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What if the Christmas film classic had a collective hero? asks John Rees in his review of 2011.

A clip from Wonderful Life In Frank Capra’s 1946 film classic It’s a Wonderful Life the central character George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is close to suicide when the prayers of his friends are answered and an angel, Clarence Odbody, is dispatched from heaven to dissuade him from taking his life. He does this by showing Bailey what life would have been like in his small town of Bedford Falls if he had never lived. What the angel reveals is that George Baily made a difference: life for his fellow inhabitants would have been different and worse had he not lived and acted as he did.

Perhaps the message of the film, that human agency can affect change, is worth recalling in the light of Time magazine’s decision to make the generic ‘protestor’ its person of the year. Time ‘cited mass actions against dictators in the Middle East, anti-drug cartel sentiment in Mexico, marches against leaders in Greece, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and dissent over the Putin regime in Russia’ as the basis of its  choice. ‘The protestor’ saw off others on the short list including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and SEAL Team 6, whose members assassinated Osama bin Laden.

During the remarkable year of 2011 some of the protestors’ opponents have been the same as George Bailey’s. One of the acts that make Bailey’s life worth saving is his resistance to the slum landlord, Henry F Potter.  Potter attempts to stop the Buildings and Loan firm for which Bailey works from building houses for the poor. Without Bailey, Bedford Falls would have become Pottersville.

The contrasts between George Bailey and ‘the protestor’ are also revealing. A single individual could only have an effect in a small (and idealised) town like Capra’s Bedford Falls. ‘The protestor’ is of course not a single individual at all but the personification of a collective subject. Although every mass movement is a mosaic of small, often individual, acts the whole is more than the sum of its parts. It was protestors as a collective that made a difference in 2011.

The critical question is, however, what kind of collective are the protestors of 2011?

The obvious answer is that they are a movement, essentially an elective affinity group. The people in the movement elect to be part of it because they share its values and aims. At one level this is as true of the protestors in Tahrir Square as it is of the Occupy Wall Street crowds.

This makes them different from movements or political parties which are underpinned by the fact that their members are largely also bound together by affinities that they did not elect to hold: that they are members of the same socio-economic class, or urban area. Trade unions have a slightly ambiguous position in this respect. Of course you can choose to be part of a union or not. But that decision notwithstanding, trade union membership is also to do with who you are and what you do rather than simply that which you choose to join.

At certain points in 2011 these latter kinds of collective subject have entered a powerful alliance with ‘the protestor’. In Tunisia and Egypt trade union action fused with the protest movements to give additional force to the assault on the dictators. In Tunisia the general strike by the UGTT was vital, in Egypt the widespread strike action in the last two days before Mubarak fell joined with the mass mobilisations and the beginning of splits in the army to create the composite conditions that resulted in Mubarak’s defeat.

In Greece mass strikes have enhanced the power and the stamina of the movement against austerity. In the US union membership rose swiftly as labour unions joined the Occupy movement. In Britain the student movement was both an occupational group and an elective affinity, because, unlike trade unions, a minority of students can act independently of the majority of their fellows. But the students were most effective when their action was co-ordinated with that of the college lecturers union, the UCU. And the movement became more effective still only when the unions acted in the TUC demonstration of March 26, and the strikes and demonstrations of June 30 and November 30.

For some on the left this dichotomy suggests that the movement on the street is a sort of ‘autonomist’ froth that will be blown away when the ‘real’ forces of the organised working class appear. And there is some truth to the argument that while collective subjects remain in an undefined and unorganised relationship with collectives underpinned by a common class position they are pray to a number of dangers. Most importantly, they are likely to substitute the bravery and activism of a minority for the necessary mobilisation of wider and deeper layers of working people. Moralistic politics almost always results in which the active minority is supposed to be superior to the ordinary working population who are, at worst, pictured as passive victims of state propaganda and consumerist ideology and, at best, hopelessly addicted to conservative trade union organisations and ‘A to B marches’.  But to let the critique of the current state of the class struggle rest at this point is a mistake because it is quite clear that for more than a decade now the dynamic of the struggle has mostly run from the streets to the workplaces. Long defeat has made the organised trade union movement weak, inertia ridden and highly dependent of official action sanctioned by union leaders. The vitalising effect of the anti-capitalist movement, the anti-war movement and the student movement has led the revival in trade union struggles.

