by David Camfield
originally published in Salvage
Too often people on the radical left find ourselves thinking with concepts we’ve inherited from the past that have become misleading because the realities to which the concepts refer have changed fundamentally. This happens a lot when we talk about the workers’ movement.
As New York City transit union activist Steve Downs put it,
"We speak about the labour movement and I think we tend to do it out of habit or maybe generosity or maybe even embarrassment, but there is no labour movement in this city or in this country, frankly… there is no unifying vision, there are no widely- accepted goals, there certainly is no forward momentum."
In 2013 former members of the Italian revolutionary socialist group Sinistra Critica who went on to form the Communia Network put forward an argument about the “dissolution of what we called the ‘workers’ movement’.” They argued that
"a historical era has ended in the wake of the crisis of class culture and the dissolution of the network of relationships between trade unions, political parties, associative and cooperative structures. The synergy of those institutions of the workers’ movement has been down by a progressive loss of consciousness caused not only by the blows of capitalism in crisis, but also by the failure of so-called “communism” realized in several countries – whose ruins fell down on the same subjects who has to be liberated – and by the hegemony conquered by the social-democratic tendencies (then “social-liberal” ones) in that movement itself, tendencies that delivered many institutions created by the movement to the logic of profit and market that they claimed to fight.
That history is behind us, even if it still generates monsters in the present times. We are living today the slow time of reconstruction, reconstruction of ideas and material power of social subjects."
In 2015, the editors of the communization journal Endnotes offered an ambitious look at the “longue durée” of the global workers’ movement, “A History of Separation.” It argues for what its authors call “a periodising break.” Their goal is “to allow us to relate to the past as past, and the present as something else,” while recognizing important elements of continuity. The workers’ movement, they argue, “was not simply the proletariat in fighting form, as if any struggle today would have to replicate its essential features. It was a particular fighting form, which took shape in an era that is not our own.” The workers’ movement was “not the same thing as organised workers’ struggle.” Rather, for roughly one hundred years beginning in the late 1800s it was a mode of organizing, “an apparatus, an urban machine, which bound workers together and kept them so bound” in both certain kinds of paid workplaces and in neighbourhoods. To the extent that it succeeded, it relied on “an affirmable class identity” with which union and party activists could convince workers “to suspend their interests as isolated sellers in a competitive labour market, and, instead, to act out of a commitment to the collective project of the labour movement.”
The workers’ movement “embodied a certain idea” about how capitalism could be replaced. Consequently, it “made for a definite communist horizon, which imparted a certain dynamic to struggles and also established their limits.” At the heart of this was a “vision of their destiny, with five tenets”:
(1) Workers were building a new world with their own hands.
(2) In this new world, workers were the only social group that was expanding; whereas all other groups were contracting, including the bourgeoisie.
(3) Workers were not only becoming the majority of the population; they were also becoming a compact mass, the collective worker, who was being drilled in the factories to act in concert with the machines.
(4) They were thus the only ones capable of managing the new world in accordance with its innermost logic: neither a hierarchy of order-givers and order-takers, nor the irrationality of market fluctuations, but rather, an ever more finely-grained division of labour.
(5) Workers were proving this vision to be true, since the class was realising what it was in a conquest of power, the achievement of which would make it possible to abolish class society, and and thus to bring man’s prehistory to a close.
It was this vision that motivated workers to struggle. Between 1875 and 1921, Endnotes argues, this vision had tremendous appeal to workers, which “explains the movement’s exponential growth” in that period. But “Today there is everywhere a commonly felt absence of the institutional forms of solidarity that formed the backbone of the workers’ movement.” In our era,
All that remains of the workers’ movement are unions that manage the slow bleed-out of stable employment; social democratic parties that implement austerity measures when conservative parties fail to do so; and communist and anarchist sects that wait (actively or passively) for their change to rush the stage…. none is likely to rejuvenate itself on the world scale. The workers’ movement is no longer a force with the potential to remake the world. That it was such a force was what gave life to these currents within the workers’ movement: they no longer make sense; their coordinates have been scrambled.
Class antagonism persists, and struggles still happen. However, “the diverse fractions of the working class no longer shape themselves into a workers’ movement.” When particular groups of workers struggle, they may identify as workers. But when broader struggles arise, workers do not identify as part of the working class but “as citizens, as participants in a ‘real democracy,’ as the 99 percent, and so on.” Such identities seems “to widen their capacity to struggle” in a way that identification with the working class does not.
The kind of arguments that Sinistra Critica and Endnotes propose, with their emphasis on discontinuity, are important. They have the merit of registering important changes that much of the far left ignores, denies or minimizes. Today most radicals have little sense of the present as a moment in history with distinctive features and how these differ from the contours of previous periods. Adherents of the revolutionary left are more likely to have definite views about such matters. However, on the far left the present is often understood in relation to whichever momentous historical events a political current treats as most important (the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Revolution, the Chinese Revolution…). The era in which we live is rarely recognized as a period that is profoundly discontinuous with the years c. 1840-1970 during which the traditions of the revolutionary left took shape. That’s one reason why absurdities like socialists in Texas reading about Lenin for guidance in building their organization are not uncommon today. With too much of the far left intellectually imprisoned in archaic thinking, there’s value in stressing that the workers’ movement and the political horizon linked with it are now truly in the past — but also that capitalism, the working class, class struggle, bureaucratic mass organizations born of the workers’ movement, and the potential for a self-governing society are still features of the crisis-ridden world we’re trying to change.
