There are three roads to revolution, or rather, three schools of thought on how to achieve it. One strategy, traditionally associated with Marxism-Leninism, is to use a workers’ party to seize State power. I will not have anything further to say about this method. Here I will focus on the Anarchist strategy, and my critique is effectively an open letter to the revolutionary Left, suggesting that they take seriously the plight that our movement is experiencing and update their theory and praxis for modern conditions. With this in mind I suggest that it might be time to abandon the notion of ‘class’ as the central rallying point of the movement, replacing it with a more constructive approach. I will ultimately advocate a reappraisal of the “dual power” strategy in another essay of this series. (Note: I use the term ‘Socialist’ to mean ‘Marxist and Anarchist’. I never intend to refer to so-called market socialists or social democrats, because they do not aim for revolution.)
In the Anarchist strategy, workers and communities engage in struggles to advance their “class interest”, gradually building an organised mass movement that covers all industries until it is powerful enough to stage an insurrectionary general strike, of which the desired outcome is that the capitalists are ousted and the workers take over the economy. This strategy was brought to a successful conclusion in the Spanish Revolution of 1936–39, until it was forcibly crushed by fascism. Strikingly, however, this success has never been repeated since, and conditions - both political and economic - are so different now from how they were in the 1930s that it is worth questioning whether this strategy could ever hope to be successful again. Murray Bookchin certainly didn’t think so, and wrote, in his introduction to Sam Dolgoff’s anthology The Anarchist Collectives: “it is fair to say that the Spanish Revolution marked the end of a century-long era of so-called “proletarian revolutions” which began with the June uprising of the Parisian workers in 1848. The era has passed into history and, in my view, will never again be revived … The era seemed to have collected all its energies, its traditions, and its dreams for its last great confrontation–and thereafter was to disappear”.
At least since Trotsky it was believed that Socialism could not be confined to one country or one region - either it was global or it was nothing. In the twenty-first century the economy is globalised to an unprecedented extent, making the internationalist imperative of Socialism even more relevant than before. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen whether it’s even realistic to expect revolution to break out simultaneously, or at least very quickly, across the entire globe: it’s not impossible to imagine, but even with the advanced worldwide communications networks at our disposal, the workers’ movement right now is shockingly weak and excessively fragmented. Anybody contemplating the traditional Socialist strategies of revolution today probably has to reckon with decades or even centuries of work in rebuilding an international labour movement.
And yet during this long process of recovering our strengths, we can expect to make precisely zero progress towards revolution itself. Why? Because the strategy says that we build the labour movement by advancing our interests under capitalism - the revolutionary activity itself comes later. Revolution is conceived of as a distant and comparatively sudden upheaval, when the united revolutionary working class finally brings capital to a halt and seizes control of the entire economy. Until the time comes when we’re “ready” for this final confrontation, there is essentially nothing we can do except try to improve our lot in the conditions imposed by capital. Necessarily, this means asking for reforms, and reckoning with their precarious and transient nature. In the 1960s and 70s it might have seemed like the working class was again reaching a peak in its strength and potential - surely it wouldn’t be long! But it would seem that capital fought back and won, devastating the movement, and some forty years later, we are not even close to reprising the strength of that labour movement.
