people argue that because the old industrial working class has disappeared, socialism is now impossible. The class that socialism is supposed to represent has disappeared. This is false.
First, the working class was always more diverse than just ‘industrial’ workers. The key criterion for being in the working class is exploitation by capital, not working at a lathe or on a production line. Today, much industrial production – though far from all – has moved from the Global North to the Global South. Key centres of the industrial working class are now in China, Indonesia, Brazil, and Mexico – as well as in the older established economies of the Global North.
In countries like Britain, work has changed profoundly. Millions work in the service sector, banking, the hospitality sector, and retail and personal services. The biggest single employer is the NHS, while hundreds of thousands work in education.
Work has become much more insecure, with millions on zero-hours contracts or in short-term, part-time work. All this leads to a much more differentiated and stratified working class, with those at the top-earning four or five times as much as those at the bottom. Many workers are now employed in small enterprises, in contrast to the more concentrated and homogeneous working class of the factory era. There is also a much higher proportion of female and ethnic-minority workers.
A diverse working-class creates difficulties for trade unions. A less permanent workforce is harder to organise. So is a workforce dispersed across many small enterprises (to say nothing of the growing numbers working from home in the context of the pandemic). Employers feel much more confident about banning unions and sacking organisers.
But unions can be still be built, and new forms of workforce struggle developed. One example is the targeting of customer interfaces during disputes in the fast-food sector, with workers and their supporters picketing high-street premises and calling on customers to show solidarity by boycotting strike-bound businesses
Equally, as profit-making swivels from production to consumption, struggles over rents and housing – and gentrification and corporate control of the urban landscape more generally – become more important. These are just as much working-class struggles as workplace disputes.
The working class remains the overwhelming majority of society in the developed capitalist economies of the Global North. It has not diminished in size; it has merely changed its form. And more broadly, with the spread of transnational corporate capital across the Global South, the international working class is bigger than ever before, now forming the overwhelming majority of humanity.
Old working-class communities have been smashed up by neoliberalism. New working-class communities are being ravaged by hyper-exploitation. But the closure of mines, shipyards, and factories in the North, and the creation of new types of mega-sweatshop in the South, does not mean the end of the working class; it means a new phase in the development of the class with the capacity to destroy the system that exploits it. But realising that potential will require new forms of organisation and struggle, and winning a new generation to the idea of revolution and socialist transformation.
Parties and movements
Radical rebellion against neoliberalism expresses itself in workers’ and community struggles, and in mass protest movements. The question is how these struggles and movements can be fused into a global fight for an alternative future at both the national and international level.
What happens when one particular struggle is over, or a protest movement goes into decline? With the mass movements against austerity that emerged after 2008, like the Indignados in Spain and Occupy! in the United States, the answer is clear. As struggles mount, people seek a political force at a national level to represent them. The Indignados movement was the mass base for the establishment of Podemos! (‘We Can’), and the Occupy! movement led to the trend inside the US Democratic Party around Bernie Sanders that called itself ‘Our Revolution’ – heavily staffed and influenced by the Democratic Socialists of America.
These movements – and others like them – had their pluses and minuses. But they failed to break through. It seems that capitalism could not be overthrown by an electoral alliance of social-democrats and revolutionaries. Why not? Why do the working class and the oppressed need a revolutionary party of their own? This issue was addressed by the veteran French revolutionary Daniel Bensaïd in the following way:
From a certain point of view, capitalism will indeed be overthrown by an alliance, or a convergence, of mass social movements. But even if these movements, because of their liberatory projects, perceive capitalism to be their enemy (which perhaps is the case for the women’s movement or the environmental movement, not just the workers’ movement), I don’t think these movements all play an equivalent role. And all are traversed by differences and contradictions which reflect their position, in the face of capital as a global mode of domination.
There is a ‘naturalist’ feminism and a revolutionary feminism, a profoundly anti-humanist environmentalism and a humanist and social environmentalism… If you consider these arenas are… simply juxtaposed, then perhaps you could devise a tactic of putting together changing coalitions (‘rainbow coalitions’ on immediate questions). But there would be no solid strategic convergence in such an approach.
I think, on the contrary, that within a particular mode of production (capitalism), relations of exploitation and class conflict constitute an overarching framework which cuts across and unifies the other contradictions. Capital itself is the great unifier which subordinates every aspect of social production and reproduction, remodelling the function of the family, determining the social division of labour, and submitting humanity’s conditions of social reproduction to the law of value. If that is indeed the case, a party, and not simply the sum of social movements, is the best agent of conscious unification.
