David Jamieson speaks to political commentator John Rees about mass movements, the modern world and the tasks of the left today.
John Rees is an activist, broadcaster and the author of numerous books including Imperialism and Resistance and the recently published Timelines: A Political History of the ModernWorld. He was a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition (UK) and is vice-president of the International Campaign Against US Aggression founded in Cairo in 2002. He is a member of the editorial board of Counterfire.
DJ: What, in essence, is the age of mass movements?
JR: It is simply a description of the pattern of class struggle since the turning point of the anti-capitalist demonstrations on Seattle in 1999. Since then the pattern of mobilisation has involved mass street protest as a central feature of radical politics, most strikingly in response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but not exclusively so. Similar mobilisations have repeatedly taken place over economic issues, originally in the anti-capitalist movement and more recently in response to the recession. Similar characteristics can be seen in the student movement that erupted in the UK in 2010.
Of course these have not been the only form of the class struggle. There have been strikes, though mainly in the west single day mass strikes dependent on calls from the trade union bureaucracy. Interestingly the key aspect of these strikes is not their economic impact since this is limited in any one day action, but their capacity to pull workers into mass demonstrations very like those of the mass movements themselves. There have also been less formal outbursts of anger, like the riots in the UK last year.
DJ: When, and under what circumstances, did this situation emerge?
JR: The key determinants of this phase of struggle are as follows:
Firstly, the anger generated over decades by the failure of neo-liberal economics as instituted since the late 1970s when the welfare state consensus of the long post war boom was abandoned by the political elites.
Secondly, the new phase of imperialist conflict opened by the end of the Cold War in 1989. This phase is characterised by the US’s strategic dilemma of trying to arrest its relative economic decline by using its overwhelming military superiority to overawe its competitors and secure its imperial control of resources and geo-political bases of operation, particularly in the Middle East.
Thirdly, the fissure this has produced between the ruling class and a majority of the people on a range of important political and economic issues. This was later described as a ‘democratic deficit’. The term should be seen as describing the declining popular faith in some of the main institutions of capitalist society: government, parliament, elections, corporations, the press, the police and so on.
Fourthly, there is weakness of the trade unions, the main reformist parties and the radical left. The unions have been weakened by structural changes in the economy, by successive attacks by the ruling class and the inability of the existing trade union leadership to deal with these attacks. The reformist parties have, at least at a leadership level, adopted neo-liberal economic and social policies and neo-conservative foreign policies that are indistinguishable from main stream conservatism. The radical left has been unable to fill the vacuum created by this crisis in the mainstream organisations of the labour movement.
Fifthly, this combination of factors – economic and imperial crisis, democratic deficit and weak union and reformist organisation – has produced the mass movement as the characteristic response of those that want to fight the system. Stronger unions might have produced a response that involved greater levels of industrial action. Stronger reformist parties might have produced left reformist currents of greater attractiveness. But in the absence of these alternatives many people take to the streets and create movements of protest based on this kind of action, or on forms of direct action.
DJ: Are the conditions you describe specific to Britain and Western countries, or are they global? If they are global how can this be so?
JR: They are global in reach, but there are obviously different variants according to local circumstances. In some places trade union action is a more important element, in others reformism has greater purchase.
The most important difference is in the cases where these factors have produced revolutionary developments rather than movements of protest. Since 1989 the characteristic form of revolution in the modern world has been the democratic revolution. Whether we think about the revolutions of 1989 themselves, or the fall of apartheid in South Africa, or the Indonesian revolution of 1998, or the Serbian revolution of 2001, or the Arab revolutions we see a broadly similar pattern. The pattern is, if we use the terminology of the Russian Revolution, an initial ‘February’ revolution that brings down an authoritarian regime followed by a series of struggles which more or less consciously try to go beyond a settlement which is limited to a capitalist economy and a parliamentary democracy. This, in essence, poses the same question in a revolutionary context that is posed by the mass movements in other countries. How does the left both participate in the movement of the day but also organise to move beyond it to mount a more fundamental challenge to the entire system?
DJ: How has the theory been received by the left?
JR: Some on the left, particularly those in Britain who were closely associated with the Stop the War Coalition and subsequently with the Coalition of Resistance, understand these issues in very similar ways. But most of the organised left has either not participated in an organic way in these movements or only did so for a relatively brief period before reverting to more familiar forms of sectarian practice.
Crucially there has been very little thought given to what it means to operate in a period of widespread political radicalisation which does not have industrial militancy as its most significant form of expression. Neither has there been much thought given to what it means to live in an age where the democratic revolution is, at least initially, the predominant form of revolutionary experience.
DJ: How do these perspectives change the nature of left-wing activism?
JR: They do not change the basic premise of Marxism: that fundamental change in capitalism can only come through the self-emancipation of the working class. But it does demand that we start from where and how and in what forms workers are actually fighting today and develop a strategy based on that experience, not on some image of how we think they ought to be fighting drawn either from first principles or from some imagined Golden Age in the past.