The traditional Socialist strategy explicitly sets the goal of a complete transformation of society, but decides not to try actually implementing it, but rather to engage in “bread and butter struggles” indefinitely until the movement has reached a high level of strength at some indeterminate point in the future. We could win twenty struggles and be defeated in fifty, but how far would we be along the road to revolution? Stage zero, the same as always. The Socialist strategy makes a point of distinguishing reform from revolution: reformism is correctly described as being useless, because you can’t solve systemic problems with minor non-systemic tweaking, and any good reforms you make can be undone and reversed so easily. It is correctly observed that capitalism cannot be reformed into a ‘nice’ system, and that only a radical transformation of the political-economic framework of society is good enough if we want a sustainable future that is geared towards meeting the needs of all. And look at what the strategy ironically prescribes! We can mince the words up all we want so that it sounds like “bread and butter struggles” have a “revolutionary” character, but they don’t: the theory demolishes reformism and the strategy proposes exactly that. Engage in reformist activity for an indefinitely long period until you feel “ready” for revolution. Reformism, according to the theory, is an endless cat-and-mouse game where the working class tries to win itself a bigger slice of the cake or a better deal, but the struggles won’t ever stop until there’s a revolution. And yet Socialists, after being trained to believe that capitalism is so awful that only a revolution will fix it, are exhorted to then forget about the revolution and carry on playing cat-and-mouse forever more, because they almost certainly won’t be alive to see the day when the revolution finally pops out of nowhere and fixes everything. This latent defeatism and internal contradiction are probably among the reasons why Socialism is so unpopular. (And we will discover other reasons as the argument progresses.)
Did you hear about the Socialist mountaineers? They spent all their lives training and walking around the valley, hoping that one day they’d be strong enough to take on Mount Everest. Of course, they never actually went anywhere near a mountain. So were they actually mountaineers at all? I’m starting to doubt that any “revolutionary” Socialist group could ever honestly describe itself as revolutionary except for ironic effect.
One of the reasons why the revolution might seem so distant is that many Socialists refuse to talk about what Socialism might be like - that is, after the revolution. Indeed, given the strategy we’ve drawn up, it really is pointless talking about a revolution that’s never going to happen. But this refusal to talk about the post-revolution is not always seen as just a pragmatic element of the strategy, but rather as having some sort of theoretical significance, and a peculiar philosophy has grown up around it, a philosophy which states that “ends cannot be separated from means”, and therefore we can’t talk about the goals of revolution without knowing the precise course of the revolutionary activity as and when it actually happens in the real world in that distant future. As Joseph Kay says, “I believe ends are made of means, and so it is impossible to discuss a future society in isolation from the desired means of getting there”. It’s difficult to know where this strange idea came from. Many people have succeeded in describing what a post-revolutionary society might be like without discussing the route to get there: I’ve done so myself, people like Ursula Le Guin, Edward Bellamy and William Morris have written imaginative accounts, there are more detailed plans in the form of Parecon and Peerconomy; even Joseph Kay, who I just quoted, contributed to a similar endeavour in The Economics of Freedom. So the empirical evidence demolishes the idea that it’s not possible to talk about life after the revolution - it plainly is possible, because people have done so. Why, then, cling to this idea that the post-revolution is off-limits to our imagination?
If we’re building a new house, is it impossible to talk about what the new-build house is going to look like until the bricks are lying there on the plot of land and the builders are all assembled ready for action? On the contrary, people building houses will generally draw a plan of the house in advance, or else the builders won’t know what to do - and this isn’t just a rough plan, leaving the details to the whim of the builders when the day comes, as if you can just tack on a little bedroom according to whatever supplies you happen to have on hand at the time, never mind whether a bed would actually fit in it - no, it’s a detailed, technical drawing with all of the specifics worked out. It might even be accompanied by an artist’s impression or a fully-rendered controllable 3D visualisation. For all kinds of engineering projects, technical drawings and detailed plans are simply essential. Now, a society is far more complex than any engineering task that we are used to facing. It won’t be possible to plan the entire thing with the same level of detail. Nevertheless, production does not happen by magic and it won’t be possible to organise it in a qualitatively different way without having a plan of how to do so, the plan being split up into dozens of smaller plans that deal with each industry and each aspect of life individually, ideally tailored to a particular locality.