In order to help us orient ourselves, it’s worth addressing the question of how the workers’ movement came to an end. Although Endnotes‘ description of what remains of the movement is evocative, its explanation of the movement’s passing is inadequate – capital’s inexorable tendency to atomize the working class while simultaneously making individuals objectively more interdependent coexists with the historical investigation of class struggles and geopolitical forces in a way that isn’t synthesized convincingly. By “the workers’ movement” I don’t mean any and all mass organizations of the working class. Instead, I’m referring to something more specific: configurations of workers’ organizations with a strong relationship to at least a small but significant minority of the class that affirm a commitment to the creation by workers of a fundamentally different society.
The first world-historic blow to the movement came earlier than is often realized, and was delivered by Stalinism. The fact that this history is not well known today and that nostalgia for a stronger left in the past still leads some people to be insufficiently critical of “Communism” makes it important to recount how Stalinism damaged the workers’ movement. The belief that socialism was being built in the USSR and later elsewhere undoubtedly bolstered the workers’ movement internationally in certain ways. But that was false hope. When council democracy ceased to function in Russia in 1918 social supremacy passed from the working class to the leadership of one segment of the class, suspending the possibility of transition to socialism. Trapped in an impossible situation, a substitutionist revolutionary leadership evolved into rulers committed to modernization rationalized as “socialism in one country.” The last flickers of the fires lit in 1917 were snuffed out in the late 1920s with the completion of what Gareth Dale has aptly called a “modernizing counter-revolution” that consolidated the rulers of the USSR as a class. Stalinism crushed the already-subordinated workers’ movement in the USSR, turning its organizations into appendages of the party-state as it launched its industrialization drive. Its emulators in China, Cuba and other countries did the same whenever they came to power.
Sadly, the connection in workers’ minds between the idea of socialism and the “Communist” regime was so strong that the workers’ movement was weakened as more people outside the USSR learned of the horrors wrought by Stalinism. The vigorous efforts of the anti-Stalinist radical left to challenge the equation of socialism with “Communism” had little success. The eventual collapse of most of the “Communist” societies dealt a further blow to the idea that the working class could remake society for the better, an effect that was often underestimated by socialists who rightly recognized that counter-revolution had long ago triumphed in the USSR. The mutation of China and Vietnam into “market Stalinism” had a similar ideological impact.
The rulers of the USSR also did enormous damage to the workers’ movement in many other countries through the politics and organizational measures imposed through the Communist International. The most disastrous case was Germany, where “Third Period” sectarianism was a major obstacle to united working-class action against fascism. In China the Comintern’s directive to support the nationalist Guomindang left the urban workers’ movement unprepared when the nationalists turned on it in the late 1920s. But Stalinism’s political impact was much more pervasive. From the mid-1930s its politics of seeking popular front alliances with “progressive” wings of ruling classes damaged workers’ organizations around the world. In Spain the murderous and literally counter-revolutionary actions of Stalinist forces succeeded in snuffing out workers’ and peasants’ power where it existed, as well as suppressing anti-Stalinist radicalism. Although this was not the only reason for Franco’s victory, it did weaken the effort to defeat fascism. Internationally, workers’ movements were weakened by the “Communist” promotion of politics whose horizons were now, rhetoric aside, firmly within the existing society.
Fascism, the Second World War and the Cold War dealt further blows. The workers’ organizations built in West Germany after 1945 did not share the commitment of their formidable pre-1933 ancestors to the creation by workers of a new society; in the East, workers were denied the right to organize independently of the party-state that claimed to rule in their name. In the US and Canada, unions emerged from wartime and post-war strike waves as more stable but also more bureaucratic organizations. In the US, a small opening for a left party independent of the Democrats was quickly lost. Wartime nationalism, for which in Mike Davis’s words “‘progressives and popular front leftists were among the most zealous missionaries,” swept through the white majority of the working class. This was then “redeployed in 1946-7 as a virulent anti-communism” that fuelled the successful ruling-class campaign that destroyed most workers’ organizations pledged to a vision of a different society and marginalized the weakened survivors. In Canada, the impact of wartime nationalism and Cold War anti-communism wasn’t as devastating as it was in the US. A minority of the working class continued to support the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, but the party’s “socialism” came to mean reforms within capitalism, not far-reaching social reconstruction.
As the post-war capitalism boomed, the working class underwent significant changes internationally. Yet it would be a mistake to make too much of how higher living standards, suburbanization, the growth of women’s participation in wage-labour, the expansion of “white collar” employment, and “Third World” immigration affected the remaining workers’ movements in the advanced capitalist countries. If some workers did not identify with the movement they encountered, dominated as it was by white men drawn from particular segments of the class, this was not an entirely new problem. The fact that these workers often pushed to be included in unions and/or organized autonomously within the orbit of the workers’ movement (as in the Indian Workers’ Association in the UK, self-organized groups of African-American workers, and initiatives by women workers in many countries) testifies to the movement’s enduring political magnetism. During the long post-war boom a workers’ movement in the specific sense of the term I’m using here also emerged for the first time in a few places, including Quebec; in a number of other countries, perhaps most notably India, the movement grew in strength. Nevertheless, in some parts of the world the movement became weaker in certain respects during these years, although this was often masked by robust working-class combativity and solidarity. For example, in Britain, as Duncan Hallas perceptively observed in 1971, “A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread… Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.”