The left critique of the movements rests on confusing two levels of analysis. It assumes that a statement that is true in the register of socio-economic analysis, that the organised working class is the most effective basis of resistance to capitalism, can be turned into a strategic and tactical statement which is universally true no matter what the exact alignment of social forces may be at any given moment. This blinds us to the actual strategic work of charting a path from where we actually are (a high level of political mobilisation and a still weak independent trade union organisation) to where we need to be (a high level of organised working class resistance to the system).

This problem is near universal. It is the problem of the Egyptian revolution: how do the 25th January revolutionaries in Tahrir present a strategy to the emerging working class movement that can allow it to appeal not just to its own constituency but to the masses in the governates that SCAF is trying to mobilise, not least in the elections, to crush the revolution? It is the problem of the Occupy movement: how does a minority of activists shift the greater organised mass of workers in the unions? It is the problem of the suddenly erupting movement against Putin: how does the left crystalise an effective movement out of the contradictory class and political forces that burst onto the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities for the first time in 20 years at the start of December?

The task of the left is not simply to decry the weaknesses of the movements from the moral high ground of the Marxist tradition but to find an effective way to fuse the vitality of the streets with the organised power of workers. Not to do so raises immediate dangers.

Firstly, the more the movement remains ‘horizontalist’ the more it leaves ‘high politics’ to the elites. But the elites very clearly understand that large numbers of working people do care about what happens in elections, in the mass media and in parliament. And this is for the very simple reason that it affects their lives. So not paying attention to this kind of politics leaves the mass movement with an open flank through which the elites can drive a wedge between the movement and people who should be its natural allies. And if this happens a bad dialectic develops in which the minority blame the passive mass and the mass of working people look on the movements with, at best, only passive sympathy.

Secondly, unlike Harry F Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, our rulers are not single individuals but a class collective. They cannot be defeated by an elective affinity alone, no matter how powerful and essential such movements are at this moment in the process of resistance. They can ultimately only be defeated by unleashing against them another class collective, organised workers.

Thirdly, the division in the movement encourages autonomist currents on the one side and syndicalist currents on the other. These two wrong poles reinforce each other and they have a common root: lack of politics. When Lenin said that ‘politics is concentrated economics’ he did not mean that economic struggles automatically determine the outcome of political conflicts. In fact he meant something very different. He meant that the clash of class forces at an economic level is mediated by the political representatives of those forces organised in political parties and other political institutions. And it is precisely the outcome of these political struggles, which although they arise from economic classes also have their own independent logic, which shape the future of society. Or to put it another way: any socio-economic class that fails to organise its own effective political party will always be defeated by a class that does organise an effective political tool for its own use.

We have before us in the remarkable history of the last 12 months an example of the primacy of politics. The Libya adventure was a successful manoeuvre by the ruling elites to colonise a revolution for the wider purpose of regaining ground that had been lost by the rapid advance of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. Believing that the occupations of Tahrir or the Kasbah could, in themselves, deal with this was a mistake. But it was equally mistaken to believe that working class struggle in and of itself would be proof against such a manoeurvre. What both forms of mobilisation required to deal with this elite strategy was politics, in this case specifically anti-imperialist politics.

This points to a wider truth. No mobilisation of workers, whether on the streets or in strike action, will spontaneously give rise to a political understanding that is sophisticated enough to deal with the counter-thrusts of the ruling class. Only political organisations provide the forum where such strategies can be hammered out. Again both autonomists and syndicalists minimise the importance of political parties, and they rely on the bad name that establishment political parties have rightly acquired to carry their argument. But if the miraculous year of 2011 is to be followed by an equally miraculous 2012 then political strategies promulgated by revolutionary political parties will have to answer some of the questions which the mass movements have posed but not answered. The longer the resistance goes on, the greater the need for politics will be, and so too therefore will the need for revolutionary organisations where politics and strategy are fused.

George Bailey needed a deus ex machina, a god outside the machine, an angel, to show him how he had made a difference to the world around him. But for a collective subject this discussion is an internal one. The better angels of our nature have to take an organised form, a political organisation. And this organisation, this network of militants, must then begin a conversation with broader masses of the collective subject about how they too can change their world.


John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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