Of course, part of what Joseph Kay is talking about is the fact that events involving human actors can be very unpredictable, so that what starts out as a simple protest might escalate into a revolution, or a civil war, or what starts out as a Socialist revolution might turn into a totalitarian nightmare. But if this observation is intended to suggest that a revolution should be left to take its own course in an organic and emergent fashion, then it would be taking a big risk that other forces, like fascism or nationalism, might steer things in the ‘wrong’ direction, or that the people would be unable to feed themselves after taking control of the means of production because of how unprepared they were. On the other hand, if the observation is intended to imply that we should just wait for a revolution to “pop out of nowhere” in the course of some other non-revolutionary events, then this is not a strategy and is about as useless as waiting for God.
Did you hear the one about the Socialist film-makers? They decided they wanted to make a radically creative new film - so they spent the next few decades performing short stage plays, hoping to attract more and more creative people who shared their film-making dream, but not, of course, the drive to actually make one. One day they hoped to be strong and rich enough to make the best film ever. Other film-making crews might have written a script and drawn some storyboards, but not the Socialists! Why bother with a script or storyboards when you’re never going to make a film anyway?
Lying behind all of the criticism I’ve covered so far is a simple distinction between destructive and constructive tactics. We Socialists are a very whiny, complaining lot: we’re against the whole damned system, after all. We see its faults everywhere. We’re constantly complaining about how unfair the world is, about how everything is suffused with endemic corruption and patriarchy and coercion and violence. We are not wrong. But we’re following a strategy in which it is ‘philosophically forbidden’ from talking about what a good world might be like, and a strategy where the only true, sustainable solution - revolution - is little more than a distant futuristic ideal - in practice, anyway, even if there’s so much contradictory rhetoric about how our tactics are supposedly more revolutionary than those “reformists”. And we keep talking about the struggle, and the class war. It’s us and them. It’s workers versus capitalists until the bitter end. What a very masculine way of approaching this ‘emancipatory’ movement. The whole thing is brimming with destructive thinking, with a constant burning hatred against this stupid, unfair system and our endless valiant fight for a better deal. We’re against everything - but what are we for? Nothing. What do we want to build instead? We cannot talk about that because there is too much struggling to do while we build up our numbers and our strength!
Quoting again from Joseph Kay’s side of the debate about Parecon versus libertarian communism, we can see that these sorts of problems are explicitly acknowledged but swept under the carpet: “As the libcom group, we do not spend much time dreaming of the future – our politics are very much oriented to the here and now. Now it is true that having some idea of what a future society could look like can persuade others we’re not just idle dreamers, nihilists who are against everything but don’t know what we’re for. But a fully worked-out vision of the future is not a prerequisite for workers to struggle to advance their concrete material interests”. Evidently, the fact that the strategy lacks constructiveness, might even be for “nihilists”, is seen as just a public image issue. We are nihilists who are against everything, but it’s best if other people don’t see us that way. Well, it’s fine if some people want to be nihilists, but this should not be elevated to the dogmatic level that it has been. As for the workers advancing their “concrete material interests” in the “here and now” - in practice, this means fighting to protect and improve working conditions, to win above-inflation pay rises, reinstate unfairly sacked workers, as well as wider community struggles to defend and improve public services. In other words, it’s cover for the centrality of reformist battles in the strategy. I don’t think it’s unfair to describe these battles as reformist. They don’t lead to revolution, they don’t even challenge the status quo. There’s explicit recognition that trade unions are ‘collaborationist’, but the supposedly ‘revolutionary’ alternative is just reformism done right - it’s doing what trade unions are supposed to be doing but aren’t. Advancing your concrete material interests under capitalism presupposes that capitalism is still there.
