Monday, 24 November 2014

The Age of Neoliberal Austerity: Part 4: Revolutionary Organisation

Picture from RT


In three earlier articles in this series I discussed the economic crisis, neoliberal society, and the new urban uprisings. From each analysis I attempted to draw conclusions relevant to the task of rebuilding revolutionary organisation in the early 21st century.

I decided not to publish an early draft of a fourth article in this series – the one that addressed directly the question, ‘What sort of revolutionary organisation should we be attempting to build in the early 21st century?’

This was a wise decision. My thinking has been radically altered by new experience. I wrote the original articles a year ago, and since then, in company with a group of young activists, I have left the small revolutionary organisation of which I was then a member and become, for the first time in 40 years, a ‘non-aligned socialist’ (something I had always regarded as virtually a contradiction in terms).

We have now begun to experiment with alternative ways of organising; something we could not have done while remaining members of a small, top-down, overly prescriptive Old Left organisation. This experience has not only confirmed, amplified, and clarified earlier conclusions; it has also led to a paradigm shift in my thinking about revolutionary organisation in the early 21st century.

It is time to share these thoughts. They bear upon a vital historical task. We face the greatest crisis in human history and a stark choice between barbarism (war, poverty, and ecological catastrophe) and revolution (by which I mean the overthrow of the rich, the banks, and the corporations, and the transfer of power to a participatory democracy representing the 99%). To be able to exercise this choice, we have to create mass revolutionary organisation; if we do not, the 1% will continue to rule, and they will drive humanity and the planet into the abyss.

This question is too important for tip-toeing around sensitivities; it is necessary to speak plainly. If we are serious about changing the world, we must stare reality in the face.

For 35 years, I have subscribed to something called ‘democratic-centralism’. I now consider ‘democratic-centralism’ (I will retain the inverted commas to indicate that I consider this term/concept to be a shibboleth of the post-war Far Left) little more than a justification for undemocratic, exclusionary, and sometimes abusive top-down practice by largely self-perpetuating and self-selecting leaderships. The effect has been to turn Far Left groups into revolving-doors, their alienating internal regime repelling people as quickly as new ones are recruited.

History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. In the heyday of the Far Left, from the late 60s to the mid 80s, no group ever grew beyond a few thousand members; the air of democracy around the great struggles of the period seems to have been too strong for such organisations to thrive. This was tragedy: the possibility of building mass revolutionary organisation was lost.

Now, when many groups are tiny splinters of 50 or 100, the ‘democratic-centralist’ model has become farce. These splinters, which have virtually zero gravitational pull on activists, no sooner form than they set up oppressive ‘democratic-centralist’ regimes that guarantee they will not grow.

Compounding the farce is the fact that the multiplication of such splinters occurs at a time when a) we face the greatest crisis of the capitalist system in its 250 years of existence, b) record numbers of people appear to think that revolution is needed, and c) there is a broader measure of agreement across the Left than at any time in the last century. The definition of madness is to persist in doing something that has already been shown not to work. By this definition, the Old Left, organised in its multiplicity of tiny sects with their top-down model, is mad.

Evidence of the madness – small size and failure to grow – is rationalised in two ways. First, members are told that ‘the period’ is unfavourable to the growth of revolutionary organisation. Without mass struggle, it is unrealistic to expect revolutionary organisations to grow, and one must patiently await ‘the upturn’ while dutifully recruiting ‘ones and twos’. Second, members are assured that only their group, however small, has the correct ‘line’, and that therefore they are the real revolutionaries; everyone else is some form of ‘sectarian’, or ‘autonomist’, or ‘reformist’, or whatever.

Both of these arguments are bogus. By one critical measure, there has in fact been a very high level of struggle since 1999, when a new era of street protest began. Demonstrations of a hundred thousand used to be once-in-a-decade events, but they have been relatively frequent over the last 15 years. This, of course, is related to the wider radical mood – the general alienation from the system, the state, and the social elite, and the conviction among an exceptionally large minority that revolutionary change is necessary.

In any case, history suggests that revolutionary organisation can often grow very rapidly as an expression of such a mood even in the absence of – perhaps, indeed, as a substitute for – mass struggle.

Consider the experience of the British Communist Party (CP) in the 1930s. Though no longer a revolutionary party, the CP was widely seen as such at the time, and was the natural home for working-class activists who considered themselves revolutionaries. The British CP never achieved the mass membership of its European counterparts; throughout its history it was (and remains) a ‘fringe’ party. Nonetheless, its achievement, in terms of membership, places it in a different category from the whole of the post-war Far Left.

Membership had peaked at 12,000 at the time of the General Strike in 1926. It thereafter collapsed, mainly because of the downturn in struggle due to the defeat of the strike and then the impact of mass unemployment after the 1929 financial crash, hitting a low of fewer than 2,500 members.

But strong united-front work through the dark years of the 1930s – mainly around unemployment, high rents, fascism, and international solidarity – resulted in substantial growth. Party membership was 6,500 in 1935, 11,000 in 1936, and 18,000 in 1939. In the middle of the Second World War, party membership peaked at around 50,000. In other words, the CP became the primary expression of the radicalisation of working-class activists, growing very substantially as a result, even though the level of class struggle, certainly in the workplaces, was relatively low.

As for the argument that one should remain a member of a sect in order to preserve the purity of one’s ‘line’, how ludicrous is that? A sectarian can be defined as someone who places more importance on disagreement than agreement. A serious revolutionary, on the other hand, seeks a political relationship with as many other people as possible, and that means starting with what unites, not what divides. The revolutionary organisation should contain all shades of opinion and provide the main framework for debate about perspective and strategy. That way, we test our ideas in debate, we win people to them if we are right, and we change our own thinking if we are wrong. A revolutionary organisation of 10,000 is likely to be a ferment of debate: this should be welcomed. It is politically pathological to prefer an organisation of 100 characterised by dreary uniformity.

The Jacobins

Let us turn from the sorry state of the British Far Left to some examples of healthy revolutionary organisation. When we review the historical experience, we discover that there is no single all-purpose model. Take the Jacobin Club of the French Revolution.

The Jacobin Club was – as it said on the lid of the tin – a club. Initially, its members were well-heeled revolutionaries who wanted to come together to discuss the great events in which they were active participants. Later, as the more conservative upper-bourgeois members peeled off, the Jacobin Club came to represent the more radical lower-bourgeois revolutionaries, who were in alliance with the democratic popular movement of the sansculottes (essentially the urban petty-bourgeoisie).

The Jacobins became a nationwide mass movement: the Paris mother-club spawned numerous provincial offspring, and these formed a network, linked together by regular correspondence and mutual visits.

As forging-houses of revolutionary ideas, disseminators of revolutionary propaganda, and a nationwide network of revolutionaries, the Jacobin Clubs evolved into a great revolutionary party. To be a Jacobin meant to be a radical revolutionary. Leading Jacobins formed the ruling Committee of Public Safety – the government of France – during the Revolution’s decisive year (1793-1794).

The Jacobin Club was large, diverse, and often deeply divided within itself. Its history is a history of rows and splits. But the arguments, note, took place inside the party.

The Bolsheviks

The modern Far Left shares a common model of the party based on the experience of the Bolshevik Party of 1903-1917 – the only historical example so far of a revolutionary party which has carried out a successful working-class revolution.

The dominant scheme of Bolshevik history goes something like this. Russian Marxism started as a small propaganda group, the Emancipation of Labour Group. Lenin then developed the model of the interventionist revolutionary party, combining theory and practice, propaganda and agitation. On this basis, the membership of the Russian Social-Democratic and Labour Party (as it became) grew first into hundreds, then into a few thousands.

In 1903, however, the Bolsheviks (‘the majority’) split from the Mensheviks (‘the minority’) to form ‘a new type of party’. The Bolshevik Party then grew, mainly in the context of two great upsurges of struggle, as a result of its mix of propaganda, agitation, workplace activity, and the establishment of a socialist paper. It then arrived on the eve of 1917 with the hardened cadre, the organisational infrastructure, and the ideological clarity necessary to play a decisive role in the events about to unfold.

