What is the relationship of Marxism and social movements?
Is movement struggle enougn?
“Activism without building revolutionary organization is just reformism.” James Radek.
On the broad left today there is a growing anti-capitalist consciousness. In movements on ecology, war ,anti-racism etc., it is common for speakers to invoke opposition to capitalism. It is often a rhetorical flourish that goes along with anti-racism, Feminism and intersectionality.
Many in the abolitionist movement openly claim to be Feminist and Anti-Capitalist.
This is a good sign. Too often in previous periods, an exclusive focus on single issues precluded this emphasis. On many occasions socialists at rallies were told to just focus on the issue at hand. This extended beyond socialists to any movement activist bringing in “outside” issues. These included anti-racists at anti-war rallies or women’s rallies, or anti-war activists at anti-racist or Feminist rallies. It was primarily a sign of conservatism in a general sense. The worry was that “inappropriate” issues would drive away would-be supporters.
The new acceptance of “outside” issues at rallies comes in part from a new appreciation of the inter-connectedness of issues. This in turn leads naturally into anti-capitalism since capitalism causes or at least exacerbates all the horrors being protested. This new ecumenicalism is a step forward. It opens up more possibilities for socialists.
Yet, so far the opening up is on the surface only. It is for the most part words , not organization. It is mostly a moral rather than a strategic opposition to capitalism. The movements are still essentially single issue, or multi-issue around a particular core, even while making a nod to the others. The underlying premise is that people can conquer each evil separately. This is a fundamentally reformist idea: that we can eliminate racism or war or sexism or… while keeping capitalism. In a more radical form , the idea is that a movement of movements can overcome these evils together. This is the politics of “movementism”: Grass roots movements alone can fundamentally change the world.
Speakers invoke “anti-capitalism” just as they do anti-racism, anti-misogyny , or intersectionality. Movement speakers denounce all the evils equally on a moral basis. There is no sense that the most strategically important contradiction is exploitation: that without reorganizing production and the economy as a whole we cannot conquer racism, sexism , war etc. Nor is there a clear sense that there are conflicting class interests and political positions within movements for social change. The socialism that can end racism etc. is the “self-emancipation of the working class” (Marx) . This means that within each movement, the class interests of the working class need to guide the struggle.
Instead, too often anti-capitalism can range from Anarchism to Stalinism or mutual aid to coops. The liberal politics of lobbying and voting Democrat still predominate in most movements. Often , activists see no contradiction between anti-capitalism and voting for capitalist parties which of course pursue capitalist interests against working class interests.
Marxists are the most consistent fighters against racism, sexism , war , etc. The reason for this is slightly different than that of other movement activists. Marxists are of course morally appalled at these evils and find them sickening and unnecessary. However, Marxists also oppose divisions for strategic reasons. If workers are divided by racism , sexism and nationalism, they cannot come together to overthrow the bosses and the capitalist system. The fight against special oppression is not in competition with the fight against exploitation. In fact, Marxists oppose racism in part because it prevents the elimination of exploitation. Marxists support the needs and interests of Black people in general and because they support the needs and interests of the working class as a whole. Any diminishing of racism is a step forward for workers as a whole.
This means that Marxists must be deeply involved in all movements against oppression as well as all other movements that defend working class interests to help prepare the unity necessary for successful revolutions. As the Communist Manifesto put it, in the movements of the present , communists take care of the future of the movement.
Yet involvement in movements is not enough. Marxists argue that only working class revolution can end the capitalist system that breeds oppression and is founded on exploitation. This will not happen spontaneously. Working class consciousness varies from worker to worker and sector to sector. The most revolutionary workers need to organize together to convince the rest of the working class to take power. Further, the capitalist state will not be defeated by uncoordinated attacks from different directions. A concentrated assault will be necessary. This requires organization. Workers must create a revolutionary party that can lead the revolution to victory — to the elimination of the capitalist state and its replacement by a workers’ state. Only such a state can organize the transition to communism. Creation of a revolutionary party is not just a nice idea, it is absolutely necessary.
Movementists understand the need to concentrate organizing around the issue they see as most important. Anti-racists for example would not be satisfied with building an anti-war movement that just mentioned anti-racism in speeches. They call for a specifically anti-racist movement. Yet often, movementists don’t understand why socialists feel the need to build organization that concentrates on the fight for socialism. Though they agree with raising anti-capitalism at rallies , they often see socialists recruiting to socialist organization as detrimental or at most irrelevant to the movement.
Often times, activists mistakenly believe that they are doing the “serious” work of building on the ground struggle while Marxists are just talking theory. In fact, political theory impacts how effective movements will be right now . Marxists make direct contributions to the theory and practice of progressive struggle. The more people in Marxist organizations, the more they can play this important role.
Many activists forget that much of their movement activity is also propaganda — -i.e. trying to convince people verbally to be anti-war, or anti-racist or… When struggles that directly disrupt the capitalist system break out, clarity of political ideas provided by Marxism can help them develop more effective strategies and tactics. Even in directly disruptive movements an important element of their success is clear propaganda. For example, strikes need strike bulletins and leaflets as well as social media.
It can take years or decades to build a revolutionary party. Building such a party cannot wait until a revolutionary situation develops. In such a situation, masses of people will turn to the alternatives on offer. If a strong Bolshevik type party is not seen as a realistic alternative, large numbers will not join it. This will leave political dominance to reformists who will squander the opportunity and leave capitalism intact . Therefore, Marxists must build toward a party well in advance. Creating a Marxist party is important when revolution is far off , as much as when the revolution is around the corner.
Strategically, movementism is not enough. Without a party, there will be no destruction of capitalism and transition to communism and thus no end to racism , sexism etc. Anti-capitalism cannot be just a rhetorical anointment on progressive movements. Instead , “anti-capitalism” needs to be consolidated as revolutionary socialism and made central to any progressive organizing. The building of a revolutionary socialist working class vanguard party needs to be the central project of those who want to change the world. There is no contradiction between building a party and building the various struggles. In fact , they are complimentary. Recruiting people to socialism also means recruiting people to struggle. Marxists need to convince movement activists of these central ideas. It is a step forward to be tolerated rather that excluded. However , toleration for revolutionary socialism through the verbal gloss of anti-capitalism is not enough.
For those who want to participate in revolutionary socialist organizing ,or just find out more about it, register for the Revolutionary Socialist Conference:Communist Refoundation in an Era of Crisis, June 4–5 virtual :RSOP.Online