As for the defence of the welfare state, it’s hard to ignore the hypocrisy. Félix Rodrigo Mora calls it “state-o-philia”, something he observes “even in radical circles”, where the designation “anti-capitalist” all too often means “pro-state”. Yet according to the theory, both Marxist and Anarchist, the state is an instrument of the ruling class, which exists to defend the interests of capital, and it must be abolished. We must wonder, then, why part of the “revolutionary” strategy, even for Anarchists, sometimes includes defending the welfare state. Doing so is of course in the “concrete material interests” of many people “in the here and now”, because it improves their lot under the conditions imposed by capitalism, but how can we possibly reconcile a movement which is explicitly anti-state in theory, but in practice advocates nothing other than defending the state? The non-working members of the working class have little else to “struggle” for in this strategy except the welfare provided them by the state; few Anarchists believe that something is not important just because it’s not a workplace issue. But right now in Western Europe, the welfare state is being dismantled - obviously in service to capital - and many supposedly ‘radical’ people are doing exactly the opposite of ‘radical’, which is trying to defend the status quo. Trying to keep the state wealthy and powerful so that it can continue to provide ‘welfare’. Because we obviously aren’t capable of providing welfare to each other, based on principles like solidarity, mutual aid, or anything like that.
Joseph Kay again: “For what it’s worth, just because a struggle may not have revolutionary potential does not make it of no interest to libertarian communists. We are interested in advancing our concrete material needs as a class; something like the struggle to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland would fit this category, without ever having revolutionary implications. However, a practice of asserting our class’ concrete material needs in general does, because a society based on human needs is in fundamental contradiction to one based on the endless accumulation of capital.” There are two parts to the argument here: engaging in a reformist battle is said to be revolutionary first because that battle is in our class interest, and second because our class interest is at odds with the interest of capital. Even if both of these assumptions were true, and I will argue that they aren’t, they still would not add up to “revolutionary implications”, because at the beginning and end of every reformist battle, the dominant social order is still intact.
Defending public services, and workers’ rights, and all the rest of it, will probably improve the lives of some groups of people in the short or medium term. But don’t call it revolutionary. It cannot form part of a ‘revolutionary’ strategy. It’s reformist no matter how much lefty rhetoric it’s coated in.
Indeed, being focused on advancing our short-term (“in the here and now”) material interest sounds a lot like the capitalist imperative to “maximise your short-term material interest”, and this is no accident, because Capitalism and Socialism actually share the same rationalist-materialist philosophy which underpins them both. Yes, Karl Marx and Adam Smith would find they have plenty of common ground. Eco-activists are used to encouraging people to look beyond their short-term self-interest and curb their consumption, for the sake of “future generations”. But Socialism (like Capitalism) grew up at a time when most people didn’t understand that human activity could have such devastating effects on the natural world, and yet the doctrine of short-term material interests still persists as though this striking new challenge is just a footnote that scarcely needs to be accommodated, let alone integrated into a theory worthy of the twenty-first century.
So it seems a good idea to look at what is meant by “concrete material interests”. For one thing, unlike in Capitalism, it’s not supposed to mean our individual interests or self-interest; it’s supposed to mean our class interest. This makes a significant difference, because according to the dogma, classes are not actually classes in the logical-mathematical sense where you can put people into one or the other or both. The classes are actually representations of abstract economic relations, labour and capital, and different aspects of life can embody one or the other class depending on the circumstances. This means that it’s easily possible for one person to embody, at different times, both labour and capital: workers who are also shareholders, workers who also rent out property, and arguably anybody who both owns a business and works in it (including the “petit-bourgeoisie”). Therefore, if we were telling people to advance their individual interests in “the here and now”, then lots of people would end up supporting at least some right-wing policies, and the interests of some people would conflict with the interests of others. And this isn’t just a minority of people who are in some kind of grey area.