We agree with Bensaïd’s outlook here. The political party remains what Gramsci called ‘The Modern Prince’ (a reference to Machiavelli’s idealised Renaissance prince in his book of that name, where the ruling prince is conceived as the primary agent of the public good). The prince/party becomes the means whereby the demands and struggles of the exploited and the oppressed can be unified and synthesised in an overall strategic project for taking power.
Socialists are the best fighters for even partial gains for the working class, and they always operate as activists embedded in the mass struggles and campaigns of the oppressed. But they need to operate with the long-term aim of uniting the struggles and campaigns, which means building a socialist party – not a sect or propaganda group interested only in recruiting a few more members, but a broad party of working-class activists, where diverse outlooks are embraced, and political differences are debated.
which means building a socialist party – not a sect or propaganda group interested only in recruiting a few more members, but a broad party of working-class activists
Neoliberalism since the mid-1980s has shown that the Far Right, despite its anti-state rhetoric, relies on control of government and the state apparatus to push through its agenda. Workers and popular campaigns fight back, but unless the forces of resistance are brought together in a united anti-capitalist movement at a national level, they will be incapable of contesting for power. If a national anti-capitalist movement is built, democratically organised from the bottom up, with its own programme for social transformation, with a clear strategy for waging mass struggle, then it is effectively a political party, whatever it might call itself.
But it is a recurring dilemma of protest and resistance movements that mass struggles – strikes, demonstrations, sit-ins, occupations, and so on – do not lead to lasting gains unless alternative power structures emerge capable of challenging capital and the state at a national level. Without such an outcome, protest and resistance can be demobilised, absorbed back into the system, or, if necessary, crushed by violent force.
Radical governments can be assessed by two criteria: what actions do they take to promote the interests and struggles of the working class and the poor; and what is the relationship between the government and the mass movement.
Failed projects: 1. Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia
Key experiences here are the left-wing governments of the last two decades in Brazil, Venezuela, and Bolivia – the Workers Party (PT) government in Brazil, the ‘Chavista’ and ‘Bolivarian’ government in Venezuela, and the MAS (Movement towards Socialism) government of Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Each of these experiences involved years of struggle and conflict, with the capitalist class and the Right, but also within the Left. The Brazilian PT government was overthrown by a parliamentary-judicial coup in 2016. Evo Morales was overthrown by a military coup in 2019, and has only recently been able to return to the country. The ‘Chavista’ government in Venezuela – named after its founder and main leader, the late Hugo Chavez – is still in power, but in a situation of dire economic crisis, collapsing popular support, and under siege from both inside and outside the country. How are we to explain the limited and contested achievements of this popular wave?
The hostility of the Right, the capitalist class, and significant sections of the middle class – with financial and political support from the US – has been an enduring feature of all three of these governments. But that does not explain the drift towards the economic crisis and falling popular support which allowed them to be overthrown or destabilised. To understand that it is necessary to look at the political strategy of each government.
All three governments operated on the basis of what Jeffery R Webber calls ‘extractive reformism’. The basic idea was to maximise the tax revenues from the export of oil (Venezuela and Brazil), tin and other minerals (Bolivia), and agricultural products like soya beans (Brazil). The tax revenues would then be used to help the poorest in society, without having to dispossess the capitalist class and its wealthy allies.
In the years up to the 2008 world economic crisis, this strategy worked. Global economic expansion, particularly of the Chinese economy, generated massive demand for exports of primary commodities like oil, minerals, and foodstuffs. But after the crash, the attempt at income redistribution through extractive reformism collapsed – and with it, much of the mass support these governments had enjoyed.
The strategic choice had been whether or not to mobilise the masses for a head-on collision with the capitalist class, with the aim of taking power not just at a governmental level, but at every level of society, in order to effect its complete transformation. The Brazilian, Venezuelan, and Bolivian left governments refused do this – and thereby condemned themselves to eventual defeat when boom turned to bust in the world’s commodity markets.
Failed projects: 2. Corbynism
For the Left in Europe, huge hopes invested in the Syriza government in Greece, Podemos! in Spain, and of course the Corbyn leadership in the British Labour Party. All these projects reflect key political weaknesses of different variants of reformism.
Who brought down Jeremy Corbyn? Corbynism had enemies on the Right in Britain and internationally, of course, but its overthrow would not have been possible without the Labour Right, especially in Parliament and at the top of some of the trade unions. They were never reconciled to a left leadership and did everything possible to overthrow it, using whatever means came to hand. Because, after all, they are politicians and officials embedded in the system, representatives of the status quo, albeit a more liberal version than that of the Tories.
This was never fully grasped by many Corbyn supporters, including a good number at the highest level. In reality, it was always literally incredible to imagine a radical left-reformist programme, with many measures against the immediate interests of British and international capital, being implemented by a parliamentary party dead-set against it.