We have to figure out a way of using political radicalisation as a way of restoring and rebuilding trade union, industrial and political strength in the working class movement. But this cannot be done without deep, ongoing, immersion in the actual movements of protest as they arise in the here and now.
DJ: Why has democracy become such a trenchant demand amongst new movements and how should the left understand and relate to this impulse?
JR: The demand arises because neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism must necessarily strip out even those limited elements of democratic control (as well as welfare provision and trade union rights) that were granted in the long post war boom. The Arab revolutions demand real democracy, but so do Greek rioters and the global occupy movement. We should identify with this impulse completely, but also explain that democracy and capitalism are fundamentally incompatible. Dictatorship where you work (which is what capitalism is) and democracy outside work will always be in conflict. If we want real democracy it must include economic democracy. Political democracy plus economic democracy equals socialism.
DJ: Does the left need to change the way it interacts with the mass movements? I’m thinking specifically about how it communicates, how it presents itself to the broader movements.
JR: Yes. 1917 is not over, but 1968 is over. That is, the project of workers revolution is still what defines our age, but the specific forms of organisation that came out of the rebirth of the revolutionary left in 1968 are outmoded. Lenin said we have to create an organised network of revolutionary militants, and that this network has to engage in an organised way with the rest of the class and seek to influence its level of combativity and consciousness. He did not say we must always have a branch meeting on a Wednesday night, that we must always sell a tabloid paper with 16 pages on a Saturday from 12 till 1pm, and that there can be no significant deviation from this pattern over decades!
There are certain times when forms of political organisation interact with revolutions in communication technology. The Levellers of the 1640s organised just at a moment when print technology (though invented in the then current form 100 years earlier) was becoming available for use in printing petitions, pamphlets and newspapers. The Levellers seized on this and they would have been a much lesser organisation had they not done so. Similarly mass circulation newspapers preceded by decades the rise of the Chartists and by many decades the rise of mass social democratic parties. But the Chartists Northern Star and the papers of the parties of the Second International (including Vorwarts and Pravda) transformed the relationship between those organisations and their supporters. There is a similar challenge facing the left today. It can only meet it by embracing and developing the new means of communication for its own purposes.
DJ: How does the age of mass movements correspond to developments in modern capitalism? Thinking about what you said about neo-liberalism, is it influenced by the increasing concentration and centralisation of capital and the increasingly close relationship between capital and the state?
JR: There is an immediate and obvious sense in which neo-liberalism has influenced the predominant nature of protest: it has hollowed out social democracy and democratic structures as a whole. This disenfranchisement has been one of the drivers of the mass movements demanding democratic accountability from the Arab revolutions to the occupy movements demand for ‘real democracy’.
And of course the anti-capitalist element of modern protest is a direct response to the neo-liberal era. So yes, there is a growing and widespread mood that modern government is an arm of corporate power, untrammelled by the democratic and welfare restraints that were in place during the long boom.
There is also a more conjunctural aspect to the rise of mass movements. There has been a decline of traditional union and social democratic organisation since the 1980s, which is more a product of political defeats than structural changes in the economy, although some of these have reinforced the effect of the defeats. This has, by default, left ‘movementism’ as a predominant form of protest by diminishing the weight of industrial action in the overall mixture of protest. This can and must change. Union organisation and militancy can be rebuilt just as it was in the 1880s. But our best hope of doing this is to use the radicalism of the political movements as a way of involving and giving confidence to industrial militants to rebuild a base in the workplace. In essence the mass demonstrations of the pensions dispute, and one day strikes are basically a form of political protest, showed what can be done. But they also showed the limits of such action when it relies on the trade union leaders to call it.
DJ: What is the potential of this period? We have already seen the Arab Revolutions – are we living in an era of ‘social revolution’; when ordinary people can take power into their own hands?
JR: Yes, we have left the dark age of the downturn behind a decade ago. It is now an age of mass movements, an age of democratic revolutions that we want to turn into an age of social revolutions. But although this is a moment of political advance for radical ideas, it does not have all the features of militancy present in the way the left imagines that it should. This is a challenge to the left. And of course such periods of advance always contain contradictory forces, it is constantly threatened by its reactionary opposite. We have to guard against such possibilities. The organised left needs to overcome its weaknesses. The trade union left cannot sit around like a re-enactment society waiting for the 1970s to recur. History never repeats itself in this manner. The unions can only be rebuilt by engaging with the new mood of protest, and with the left fighting to bring this mood into the unions. And this cannot be done unless the left is seriously, organisationally, committed to the building the movements themselves. But, for all the weaknesses, it still moves forward. For many years we had to swim against an ebbing tide, but now we are faced with the challenges of strengthening a tide that is in flood.
From International Socialist Group site.
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