Another World is Possible – But How Can We Get There?

This is the text of a presentation given by a MACG member during a debate on the class struggle approach to Anarchism held at the Melbourne Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 8 August 2015. It was delivered almost verbatim.

Thanks. I’m going to take it for granted that we want an Anarchist society – one where capitalism and the State have been abolished, where all forms of social oppression are eradicated and the human race lives sustainably and in harmony with the Earth. What we’re debating here is how to get there – the path from present day capitalism to an Anarchist society.

The traditional Anarchist view of the route to an Anarchist society is through a workers’ revolution, which occurs as the culmination of a progressively intensifying phase of class struggle. This is the position I support. I think workers’ revolution is both possible and necessary, for reasons I will go on to elaborate.

First of all, though, I’d like to clear up the concept of class, since it is often a source of great confusion. The working class is composed of those with nothing to sell except their labour. You don’t have to work in a factory to be working class, or even to have a job at all. You don’t have to be a white, heterosexual male, either.

Now, I’m going to read out a list of categories of people. See if you’re in any of them:

* Your main source of income is interest, rent and/or dividends;

* You own a business and work inside it for your main income, regardless of whether you employ anybody else. It doesn’t count if the so-called “business” is the supply of your own labour to a single employer that supervises your actions as it would an employee and is only doing it to avoid taxation and/or industrial relations laws;

* You are a manager in the public or private sector with the right to hire and fire;

* You are a copper, a prison warder, a military officer or member of the security services (e.g. ASIO);

* You are a Member of Parliament or a local government Councillor, or a judge, magistrate or person with similar powers (e.g. member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal).

* You are employed by a trade union, political party or NGO as an organiser or office bearer.

* You are reasonably confident that, in the next five or ten years, you will be in one of the above categories. It doesn’t count if you’re just hoping or if you’ll need a bit of luck for it to come off;

* You stand to inherit, whether from a spouse, parent or otherwise, millions of dollars over and above a house to live in.

If you’re in one of those categories, can you put your hand up? You don’t have to say which one it is, because there are some it may be embarrassing to admit to being a member of. OK. Everyone who didn’t put their hand up is a member of the working class. You have an objective interest in getting rid of capitalism, over and above any ethical commitment you may have. Those of you who did put your hand up, you can still join the struggle as an ally, provided you have the ethical commitment to do so. You’re just not in the same position to have an impact.

So, what’s important about the working class? As we’ve just shown, it comprises the vast majority of society. You can’t change society without having at least a majority of the working class on your side and, if you want a revolution, the vast majority. Second, it is the experience of co-operation in the capitalist workplace that provides the experience that is necessary to co-operate in the class struggle. Solidarity in the struggle is based on the solidarity learnt in production. This is fundamentally different from the experience of small business traders or of peasant farm-owners in the Third World.

Many people point to the large numbers of workers who hold reactionary, Right wing ideas and conclude that this makes workers’ revolution impossible. All this proves, however, is that we haven’t had a revolution yet. It’s true that many workers are sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic or hold to other oppressive ideas. The key is to realise that class struggle is the way to overcome them. The classic case is the Great Miners’ Strike in Britain, where the consciousness of miners and the rest of the mining communities achieved advances in a year that took the working class in the big cities a generation. I’ll come back to this role of class struggle later.

The decisive arena of struggle in capitalist society is the workplace. This is because the workplace is where the capitalists derive their power. Therefore, to take this power off them, the workers need to organise in the workplace to take the power themselves. There are other important arenas for struggle, but they are secondary. If we leave the workplace to the capitalists, we hand over the resources of the entire economy to them.

Other strategies

It should be noted here that the unemployed and most students are working class, but they have virtually no social power. Students will achieve far less by withholding their study than they would through withholding the labour of flipping burgers and waiting on tables that they do to support themselves while studying. In the Third World, the peasantry are, almost everywhere, thoroughly integrated into and subordinated by the global capitalist market. They can mount no systemic challenge. While the Zapatistas are an inspiration, their struggle hasn’t been able to spread beyond the Chiapas and won’t do so. The decisive levers of power are in the cities and can only be reached by the working class.