Here’s a big example that’s frequently overlooked. Which class do authors and other content creators generally embody? Technically, they do not sell their labour power; instead, they use their right of intellectual property over the work they have created to earn royalties, just like a landlord who uses their right of private property to demand rent. If an author sells the film rights to their book, and then earns royalties from the film, they haven’t even contributed any labour - they are accumulating capital through property alone. Of course, intellectual property scarcely even existed in Marx’s time, so it wasn’t talked about. Perhaps Socialists expect such people, like the petit-bourgeoisie, to identify with the working class even if they’re capitalists by definition. For many people in situtions like these, it’s not that their individual interests conflict with their class interest. On the contrary, their individual interests and their class interest are perfectly aligned - with the capitalists. So why should they idenfity with labour at all? Maybe because they think that a libertarian communist society would be nice to live in? Oh, but they’re not allowed to think about that. The same applies if somebody wants to identify with the capitalist class even if they don’t own property but think, or perhaps even know, that they would benefit from doing so. They might be a manager whose working conditions are already impeccable, and they know they’ll get a bonus or a pay rise if they make the company profitable, and they’ll get a tax cut if they vote right-wing. All in their material interest, of course, but apparently not in the interests of “labour”.
Indeed, it’s somewhat bizarre to think that abstract economic relations can have “interests” at all, given that they don’t correspond to groups of people. It’s therefore hard to know how Joseph Kay can decide that legalising abortion in Nothern Ireland is in the interests of “labour” as an abstract class. I rather think this issue has more to do with morality and practicality and nothing to do with abstract economic categories, which is probably the last thing a pro-abortion campaigner is likely to make any reference to. How is this a conflict with capital at all, when it’s actually a conflict with the state? And even if it were a conflict with capital, it’s hard to see how exactly capital is supposed to benefit from abortion being illegal. In Socialist circles it is often said that capital benefits from sexism, racism and other forms of oppression because it divides the working class and so reduces their power. But does this idea really match up to reality?
If a group of oppressed people is “emancipated” so that they can get a job, earn money and become a consumer just like everyone else, this is arguably quite beneficial to capital; it means that the labour force is expanded and more people are able to create surplus value for profit-making companies. Additionally, the work that might previously have been undertaken by housewives or slaves outside of the market economy can now be brought into the market economy. Childcare becomes a paid professionalised service, and all manner of domestic labour-saving devices can be marketed to people who no longer have the time to spend on domestic chores, all of which is a boost to GDP. Islamophobia is not of benefit to capital; on the contrary, banks have introduced Shariah-compliant financial services and other businesses have introduced halal-compliant products to cater for the “Islamic market”. Doing so is good for their profits. It’s similar to how environmentalism has been captured by capitalism, using it to market “eco” and “bio” products. One could easily argue, on behalf of a kind of “liberal capitalism”, that a profit-making company has no business oppressing people on the basis of their gender or sexuality, for example: if the CEO is homosexual, then what does that matter so long as the company is profitable? Meanwhile, racism, sexism and many kinds of prejudice are disturbingly prevalent amongst the working class. In fact, a traditional working class community might be bound together by a complex and conservative code of behaviour that is misogynistic and xenophobic, and it would be in the interest of such a community for its own survival, as a community, to protect these “traditions”. The forces of the free market, meanwhile, want to break down their bonds of community to turn all of them into atomised consumers and individualised wage slaves, equal in the eyes of the market and of the law. Suddenly it’s very hard to identify any “class interest”. Instead of assuming that all kinds of oppression are somehow in capital’s interest, as though it is all tied up in the same grand conspiracy, it seems reasonable to assume that oppression is an independent element of society, something which could easily persist in a post-revolutionary society as well.
It might well be the case that the state, at various times, sees it fit to oppress certain groups in order to solidify its own power, or perhaps just because its agents come from a regressive conservative ideology. This requires us to accept that the state is not solely an instrument of the capitalist class, but a separate actor in society whose primary interest, in all probability, is the consolidation of its own power in the interests of its own survival. Many business owners see the state as a hindrance, since it levies taxes on them and forces them to comply with laws that go against free market principles. But neither would it do to claim that the state is fundamentally on the side of the working class, not least because it upholds private property law. Suggesting that the state therefore embodies both capital and labour, depending on the circumstances, would imply that there is some kind of class struggle going on inside the state itself, which doesn’t seem to be a very useful idea. But if we admit, quite sensibly, that the state is an independent actor and embodies neither capital nor labour, then this has sweeping consequences for what is usually viewed as “class struggle”. Any campaign that involves making a demand of the state, including any demands for social welfare, could no longer be seen as part of the class struggle. Like with liberation struggles, many of these demands don’t have much impact on capital anyway. A demand for free education, for example, is arguably of benefit to capital, because the cost of training workers is transferred from businesses to the state, which is good for their profits. (Of course, it is equally useful to capital if this cost is transferred away from the state and onto workers themselves.)