The basic narrative of the Bolshevik Party’s development was recast by the post-war Far Left in conscious opposition to the dominant Social-Democratic and Stalinist traditions of party organisation. This had the effect of fossilising an over-simplified analysis of Bolshevik history in keeping with its polemical purpose. This analysis needs to be radically revised.

Lenin’s party was built in a vast, backward country with primitive communications, in the face of severe police repression. Despite this, when, in the 1905 Revolution, the struggle erupted and the autocracy was reeling, everything changed and Lenin threw himself into an all-out internal struggle against ‘the committee-men’ of the underground party he had created. They were now considered barriers to recruitment, democracy, and spontaneity; barriers to the initiative and energy of the newly radicalised masses. He wanted the doors of the party thrown wide open and the highest levels of internal democracy and debate.

The difference between the Leninist conception of the party in 1903 and that of 1905 could not have been greater. Before the revolution, Lenin had insisted that ‘the leadership of the movement should be entrusted to the smallest possible number of the most homogeneous possible groups of professional revolutionaries with great practical experience’. Two years later he was writing:

Really, I sometimes think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are actually formalists … We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion; all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and boldly … without fearing them. This is a time of war. The youth – students, and still more so the young workers – will decide the issue of the struggle. Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, of respect for rank, and so on. Form hundreds of [party] circles … from among the youth and encourage them to work full-blast… Allow every sub-committee to write and publish leaflets without any red tape (there is no harm if they do make a mistake) … Do not fear their lack of training, do not tremble at their inexperience and lack of development … Only you must be sure to organise, organise, and organise hundreds of circles, completely pushing into the background the customary, well-meant committee (hierarchic) stupidities.

A similar internal struggle erupted at the beginning of the 1917 Revolution, again pitting Lenin against most of the established cadre of the Bolshevik Party. What is absolutely clear from the historical record is this: whenever it was possible to engage in open political activity, Lenin favoured the highest possible level of inner party democracy. I challenge any defender of ‘democratic-centralism’ to substantiate a contrary view.

But we must take this discussion a stage further by posing two questions. First, why was Bolshevik practice relatively ‘undemocratic’ in other periods? And second, during these ‘undemocratic’ phases, what did ‘democratic-centralism’ actually mean?

The answers are surprising for anyone brought up in the post-war Far Left tradition of party organisation. Why on earth would a socialist revolutionary like Lenin want to restrict ‘the leadership of the movement’ to ‘the smallest possible number of the most homogeneous possible groups of professional revolutionaries’? After all, since Marx, we have believed that ‘the emancipation of the working class will be the act of the working class’, and that the socialist revolution – a revolution of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority – will necessarily involve an explosion of collective action and participatory democracy.

There is no evidence that Lenin ever thought differently. All the evidence is that he was seeking to build a Russian equivalent of the German Social-Democratic Party (SDP), which was the model for socialists across Europe at the time. All the evidence is that his every instinct was profoundly democratic.

The party of 1905 and 1917 was the ideal: an open, mass, democratic party. The problem was that Russia was a police state. You cannot build an open, mass, democratic party in a police state. If you allow amateurs (new members) to run an underground party, you will expose it to crippling state repression. Democracy was the ideal, but the exigencies of underground work precluded it. Most of the time, there could be no party conferences or public meetings, no open debates or elections, inside Russia; had there been, the participants would have been rounded up by the Tsarist police.

As for ‘democratic-centralism’, it is not a Leninist term or concept. Had Lenin really created ‘a new type of party’, we can assume, great polemicist that he was, that he would have spelt this out clearly, presumably in the work usually cited as the manual of ‘democratic-centralism’, the pamphlet What Is To Be Done. But in fact, neither the term nor the concept appears here. Instead, a handful of passages, ripped from context and then, over the decades, encrusted with layers of gloss, have been used to create the myth of ‘democratic-centralism’.

The reason What Is To Be Done makes no reference to ‘democratic-centralism’ is twofold. First, Lenin was not a ‘democratic-centralist’, but a democrat. He did not invent, propagate, or practice any such concept as ‘democratic-centralism’. He merely proposed sensible security measures to protect fragile socialist organisation from police repression.

Second, even if Lenin had been a ‘democratic-centralist’, he could not have practised it, since there was no mechanism for imposing the rule of exiled party leaders on a network of small, widely scattered, secretly organised socialist groups, with whom communications were intermittent and highly tenuous. Indeed, any such thing would have been madness, for the leadership was in no position to know how, say, the Baku oil-workers, the Moscow textile-workers, or the Petersburg engineering-workers should best operate in the circumstances confronting them. Any attempt to presume such knowledge from an exile enclave in distant Zurich would, given the intensity of police repression, have been the height of irresponsibility, quite possibly exposing activists to arrest and whole groups to liquidation.

Here is the Bolshevik leader Piatnitsky making this explicit: ‘The initiative of the local party organisations, of the cells, was encouraged. Were the Bolsheviks of Odessa, or Moscow, or Baku, or Tiflis, always to have waited for the directives from the Central Committee, the provincial committees, etc, which during the years of the reaction and of the war frequently did not exist at all owing to arrests, what would have been the result? The Bolsheviks would not have captured the working masses and exercised any influence over them.’

And, of course, when it did become possible to impose a ‘democratic-centralist’ model, Lenin advocated the opposite: as the quote above demonstrates, when the party came into the open, he favoured maximum democracy and declared war on the Bolshevik Old Guard!

The key argument in What Is To Be Done concerns the party paper. Lenin’s argument was that a single organ and an efficient distribution mechanism would have the effect of binding the different branches of the RSDLP into a more coherent, united, and therefore effective organisation. (Note: the RSDLP as a whole, not the Bolshevik faction alone. For, in formal terms, the Bolsheviks remained a faction of the RSDLP, albeit an increasingly dominant one, in conformity with Lenin’s conception of a mass socialist party on the model of the German SDP.)

The whole theory of ‘democratic-centralism’ as expounded and practised by the post-war Far Left – operating legally and openly in the conditions of a liberal parliamentary democracy – appears to have nothing to do with Lenin and the Bolsheviks. 

The International Socialists

The results of the ‘democratic-centralist’ model – in terms of membership and party building – have always been poor. The classic pattern for post-war Far Left groups has been as follows.

A small propaganda group would start with less than a hundred people, usually having split from a larger group on the basis of some sort of ‘deviation’, ‘degeneration’, or ‘betrayal’. The main British Trotskyist groups, for example, can all trace their roots back to the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) of the 1940s.

The more successful groups would then grow slowly through abstract propaganda (the winning of small numbers of people on the basis of large numbers of general ideas). This ‘primitive accumulation of cadre’ might be assisted by spurts of growth associated with large mass movements or particular campaigns and struggles involving the group’s members. In Britain, the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party), the International Marxist Group, the International Socialists (later the Socialist Workers Party), and the Militant (later the Socialist Party) all seem to have reached this stage by the late 1960s, in each case having a membership in the low hundreds. Numerous groups in the rest of Europe also reached this stage at about the same time.

Some groups then made the next leap, becoming what might be described as ‘small mass parties’, with membership in the low thousands and branches in most sizeable towns, having grown mainly through intervention in the mass struggles of 1968-1975 and after. Let us take the experience of the International Socialists (IS) as an example.

During the 1950s, a period shaped by the Second Great Boom and the Cold War, IS was a small propaganda group of less than 100. Between 1960 and 1964, the emergence of CND, the first mass movement in post-war Britain, provided an opportunity for agitation and intervention among a new generation of young activists. Because the Labour Party Young Socialists was a natural home for such activists, IS members were active within it, and IS membership topped 200 for the first time. Agitation and intervention, including some industrial work, allowed IS to double in size again during the first three years of the new Labour Government (1964-1967).

With about 450 members at the beginning of 1968, IS was able to grow dramatically during the Left’s annus mirabilis, ending the year with a thousand members. Between 1968 and 1975, IS ‘turned’ its mainly student and white-collar members towards the organised working class, just as the post-war industrial struggle reached its peak. The membership gains, both quantitative and qualitative, were impressive: from about 900 members in 1970 to 2,350 in 1972, of whom 26% were manual workers and 31% white-collar workers.