Insurrectionism is an approach to Anarchism that Anarchist Communists like me reject unequivocally. Insurrectionists often have a good class analysis, but they only use it to identify who is on what side – i.e. who they’ll throw rocks at and who they won’t. They never use their class analysis as a guide to deciding how to act, how to struggle. Insurrectionism takes on the State at its strongest point, its armed wing. Except in some passages of high-flown rhetoric, it substitutes the militancy of a small minority for the self-organising activity of the class as a whole. Taken to its logical conclusion (which it was by some in the 1970s in some countries), it leads to guerrilla warfare, which is a recipe for bloody defeat.

Parliamentary reformism is another dead end, though I don’t expect many adherents here. The record of reformist political parties should be enough to show that this doesn’t work, but there are two deeper reasons for concluding that Parliamentary reformism can’t work. The first is that this is an inherently national form of struggle, based on capturing the machinery of the nation State. In the era of neo-liberal globalisation, there is no possibility of using that State for substantive reforms, let alone the abolition of capitalism. As the recent experience of Syriza in Greece has shown, winning government is merely a way of putting yourself in the position of imposing brutal attacks on the working class that voted you into office. You don’t have a choice to do anything else.

The other reason it can’t work is that it bypasses the class struggle that is essential to burning out the Right wing prejudices that infect the working class and divide it against itself. Only the process of class struggle, escalating to the point of revolution, can build the iron solidarity which is necessary to found society anew on libertarian and co-operative lines. Workers will transcend greed and selfishness by the act of revolution and thereby allow society to operate upon new principles.

The Simpler Way

Now let me turn to the politics of Ted Trainer, whose position [name deleted] here largely defends. Ted posits that capitalism must be abolished and a radically non-authoritarian society established, but rejects class struggle. Instead, he wants people to turn away from the system and build sustainable alternatives. He sees that the State and the capitalist system it defends will collapse from people withdrawing from under it, in a situation aggravated by resource scarcity and environmental collapse.

The first thing that must be said about Ted’s strategy is that it is remarkably similar to that of the Utopian Socialists who flourished in the first half of the 19th Century. It especially makes me think of Charles Fourier, one of the most libertarian of them. The difference is the environment in which Ted Trainer thinks the movement will grow. The old Utopian Socialists weren’t expecting resource scarcity or limits to growth.

The second thing to say is that Ted is over-egging the pudding somewhat when it comes to the sort of ecological limits within which humanity has to operate. The abolition of capitalism will enable the abolition of large sectors of the economy, which exist solely to maintain the current distribution of wealth and power. Advertising, finance, real estate, insurance, the military and the State bureaucracy can be abolished at a stroke, thus saving all the resources devoted to them and allowing an immediate reduction in the working week through the reallocation of labour that entails. And that’s only the start.

In addition, high quality goods that are made to last can replace the shoddy ones that prevail today. Hands up everyone who’s sick of kettles and toasters that break down as soon as the warranty expires.

And the last part of Ted’s over-egging is energy. We will have a budget of renewable energy within which to work, but it will be relatively generous. Wind farms and solar power can be backed up by hydro-electricity to provide a substantial amount of energy, perhaps as much as currently generated today.

Altogether then, it will be possible to reduce resource consumption greatly, even as Third World living standards are considerably increased. We can dispense with private jets and dune buggies, but everyone deserves modern health care and clean hot and cold running water.

The final thing to say about Ted Trainer’s strategy is that it can’t work. It won’t get to where he wants to go. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, property. Resources in a capitalist society are owned by capitalists or the State. This counts especially for land, which is crucial to Ted’s vision. The working class was created by the enclosure of the commons and the State maintains the enclosures. If you want those resources, and we definitely need them, we have to fight for them. And secondly, I return once more to the necessity for class struggle. Without class struggle, only tiny minorities will become interested in ideas of transcending this society. To get the mass of the population on board (i.e. the working class), it is necessary for workers to learn the lessons through the struggle for their own interests. Without that, most workers, and therefore most people, will remain committed to some form of capitalism. It is only in the crucible of class struggle that the human race can forge and become committed to the vision of a new society.

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