These developments in the half-century prior to the end of the post-war boom and the restructuring out of which neoliberal capitalism emerged are part of the decline of the workers’ movement; that decline does not begin only in the mid-1970s. Since then, we have seen the neoliberal reorganization of capitalism followed by its crisis, which has now lasted a decade. The working class in most places has undergone significant decomposition, to use one of the useful concepts generated by the operaismo current of Italian marxism; elementary forms of unity and solidarity among waged and unwaged members of the class have been eroded both inside and outside the sphere of paid workplaces. Even more damaging, inherited “infrastructures of dissent” — the term Alan Sears offers in The Next New Left: A History of the Future for “the means through which activists develop political communities capable of learning, communicating and mobilizing together” — have often disintegrated and not been replaced.
Many social changes have led to these losses. These include the dramatic decline of strikes, the shrinking of union coverage, the loss of workers’ rights and cultures of workplace collectivism, the cultivation of insecurity, “negative solidarity” (the stance captured by the motto “if I don’t have it, they shouldn’t either”) and competitive individualism inside and outside the paid workplace, and the deepening of divisions rooted in racial oppression. The tendency to class decomposition was already underway before the collapse of “Communism” and the open embrace of neoliberalism by union officialdoms and social democratic party apparatuses in the 1990s. Since then, it has gone further, though not without important bursts of self-activity that began to recompose the class in 21st century conditions, for example in France, Bolivia, Venezuela, and China. The result has been the dissipation almost everywhere of the remnants of the workers’ movement (Greece is perhaps an exception). This dynamic of decomposition has bedevilled efforts to renew class-struggle anti-capitalist politics since the fall of Stalinism, and it grounds the contemporary structure of feeling identified by Enzo Traverso in Left-Wing Melancholia.
Where does this leave those of us who remain convinced that a socialist politics for our times must be an internationalist politics of the self-emancipation of the working class, one that’s resolutely anti-racist, feminist and queer liberationist and that recognizes the importance of both autonomous organizing by members of oppressed groups and united workers’ struggles in the workplace and community spheres? To start, we should recognize that classical marxism was a product of conditions radically-dissimilar to our own (as was classical anarchism). Strategic concepts of the early Comintern like the revolutionary party, the united front and the workers’ government assume the existence of forms of class organization and consciousness that in most regions haven’t existed for a long time. This doesn’t necessarily make them unworthy of study (although anyone who still thinks socialist groups today should organize themselves along “Leninist” lines “as if” they were large organizations that could meaningfully be called revolutionary parties, “only smaller” — the micro-party model — hasn’t learned much from the history of the far left since 1945). But it does mean these concepts can’t be “applied” in today’s conditions.
As the Italian marxists quoted at the outset put it, ours is “the slow time of reconstruction, reconstruction of ideas and material power of social subjects.” The extent of working-class decomposition imposes this pace on efforts to foster workers’ self-organization and solidarity. This temporality is terrifyingly out of synch with the speeds at which the climate change crisis is worsening and political events are happening (Brexit, Trump’s win, the growth of right-wing populist and fascist forces…). Although bold political initiatives and surprising wins are possible (the obvious lesson of, for example, the ascent of Corbyn-led Labour as well as the Sanders campaign and the emergence of a new left in the US, and, on a smaller scale, of the $15 and Fairness campaign in the Canadian province of Ontario), the advance of class-struggle politics is constrained by the political condition of the social forces on which these politics depend — not union officials or even union and community activists but the layers of the working class open to taking collective action against employers, landlords, corporate polluters, governments, and other state authorities when it seems that fighting back makes sense.
Recognizing this powerful constraint should direct our attention to the “need to start where the working class is, rather than where [we] might like it to be,” as Sheila Cohen puts it. A good first move is to try to listen and watch attentively, using theoretical tools but trying to avoid imposing preconceptions. Most of us can contribute in at least some small way to fostering elementary forms of resistance where we work or live, and in these increasingly unpredictable times (who foresaw Corbynism, the influx of thousands of radicalizing people into the Democratic Socialists of America, or the hopeful “#MeToo moment”?) there are sometimes opportunities to do more. We can support and learn from promising instances of working-class self-activity wherever they happen, from neighbourhood anti-austerity campaigns to strikes to initiatives for change within unions to anti-racist protests. We can acknowledge and try to overcome the unhelpful tendency of radicals on the margins to huddle together rather than engage with people who are taking action but haven’t yet drawn the conclusions we have. Intellectuals working in academic institutions can, in addition to organizing where we are, develop relationships with, to quote Cohen, our “‘organic’ counterparts — as facilitators, researchers and educators in the cause of developing actually existing class organisation and resistance.”
Such an open and experimental approach is the most promising way to contribute to the possibility of reinventing a class movement through which people can effectively defend themselves within contemporary society and work for its supercession. Such a reinvention is what is called for by social struggles today, after the end of the movement that so profoundly shaped our traditions.
 I have addressed operaismo‘s contribution to theorizing class in “Reorienting Class Analysis: Working Classes as Historical Formations,” Science and Society 68.4 (2004-2005).
By David Camfield
December 28, 2017
Nick Montgomery and carla bergman have written a book with an appealing title: Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (AK Press & Institute for Anarchist Studies, 2017). After seeing that it promised to discuss “rigid radicalism,” I hoped that the book might contain some useful insights about this phenomenon (one of the things I became aware of in 2017 was the growth on university campuses in the Canadian state of two small far left groups that certainly fit that description) and about fostering a left that’s more attractive and effective. At the same time I suspected its theoretical perspective wouldn’t fit well with any politics of class and anti-oppression struggle that aim for the kind of rupture with capitalism that would launch a transition towards a self-governing society.