And what would we make of a battle to defend wages and working conditions for public servants, or anybody whose wage is ultimately paid by the state? The state is not capital, so we could not describe such battles as being part of the “class struggle”. If that’s the case, then perhaps battles to defend wages and working conditions are never part of the “class struggle”, but rather form an entirely independent effort to improve conditions for whichever group is involved in making the demands. Consider the example of charities and non-profit organisations. These employers can hardly be called capitalists, because they do not engage in capital accumulation, but workers might still need to fight for better pay and conditions. Then consider the example of a consumers’ co-operative. In this case, the business is de jure owned by its members, who probably elect the managerial board. The business does not exist for profit; all the profits are reinvested or distributed amongst the members. Therefore it would be very unreasonable to say that the business “embodies capital”. Yet from the point of view of workers, there is still wage labour, and there are still managers who tell them what to do, and a fight to defend or improve their conditions may still be justified. How shall we understand this, then? Quite simply, we need only look to see who has de facto control of the business. In this case, there is a hierarchy between managers and non-managers. That is the source of the conflict, not “class”.
Finally, consider a workers’ co-operative. In this case, the hierarchy between managers and non-managers has been abolished. The business and the means of production are de jure owned by the co-operative and are de facto managed and controlled by the workers themselves, perhaps in a democratic assembly. Profits are again either reinvested or distributed among the workers as they see fit. Nevertheless, wage labour still exists and the workers might well end up imposing lower pay or poorer working conditions on themselves in order to cut costs and prevent the business from closing, if it doesn’t make enough money. To understand what’s going on in this example, Socialists would probably have us believe that the workers “embody” both capital and labour simultaneously, since they all own the business but also have to work in it for their money, and the conflict therefore arises as some kind of internal psychological class struggle, as though the spectre of capital is always haunting their democratic assembly. This seems like a quasi-mystical explanation to me, and the idea that class struggle can happen inside a single person or that a unaninmous democratic decision to impose longer working hours is somehow the result of “conflict” just doesn’t sound very helpful. It seems more reasonable to conclude that these problems are caused by the fact that the business exists in the context of a free market economy, and therefore has to compete with other businesses for its survival. The dynamics set up by a market economy definitely create invisible pressures for a business to behave in ways that few people would freely choose.
We have seen that the working class does not really have any unified class interest. Workers who also own property - such as by holding shares, having copyright, renting out property, running their own business or being part of a co-operative - have the interests of capital for at least some aspects of their lives. And many struggles appear to be class-agnostic (free education, LGBTQ liberation). Similarly, capital doesn’t have a unified “class interest” either. Capitalist businesses have to compete with each other, and this can be an aggressive affair with serious consequences. Companies can be forced to downsize, to leave a particular segment of the market or to close completely. Technology companies build up massive portfolios of intellectual property so that they can initiate lawsuits against other organisations whenever they please. What’s good for one company might not be good for another. What’s more, whole sections of society don’t seem to belong to either of the two postulated classes. The state is the most significant example of this, but it also applies to retired people, children, people in hospital and people in prison: these groups do not have to sell their labour power but neither are they capitalists (in general). So the idea of two classes with fundamentally opposing interests is actually very far from the reality we live in.
