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Marxism, The 21st Century and Social Transformation (Part 2) | Bill

 ArabSpringThis is the second section of  a three-part piece by Bill Fletcher, Jr, reposted from Philosophers for Change. The last post, available here, addressed the current political context and efforts at socialist renewal.  This post addresses: “The Arab democratic uprising and the rise of mass Left radicalism” and “The question of who makes history”


The Arab democratic uprising and the rise of mass Left radicalism

The reshaping of the global Left, and quite possibly global politics, may have been found in the Arab democratic uprising (what some call the “Arab Spring” or Arab Democratic Revolution) that kicked off with the December 2010 rising in Tunisia. Though none of these uprisings can be described as “Left”, at least in traditional terms, and though in some places the Left played a role in the uprisings, e.g., Tunisia, the scale and scope of the uprisings has been so significant so as to send shockwaves around the planet that go beyond the Left.  In effect these uprisings were anti-neo-colonial and objectively anti-neo-liberal.  They were mass and were not religiously inspired (though drew upon various faiths for inspiration).[iii]  And, contrary to many prior risings in the Arab World, they were not coups but rather were mass interventions that in many cases brought normal life to a halt.           


The Arab democratic uprisings altered discussions about politics and resistance, much as did the Paris Commune in 1871.  The Paris Commune took the world by surprise.  It was a mass intervention rather than a coup in the middle of a crisis.  It was popular and democratic, and a rising of the urban poor and disenfranchised.  Both became major sources of inspiration.  And both raised or have raised significant questions regarding the struggle for power.  In the case of the Arab risings, the despairing populations in Europe and later the USA found encouragement in the scale of opposition to tyranny.  While the Arab risings were primarily aimed against authoritarian puppet regimes, the risings that started to spread across Europe (and later the USA in the form of both the Madison, Wisconsin demonstrations of early 2011 and later the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together Movement) were against economic tyranny.


The risings in Europe and the USA, although inspired by the Arab democratic uprising, illustrated the emergence of another, albeit complicated source of Left renewal, something we could define as mass Left radicalism.  “Mass Left radicalism” in this case refers to a phenomenon of non-specific, multi-tendencied radicalism that has a real, though somewhat amorphous popular base.  It is not glued to one or another social movement but it is also not a coherent project.  It is an expression of a progressive undercurrent of opposition to neo-liberal capitalism but it has not translated, at least so far, into a specific political party or force.  It has found expression in massive demonstrations against austerity but also challenges to gentrification in many major cities around the globe.  It has become the voice of the alienated, or at least a portion of the alienated, but is different in its fundamentals from the right-wing populism that has also arisen in the context of the crises facing the capitalist world.           


The manifestations of mass Left radicalism tend to be ambivalent with regard to the objective of state power. In part influenced by both modern anarchism and Zapatatismo, the popular expressions of much of this radicalism have taken the form of open resistance to neo-liberalism and austerity rather than a concerted fight for power.  In fact, there are elements of the Left that contend that fighting for power itself is problematic and that it should not be the objective of a Left project to do so.           


To use a historical reference point, the Paris Commune was an uprising of the Paris working class but it was not an uprising of the French working class.  In other words, the Communards succeeded in gaining control of Paris but they did not launch or catalyze a national revolution (national in the sense of national in scale) though they hoped that others would join their movement. But they did not see themselves as limiting their struggle to Paris alone.           


Both the Zapatista uprising of 1994 in Chiapas, Mexico, but also the Occupy movement — at least in the USA — did not or have not set as objectives the winning of state power.  While one can argue that the Communards in 1871 would have eventually gone for national state power in France, in the case of the Zapatistas and much of Occupy, a conscious decision seems to have been made against such an objective.[iv]  While these movements are all quite different in scale, strategy, etc., they, at least at the time of the writing of this essay, share a sense of resistance framed more in terms of building an alternative to which they wish people to rally rather than articulating an alternative vision in the context of the fight for power.  The Paris Commune, probably due to circumstances, began the creation of a new society while Paris was under siege by the Germans and later by the collaborationist forces of the newly formed Third Republic.  In Chiapas the Zapatistas made the strategic decision to not make a move toward national state power, though they exist in a dual power situation in that state.  The Occupy Movement represented a statement against the toxicity of neo-liberalism.  Its leaders chose to stay away from proclamations and program.           


The difficulty with all efforts that shy away from platforms and the fight for state power is that they actually misdiagnose the nature and objectives of the capitalist ruling bloc and, in so doing, create problems for any Left renewal effort.  The capitalist ruling bloc has no interest in a dual power situation or a situation of gross instability.  If a progressive social movement is not advancing, it will find itself retreating, at least eventually.  So, occupying space, no pun intended, brings with it the inevitable challenge of being encircled by the enemy and the exhaustion of the mass movement.  The Paris Commune could only have succeeded to the extent to which the insurrection spread to other parts of France and, thereby, undermined both the Third Republic and the Germans.  This takes nothing away from the Commune, nor anything away from the Zapatista uprising or the Occupy Movement.  It speaks more to limitations that need to be considered from the standpoint of movement objectives and strategy.


Mass Left radicalism can become a current within which a more coherent Left can emerge.  By “coherent” we mean both organizationally cohesive but also a movement with more clearly defined objectives that focus on power.  That result, however, is not inevitable given the existence of an ideological approach that, as mentioned previously, discounts the notion of the fight for state power.