Unfortunately, the book is a disappointment. It’s much more about the authors’ theory – whose influences include the 17th century Dutch philosopher Spinoza, post-structuralism, autonomism, and the Canadian anarchist Richard Day – than about contemporary experiences of activism and organizing, which are only touched on in minimal and pretty superficial ways to support the book’s argument.
The book is a celebration of joy in the very specific sense in which the authors use the term: “the growth of shared power to do, feel, and think more.” This is a process made up of “common notions”, “shared thinking-feeling-doings that support joyful transformation... processes through which people figure things out together and become active in joy’s unfolding, learning to participate in and sustain new capacities.” “Joyful militancy, then, is a fierce commitment to emergent forms of life in the cracks of Empire, and the values, responsibilities, and questions that sustain them.”
As that last line hints, the authors believe that new forms of life “are always in the making in the cracks of Empire.” Although they’re not explicit, they seem to think that these might, someday, somehow, replace “the organized catastrophe in which we live today.” They endorse a politics that refuses “trying to rationally direct the course of events” and instead “is about learning to participate more actively in the forces that compose the world and oneself.”
This is a kind of anarchism that rejects strategic politics altogether. Participating in any campaign, struggle or movement inevitably throws up questions about what direction the organizing should go in. The politics of Joyful Militancy offer very little guidance about how to grapple with such questions because they refuse strategic thinking. From the authors’ perspective, what is to be done is completely a matter of what promotes joy in the specific context people are in. Their rejection of strategic thinking is part and parcel of their rejection of any and all radical politics of “directed social transformation brought about by deliberate intent,” to use a phrase (not found in the book) of the historian Willie Thompson that I think grasps the heart of the matter. Strategic politics only appear in the book in the form of vague references to “vanguardist” (what I prefer to call substitutionist) groups and a brief discussion of one of the worst of these to come out of the turn to Maoism by much of the US New Left at the end of the 1960s, the Weather Underground, a discussion that fails to recognize what specifically led this organization to become the disaster that it was.
This refusal of strategy is connected to the book’s hostility to “ideology,” by which is meant “having a preexisting set of answers for political questions.” Because everything is a matter of flux and context, questions are seen as good but answers can only be provisional and specific. In spite of this stance, the book hovers above history and geography, talking of a generic Empire and saying almost nothing about contemporary Canadian society (where the authors live) or any other society. While the authors write that any perspective can become an ideology, their most frequent example is Marxism, as they point to a kind of theory that does exist but that isn’t the only Marxism.
Although societies are processes in time not everything is flux. Where we are in time and space is tremendously important but social relations like class, gender and race aren’t completely different in every local context. The answers to some questions (for example, can capitalism be changed so that maximizing profit is not the system’s priority? can the capitalist state be used to put an end to the rule of capital? what group in society has the potential power to uproot capital’s domination? can a struggle against oppression be led successfully by people who don’t face that oppression themselves?) are a lot less provisional than others. This means that it is possible to develop social theory that can give helpful guidance to collective action for change today and inform how we answer questions that are more specific to particular changing contexts (how to fight austerity in Winnipeg today, where I live, is a question that can only be answered through experiments, but a strong analysis of the settler-colonial capitalist society in which Winnipeg exists can be useful for people involved in those experiments).
Like Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead (which influences it), Joyful Militancy is premised on “Making Friends with Failure,” to use the title of a perceptive review of Day’s book. It rejects strategic liberatory politics because of past defeats, instead celebrating worker co-operatives, indigenous land defence, communal gardening, new ways of people relating to each other as friends, and other ways of trying to live better within capitalist society. I think all of these can be valuable, in different ways. But many of the activities the book mentions favourably don’t build power to resist attacks and win gains through struggles that transform people. And none can open the door to a transition towards a self-governing society that dramatically changes our relationship with the rest of nature. Failure “cannot be buried under good intentions or changed into its opposite by holding it up to the mirror of wishful thinking.”
What makes this book so disappointing is that rigid radicalism, “hostile to difference, curiosity, openness, and experimentation,” which the authors rightly observe “often arises as a reaction to a decline of transformative and enabling movements” but that can also be a product of radicalization in a period when levels of social struggle are low and infrastructures of dissent that connect newly-radicalizing people with more experienced fighters are weak (as is the case in many places today), is a real problem. This rigidity matters because it’s an obstacle to building a new left committed to militant struggle and social revolution. In spite of a few interesting observations about ethics and relationships, Joyful Militancy doesn’t offer much to those of us who’re committed to that urgent endeavour.
 Rodrigo Nunes recently described strategic political thinking this way: “taking into account the broader context of a complex ecology of struggles and agents in order to find the most transformative thing possible in that concrete situation: what can best exploit the political potentials opened up by the conjuncture so as to transform its present constraints the most, what will take it the farthest from what it is and the closest to where you want it to be.” “It Takes Organizers to Make a Revolution,” Viewpoint Magazine, Nov. 9, 2017.
 AK Thompson, “Making Friends with Failure: A Critical Response to Richard Day’s Gramsci is Dead: Anarchist Currents in the Newest Social Movements,” Upping the Anti 3
 On infrastructures of dissent, see Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future.
by David Camfield, December 13, 2017
What’s a “political organization”?
A “political organization” is simply a group that promotes a broad vision of what society as a whole should be like and has at least some ideas about how to work towards that goal.
This is different from organizations that are focused on one or two issues, such as community groups that mobilize or organize around housing, public transit or climate change, for example. It’s also different from unions, and from social movements that arise around an issue or struggle (genuine movements are typically made up of a variety of organizations).
There are many different kinds of political organizations, such as
Are political organizations needed?