Further gains followed, membership apparently hitting 3,900 in 1974 (though Far Left organisations are notorious for exaggerating, often grossly, their own membership figures). This was the year in which a miners’ strike brought down a Tory government. The rest of the decade was one of protracted and convoluted crisis, characterised by mass unemployment, high inflation, attacks on living standards, a Labour government imposing cuts, an employers’ offensive against workplace union organisation, and an upsurge of racism and fascist violence. IS (which became the SWP in 1977) was at the heart of the resistance.

It remained so under the Thatcher government in the 1980s. Though the working class was now very much on the defensive, the space for revolutionary politics was wide. The Bolsheviks had continued to grow during the revolutionary downturn from late 1905 to the end of 1907 (reaching a peak of 45,000 members only at the end of this period). The British Communist Party grew dramatically during the Great Depression (see above). There is good reason for seeing the period from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s as potentially propitious for the growth of revolutionary organisation. Labour was discredited by its record in government, and the new Thatcher government’s determination to smash the unions and the post-war ‘welfare consensus’ triggered a succession of massive class battles, of which the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike and the 1989-1990 Poll Tax Revolt were the most significant. The polarised class politics of the 1980s, with a militant working class bitterly defending its post-war gains, might have produced a stronger revolutionary Left. It did not.

Militant, ensconced inside the Labour Party and dominating some Labour councils, notably Liverpool, gained members, but never enough to break out of the ‘small mass party’ league. The SWP membership figures seem to be disputed. The party may have sustained membership at around 4,000 throughout this period, or it may have dipped in the late 1970s and the early to mid 1980s, only to return to peak level towards the end of the decade. Either way, there was no real breakthrough.

The British pattern was replicated elsewhere. No Trotskyist party has ever become a mass party. None has ever been able to play a role comparable with that of the mass Communist parties in the interwar period. The crisis of the 1970s and the great class battles of the 1980s might have been expected to produce a growth in revolutionary organisation comparable with that of the (by then less-than-revolutionary) CP in the 1930s. It did not.

Equally, the crisis that broke in 2008 – unquestionably comparable with that of the 1930s – might also have been expected to produce such growth. It has not – despite the strong tradition of mass street protest since 1999. These hard realities must be faced.

What is to be done?

I have presented a number of arguments – in this and the previous three articles – which I feel should frame any discussion of revolutionary organisation in the early 21st century. They can be summarised as follows:

1. The contradiction between the scale of the capitalist crisis and the political weakness of the working class is probably greater than at any time in history.

2. The ongoing centralisation and concentration of capital has weakened the state as an independent economic actor, reducing opportunities for social reform, and eroding the effectiveness of parliamentary democracy.

3. While fostering globalisation, financialisation, and growing corporate power, neoliberalism has weakened civil-society institutions, most importantly the trade unions, undermined the tradition of collective provision and social welfare, and engineered a more atomised and privatised social order.

4. The result has been, on the one hand, high levels of alienation, disaffection, and resistance, but, on the other, an erosion of the political and industrial organisation necessary to structure and sustain resistance. One consequence of this is that street protest predominates over industrial action. Another is that protest tends to be spontaneous, explosive, and short-lived.

5. The revolutionary vanguard has been reconfigured by these economic, social, political, and cultural changes. It still includes (in Britain) some tens of thousands of ‘traditional’ left activists rooted in unions, parties, and campaigns. But it also includes a more amorphous, shifting group of ‘new’ activists, mainly young, typically students and/or precarious workers, usually ‘non-aligned’, often suspicious of formal organisation. Indeed, in terms of numbers, this group is potentially much larger than the first. The revolutionary vanguard today is largely formed of radicalised urban youth prepared to come onto the streets.

6. All post-war attempts to build mass revolutionary parties on a ‘democratic-centralist’ model have to be regarded as failures, especially when set against the opportunities for growth represented by the period from 1968 to the late 1980s, and again in the period since 1999, and especially since 2008. This model, in any case, turns out to be a modern myth – not so much a caricature of the theory and practice of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party as a wholesale inversion of its deeply democratic and dynamic character.

We have to return to an earlier, more successful model. The ‘democratic-centralist’ model of revolutionary organisation was developed during the Great Boom (1948-1973) – not, in fact, as the myth has it, during the building of the Bolshevik Party (1903-1917). It seemed to fit a period when revolutionary ideas were marginalised by full employment, rising living-standards, and the expansion of the welfare state; reformism seemed to be working, and relatively few working-class activists could be won to revolutionary politics, at least before 1968.

We live in a very different world. Capitalism is in deep, long-term, intractable crisis. The system is propelling humanity and the planet towards cataclysm. Social Democracy is effectively dead: the Labour Party has been transformed into an alternative party of the corporations and the rich. Millions are alienated from the political and business elite, and hundreds of thousands think revolution necessary.

There is, moreover, a new mood among young activists. After 15 years of mass protest, the state of the world today is worse than ever. Six years into the economic crisis, the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen, and the mass of ordinary people face an ever-mounting burden of low pay, rising prices, and welfare cuts. Things are getting worse, and more quickly.

One-off demonstrations, single-issue campaigns, protest movements that go up like a rocket and down like a stick are no longer enough. The question of organisation has moved to centre-stage. But this does not mean deciding which ‘democratic-centralist’ sect to join; a choice which the great majority of young activists will not take. It means building a mass revolutionary organisation on a broad democratic basis.

The criteria for creating such an organisation are, I would suggest, very simple:

1. An understanding that we confront a single system and a compound crisis of that system, and that to end war, poverty, and climate change, and to create a world of peace, equality, democracy, and sustainability, we need a red-green revolution to overthrow that system.

2. A commitment to creating a broad, inclusive, bottom-up activist organisation, in which alternative perspectives and strategies are argued out and decided democratically, and in which the initiative, creativity, and independence of all members and groups of members are actively fostered.

We need spontaneity and democracy, but we also need organisation. We need the spirit of Occupy, but we also need a network of red-green revolutionary groups that can maintain the momentum and sustain a rising tide of mass protest and mass resistance.

I am a Marxist, a Leninist, and a Trotskyist. It is precisely because of this that I reject the conservatism and pessimism of the Old Left – conservative in upholding a ‘democratic-centralist’ model that has obviously failed, and pessimistic in attributing this failure to society’s lack of revolutionary potential. The Old Left seems no longer to believe, as Lenin did, in ‘the actuality of the revolution’; rather, despite the global crisis and the mass radicalisation, it sees it as something so distant as to be almost unattainable.

We have to break with such conservatism and pessimism, and the false model in which it is rooted, and rediscover an authentic mass revolutionary tradition. We should deliberately set out to build a mass revolutionary organisation, not a sect, and we should understand this to mean the most democratic political organisation imaginable.

A revolutionary organisation is, above all, an amalgam of the most idealistic, the most confident, and the most dynamic of society’s young people. Its primary function is to unleash the transformative political energy they represent. Its end goal is to accumulate the mass forces required to make the red-green revolution we need to save humanity and our planet.

Acknowledgements and Sources

First is the deed. My thinking has been shaped by 30 years in membership of a (relatively) large Far Left organisation and then four years in the leadership of a very small one. I have since broken with that organisation and have been working with others to test alternatives to the failed ‘democratic-centralist’ model.

But while theory without practice is futile, equally, practice without theory is blind. And I must acknowledge one enormous theoretical debt. This is to Lars Lih’s monumental study Lenin Rediscovered: What Is To Be Done in Context (2008). I consider his argument to be unanswerable. I have yet to read any counter-thrust – and there are predictably many – that has succeeded in denting the main argument, let alone demolishing it.

Lars Lih has, in my view, performed a service of immense value to the international Left. He has shown us that the greatest socialist revolutionary in history – the only one to lead a successful working-class revolution – was a democrat, not a ‘democratic-centralist’, and an advocate of mass revolutionary organisation, not of sects led by ‘professional revolutionaries’ who lay down ‘the line’.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Age of Neoliberal Austerity: Part 3: The Urban Uprisings



The first article in this series analysed the world capitalist crisis in the context of the neoliberal counter-revolution of the last 35 years. The second looked at the way in which neoliberalism has transformed society by weakening labour organisation, atomising social experience, and, to some degree, influencing how people think about themselves and their place in the world.

