A new kind of anti-capitalism?

March 7, 2012

Shaun Harkin reviews a book that champions the "new" anti-capitalist movement.

FIRST PUBLISHED in Argentina, Anti-Capitalism: The New Generation of Emancipatory Movements aims to be an accessible guide to understanding what capitalism is, why the "traditional left" failed, and the content, strategies and goals of the new "anti-capitalist" movement.

This book aims to be an introduction to ideas that can be termed broadly as "horizontalism." But its fatal flaw is its harsh and inaccurate caricature of Marxism and revolutionary socialism. Unfortunately, these caricatures are the foundation for the vast majority of the wrongheaded "new" ideas and strategies presented in the book.

The author, Ezequiel Adamovsky, a Buenos Aires-based activist and writer, lists an extremely broad range of what he considers "anti-capitalist" currents over the last 200 years: utopian socialists, revolutionary syndicalism, anarchism, Marxism-Leninism-Trotskyism-Maoism, national liberation movements, socialist feminism, peasant movements, autonomism, Guevarism, radical ecology, the Zapatistas and the global resistance movement.

Global justice demonstrators march against the WTO in Seattle
Global justice demonstrators march against the WTO in Seattle

Rightly, Adamovsky argues that to understand anti-capitalism, you need to understand capitalism. With the help of illustrations, he argues that capitalism, broadly speaking, is a system based on class division and oppression. Because it is based on exploitation and oppression, resistance is capitalism's "inherent crisis." As Karl Marx pointed out, class struggle is the motor of history.

The first half of Adamovsky's book deals with capitalism's origins, debates between Marx and the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin on the role of the state, how the "dominant class" uses ideology to rule, and a history of resistance to capitalism.

To explain the rise of the "new anti-capitalism," Adamovsky argues that the projects of communism, social democracy and national liberation flowing from the socialist movement all failed, and merely replaced one form of class society with another.

According to Adamovsky, the new movement against global capitalism began after the collapse of communism in 1991, the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Mexico and the 1999 "Battle in Seattle" protests against globalization. These new movements, he argues, exploded the idea that we had reached "an end of history" where there would no longer be an alternative to capitalism.

Review: Books

Ezequiel Adamovsky, Anti-Capitalism: The New Generation of Emancipatory Movements. Seven Stories Press, 2011, 176 pages, $14.95.

Adamovsky outlines "10 differences between the traditional left and new anti-capitalism." They are: a rejection of "taking power"; building autonomous spaces to "crack" capitalism apart; the belief that "revolution is today" and not a "future we must wait for"; the commitment to "horizontal" rather than "hierarchical" forms of organization; the creation of network structures to overcome the challenges to autonomy and horizontalism; a focus on multiple revolutionary forces in society over the working class; political action tailored for each situation; a globalized struggle because of the hopelessness of change within the national arena; a commitment to direct action and civil disobedience; and, finally, an emphasis on "creativity and happiness" in contrast to the traditional left's "culture of war."

EACH OF these "differences" need to be dealt with individually, but all are founded on a series of caricatures and misrepresentations of the "traditional left."

First, it's obvious that "communism" as it supposedly existed in the Soviet Union and is still claimed in North Korea, Cuba and China today has nothing to do with human liberation and equality.

Similarly, social democracy failed because capitalism can't be legislated gradually out of existence through reforms by well-meaning politicians. National liberation struggles did succeed in breaking the grip of imperial powers, but in all cases, their "socialism" was top-down, state-planned economic development, and never about control of society from below by the exploited and oppressed.

Adamovsky describes the Russian Revolution as the first anti-capitalist revolution:

[T]he soviets were the most important institution that would emerge from the Russian Revolution. The soviets were councils in which workers, peasants, soldiers and other groups participated. Through debate and democratic structure, these councils made the most important decisions during the revolution and afterward.

He explains that the Bolsheviks "gained support from the majority of sectors struggling for revolution," and "[w]ith the new regime, the revolution made a series of radical measures in the creation of a communist society."

But when he goes on to give his interpretation of how Russia's socialist project degenerated, Adamovsky writes that the new government used an emergency situation to "renounce the achievements of the revolution." He offers no explanation as to what the "emergency situation" might have been.

There is no mention of the conditions that Russia's revolutionaries faced--a ruined economy and scarcity of resources, foreign invasion, sabotage of production, the terrorism of the counterrevolution, the exhaustion of Russia's revolutionary working class, civil war and, ultimately, the international isolation of the revolution.

The method of the Bolshevik Party is presented as follows: "The party is the vanguard that leads the proletariat. We need a strongly centralized party of professional revolutionaries, directed by a handful of 'strong minds.' Only workers with a highly developed class consciousness will be able to join the party."

Adamovksy then claims, "In the 'democratic centralism' that Lenin imagined, the Party bases would have the right to choose their leaders, albeit indirectly. But then, all members would have to accept the party line that they 'imposed.'"