Solidarity Winnipeg believes that powerful mass social movements are the key to transforming society to achieve social and ecological justice, including uprooting colonialism.
But we recognize that political organizations committed to that long-term goal and that perspective on how to achieve it are also needed.
We’re a very small group working to lay the basis for a specific kind of radical political organization: one with a vision of mass struggle to replace capitalism with a more democratic kind of society and uproot all forms of oppression, an organization that works in and with other groups to organize for social change.
Why do we need that kind of organization today?
Because there hasn’t been a small but serious and non-sectarian (sectarian groups treat their own particular interests as more important than advancing struggles and organizing) radical political organization in Winnipeg for a long time, few people realize what one could do.
The kind of small political organization we want to lay the basis for could do things that unions and broader groups devoted to community and campus organizing can’t do – and that individuals can’t do by themselves either.
It could unite people who share a common vision so we can
Why isn’t there a group like that already?
In Canada today, the radical left is weak (if you want to understand why, Alan Sears’ book The Next New Left is a good place to start). There’s no multi-city political organization committed to the vision we support, only an assortment of very small radical left groups (including a couple with a vision similar to ours).
It’s not easy to build a radical political organization from scratch. That’s especially true for people like us who reject the dogmatic certainties of some anti-capitalists and who’re humbly aware of the limits of small political groups including our own. But we want to give it a try. Will you join or support us?
originally published on solidaritywinnipeg.ca
by DAVID CAMFIELD / October 16, 2017
People who are committed to radical social change and who are trying to work towards that goal, whether as community, union or campus activists or supporters of a left-wing candidate, are sometimes skeptical when people like me say that we need theory. If we’re building the fight for $15 and Fairness, organizing against the racist far right, campaigning against sexual assault, or supporting Niki Ashton’s bid to lead the federal NDP, do we really need social theory?
The first thing to recognize is that all of us already have social theory, whether we realize it or not. We all have ideas about how society works even if we’ve never read a book about it. Everyone who’s working for social change has ideas about making change. That’s what social theory is: explanations of how society works and how social change happens.
Most people’s ideas about these things are a mixture of what we’ve heard from people we know, been told by teachers or other persons whose views we pay attention to, picked up from the mainstream media, and learned from our own personal experiences. But often we don’t realize how we’ve come to believe what we do. Also, our thinking is often inconsistent – for example, someone might believe that capitalism and inequality exist because humans are naturally competitive. Yet at the same time this person is cooperating with some of their coworkers to unionize the place where they work because they’re fed up with how they’re being treated by management.
People know their own experience very well. Our personal experience is a valuable source of insights about how our society works, at least for the great majority of people who endure sexism, racism, and/or another form of oppression as well as spend hours working for pay in places where we have little or no control over what we do. Unfortunately, the forces that shape our everyday experiences – flows of capital investment, government policy decisions, and how gender and racial power are organized, for example – are harder to understand. Most people don’t have a good handle on such questions as what capitalism is, how it’s intertwined with different kinds of oppression, the relationship between the state and capitalism, and what the most effective ways of fighting for change are.
Does this really matter? It’s true that you don’t need to understand capitalism to unionize your workplace, and you don’t need to know what patriarchal gender relations are to force your student union executive to put resources into hard-hitting feminist education for students about sexual assault. You can want capitalism to be replaced with a better system even if you don’t understand very well how capitalism works.
But to grasp why it’s so damaging for union officials to buy into employers’ plans for competitiveness, why educational campaigns alone won’t put an end to rape, and what keeps capitalism going we need ways of thinking systematically about how society is organized. In other words, we need social theory. A good theory of how state power operates in a capitalist society helps people organizing for reforms to craft a strategy that can win. A good theory of what kind of party the NDP is will help us to understand why the party has never worked to build social movements. Without this kind of theory we’ll draw the wrong conclusions when governments headed by left-wing leaders who promise real change fail to deliver, and when the NDP tries to channel the energy of protest into preparing for the next election. It makes a big difference if we look at the low level of active support among non-indigenous working-class people for indigenous efforts to decolonize Canada and conclude that the working class here will never fight to transform society or if we reject that conclusion (as I do). We need a good theory of the working class and settler-colonial capitalism to help us here.
We also need theory to grapple with questions like “is it possible to replace capitalism with a better society?” and “if it is, what should we do in the here and now to work towards that goal?” Too many people give up fighting for radical change because their expectations – founded on faulty assumptions – turn out to be wrong. A better understanding of what we’re up against helps people to stay in the struggle.
If you’re convinced we do need theory, then you face another question: what kind? Most social theory today is written by academics for other academics or upper-level university students because their jobs require them to publish books or articles. Most of it has a far from radical outlook on the status quo. The questions it asks are often of little interest to radicals. This is why many activists are turned off by theory. Most of it is useless for efforts to change society for the better. Theory that is potentially more useful is often written in ways that are hard for most people who haven’t studied social theory in university to understand. But it’s a mistake to think all theory is like that, or to assume that theory has to be written in an academic way.
So what kind of theory do radicals need? For starters, it has to begin from a global recognition of all forms of oppression (gender, racial, imperialist, settler-colonial, sexual, of the disabled…) and of how everyone who directly produces goods and services — from impoverished peasants in the South to the highest-waged workers in the North – is subordinated to employers in various ways. Before thinking systematically about these things, it has to deeply appreciate that they’re real and harmful. It needs to be not just a theory of these realities but also a theory against them. It should also recognize that they happen simultaneously, so that even if we sometimes have to talk about, say, class exploitation we never lose sight of how in reality class never exists separately from different kinds of oppression.