There is much to be gloomy about it in this analysis. I argued that the crisis is deep, permanent, and liable to get much worse, and that the resistance to growing corporate and state power faces an uphill struggle to reconstruct collective organisation and a tradition of unity and solidarity among the oppressed. I concluded, however, by emphasising the waves of mass protest that have broken over the system in the last 15 years, especially since the Great Crash of 2008 and the onset of the Age of Austerity, since when protests have sometimes swelled into large-scale urban uprisings involving hundreds of thousands of people in weeks of mass struggle.

This article considers the new urban uprisings in a little detail, and seeks to set them against the background of the modern neoliberal city.

A new wave of struggle

Istanbul and Rio have now joined Athens, Tunis, Madrid, Cairo, Santiago, and many other modern cities as centres of popular revolt against the neoliberal order. The major uprisings are often mirrored by secondary risings in regional cities – in as many as a hundred across Brazil in June 2013, for example. They also find echoes in more limited sectional revolts – like that of British students in November-December 2010 – and in mass direct-action campaigns – like that of the Occupy Movement of 2011. Capitalism seems to be facing a wave of urban uprisings in its metropolitan heartlands.

These different struggles are not identical in composition, form, and trajectory. Each reflects the history and conjuncture of capitalist development inside a particular country. Many have been cross-class popular mobilisations, not easily classified as specifically working-class revolts. Some have become dominated by right-wing forces and ceased to be in any sense progressive. Ukraine is the obvious example.

But they also have things in common, and many have strong roots in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements that emerged at the beginning of the century. But they have been reconfigured by the 2008 crash, the onset of the depression, and the imposition of austerity programmes. Events have occasionally risen to the heights of revolutionary years like 1848, 1919, 1968, and 1989. This is most obviously true in the Middle East, where entrenched dictatorships have been brought low by revolutionary action. But the Arab Spring clearly forms part of a global pattern: neoliberal regimes are under assault across the world.

The media have dubbed many of the new urban uprisings ‘middle-class revolts’. This is misleading. Mainstream commentators employ definitions of class which reduce it to a list of occupational and lifestyle differences. In fact, class, properly understood, is both an economic process (of exploitation) and a social relationship (of subordination). It is inherently dichotomous, contradictory, and contested.

The majority of the people involved in most of the urban uprisings are working class The millionaires are not facing the water cannon, tear gas, and pepper spray. But if the new urban uprisings involve substantial working-class participation, and if they represent the cutting-edge of modern class struggle, how are we to evaluate them in relation to what many regard as the more ‘traditional’ forms of workers’ struggle represented by strikes and workplace occupations?

The city as arena

The workplace is a primary arena of proletarian struggle. To be powerful at the point of production, workers must have strong sectional organisation, effective networks across and between workplaces, and the confidence that comes from a tradition of successful strikes and solidarity.

In Britain, two periods stand out, that from New Unionism to the General Strike (1889-1926), and that from the end of the Second World War to the Great Miners’ Strike (1945-1985). Britain, moreover, has an exceptionally strong union tradition dating back more than two centuries, with levels of union membership usually far higher than the global average. The workplace has often been more central to the class struggle in Britain because of this.

The long-term global pattern looks rather different. Sometimes struggle in the workplaces spills into the streets. More often, the struggle in the streets triggers revolt in the workplaces. This should cause no surprise.

Even in Britain, the city has been an epicentre of working-class revolt for 200 years. One thinks of Peterloo in 1819, of the great Chartist demonstrations of 1839 and later, of the huge London marches of the mid 1880s that triggered New Unionism, of the mass mobilisations against fascism and unemployment in the 1930s, and of the Poll Tax Revolt of 1989-91.

The relationship between mass demonstrations and general strikes is intimate. It is often the former that trigger the latter. The sequence of events in France in May-June 1968 provides one example: it comprised student demonstrations leading to fierce street battles, then a one-day official general strike and a monster student-worker demonstration, and finally a wave of factory occupations that brought the country to the brink of revolution.

There is ‘something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’ writes Marxist geographer David Harvey. ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ shout protestors confronting police on the streets. From Syntagma to Tahrir to Puerta del Sol to Taksim, young protestors are contesting the state’s authority over urban public spaces. Millions are mobilised in mass occupations of downtown squares and parks.

We need to understand the role of the city in contemporary class struggle. Here are what seem to be three clusters of relevant factors.

A nexus of contradictions

The city is a concentrate of social contradictions. It contains the gargantuan prestige monuments of the state, the steel-and-glass towers of the corporations, and the luxury residences of the elite. Yet in streets often only a short walk away are the terraces of rack-rented flats where young workers live, the high streets full of charity shops, pound-shops, and boarded-up shops of an economy in slump, and the dirty hospitals, run-down schools, and rubbish-strewn streets of a public sector squeezed by austerity cuts. The widening gap between rich and poor, between corporate profit and public squalor, is a physical and social fracture-line drawn across the shared urban space.

What is more, as union organisation weakens on the one hand, and as financialised forms of exploitation in consumption loom larger on the other, the urban working-class community as a whole (as opposed to its separate workplace sections) assumes greater social significance. Struggles against low pay and bullying managers centre on the workplace. Struggles over tax, rent, benefits, public services, and environmental protection necessarily centre on the community.

This partial (and not necessarily permanent) shift in the class struggle’s centre of gravity, from the workplace to the city, reflects growing corporate power – ‘the centralisation and concentration of capital’ discussed in the first article. As economic and political power becomes more remote from everyday experience, the focus – and therefore the locus – of struggle moves from the immediate to the general, from the local to the global, from one’s own workplace to the economic system as a whole.    

A mass of exploited and oppressed

The workplace is inherently sectional. Strong workplace organisation strengthens sectionalism even as it provides a firmer platform for unity and solidarity across the class. The city works the other way round. Urban communities and urban crowds tend to be diverse. Big demonstrations bring together workers from different industries, the organised with the unorganised, the secure with the precarious, the employed with the unemployed, the students with the minorities. Quickly, easily, naturally, the urban crowd can unite the urban working-class as a whole in struggle on the streets.

What is clear, too, is that urban street mobilisation can overcome the weakness of hollowed-out labour organisation. Social media have facilitated the creation of loose networks and rapid mobilisations of otherwise atomised individuals. Then, coming together on the streets, the disparate radicals of the counter-culture discover that they are at the head of a mass movement.

On the streets, too, there is safety in the anonymity of the mass. It is not simply that the unorganised, the precarious, and the unemployed can the fight on the streets. It is also that organised workers who face management intimidation in their workplaces can more easily give expression to their anger in street protest than in strike action. 

A centre of profit and power

The modern city has been created by the labour of workers. Yet control over public spaces is usurped by corporations and the state, and less and less of the city is free of enclosure, control, surveillance, and commodification. This contradiction goes toxic when protest erupts and is met with state repression. A recurring feature of the new urban uprisings is the collision between the democracy of the streets and the violence of the police, a collision sometimes capable of turning protests of thousands into protests of millions in the space of a few days.

The city is a product of human labour, a source of capitalist profit, and a centre of class power. As such, it is vulnerable. Just as strike action can shut down factories, offices, and entire industries, so too can street protest shut down infrastructure, workplaces, and entire cities. The street can close the factories. The urban mass, fully mobilised, can paralyse the city economy.

The workplaces can be shut down by revolt from within; but this requires strong sectional organisation. Or they can be shut down by revolt from without – because they have been engulfed by a city-wide mood of revolt. There are many examples. It may be worth pausing to consider one.

An example from history: the Plug Riots

The Chartist Movement – the first mass working-class movement in history – reached its peak in the campaign for the vote in 1842. A National Charter Association was formed which achieved a membership of 50,000, organised in almost 300 local branches, by the end of 1841. This network – a mix of party and united front – succeeded in collecting 3,315,752 signatures on a People’s ‘Leviathan’ Petition in support of the Six Points of the Chartist Movement: universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by secret ballot, payment of MPs, abolition of the property qualification for MPs, and equal electoral districts.