The question of who makes history

The emergence of the Occupy movement, and similar such phenomena in other parts of the world, is both symptomatic of the crisis of socialism and an attempt at Left renewal.  It is symptomatic in the sense that it speaks to the skepticism regarding political parties and state structures.  The thesis of the Occupy movement, to the extent to which there is a consensual thesis, is that the system is so rotten that progressive and Left forces must reject it and build an alternative.  While the assertion of the rottenness of the capitalist system is certainly correct, the approach that has been advanced by many forces associated with the Occupy movement represents a problematic strategy.


From the standpoint of the radical Left (including, but not limited to anarchists, communists, revolutionary socialists, revolutionary anti-imperialists), the capitalist system is rotten and cannot be fundamentally repaired.  That is a basic truism.  Yet there is a long distance between that assertion or conclusion and the realization of a progressive/revolutionary alternative society.  That distance can only be traversed through the construction of a strategy, program and organization(s) in order to make it happen.          


It is here that a distinction develops, both in theory and practice, between anarchism and revolutionary socialism.  Contained within anarchism is the notion of exemplary action as the cornerstone of all work and the worshipping of the spontaneous movement.  The true revolutionaries, from the standpoint of anarchism, must — through their own behavior and actions — demonstrate the alternative course to which the masses must gravitate.  For revolutionary socialism, while the actions of the organized forces are critical, they are so only and insofar as they unite with the actual experiences, concerns and hopes of masses of the oppressed and dispossessed.  In other words, it is the masses that make history rather than a committed few.  This is where revolutionary socialism and anarchism diverge.  Ideological anarchists[v] tend to privilege the activities of the committed few who, through exemplary action, will inspire the masses forward, as if no preparatory work (including political education) is necessary.


It is true that throughout the 20th century there were those who embraced Marxism though followed paths that were not altogether different from anarchists.  Regardless of their courage and commitment — or the courage or commitment of anarchists — the approach represented by ideological anarchism misses the point regarding change and social transformation.  Change and social transformation must be brought about through mass action and mass intervention.  This means that a critical proportion of the oppressed and dispossessed must not only be inspired by the conscious radical forces but must themselves understand and embrace the change process that they wish to see play out. 


The Stalinist approach to change was to introduce change from above.  It assumed that the revolutionary party was the equivalent of a purist religious sect that held a monopoly on the truth.  The concerns of the masses were always to be interpreted through the Party, thus there was no need for any forms of real mass representation, and certainly no need for alternative political structures that might contest with the Party.       


Anarchists, of course, rejected Stalinist theory and practice, but at the same time fell prey to two problems.  One error was that of spontaneism.  The second was that of exemplary behavior, as mentioned earlier.  The spontaneism of anarchism is a formulation that believes that the masses will come to revolutionary conclusions on their own.  Within this framework organizing and activity is important at the level of campaigns and struggle, but political education and organization, not to mention conscious strategy is ignored if not perceived as a problem.  Spontaneism dovetails with ‘exemplary action’ in that those who hold to the latter believe that through their own actions the masses will rally to the ‘correct’ course.  In neither case do the masses end up making history, however.  In the case of spontaneism, the impact of reactionary culture (depending on the society it could be bourgeois, feudal or pre-feudal) is ignored with respect to its bearing on the consciousness of the oppressed.  Action is given a premium at the expense of theory and consciousness.   


As positive as have been the eruptions in Europe and North America in opposition to the worst features of neo-liberal globalization, they potentially run aground to the extent to which they are influenced by anarchist frameworks.  The massive actions against austerity, for instance, in the absence of a program and strategy for power means that those in action are presumed to have an understanding of what happens if mass demonstrations fail to halt the course of neo-liberalism.  There is no reason that one should believe this to be the case.  Masses of the dispossessed, after demonstrating in their hundreds of thousands and yet seeing the ruling elites pursue reactionary courses, can come to any number of conclusions, not the least being the erroneous conclusion that mass action does not work.  For this reason mass action, theory and strategy must be seen as integral components for a movement for social transformation.  No one component can stand alone.         


To be clear, none of this is aimed at trivializing (or “trashing”) either the Occupy movement or the movements in Europe (and elsewhere) against austerity.  They have been visionary, courageous and audacious!  The challenge, as it was for Marx and Engels in examining the experience of the Paris Commune, is to establish the lessons to be learned, not only in this case from the Occupy and anti-austerity movements, but from responses to the crisis of socialism, and from there to then suggest a path forward.


TO BE CONTINUED next month with a final post on “Refounding the Left”




[iii] It is important to not analyze backwards and look at the rise of Islamist formations in the aftermath of these Arab democratic uprisings as somehow meaning that the uprisings themselves were religious.  The Islamists, often due to on-again/off-again complicity with the tyrannical regimes and the USA, were among the best organized of the forces on the ground.  Thus, even though the uprisings drew upon various political, religious and ideological tendencies, many of these tendencies had been severely repressed over the years and did not have the organizational strength to win mass leadership.  It should also be added that there was an ideological tendency in some of these movements that downplayed the actual need for coherent organization and believed that the mass uprisings would lead themselves.


[iv] To be clear, we are not suggesting that Occupy is a revolutionary movement on the scale of the Paris Commune.  Among other things, it is a movement inspired by radicalism.  Additionally, we are suggesting that there is a certain approach to the entire “power” question contained within much of the Occupy movement that is not dissimilar from interpretations of Zapatismo in much of the global North.


[v] We use the term “ideological anarchists” and “ideological anarchism” to differentiate those whose worldview is or has been shaped by a conscious embrace of the theory and practice of anarchism vs. those who emerge in various mass movements utterly disenchanted with mainstream politics, government and political forces and may spontaneously react against the errors of 20th century socialism.  The former group would be those we would define as “ideological anarchists”.



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Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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