The weakness of the Corbynistas at the parliamentary level was overwhelming. It could be seen in the composition of the various incarnations of the Shadow Cabinet. Corbyn was compelled to recruit people like Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, and others who never shared his politics. At times, Corbyn had difficulty getting a Shadow Cabinet together at all.
The weakness of the Corbynistas at the parliamentary level was overwhelming.
The only way that a radical-left programme could have been forced through the PLP would have been by altering the composition of that body – that is, by unleashing a country-wide mandatory re-selection campaign and hurling the entire party, at every level, into a ferocious civil war.
Without this, the Corbyn leadership was a prisoner of the Labour Right. Perhaps the clearest measure of this was its pitiful failure to stand up to the relentless barrage of accusations that Corbyn and his supporters were anti-semitic. The core of these accusations was a false equation between anti-semitism and anti-Zionism. But instead of taking a principled stand against racism, imperialism, and the dispossession of the Palestinian people – and therefore against Zionism – the Labour leadership simply rolled over.
The leadership’s position on Brexit was also shambolic. Instead of recognising the rotten core of nationalism and racism at the heart of Brexit – instead of seeing it for what it was, the banner of the Tory Right, UKIP/the Brexit Party, and the fascists – Corbyn attempted to ‘triangulate’ with (progressive) Remain and (reactionary) Leave voters. Again, this ideological flinching allowed the Right to win further ground (and ultimately to take the Tory leadership and the general election).
A brilliant opportunity was lost, with a force of perhaps 40,000-plus Momentum members, to push back and isolate the PLP Right, and to turn the Labour Party into a mass campaigning organisation focused on struggle and resistance. It was an opportunity spurned because the Corbyn leadership harboured the notion that a compromise could be reached with the Right that would allow the radical-left project to go ahead, without a showdown fight.
Corbynism could only have withstood the onslaught if its leadership and base had been more organised, orientated to mass mobilisation and fighting the Labour Right, and more ideologically hardened. That would have been something different to Corbynism.
Failed projects: 3. Syriza and Podemos!
Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) won the 2014 general election in Greece, with its leader Alexis Tsipras becoming Prime Minister. Podemos! joined the Socialist Party government in Spain in 2020, with its leader Pablo Iglesias becoming deputy Primer Minister.
After six months in office, Syriza agreed to a savage austerity package imposed by the ‘Troika’ of European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund – even after the Greek people had voted the package down in a referendum! This plunged Greece into social collapse and started a plunge in Syriza’s mass support that ended in electoral rout.
Podemos! is currently providing left cover for the austerity programme of Spain’s Socialist government, causing its radical wing, the Anticapitalistas, to break away.
In both cases, prolonged mass struggles have been led down a blind alley. Both the right-wing of Syriza and the leadership of Podemos! have their origins in 1970s ‘Eurocommunism’ – essentially a variant of social-democratic reformism. They shared the illusion that tactical manoeuvring would enable them to make progressive changes without tackling capitalist power.
The Left in both Greece and Spain, and more widely in Europe and the world, has to learn the lessons of these defeats: crucially, that becoming the government without mobilising the working class and oppressed to take control of society means eventual capitulation and defeat.
Failed projects: 4. Argentina’s piqueteros
A classic example of mass resistance with a disappointing outcome was what happened in Argentina in 2001-3. Little known on the British Left, the turn-of-century crisis in Argentina gave rise to some of the most advanced form of mass self-organisation, workers’ control, and workers’ self-management seen anywhere in the world in the last 80 years.
In July 2001, the government of Fernando de la Rua responded to an economic crisis by cutting civil servants pay by 13% and savaging social welfare. In December that year, as the crisis worsened, the government stopped all cash withdrawals from banks.
The economic collapse was on a scale not witnessed again until the Covid-19 crisis. Millions of people lost their jobs, their pensions, and their savings. The response was a mass uprising on 19 December, around the slogan ¡Que se vayan todos! (‘Kick them all out!’)
In the face of social catastrophe, local assemblies emerged everywhere, in both working-class and middle-class areas, which both coordinated protest action, but also attempts to take over the running of local economic life and welfare services. This included re-starting production in closed-down shops, bakeries, workshops, and small factories, organising food production and distribution, and trying to negotiate subsidies from national and local government. It was later estimated that a third of the Argentinian population had participated in the assemblies.
Overlapping these local action committees was the movement of the unemployed, the piqueteros (‘pickets’), so called because of their tactic of occupying and closing down major highways.
Inside the movement of the unemployed, a multitude of different, conflicting, and sometimes overlapping trends emerged. Eventually they coalesced into three major groups. The dominant trend, the Movimiento de Trabajadores Desocupados – Unemployed Workers Movement (MTD) – argued that the way forward was to build the counter-power of the working class and the oppressed, to take the form of self-managed production and local social organisation, separate from and against the capitalist economy and state. The MTD set up a network of productive workshops and enterprises, like local construction teams and self-sustaining neighbourhood bakeries, in an effort to become independent from aid and instead rely on their own alternative system.