Presented in May 1842, it was, like its predecessor, rejected. The effect was to trigger a wave of mass strikes that swept across the industrial North between July and September. The strikes were both political protests in support of the Charter and economic protests against wage cuts. But politics and the street led. The strikes took the form of ‘turn-outs’: a procession would form and move from workplace to workplace, pulling out each in turn; the strikers would then draw the plugs from the boilers that powered the steam-engines to let the water drain away (thus the mass strikes of 1842 became known as ‘the Plug Riots’). Once a town or village was solid, the procession of strikers would head off to the next industrial settlement.

One such procession, for example, shut all the textile mills in the Manchester district on Tuesday 11 August, and then dispatched what would later be called ‘flying pickets’ to shut down Preston, Hull, and other industrial cities further afield the following day. One participant reports the success of the strike despite bloody clashes with police and soldiers, claiming that by the third day the Chartists in Manchester had ‘stopped every trade: tailors, cobblers, brushmakers, sweeps, tinkers, carters, masons, builders, colliers, and every other trade. Not a cart is allowed to go through the streets.’

Many mass strikes are built this way. Many revolutions begin with mass demonstrations which turn into mass strikes when the authorities attempt to drive protestors off the streets. Many sectional strikes involve sending out pickets to pull out other workplaces and win solidarity action from other workers. What is clear is that the balance between workplace and street is often a reflection of the relative strength of union organisation; where it is strong, workers typically act through established union structures; where it is weak, the role of the wider urban mass in creating a sense of solidarity and momentum is often critical.

Some British unions seem to be feeling their way to a new conception of trade unionism along these lines. There is growing emphasis in unions like Unite on community unionism, street protest, and alliances with wider forces like the People’s Assembly. There is growing emphasis, too, in unions like the NUT, on lively marches when members go on strike. The implication is an instinctive understanding that, with workplace organisation substantially weakened, the unions cannot stand apart from the wider movement against austerity. In this sense, there is a shift towards a broader, more political, more socially engaged definition of trade unionism – and the forging of practical alliances between what I called in my second article ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ activists.

More on the vanguard

The new urban uprisings represent the latest stage in the development of a global protest movement which has it origins in the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of the last decade. There are national variations, of form and tempo, but a broad pattern has emerged.  

Al-Jazeera reported a Datafolha poll of Brazilian protestors on Monday 17 June 2013. This revealed the following about the protestors: 84% had no party preference, 77% were college graduates, 22% were current students, 53% were under 25, and 71% were on their first ever protest. The issues raised were diverse. What began as local protests over transport fares quickly morphed into protests against waste expenditure on prestige sports facilities, and then, when the state unleashed its riot police, into an explosion of rage against the entire neoliberal order – not just the stark contrast between corporate wealth and public squalor, but state violence, lack of jobs, soaring rents, the democratic deficit, official corruption, environmental degradation, and the deteriorating quality of life in a system driven by profit not need.

What is making the new urban uprisings so explosive is the relative weakness of pressure-gauges and safety-valves in a neoliberal political order where unions are weak and social-democratic parties have become cheerleaders for the corporations. The ruling class cannot measure the rising temperature. The masses have no effective means of redress. The anger accumulates beneath the corporate glitz. Then, when the surface calm breaks, the eruption is violent, anarchic, uncontrollable; there is sometimes no-one to negotiate with and no mechanisms of mediation. Unable to anticipate or respond to mass protest in any other way, the ruling class unleashes a wave of police violence – and pours petrol on the flames of social revolt.

Sometimes the young protestors remain a relatively small minority. They may have mass sympathy, but it does not transform into mass action. The British student revolt of November-December 2010 is an example. Other times the movement broadens and deepens, drawing wider masses into action behind the vanguard, and raising new grievances and demands. The Brazilian protests are a recent example, but the Egyptian protests remain the most powerful so far, turning into full-scale revolution. The trajectory and potential of the new urban uprisings is obvious.

The problem is that protest based on mass demonstrations and urban street-battles lacks the ballast of permanent organisation. Each time, the movement ‘goes up like a rocket and comes down like a stick’.

That is one reason that the unions and ‘traditional’ activists remain central to any strategy for change. The unions are the largest civil-society organisations in existence. They are inherently expressions of working-class unity, solidarity, and resistance. They are still mass-membership organisations and have enormous potential. Traditional activists embedded within them can help provide the infrastructure of permanent organisation for a rising mass movement against the austerity regimes and the neoliberal order.

This is already happening. The unions are organisationally strong, and this has been reflected in the TUC anti-austerity demonstrations, union support for the People’s Assembly, and a series of one-day strikes which have taken the form of mass street protests. This is an important antidote to the weaknesses and dangers inherent in the new activism, the street protests, and the urban uprisings.     

Every popular mass movement faces three basic tasks if it is to advance. They can be summed up in three words: unity, democracy, and clarity. Unity is achieved when the greatest possible social forces are drawn into the struggle together. Democracy requires the creation of forms of popular organisation that can give direct expression to the will of the masses. And clarity of both purpose and direction are necessary to orient the movement, maximise its support, and drive it forwards towards radical change.

To win, a popular mass movement cannot afford to stand still. It must reach out, broaden its base, and draw new forces into the struggle. To do this, it must unite the struggle for democracy in the city with the struggle for social reform among the mass of working people.

History’s finest example remains that of the Bolshevik Party in Russia in 1917. The slogan ‘Peace, Bread, and Land’ crystallised the aims of the revolutionary movement and united the largest possible numbers behind the leadership of the revolutionary vanguard. ‘All Power to the Soviets’ elevated the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils, a great network of direct democracy, into an alternative to the old state apparatus. The October Revolution was the realisation in practice of these two slogans.

The formula – unity, democracy, clarity – is yet to be bettered in the struggle to remake the world.

A minority of street fighters cannot defeat the state. If the mass movement lacks organisation, stability, and strategy, and if it fails to reach out to the working class as a whole, it will be defeated. An isolated vanguard will end up being crushed.

A vanguard is precisely that: the advanced formation of the class that draws the rest into action behind it. An oft-repeated mistake of the past has been to conflate the vanguard and the class. It was a common mistake in the late 1960s. It is the basic mistake of various brands of ‘autonomism’ today. The protestors can win only if they act as a spearhead of mass struggle by the working class as a whole. The imperative is to create a framework that will harness, organise, and channel the anger of an alienated and atomised working-class behind the minority already on the streets.

The revolutionary group/party may be unfashionable, but it is as necessary as ever. The class struggle is characterised by uneven consciousness and fragmented activity. Revolution depends upon raising general consciousness to the level of the vanguard and fusing disparate activity into a single struggle to overthrow the system.

The revolutionary group/party is the mechanism for achieving this. It is the place where the advanced class consciousness of the vanguard is concentrated, where different struggles are linked together, and where theory and practice are united. The party cannot exist in ‘virtual’ form. All human organisation involves people meeting, deciding, and acting together. The combination of democracy and centralism is essential.


Again, as with the first two articles, I want to suggest some conclusions that may be relevant to charting a way ahead for the radical left:

1. The wave of urban uprisings since 2008 – despite their manifold national differences – have important features in common and seem to represent a form of protest which corresponds with: a) the way in which growing corporate and state power has created a generalised resistance to ‘the system’ where economic and political discontents fuse; b) the relative weakening of traditional labour organisation and civil society more generally in the neoliberal era; and c) the democratic deficit and the increasing authoritarianism of the state.

 2. The uprisings also reveal the neoliberal corporate city to be a hot-house of alienation, social extremes, and unmediated contradictions, such that it has become a major arena of the modern class struggle alongside the workplaces, and an arena within which ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ activists can come together in united resistance.

3. Revolutionary organisation needs to be both embedded in the class struggle – in the unions, the movements, and the campaigns – and to project a high level of revolutionary politics. It is where the advanced class consciousness of the vanguard is concentrated, where different struggles are linked together, and where theory and practice are united.

Thanks are due to James Meadway, Alex Snowdon, and Alastair Stephens for specific comments on this series of articles, and to other Counterfire comrades for more general comments that have helped shape my thinking. It will also be apparent that I am indebted to two generations of theorists associated with Monthly Review; their ongoing analysis of capitalist development is, in my view, indispensable. I must also acknowledge a debt to the insights of David Harvey.



Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Age of Neoliberal Austerity: Part 2: The Impact of Neoliberalism

Copyright: John Sturrock/
In the first article in this series, ‘The crisis of the system’, I argued that we face a crisis in the history of humanity, and that it is rooted in growing corporate power, ‘globalisation’, or what Marx called ‘the centralisation and concentration of capital’. I further argued that neoliberal capitalism’s dominant features – financialisation, privatisation, austerity, the race to the bottom, precariatisation, permanent mass unemployment/under-employment, etc – are now integral to the system’s functioning.

A number of conclusions seem to flow from this analysis: that there is a major contradiction between the scale of the crisis and the weakness of working-class political organisation ; that there are no credible ‘middle way’, ‘Keynesian’, or ‘left-reformist’ solutions to the crisis; that financialisation and privatisation have partially reconfigured class exploitation in such a way that the workplace is no longer the sole primary locus of struggle; and that contemporary experience of exploitation, oppression, and disenfranchisement involves numerous, diverse points of collision between rulers and ruled.

Here I want to explore the way in which neoliberalism has remodelled the wider social order.         

The decline of union power

The neoliberal counter-offensive tested in Chile in the mid 1970s, pioneered by the Thatcher government in Britain and the Reagan administration in the United States in the 1980s, and in due course rolled out across the rest of the world, especially after 1989 revolutions, was an attempt to restore profitability and competitiveness by breaking union power, dismantling welfare states, and redistributing wealth from labour to capital.

The bargaining power of workers was undermined by mass unemployment. The size of what Marx called ‘the reserve army of labour’ – the mass of unemployed and workers in various forms of low-paid, insecure, and often part-time employment (what have been dubbed ‘McJobs’) – was restored to the point where it became an effective constraint on the militancy of core unionised workers. The state, above all in Britain, then mounted a series of massive class battles to smash the unions, culminating in the year-long struggle waged by the Thatcher government against the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-1985.

The defeat of the miners weakened organised labour in Britain. The NUM had twice defeated the previous 1970-1974 Tory government in national pay strikes and was widely considered to be the union movement’s strongest battalion. Its defeat, at a time when unemployment had risen above three million, shattered the confidence of organised workers across Britain.

The strike rate is a key measure of the industrial class struggle. The comparative figures make for grim reading.

Average annual strike-days ‘lost’ in Britain by period, 1900-2007

Average annual strike-days (in millions)
Great Unrest
First World War
Post-war upsurge
General Strike
Great Depression
Second World War
Beginning of Great Boom
Middle of Great Boom
End of Great Boom
Heath government
‘Social Contract’
‘Winter of Discontent’
First Thatcher government
Great Miners’ Strike
Third Thatcher government

The sharp fall in confidence and combativeness inside the workplaces represented by the falling strike rate translates into falling union membership. Historically, in the long run at least, union membership tends to track the strike rate: when workers fight, the unions recruit; when they do not, the unions shrink. Union membership has halved in Britain since the 1970s, and the basic reason is not that unions failed to sell enough insurance to their members, but that they failed to make sufficient gains through collective action.

It is important not to exaggerate. Often concessions have been achieved simply through threatening strike action; votes for action in strike ballots have made a difference. Union membership has held up well in the circumstances and the unions remain, by a long distance, the biggest voluntary organisations in British society. They are mass democratic organisations rooted in the working class.

The decline of old industries explains much of the fall. Public-sector unionism remains relatively strong. There has even been some modest recruitment over the last year or two, partly because the unions have taken a lead against austerity – through mass demonstrations and in alliance with other social groups – and partly because workers are seeking a measure of security in union membership. Initiatives like Unite Community indicate the potential for trade unions widening their reach beyond the workplace.

Since the 2008 Crash the unions have repeatedly demonstrated their mobilising power in a series of one-day strikes and mass street protests, with an extraordinary half a million people taking to the streets in March 2011 and, several months later, a national strike involving an unprecedented level of co-ordination. More recently there have been further national strikes, sometimes – as with higher education workers and teachers – involving a degree of co-ordination by different unions.

However, great swathes of modern industry are effectively un-unionised. Only 15% of private-sector workers are in a union, and millions of younger workers have never been union members. The meaning of union membership, moreover, has changed: fewer members now think of it in terms of collective activity in the workplace; many see the union as a provider of individual services and an occasional organiser of token strikes and demonstrations; there is still a substantial layer of workplace union reps, but many spend virtually all their time doing casework.

Britain had one of the strongest labour movements in the world in the early 1970s; the neoliberal counter-revolution was spearheaded in Britain during the 1980s and was driven through with exceptional ruthlessness; and the unions suffered a series of major defeats in set-piece class battles. If events were less polarised and dramatic elsewhere, the underlying trends – sharp falls in the strike rate and union membership – have been similar in many of the more developed capitalist countries.

Two caveats should be entered. One is that austerity has produced explosions of union-led struggle in some places. Greece is an obvious example, with a succession of general strikes. The other is that the trajectory of class struggle in the newly industrialising countries may be significantly different. China is experiencing an epidemic of strikes and other forms of protest that go almost entirely unreported in world media. Several other Asian countries have seen very impressive large-scale strikes in the last few years. But the focus here is on Britain, where many of the characteristics of what might be regarded as ‘classical’ neoliberalism seem to find clear expression. New Labour, for example, is an archetype of a social-liberal party.

Reformism without reforms

Social-democratic (or ‘reformist’) political parties reflect the rise and fall of the industrial struggle in a much less direct way than union membership. Nonetheless, there is a relationship. Strong unions and successful mass strikes tend to move workers to the left, and political parties in which unions and workers are influential tend to get pushed in the same direction.

But reformist parties are highly contradictory. They seek to run the state and manage capitalism, yet at the same time seek votes mainly among the working class. The tension between ‘nation and class’ can become acute in periods of heightened class struggle. When the class struggle diminishes, on the other hand, the balance shifts. The dominant influence on reformism is then that of the ruling class. The state and capital shape the reformist party more than the unions and the workers.

Enough of a difference usually still exists for class to remain the single most important determinant of voting behaviour; and the working-class electoral base continues to be a constraint on the behaviour of politicians. Witness ‘Red Ed’ Miliband’s recent slight tack to the left. And this matters, in that a small gap in mainstream politics can create a big space for debate at the base. But the fact remains that Labourism has shifted ground hugely under the impact of neoliberalism.

During the Second Great Boom (1948-1973), state-managed capitalism and relatively high growth-rates provided reformist governments with the opportunity to combine economic interventionism with spending on infrastructure, public services, and welfare provision. There was space for reform within the system, as well as pressure from below to deliver it.

Under neoliberal capitalism, the opposite has applied. The internationalisation of capital has undermined the capacity of national governments to direct and regulate economic activity; on the contrary, the masters of ‘old capitalism’ in the Global West are locked into a ‘race to the bottom’, competing with low-wage economies in the Global East for investment by multinational banks and conglomerates. At the same time, the decline of union power has removed the primary pressure for reform.

The effect, sustained over an entire generation, has been to turn mainstream reformist parties into pro-neoliberal parties staffed by technocratic career politicians advocating ‘free markets’, privatisation, and corporate power. This decay of the mainstream social-democratic tradition, its growing acceptance of bourgeois ideology, is the essential reason for the hollowing out of parliamentary democracy – the ‘democratic deficit’ – and the widespread disenchantment with, and disengagement from, mainstream politics documented by Ady Cousins in ‘The crisis of the British regime’ (at

The centrality of class

The (closely related) declines in industrial struggle, union membership, and social-democratic politics do not alter in the smallest degree the class character of modern society. Mainstream commentators conflate the political organisation of the working class (what Marx called ‘class for itself’) with the social existence of the working class (‘class in itself’). The former depends upon class-based industrial and political organisation (a subjective matter), the latter upon the socio-economic structure of society (an objective fact). We live in a capitalist class society as surely now as in the 1970s; one in which around 1% form the ruling class, around 20% the solid middle class, and the rest the working class.

On the other hand, there is another kind of confusion on much of the Left: a presumption that working-class struggle necessarily takes the primary form of strong workplace organisation and mass strikes. History suggests otherwise. The power of workers may often be in the workplace; but not necessarily. Sometimes the power of workers is on the streets; sometimes the streets lead and the workplaces follow.