The theory we need has to do more than analyze the exploitation and oppression we face. It also has to help us see where potential power to change society is and how it can be organized. It should allow us to identify weaknesses in the system we’re fighting so we can take advantage of them. Our theory has to be able to recognize the hidden potential for a society beyond capitalism that has come to exist under capitalism – a possible future in the present – and be useful for developing political strategy.
All this rules out most approaches to social theory. Most aren’t theories against oppression and exploitation. None of the most influential schools of thought in the social sciences fit the bill, from evolutionary psychology to neoclassical economics (and most of its critics). Nor do theories that are against class exploitation or one or two kinds of oppression but don’t try to provide an integrated theory of and against them all.
Another quality of the theory we need is that it should be materialist. This doesn’t have anything to do with being preoccupied with money or what money can buy. Materialist theory, in the words of the socialist writer George Novack, acknowledges that “Everything comes from matter and its movements and is based upon matter. This thought is expressed in the phrase: ‘Mother Nature’… nature is the ultimate source of everything in the universe from the galactic systems to the most intimate feelings and boldest thoughts of homo sapiens.” Materialism is the alternative to idealism. Idealism comes in many varieties, include theories that talk of “Western” and “Muslim” cultures with fixed essences and theories that treat ideas as the driving force of history.
The theory we need must also be historical. It has to be very sensitive to the ways societies have changed over time. So much of what most people today take for granted as “just the way things are” or think is natural isn’t natural at all and hasn’t always existed. Male domination and the division of society into exploiting and exploited classes have only existed since the late Neolithic Era (roughly 4500-3000 BCE). Capitalism only emerged in England in the 1400s and didn’t become dominant there for another two centuries. Racial oppression was spread around the world by Europeans’ capitalist colonialism. For people to live with a “heterosexual,” “homosexual” or “bisexual” “orientation” is even more recent.
To be most useful, the theory should be critical, not dogmatic. Some theory that has the positive qualities I’ve mentioned avoids some of the toughest questions facing those of us who yearn for social transformation or offers glib answers. This may be reassuring, but in the end such theory isn’t the most effective guide to action.
I think the strongest social theory with the necessary qualities is one that fuses the best ideas of Karl Marx and some of the people who have worked with Marx’s concepts with the best ideas developed by thinkers whose foremost concerns have been sexism, racism, heterosexism and other kinds of oppression. It’s not a new approach, but it’s usually overshadowed by other theories that have more academic or political backing (my name for this fusion is reconstructed historical materialism).
In my book We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society I’ve tried to introduce this approach and use it to answer some of the questions on the minds of activists today. I’ve tried to do this as clearly as I can, so that people who aren’t academic researchers can understand the ideas. Social theory is too important to be left to the academic publishing industry. Radicals need to read and use theory (which sometimes involves writing) to change the world.
David Camfield lives in Winnipeg and is a member of Solidarity Winnipeg.
Elements of this article appeared in a shorter piece published on the Briarpatch website
Originally published by Briarpatch Magazine (blog).
This is a difficult time for activists in Canada. There are few strikes and protests, and even fewer wins. We haven’t seen the kind of radicalization that’s been expressed in support for Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the U.K. Organizing for change is a hard slog, and organizers are sometimes skeptical when people like me say that we need theory. Some people see it as a mistake to devote time to learning theory that could instead be spent mobilizing people for urgent actions. Still, I think theory really matters in this moment.
We all have theory, whether we realize it or not. We all have beliefs about how society works. Some of us have ideas about how society could be changed. That’s what social theory is: explanations of how society works and how social change happens. Most of us learn that the way society is organized today is natural or fundamentally good – a belief challenged by radical social theory.
Most people’s ideas about these things are a mix of conclusions drawn from our own experiences and what we’ve picked up from other sources. Our experience is often a valuable source of insights about how our society works, at least for the majority of people who endure sexism, racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, and spend hours working for pay in places where we have little or no control over what we do. Unfortunately, the forces that shape our everyday experiences – flows of capital investment, government policy decisions, and how gender and racial power are organized, for example – are harder to understand.
Does this really matter? It’s true that you don’t need to understand capitalism to unionize your workplace, for example, and you can oppose capitalism even if you don’t understand the system really well. But to grasp why union officials rarely encourage member-driven unionism and what keeps capitalism going, we need ways of thinking systematically about how society is organized. In other words, we need social theory. Without insightful theory to guide us, people working for social change are more likely to adopt ineffective or even counter-productive strategies and tactics.
We also need theory to grapple with questions like, “Is it possible to replace capitalism with a better society?” and, “If it is, what should we do in the here and now to work toward that goal?” Too many people give up fighting for change because their expectations turn out to be wrong; a better understanding of what we’re up against helps people to stay in the struggle.
If you’re convinced we do need theory, then we face another question: what kind? Most social theory today is written by and for academic researchers or for university students, informed more by concerns important to the academy than those of people on the front lines of organizing for social and ecological justice. Much of the best radical academic writing is inaccessible to non-academics. But not all theory is useless for activists, and it doesn’t have to be written in an academic way.
The starting point for the kind of theory we need is the understanding that many forms of oppression exist, that people who produce goods and services – from impoverished peasants in the Global South to the highest-waged workers in the Global North – are subordinated in various harmful ways. It needs to be not just a theory of these realities but also a theory against them. It should also recognize that they happen simultaneously, so that even if we sometimes have to talk about, say, class exploitation, we never lose sight of how this never exists separately from different kinds of oppression.
