The means and the ends

May 27, 2009

Will the creation of a new society be shaped by the example we set in our lives today?

AT THE Left Forum in New York City in April, anarchist Harjit Singh Gill spoke on a panel on prefigurative politics (Gill's presentation can be watched on YouTube). He began by quoting a column I wrote for called "Refusing to be ruled over":

Anarchism makes the error of believing that the means to achieving a classless, stateless society must prefigure the end result. Thus, if we want to achieve a society based on free association, without coercion and without bureaucratic centralism, we must build forms of organization today that prefigure the future society.

Mr. Gill followed this up with a comment that drew hearty laughter from the audience:

If you remove the [word] "error," it's the best definition I've ever heard of what I think needs to happen, and how we're actually going to do this. Because I'm like, well, wait--you want to build a bureaucratic, statist system built on coercion to get to one that isn't?

To make his point, Gill noted that parents who want their children to behave in a certain way must be models of that behavior, because as everyone knows, "Do as I say, not as I do" doesn't work very well. "Why would it work any differently in politics?"

According to Gill, the starting point for determining what kind of activity we should engage in must be these questions: What would we like anarchism to look like? What do we want our classless future society to look like? He adds, "We're ultimately trying to build this world we want to see."

To be fair to myself, I wrote more on this question than that:

One does not expect the plow to prefigure the wheat; nor should we expect our methods of organizing to fight for a better world to prefigure or look exactly like the world we plan to achieve. The confusion comes in believing that a new society is established by the example we set by how we live today, whereas in reality, a new society must be built by millions of people engaged in struggle before such a new world can be erected.

Frederick Engels, writing in the late 1870s during a battle in the First International with the followers of anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, criticized the idea that the International should "be the nucleus of the future human society":

Just now, when we have to defend ourselves with all the means at our disposal, the proletariat is told to organize not in accordance with the requirements of the struggle it is daily and hourly compelled to wage, but according to the vague notions of a future society entertained by some dreamers.

Let us try to imagine what our own German organization would look like according to this pattern. Instead of fighting the government and the bourgeoisie, it would meditate on whether each paragraph of our General Rules and each resolution passed by the Congress represented the true image of a future society.

Belief in the absolute freedom of each and every member of the International would lead to reactionary and dangerous results, argued Engels. According to the principle of no hierarchy or authority, the Prussian police could enter the organization in order to wreck it, but any attempt to expel them would amount to authoritarian and hierarchical heresy.

In reading this, I am reminded of Victor Serge's account in Revolution in Danger of the anarchist group in the Russian city of Petrograd in 1919, which found counterrevolutionary White infiltrators in its ranks, intent on blowing them all up, and ended up releasing them. The veteran anarchist who let them go did so because, by Serge's account, he was horrified by the idea that he, who had spent his life in prison fighting authority, would have to imprison or execute anyone else.

"If it had occurred at all frequently," Serge writes, "such magnanimity would have meant the suicide of the revolution." Clearly, in revolution its participants are forced to engage in certain behavior that in no way resembles "the world we want to see."

GILL EXPLAINS that he came to prefigurative politics through John Holloway, author of Change the World Without Taking Power. To get a sense of what Gill and Holloway mean by prefigurative politics, I'll quote Holloway himself:

It has been said that the transition from capitalism to communism, as opposed to the transition from feudalism to capitalism, would not be able to develop in the interstices of the old society; that there was no way in which communism could grow inside the structure of capitalism. This idea was based on the concept of the revolution as a Great Event...

This ignores the fact that the revolution is inconceivable unless what not yet exists already exists, and exists, in contradictory and antagonistic form, in the alternative sociability that is so deeply rooted in the routines of our lives, in the love, in the friendship, in the solidarity, in a million forms of cooperation, in everything that we have learned of what the Zapatistas call Dignity. The elaboration of these embryonic forms of direct sociability constitutes the process of the revolution.

Revolution is, according to Holloway, creating in the "interstices" of the system alternative ways of living and relating to each other. It would be far more pleasant not to have to "deal with capital on capital's own terms" (to quote Holloway again), but sadly, this is impossible. In the end, the capitalist system must be reckoned with, that is challenged, not by piecemeal experiments, but in and through a revolutionary "event."