If our historical view is restricted to 1970s Britain, we experience an optical illusion: a form of mass struggle which arose in very specific circumstances is magnified out of proportion. But we may not see these circumstances replicated in our lifetimes. A unique conjuncture at the end of the Second World War made possible the Second Great Boom (see ‘The crisis of the system’). A key factor was an embittered and radicalised working class, millions of them veteran wartime service personnel, who, after ten years of slump and six years of war, were not prepared to take any more shit from their rulers. The pressure for full employment and social reform was, as the more intelligent members of the ruling class at the time realised, irresistible. Fortunately for them, the post-war conjuncture – US dominance, Cold War arms spending, ‘Keynesian’ economic management – made possible the Second Great Boom.

The ‘reserve army of labour’ evaporated during the 1950s and 1960s, when workers found they could leave a job one week and start another the next. Security of employment meant strong unions and rising real wages. The most characteristic form of class struggle became the short, sectional, unofficial (or ‘wildcat’) strike led by shop stewards, directly elected workplace representatives.

The explosion of mass strikes between 1969 and 1985 was a collision between two highly organised class forces. The employers and the state were determined to weaken workplace union organisation in order to drive down wages and restore the rate of profit and the competitiveness of British capitalism. The unions were not only massive, with well over half the working class in membership, but also firm-rooted in strong sectional organisation, with a third of a million shop stewards, developed rank-and-file networks across many industries, and a tried-and-tested tradition of independent workplace action. It cannot be stressed enough that this was a result of the exceptional conditions of the Second Great Boom. We live today in very different times.

The authoritarian state

In the 1980s, under the Thatcher government, both major social classes – the ruling class and the working class – were organisationally and ideologically strong. Today, after a generation of defeats, the working class is organisationally much weaker. The ruling class, on the other hand, is ideologically weak, the political and business elite being more unpopular than at any time since the 1930s, and virtually the whole of its core programme facing deep-rooted hostility.

On the one hand, we have the relative decline of the unions, the long-term rightwards shift of the Labour Party, and the hollowing out of parliamentary democracy. On the other, we have deregulation, financialisation, privatisation, austerity, and the dismantling of the welfare state. A corollary of this contrast is what we might call the ‘authoritarianisation’ of the state.

The core of the state comprises armed bodies of men and women – soldiers who form a military apparatus for projecting imperial power abroad, and police who form a paramilitary apparatus for internal repression. Were the state simply a coercive apparatus, however, it would not long endure. The ruling class are too few, the exploited too many, for stable polities to be based on repression alone. Capitalist class rule always depends upon a mix of coercion and consent (‘force and fraud’).

The balance between the two varies, from regime to regime, and from period to period. Western state-managed capitalism during the Second Great Boom was notable for the consensual character of its politics and policing. The system could afford rising living standards, improved public services, and welfare reforms. Strong unions meant strong social-democratic parties and pressure on the ruling class to negotiate and compromise. Top trade union leaders were frequent visitors to prime ministerial offices. Elaborate arbitration procedures were employed to mediate between employers and workers. Even right-wing party manifestos declared support for economic regulation and progressive taxation. Demonstrations were commonly met by police in soft helmets with linked arms.

All this has changed. The balance has shifted from consent to coercion. Ministers and union leaders rarely meet. Labour parties offer little meaningful reform for working people. A chasm has opened between government policy and popular aspiration. Mainstream politicians have abandoned the rhetoric of social reform and equality in favour of that of the market, privatisation, and ‘incentives’. And demonstrations are met by riot police with batons, tasers, pepper-spray, and tear gas.

This shift is a direct consequence of neoliberalism, financialisation, and the internationalisation of capital. The state can no longer regulate its own national economy; instead, it must offer a range of incentives to attract investment. Power has shifted from the imperial blocs that dominated the world economy up to the 1970s to the giant global banks and multinational conglomerates of neoliberal capitalism.

Mainstream politics has become a froth of lies, spin, and broken promises because the waters beneath are churned by the dynamics of international capital accumulation. Prices must be cut and profits must grow at the expense of wages. Taxes on business must be slashed. ‘Red tape’ (environmental, welfare, and health-and-safety protection) must be reduced. Public services and welfare are unaffordable. Labour must become more ‘flexible’ (precarious) and ‘competitive’ (low paid). All baggage must be shed to increase speed in the global race to the bottom.

Parliamentary democracy is hollow because the nation-state has been disembowelled by international capital. A majority in Britain votes for parties opposed to raising university tuition fees. One of those parties is elected to government and immediately raises them. An overwhelming majority in Britain is opposed to privatisation of the NHS, and no party dare declare this its policy. Yet an elected government passes a bill to privatise the NHS.

The growing gap between aspiration and actuality, between promise and policy, becomes a widely perceived ‘democratic deficit’. The contradiction – to stress the point – is rooted in the shift of economic power from the nation-state to multinational capital. It is therefore insoluble for the system. The collapse of the social-democratic consensus and the increasing authoritarianism of the state are the consequences. Police rule on the streets is simply the contradiction’s most visceral expression.

We also find here an explanation for the growing corruption and cronyism of the system. Union leaders representing millions of workers have no access to ministers, but bankers, bosses, and sundry ‘consultants’ do. Billions are spent on bank bailouts, arms contracts, and subsidies to privatised companies. A ‘revolving door’ moves over-paid politicians who fiddle their expenses into over-paid executive posts that pay eye-watering bonuses for ‘work’ without social purpose. The state becomes a junket at the centre of a vast mesh of zombie banks, vampire conglomerates, and multi-millionaire social parasites. Gargantuan prestige projects – sports stadiums, luxury shopping malls, conference venues, cultural facilities – are merely the most visible symbols of the corrupt state-capital nexus at the heart of the neoliberal order.

The neoliberal state is undemocratic, corrupt, and violent. It has therefore become as much a target of the accumulating anger at the base of society as capital itself. But alienation from the state is only one dimension of a wider alienation from the neoliberal social order as a whole.


Neoliberal capitalism has engineered economic changes which have hollowed out collective institutions and atomised social life. At root, this is a sociological – and, to a significant degree, psychological, cultural, and ideological – artefact of the ongoing ‘centralisation and concentration of capital’ analysed by Marx in Capital (see ‘The crisis of the system’).

The growing size of global corporations means that the main centres of economic power are ever more remote from everyday human experience. There is a pervading sense of disempowerment due to the decoupling of economic control and social existence. There is an irreducibly local aspect to the way in which human beings experience the world. Each of us has a limited geographical range and social network. Improved communications do not alter this in any fundamental way; our lives – work, family, leisure, sex, culture, politics, and so on – still take the primary form of direct human interactions with a relatively small number of others. Yet power is more global and remote than ever before. Possible human action and the historical tasks to be performed seem disconnected.

Marxism allows us to perceive this contradictory reality in a joined-up way, since it is, in its very essence, a holistic way of looking at the world. The phenomenon of disempowerment is best grasped with reference to Marx’s concepts of reification and alienation. Reification is the way in which human relationships and activities are ‘fetishised’ and turned into things. The concept of ‘the market’, conceived as an impersonal force dominating our lives, is an obvious example. Alienation is the corollary of reification at the level of everyday human experience. The reification represented by corporate and state power leaves us feeling detached, powerless, at sea in an ocean of swirling forces we cannot control.

Marx’s theories of reification and alienation are much less discussed than his economic theories. This no doubt reflects the centrality of economics in Marx’s corpus of published work. He devoted himself to understanding the processes of competitive capital accumulation that were beginning to transform the whole of human social experience. He did not have time to develop his ideas about reification and alienation, and they are often treated as little more than sociological descriptions of the human experience of exploitation; they are rarely discussed as dynamic contradictions in their own right.

Yet reification is Marx’s overarching conception of humanity’s entire state of being in class society; his sense of the way in which economic processes and social relationships are transformed into malignant forces of exploitation, oppression, and violence that operate outside any framework of conscious, collective, rational control. Human beings are then alienated precisely because they have lost control over their own creativity and the products of their own collective labour.