None of this has anything to do with the actual party that Lenin and the members of the Bolsheviks spent many years building. Adamovsky's separation of the leaders and the led and his claims about the line being "imposed" make it sound like the Bolshevik rank and file were sheep--something that anyone who has read anything about the Russian Revolution will know to be rubbish.

But all this is part of Adamovsky's case that the failure of the Russian Revolution is the result of the dominance of a top-down elitist organization. Yet he offers no explanation as to why the Bolsheviks gained mass support and the played such a key role in the successful anti-capitalist revolution of October 1917.

From the history of Russia, Adamovsky draws a few simple conclusions: Trust no one, power corrupts, and organization and leadership should be viewed with suspicion or outright hostility.

Anyone who is serious about revolution today--and many more people are--needs to know much more about the Russian Revolution. Reading Leon Trotsky, Victor Serge, John Reed, Tony Cliff, Ernest Mandel, Chris Harman, Marcel Liebman, Alexander Rabinowitch, Duncan Hallas and Paul Le Blanc will help you understand why the working class was victorious in October 1917, the indispensable role played by the Bolshevik Party, and the conditions which gave rise to a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin.

THIS REVIEW can't deal with all the "new ideas" that Adamovsky presents, but here are a few observations. In fact, many of the "new ideas" Adamovsky presents aren't new at all, but are lifted from the more developed theories of Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, John Holloway, John Jordan, Subcomandante Marcos and Michel Foucault.

On "not taking power," Adamovsky argues, "Power doesn't have a center." This is nonsense. Ruling classes are built around power centers. They control wealth, the means of production, the state, the army and the judicial system, and they dominate all sorts of powerful institutions shape our society and regulate what we think. Ruling classes use their power to fight for their interests through economic competition, war, government policy and more.

To confront this power of the tiny minority and to construct a society based on solidarity, democratic planning, dignity and cooperation, the vast majority must collectively "seize the power" currently held by the ruling class. This means collective control over our workplaces where all wealth is produced, getting rid of the machinery of the capitalist state and creating new democratic institutions of collective power--like workers councils to represent the interests of the vast majority.

If this is what a revolution would look like, then talking about "revolution is today" and "not waiting for revolution in the future" makes no sense. A revolution is a monumental event involving millions of people, decades in the making and prepared for by revolutionaries for just as many years. For a revolution to take place, there must be a confluence of objective and subjective factors and actors, spontaneity and tremendous levels of conscious participation.

Adamovsky and his co-thinkers believe capitalism can be "cracked" through the creation of liberated zones or autonomous spaces. However, creating a "liberated co-op" is hardly as significant a revolutionary act as 8 million people participating in the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

The dismantling of the Occupy movement's encampments in a coordinated assault by the U.S. state this winter demonstrates how limited Adamovksy's approach is. Ruling classes will try to use the iron fist of the state to "crack" any spaces, zones and movements that threaten its power.

This isn't an argument against the creation of working-class institutions, spaces and organizations that help facilitate the development of movements and struggles. But that is different from thinking the state will ignore our side because we choose to ignore them.

THE LAST issue this review will deal with is Adamovsky's rejection of the working class as the central agent of revolutionary change. He argues instead that there are a "multiplicity" of revolutionary actors, and that no one form of resistance is more important than any other.

The argument here is common to other similar theorists, like Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt--namely, that the transformation of capitalism has displaced the working class from its strategic position as, in Marx's words, the "gravediggers" of capitalism because of their centrality to production and their role in the economy.

Adamovksy's argument is based on the idea that the traditional industrial working class has declined in developed countries. This is true, though not nearly to the extent that people like Adamovksy believe. But the working class still accounts for the vast majority of the population--because class isn't defined by occupation but by one's relation to production. If you have a boss and depend on a paycheck, you are likely part of the working class.

Neoliberalism has created a new world division of labor, but it's a myth that there are no industrial jobs and production in the U.S. and Germany. And with the growth of developing economies such as China, India, Indonesia and elsewhere, the size of the global working class is now estimated to be between 2.5 and 3 billion.

There are multiple forms of resistance to capitalism and oppression. They are part of a revolutionary process, and we should stand in solidarity with them. However, class solidarity has the potential to unite the vast majority on a national and international basis.

Ultimately, what gives the working class the power to change the world is its ability to withhold labor. By doing this collectively, we can paralyze production. This is working class power, and it's a very different kind of resistance to staying in bed, changing jobs or getting a degree. This collective action is a precondition for collective democratic control over society.

If you agree with Karl Marx that the working class has the power to transform society, then you have to reject the conclusions, strategies and tactics that Adamovsky proposes and celebrates.

If you agree with Marx, the starting point is organizing with the goal of strengthening the capacity of the working class to fight for self-emancipation--for example, supporting locked-out workers, organizing against police brutality to challenge racism, campaigning to keep schools open, building solidarity with strikes, organizing a union in your workplace, or building a mass movement for LGBT equality.

What's central to this is helping to forge a revolutionary organization made up of the most dedicated working class militants, who know the lessons of working-class struggle and have been trained through participation to lead effectively in any battle.

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