Such an event doesn't emerge out of nowhere, but comes as the culmination of a series of partial struggles in which workers develop the confidence and consciousness to pose an alternative to the social crises of the system. The solidarity of the working class and the oppressed, born of struggle, is a key component in the success of the struggle, and in the shape of any future society. But this is not the same as seeing "alternative sociability" as a way to resist capitalism.

In the course of class and social struggles, there are definite actions that working-class and social movements must take that do not prefigure the future society. On the most basic level, workers' struggles require some lying and subterfuge toward employers and the state that defends them.

There will be no chance that Wal-Mart will ever be unionized without the ability of workers, for example, to work clandestinely, which must involve lying. The success of the Flint sit-down strike hinged upon creating a decoy that deceived GM management and the police about which plant was about to be occupied. Without this lying and deception, the strike would have failed.

The same holds true for another non-prefigurative means--violence. Flint workers' use of metal hinges and frozen water to defend themselves against police efforts to break their factory occupation had a role in their eventual victory.

Our history is full of examples of workers being forced to defend themselves with whatever weapons were on hand against the armed attacks of company thugs, private guards, police, militia and troops. The same goes for the struggle for racial equality. Leon Trotsky, the Marxist that anarchists love to hate, put it well:

That the aim of socialism is the elimination of force, first in its crudest and bloodiest forms, and then in other more covert ones, is indisputable. But here we are dealing not with the manners and morals of a future communist society, but with the concrete paths and methods of struggle against capitalist force.

When fascists disrupt a strike, seize a newspaper's editorial offices and its safe, and beat up and kill workers' deputies, while the police encircle the thugs with a protective ring, then only the most corrupt hypocrite would advise workers not to reply blow for blow, on the pretext that force would have no place in a communist system.

Obviously, in each particular case, it is necessary to decide, with respect to the whole situation how to answer the enemy's force, and just how far to go in one's retaliation. But that is a matter of tactical expediency which has nothing to do with the acknowledgement or denial of force in principle.

THERE CERTAINLY must be a thread that connects the current struggle with its final goal. For example, an elected strike committee can, in certain circumstances, develop into a mass, democratic organ of control when it unites with other committees and forms a system of workers' councils (as happened in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1919 and Hungary in 1956, among other examples).

And in general, mass struggle helps to create in people the capacity to run society, by building their confidence and breaking down the divisions of racism, sexism and nationalism.

But it would be suicidal to forget that the old order cannot simply be wished away or presented with organizations that prefigure the future society, for such organizations would be incapable of mounting a challenge to capitalism.

For Marxists, the means must lead to the desired end. As such, forms of organization that tend to weaken, divide or treat the working class as a passive stage army are to be rejected. Hence, socialists reject individual terrorism or any acts by small groups that substitute themselves for the mass action of workers themselves. Trotsky put it this way:

When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us, the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the "leaders."

Primarily and irreconcilably, revolutionary morality rejects servility in relation to the bourgeoisie and haughtiness in relation to the toilers--that is, those characteristics in which petty bourgeois pedants and moralists are thoroughly steeped.

There is some contradiction between means and ends in the struggle because we are attempting to move from a society founded on exploitation and violence to one with neither. Therefore, transitional forms of action and organization are necessary that must at least in some way mirror what we are fighting against rather than what we are fighting for.

As Trotsky once noted, to inflict blows on each other's opposing armies must have some symmetry. The end of slavery as a result of the American Civil War was not prefigured by the weaponry of the North, which was almost identical to the weaponry of the South.

That does not mean, of course, that means cannot come to overshadow and defeat the ends they were meant to achieve. Certainly, the plow is necessary to grow wheat. But if the plow is too big and the soil too rough, the wheat may not grow.

If the violence and coercion common to all revolutions is not subordinated to mass institutions of democratic control from below, a revolution can come to grief, as the Russian Revolution showed most clearly. To quote the late British Marxist Tony Cliff, "the plow alone will not produce the wheat." Cliff writes:

The liberation of the working class can be achieved only through the action of the working class. Hence, one can have a revolution with more or less violence, with more or less suppression of civil rights of the bourgeoisie and its hangers-on, with more or less political freedom, but one cannot have a revolution, as the history of Russia conclusively demonstrates, without workers' democracy--even if restricted and distorted.

Socialist advance must be gauged by workers' freedom, by their power to shape their own destiny, and by the material and cultural well-being achieved by the masses.

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