This theory should be materialist. Materialism doesn’t have anything to do with being preoccupied with money or what money can buy. The kind of materialism we need understands humans as an animal species distinguished from the rest of nature by how its members work together as conscious makers of tools and culture. This kind of theory starts from material contexts to understand how societies are organized and how they change, rather than from ideas, which never exist separately from people.
The theory we need must also be historical. So much of what most people today take for granted as natural or “just the way things are” isn’t natural at all. Theory that takes history seriously can reveal how such things as gender oppression, capitalism, and racism haven’t always existed. This helps us see just how much social arrangements can and do change.
To be most useful, the theory should be critical, not dogmatic. Some theory that has the qualities I’ve mentioned avoids some of the toughest questions facing those of us who yearn for social transformation or offers glib answers. This may be reassuring but in the end such theory isn’t the most effective guide to action.
I think the strongest social theory is one that fuses the best ideas of Karl Marx and some of the people who have worked with Marx’s concepts with the best ideas developed by thinkers whose foremost concerns have been sexism, racism, heterosexism, colonialism, and other kinds of oppression. It’s not a new approach, but it’s usually overshadowed by other theories that have more academic or political backing (these range from perspectives that defend the status quo to those that are critical of oppression but don’t grasp the central role of capitalism and class to versions of orthodox Marxism). I call this fusion reconstructed historical materialism. There’s lots to debate, but I’m convinced that activists need to read and use this kind of theory as we try to change the world. People who use it are involved in a range of efforts; one interesting political initiative informed by such theory was the 2017 International Women’s Strike in the U.S.
Some reading suggestions and a video:
David Camfield, We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society
David McNally, Another World is Possible: Globalization and Anti-Capitalism
Alan Sears, The Next New Left: A History of the Future
Himani Bannerji, Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism
“Beyond Everyday Feminism,” a recent talk by Kate Doyle Griffiths
Originally published by newsocialist.org.
This is not an attempt at a full assessment of the campaign or its outcome, only some initial thoughts mainly about Niki Ashton’s solid but disappointing result and what next for radicals who aren’t advocates of a parliamentary road to change but who voted for her.
Originally published by socialistworker. org, August 14, 2017
IT'S GREAT that more people on the U.S. left are embracing a politics of social class. But too many supporters of class politics still argue as if working-class struggle is separate from struggles against sexism, racism and other forms of oppression, or treat struggles against oppression as not all that important.
We can see this in the way some on the left criticize "identity politics." In the wake of Donald Trump's win, Bernie Sanders' call to "go beyond identity politics" got lots of attention. Writing in Jacobin that "Identity politics can only get us so far," Roger Lancaster argues for "an inclusive and universalist socialist program" because of the limits of demands by communities of "marginalized people" "for autonomy or for rights and recognitions."
Similar arguments crop up in other countries too; it's not just a U.S. thing. But it's time for people on the left to stop arguing about "identity politics" in this way.
The first problem is that the meaning of "identity politics" is far from clear.
As Richard Seymour helpfully notes, the right uses the term to mean "any concession whatsoever to the idea that anyone other than white bourgeois men are 'created equal.'" Used this way, it's "part of a whole vocabulary including 'thought police,' 'politically correct,' and 'liberal elites,' whose main intention is to undermine the legitimacy of liberal and left politics," as Linda Burnham argues.
Seymour adds that "a wing of the liberal center" uses "identity politics" "to criticize what they think of as the overly clamorous and over-hasty demands of women, gays, African-Americans, migrants and others for justice."
These meanings propagated in the mainstream media are by far the most influential ways the term is understood. No wonder, then, that some people who experience racism, sexism, heterosexism and other forms of oppression identify "identity politics" with their struggles against the specific ways in which they're harmed.
This is reason enough for people who mean something different than these understandings of "identity politics" to find another way of talking about it. "Identity politics" isn't like "working class" or "socialism"--terms with highly contested meanings that we have to stick with because today we don't have better words to use to communicate these ideas.
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BUT THE problem goes a lot deeper than terminology. Sanders called for Democratic candidates--"Black and white and Latino and gay and male"--with the "guts to stand up to the oligarchy," who will "stand with...working people," who understand how many people's income and life expectancy are declining, and who get that many people can't afford health care and college.
Lancaster is more radical: he praises the "original, radical outlooks" of the Black, women's and gay and lesbian movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, the content of the "inclusive and universalist socialist program" he contrasts with "identity politics" isn't clear. He observes that what "socialist and working-class movements have usually demanded" are such things as "universal health care, free education, public housing, democratic control of the means of production."
What both these lines of argument have in common is the idea that the left should champion a universalist politics instead of "identity politics"--and that universalist politics don't include demands directed specifically against racism, sexism, heterosexism, settler-colonialism and other kinds of oppression.
Action against gender violence, free contraception, free abortion on demand, free public child care, a federal and state jobs program for economically marginalized Black people, permanent resident status for all immigrants, full legal equality for queer and trans people, self-determination for indigenous nations – these and other reforms to weaken oppression are downplayed or sometimes even excluded as "particular" "identity" demands.
This approach "not only presumes that class struggle is some sort of race- and gender-neutral terrain but takes for granted that movements focused on race, gender or sexuality necessarily undermine class unity and, by definition, cannot be emancipatory for the whole," as Robin D.G. Kelley argued 20 years ago.
The history of struggles against oppression disproves those notions. The abolition of slavery in the U.S. inspired organizers for the rights of wage workers and women. "As slaves acted to change things for themselves, horizons broadened for almost everyone," notes David Roediger.
The liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s loosened the grip of ruling-class ideology on U.S. society and influenced some of the broader struggles of workers and students of the time. The May 1 "Day Without Immigrants" protests of Latinx people in 2006 showed that political strike action is possible in the U.S.
Today, Black Lives Matter is encouraging some people who don't experience racism to organize and fight for change. As we saw at Standing Rock, Indigenous land defenders are mounting some of the most effective resistance to capitalist energy industry projects that would make climate change even worse and contaminate water sources.
This history demonstrates that the freedom struggles of the oppressed can advance unity among workers by chipping away at material inequalities and reactionary ideas that divide the class. They've shown other people the power of militant collective action.
They've also inspired some who receive relative advantages because others are oppressed--men, white people, straights--to question our role and join in the struggle, leading us to recognize that perpetuating oppression is wrong and strengthens our enemies, and that these movements are ultimately about our freedom, too, as many of the demands in the platform of the Movement for Black Lives make clear.
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YES, SOCIALISTS need to fight for demands like free education, dramatic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions along with a just transition for workers negatively affected, and single-payer health care in the U.S.
But for socialist politics to be truly universal, they have to do more than advance such demands and link them to a vision of transforming society. We must also propose measures that specifically target different forms of oppression. That's the best way to put the old workers' movement slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" into practice today.
To shy away from such measures because they're unpopular among some of the people we want to organize is to avoid the hard work involved in forging unity in societies in which the working class is deeply divided and oppression is still very real in spite of gains in legal rights and cultural norms.
When carpenters union officials report workers without status to ICE; when many union leaders were on the wrong side at Standing Rock; when many white people act as if people of color are a threat to them; and when cis women and trans people are routinely denied control over their bodies; "race-blind" and "gender-blind" politics won't help us get where we need to go.
Unity built on the foundation of such politics will be fragile and shallow. It will always remain vulnerable to divide-and-conquer tactics used by employers and politicians.
None of this means that a politics whose aspirations for oppressed people don't go much beyond cultural recognition and fair representation in the power structure of neoliberal capitalism aren't a problem. They are, as the records of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton reveal so clearly.
Some supporters of these politics opportunistically use insinuations about Sanders and "Bernie Bros" being supposedly hostile to women and Black people to smear anyone who criticizes the Democratic Party establishment from the left. But attacks on "identity politics" in the name of a "universalism" that underestimates the importance of oppression or that doesn't explicitly take on oppression in every form aren't the way to persuade people swayed by that kind of liberalism to embrace socialist politics.
Dru Oja Jay and Nav Kaur are absolutely right about what left electoral campaigns can sometimes accomplish in terms of education and mobilization. And their caution that there’s an enormous difference between “winning victories in debates” and “facing down international capital” is vital. But should we be working “to turn the NDP into a party that is willing and able to confront capital and win”? I think not.
It does matter who leads the NDP. A win by Niki Ashton would be a blow to the party establishment because, as they note, she’s been the most vocal left critic of the NDP status quo. The emergence of a dynamic new left inside the NDP would be welcome (and should affect the tactics of radicals). But I don’t see either as likely anytime soon, sadly. Political circumstances in Canada today are different in important ways from those that made Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and the Sanders campaign possible.
If we take “getting into a confrontation with capital with a real possibility of winning at least a partial victory — something that can begin to turn the tide” as a strategic goal, then our top priority should be organizing in workplaces and communities and on campuses to build power through collective action.
The reason is simple: it takes a lot of power to win even partial victories. That’s one lesson we should take from the 2012 student movement in Quebec (which made Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, recently elected as a Quebec Solidaire MNA, so popular). That kind of power can only come from disruptive mass mobilization that’s driven by grassroots organizing and becomes infectious, drawing in many people who’ve never before been involved in anything like it.
The $15 and Fairness campaign in Ontario deserves credit for pushing a weak provincial government to boost the minimum wage and improve workers’ rights. But let’s not kid ourselves: to win far-reaching changes will take mightier organizing and mobilizing. Naomi Klein is right: “only mass social movements can save us.”
That’s true whether it’s the NDP or another party that forms the government. I think Dru and Nav’s article really underestimates the obstacles to changing the NDP. The party is highly undemocratic and the people who control it would do all they could to crush a left force that threatened their grip, as they did with the Waffle in 1972.
Even if radicals somehow took over the NDP and the federal NDP formed government, it would be in office, not in power. A left-led NDP government would buckle under the pressure of its enemies — capitalists who’d refuse to invest, top state managers, the pressure of bond and currency markets — as SYRIZA did in Greece in 2015 unless it was driven forward by a powerful social movement that it couldn’t control.
Unfortunately, the forces that understand what kind of struggle will be needed and are working with others to build power are very weak in Canada. How we relate to the NDP (and Quebec Solidaire too) should be shaped by the goals of strengthening these political forces and social movement organizing. We should work towards a political organization of a new type, one that brings together like-minded people (whether they’re members of the NDP or not) to build movements and argue for anti-capitalist politics.
David Camfield is the author of the forthcoming We Can Do Better: Ideas for Changing Society and a member of Solidarity Winnipeg (this article is written in personal capacity).
The University of Manitoba Faculty Association (UMFA) went on strike on November 1 and returned to work with a new contract on November 22. UMFA is the union for around 1200 workers: people classified as professors, most librarians, and instructors (teaching staff whose contracts are open-ended or longer than a year; teachers and librarians hired on short-term contracts are members of CUPE 3909).
Articles on this "archived"/blog format page are also posted on the Writings pages where you will find links to where they were originally published as well as PDF versions.