To use an insultingly simple example, imagine a worker who buys from a supermarket. The worker benefits by getting what they need. And capital benefits too, because a profit was made. Hardly an irreconcilable conflict of interests. In many developed countries that practise capitalism, you might find it hard to find someone who doesn’t have enough to eat, even if most of the food is provided by profit-making business using a market mechanism. And large numbers of people in such countries live in very comfortable conditions, with a spacious home (even if they don’t own it), clean water and electricity, as well as access to innumerable luxuries like smartphones and games consoles and extravagant foreign holidays. Impressionistically, the idea that capitalism is incapable of meeting people’s needs is simply not true. And people who are not so fortunate to be in the situation just described can see that a luxurious lifestyle might well be in their grasp, without the need to change the rules of society at all. What this means is that appealing solely to material interest, or to the idea that “human needs” cannot be fulfilled under capitalism, is not a very compelling argument, at least not in the developed world. Of course, the problems with capitalism run very deep, and it probably cannot ever hope to provide a fulfilling life to every single person on the planet. These problems relate to systemic, structural features of a market economy. And the problems with our society are not limited to just those problems. As we have seen, the state is an independent agent of oppression, as well as policy negligence, and problems like prejudice, greed, hatred and selfishness, exist indepenently of either capitalism or the state. Attributing all of these problems to a fundamental “conflict of interest” between two imaginary forces just does not hold up to scrutiny. But a positive vision of a new society that is free of all (or even most) of these problems, regardless of their provenance, would seem to be a genuinely useful basis for a revolutionary movement.
We’ve established that “concrete material interests” must be referring not to people’s individual interests, but to the class interests of the abstract category labour. These interests, however, regardless of what they are, cannot involve the revolution. This is because the revolution is supposed to be when class itself is abolished. At the revolution, we can no longer speak of the class interests of labour, because labour as a class ceases to exist. Therefore, if the revolutionary strategy calls for us to advance our class interests, then it must be talking about our class interests under capitalism, and is therefore not revolutionary at all. Of course, we can play with semantics and try to claim that it’s in the interest of the working class to abolish itself, but anybody who can genuinely rally behind such a nihilistic and contradictory idea is living in philosophy fantasy land. The revolutionary part of the strategy is simply this: build a mass movement capable of seizing control of the entire economy and making it work in the interests of all humanity, united and classless. This is what succeeded in the Spanish Revolution of 1936. The fact that this revolution was indeed conceived of as a class conflict is not really problematic. In that time, the idea of class was arguably more useful than it is today, since there was generally a clear division between rich, domineering factory owners and poor subservient factory workers, at least in the newly industrialising cities. Bookchin, in his retrospective on the Spanish Revolution, seems to agree, calling the workers of that time a “classical proletariat”, a class that no longer really exists. Workers, he says, “must break with the hold of bourgeois culture on their sensibilities–specifically, with the hold of the factory, the locus of the workers’ very class existence–before they can move into that supreme form of direct action called “revolution,” and further, construct a society they will directly control in their workshops and communities. This amounts to saying that workers must see themselves as human beings, not as class beings; as creative personalities, not as “proletarians,” as self-affirming individuals, not as “masses.””
The labour movement is weak because the working class doesn’t actually exist. People exist, communities exist, but the class called capital and the class called labour do not: the forces of capital and labour and the interests associated with them are simply too fuzzy and heterogeneous. Today’s Europe, still Socialism’s heartland, and the world in general are indeed radically different, and most people are now wedded to the other definition of ‘class’ which is based on socio-economic indicators (income, education and so on), a concept which is understandably far more useful to them. It’s time to admit that the Socialist concept of ‘class’ is no longer a viable rallying point. If we want to build a mass movement capable of transforming society, why not rally around constructive, positive ideas for solving problems and building a better future, rather than abstract academic concepts that hardly anybody actually believes in anyway?