As public services are privatised, as education and health are commodified, as ever more routine human interactions are commercialised, the realm of reification expands. As unions, communities, and civic institutions decay, as social life risks being reduced to the separate activity of millions of human atoms, alienation rises.

We are social beings who thrive in free collective work; solidarity is an instinct. But the system hates solidarity because when the many combine the few are threatened. So the drive is always to break up solidarities, to fragment society, to counterpose ‘the individual’, ‘the citizen’, ‘the consumer’ to the idea of a collective. For in isolation there is fear – fear of unemployment, fear of homelessness, fear of unpaid bills, fear of the consequences of answering back. And when there is isolation and fear, bullying at work can become routine, stress turn into an epidemic, and effective resistance dissolve.

Growing reification and alienation, though challenged, are key features of the neoliberal phase of capitalist development. They are reflections of the ongoing centralisation and concentration of capital. Let us explore this in a little more detail.

Centralisation and atomisation

Neoliberalism wears two faces, one turned to the corporations and the state, the other to the masses. On the one hand, corporate and state power becomes more concentrated. On the other, civil society is broken down into its smallest components – the worker, the consumer, the individual, the household, the family – and the existence of each of these components becomes more inward-looking and self-obsessed.

The trend towards a more atomised and privatised lifestyle has been characteristic of capitalist society in the developed world since at least 1945. But until the 1970s, workplace union organisation was an important exception, not least in Britain. That is less true today, and a number of studies have discussed the atomisation and privatisation characteristic of the neoliberal social order.

A recent example is Philip Mirowksi’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2013). His argument is that neoliberalism is not simply an economic theory and a programme for restructuring capital and the state. It has sunk roots into society, seeking to transform social life as a whole and the very way in which individuals think about themselves and their relationships with others. It has sought to destroy any sense of society as a collective, and to replace this with a sense of it as an amalgam of atomised, isolated, vulnerable individuals. Mirowski writes of ‘the rise of the neoliberal agent’ in a world where the distinction between economics, society, politics, and culture have all broken down, and everything has become crystallised into two primary entities, ‘the market’ and the ‘entrepreneurial self’.

This view has limitations and problems, but it is nonetheless important stuff. It is about a mindset linked to alienation from ‘politics’, suspicion of formal organisation, and a generalised tendency to individualise problems, to seek personal solutions, and to remain oblivious to the social character of exploitation and oppression and the consequent need for collective responses. It provides part of the explanation for ‘apathy’; for the fact that so many people seem to be the passive victims of an all-powerful corporate juggernaut, obsessing about consumption, lifestyle, celebrities, and electronic gadgets.

Both of the central features of neoliberalism discussed here – disempowerment and reification in the economic sphere, atomisation and privatisation in the social sphere – feed into what might be described as ‘the retreat from politics’ among self-declared opponents of the system. The sense of powerlessness encourages withdrawal into a personal space which one feels one can control, while the erosion of collective organisation and experience makes this seem a natural, indeed the only conceivable, form of political action. Identity politics, ethical consumerism, online ‘activism’, alternative lifestyles, and one or another variant of moralism are contradictory, but they represent a broad acceptance of the basic neoliberal premise that all life is a matter of individual choice and action.

This is one reason we have a low level of organisation and effective resistance despite a high level of generalised anti-capitalist and anti-war consciousness. Joining organisations to fight the system – unions, parties, campaigns – still happens, but it is no longer an instinct embedded in a long tradition of struggle from below, as it unquestionably was in the 1930s, or even the 1970s.

We have to win the argument that classes exist, that class-based struggle is of primary significance, that class struggle from below is inherently collective, and that effective resistance always requires a high degree of unity, solidarity, and organisation. We have to defeat an ‘autonomist’ argument that is itself a product of neoliberalism.

A loose vanguard?

The starting-point of revolutionary politics is to locate oneself within the minority that is fighting back (always a minority this side of the revolution; when the majority of the class moves into action, we enter a revolutionary crisis). The starting-point, in other words, is to be embedded in some sort of ‘vanguard’ (an unfashionable and problematic term, but possibly still the best we have). Revolutionaries seek influence in the vanguard as a transmission-belt to influence in the class. A revolutionary party is therefore a party of the vanguard. It is a party of activists recruited from among the most class-conscious and combative people in the unions and the movements.

In the past, the vanguard has usually been relatively easy to identify. When there is a high level of class organisation, with strong unions, parties, and campaigns, the vanguard comprises mainly activists operating within and around these more-or-less permanent bodies. The hollowing out of labour and left organisation in the last 30 years or so has reduced the size of this vanguard group.

But the protest movements of the last 15 years have created a new vanguard. Though it overlaps considerably with the first, this second group, which includes many young activists new to political struggle, tends to be less well-defined, more amorphous, more changeable in composition. The Occupy Movement provides an obvious example.

A rough, if perhaps overly simplistic, distinction can therefore be made between ‘traditional’ activists and ‘new’ activists. The vanguard still includes many thousands of ‘traditional’ activists rooted in the unions, the movements, and the left parties. But it also includes thousands of ‘new’ activists, represented by looser groupings like UKUncut, the Occupy Movement, and a wide range of radical single-issue campaigns. A much higher proportion of the vanguard now belongs to the category ‘non-aligned’. This reflects a generation of defeat and retreat for formal labour and left organisation.

The relationship between the two categories is a critical question. Both groups are diverse and there is much overlap: lots of young workers join unions; many older activists are involved in the new campaigns; protests often involve both traditional and new activists. And revolutionaries, naturally, seek to unite the vanguard organisationally as a mechanism for uniting the class in struggle. But first we need clarity about the differences.

The new activism is rooted in the shift from industrial action to street protest as the dominant form of struggle since the end of the 1980s. The Poll Tax Revolt in Britain (1989-1991) may represent a turning-point, since it was a community-based tax strike sustained by direct action and militant street protest, culminating in the biggest clash between demonstrators and police in Central London since the 1930s. It was followed by a massive London demonstration against pit closures in 1992. Then, in 1999, the Seattle ‘Turtles and Teamsters’ demonstration gave birth to the anti-globalisation movement. Since then, across the globe, we have seen street demonstrations on a scale without historic parallel, most famously, of course, on 15 February 2003, when anti-war protests in more than 60 countries involved perhaps 15 million people in total, with up to two million on the streets in London.

The anti-capitalist and anti-war movements – and the wider anti-system mood they reflect – have, since the 2008 crash and the imposition of programmes of austerity, accelerated privatisation, and increased social inequality, spawned a succession of explosive urban uprisings. In the case of the Middle East, of course, these merged with long-standing hatred of corrupt dictatorships and swelled into full-scale revolutions.

The higher the level of class struggle, the deeper the insight into society’s primary fracture-lines. In the third and final article in this series, I will consider the rash of new urban uprisings in a little more detail as we attempt to define the vanguard of the class struggle under modern capitalism.

Again, as with the first article, I want to suggest some tentative conclusions:

1. The traditional distinction between economics and politics in the analysis of class struggle has to a degree broken down. The centralisation of corporate power, the financialisation of class exploitation, the growing authoritarianism of the state, and the profound alienation experienced by millions of people living under the domination of neoliberal capital have had the effect of fusing anger and resistance into a generalised opposition to ‘the system’.

2. At the same time, however, the degradation of civil society, most importantly the weakening of workplace trade unionism, and the partial sundering of the social world into two contrasting poles – corporate and state power on the one hand, the atomised individual on the other – has somewhat disoriented resistance, encouraging many people to think in terms of individual choices rather than collective action.

3. The vanguard from which revolutionary organisation must be built comprises a much reduced pool of ‘traditional’ union and movement activists alongside a large, diffuse, shifting layer of ‘new’ activists. The character of each, and the relationship between the two, must be understood and mediated – if we are to rebuild the revolutionary left.

Thanks are due to James Meadway, Alex Snowdon, and Alastair Stephens for specific comments on this series of articles, and to other Counterfire comrades for more general comments that have helped shape my thinking. It will also be apparent that I am indebted to two generations of theorists associated with Monthly Review; their ongoing analysis of capitalist development is, in my view, indispensable. I must also acknowledge a debt to the insights of David Harvey.

The third article in this series will explore the character of the new urban uprisings as exemplars of contemporary class struggle.