They argued against any strategy of trying to take state power and establish a national government of the working class. The two minority currents of the piqueteros, the Class Combat Current (CCC) and the Federation of Workers for the Land, Housing, and Habitat (FTV), tended to put more emphasis on gaining concessions from the government.
Two things happened that disabled the main MTD strategy and moved the situation to the restoration of capitalist ‘normality’. First, the movement for the self-organised and independent economy ran out of steam. Lacking capital and raw materials, few workshops and small factories could stay open under workers’ self-management. A regime of workers’ control and self-organisation can survive only for a limited time without an advance to an alternative social system at a national level. The counter-power of the working class and the oppressed could not be sustained without conquering the state and exercising control over major levers of the economy.
Second, the piqueteros, as the organisations negotiating with local and national government about subsidies to finance public works and give people at least part-time jobs, became a sort of job-allocation bureaucracy. Its radical charge became dissipated.
Crisis is the test of politics. In Argentina there was an extraordinary economic and political crisis, an extreme social collapse, and a tremendous upsurge of struggle, organisation, and self-activity from below.
But there was no prior organisation of revolutionary forces and no network of activists embedded in the popular movements with a clear vision of social transformation and a clear strategy for achieving it. The Argentinian workers did not even have their own independent mass social-democratic party. The post-2001 crisis was an historic opportunity for anti-capitalist social change, but one that failed for lack of political leadership.
The fundamental strategic issue: can we change the world without taking power?
The central question is whether in order to achieve system change – to create a green, feminist, anti-racist, egalitarian, non-violent, and democratic society – we have to take state power. The answer is yes.
Such a revolutionary perspective – where the self-activity of the working class and the oppressed is linked to a new type of anti-capitalist government – has always been resisted by reformists, whether traditional social-democrats, Eurocommunists, or a mixture of both.
Some have argued that creating a left-wing government is in itself dangerous, leading only to new forms of authoritarianism. John Holloway, an academic working in Mexico, wrote a book in 2002 called Change the World without Taking Power. He argues that the struggle between the people on one side and the rich and powerful on the other goes on eternally and we have to continue to fight back on a daily basis. But, he says, we should not have the ambition of taking state power, because a state representing the workers and the oppressed is bound to be authoritarian and repressive.
There are so many problems with Holloway’s argument. One is that if we try to ignore the capitalist state, it certainly will not ignore us, especially when the Left and radical movements become powerful. The capitalist class will use their police, their army, their propaganda machine in the media, as well as fascist and other far-right movements – everything they have – to defeat us.
In these circumstances, people in struggle are bound to organise for their own defence – against scabs, the police, and fascist mobs. This is precisely what happened when the recent Black Lives Matter protests came under attack in the States. As this happens, people begin to create new forms of participatory democracy and community-based networks. If the struggle intensifies, these can swell into a national network – a new kind of popular power – an alternative state – the embryo of a government of the workers and the oppressed.
This has happened again and again in revolutionary situations – in England in the 1640s, in Paris in the 1790s, in Paris again in 1871, in Petrograd in 1917, in Munich and Budapest in 1919, in Barcelona in 1936, in Budapest again in 1956, in Iran in 1979, and so many other places at so many other times. This happens irrespective of whether theorists like John Holloway think it is a good idea: it happens because the logic of the struggle makes it necessary.
And the truth is that all these experiments in revolutionary democracy are the precise opposite of ‘authoritarian’ and ‘repressive’. The record shows them to have been the highest forms of democracy – moments when the largest possible number of ordinary people, including the poorest, the most oppressed and marginalised, come onto the stage of history poised to play their part in its remaking.
the workers and the oppressed, to liberate humanity and save the planet, must overthrow the state, dispossess the capitalist class, assume full governmental authority, and set about the essential world-historical task of building a new social order.
That is why revolutions from below are smashed with such violence; it is because the ruling classes of the world are chilled to the bone by the threat of mass democracy that they will sometimes murder tens of thousands in their rampages of counter-revolutionary terror.
Knowing that – armed with the bitter lessons of history – we cannot duck the central strategic question: the workers and the oppressed, to liberate humanity and save the planet, must overthrow the state, dispossess the capitalist class, assume full governmental authority, and set about the essential world-historical task of building a new social order.
Anti*Capitalist Resistance will soon be publishing this new book on the world crisis and the popular resistance in print format. Because of the urgency of the political situation, however, we will be publishing the book chapters as a series of long-read online articles over the next month or so. This is the tenth chapter.