Anarchists supposedly believe that people are perfectly capable of running society themselves, collectively, without needing owners, managers or state bureaucrats. Ironically, they cling to a strategy in which they are constantly demanding things from precisely these people. Free education! Don’t bother trying to educate yourselves for free: ask the state for it. Free and universal healthcare! Don’t bother setting up your own healthcare services that run the way you want them: ask the state for it. Enough food for all! Don’t bother actually providing enough food for all, why not ask the state to just redistribute the wealth a bit? Less exploitation at work! Don’t bother trying to organise your own productive activities where you can abolish exploitation altogether: ask the capitalists and the state for what you want. Ask them. They’ve got plenty of money. Apparently we are too weak to do it ourselves. We can’t do anything without the state or the capitalists to help us! We’re the working class, after all. We’re completely powerless.
They say they can organise production by themselves, but instead of proving it and doing so, they ask the capitalists if it’s OK with them, knowing that they will say no, and then congratulating themselves on how ‘revolutionary’ their ‘confrontation’ was. Indeed, even the latter part of the strategy involves an insurrectionary general strike. Everyone will walk out and demand that the capitalists give us everything. If we’re that powerful, why, really, do we need to make demands? The great and mighty working class, originators of all the world’s wealth, still does not believe in its own power to make the world!
Joseph Kay thinks that working out how a communist society would function is just a minor activity to win people over, to make it look like we stand for something and know what we want. But most of the time shall be spent working under capitalism, negotiating with it, critiquing it endlessly and complaining about our lot. I would turn this around completely. For me, having a critique of capitalism should be a minor activity just to win people over, to convince them that the system really is as bad as we think it is. But most of the work should be on the solutions and alternatives, different possibilities for organising production, distribution and consumption, experimentation with different models of society, different models of cities and villages, of energy generation and transport; it should be about developing the theory of libertarian communism and putting it into practice, step by step and piece by piece; questions about how to organise a federation, how a community should manage the commons, how resources should be managed and distributed (even before we have full control of them), the best decision-making models for different types and sizes of group, the digital and software tools that can help us to organise ourselves and to organise production, how to grow food and build houses sustainably and so on.
The Left is in crisis. I think that’s a fair assessment of the situation for most parts of the world. If it wants to be relevant again, it has to change. And in updating its theory and its strategy, it might well transpire that the notions of ‘class’ and ‘class struggle’ should be abandoned. If you’re a well-trained Socialist this will sound like heresy. But class is an abstract, academic concept that has no experiential relevance: it corresponds to no group of people nor any tangible thing that exists in the real world. It’s no wonder it’s so frequently misunderstood, no wonder that people cling to a completely different concept of class that has more relevance to them. ‘Class’ is now over-burdening the movement and in my view, it should be sent to Occam’s razor. We shouldn’t critique an idealised model of “capitalism”; we should critique the society that we actually live in, one that is based on various forms of hierarchical control and domination as well as various pernicious effects that are endemic to a market economy. Alienation is then seen not as a consequence of a class relation, but as a direct consequence of these two forces - hierarchy and the market economy. This allows us to have a sensible understanding of co-operatives and other organisations where the relations of property and profit-making are different to the prototypical capitalist business. Without class, I believe we have a more useful basis for a critique of capitalism in its modern form. And if I’m wrong, then this is no great loss if understanding capitalism isn’t our goal anyway. It’s Socialism that we have to understand. And Socialism certainly knows nothing of class.
In my view, the revolutionary Left is weak, practically dead, for a good reason. For one thing, it’s not revolutionary anymore. The task of revolution will now be taken forward by other groups who are more constructive - including the global commons movement and the co-operative movement, amongst others. Constructive revolutionaries don’t believe they have to wait for anybody’s consent in order to live in qualitatively different social, political and economic circumstances. They don’t dwell much on the horrors of this world, which they know would only mire them in depression and helplessness. They move quickly to the good stuff, to the vision, to the solutions, and offer concrete alternatives that can be pursued right now - and certainly within their own lifetime. So let’s do exactly that, and move on to the third strategy for revolution, the “dual power” strategy, where the new world is already being built.