Anarchism in Interesting Times
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
—— The German Ideology, 1845 (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels)
“Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”
——- Charles Mingus (Mainliner magazine 1977)
The people of Pompeii hardly had much of an idea of the fate that awaited them on that Autumn morning in 79 AD when Vesuvius erupted and their entire town was buried in volcanic ash. They had become accustomed to techtonic shocks, had experienced earthquakes and tremors, so when the initial rumblings of the great volcano were felt, they wouldn’t have caused much of a stir. It was only when it was too late, that the citizens of Pompeii realised the catastrophe that had befallen them. Today, we are used to catastrophe, be it economic or environmental, and as disaster becomes more commonplace, it seems to be survivable; However, if we fail to act in advance, there will come a time when, like for the citizens of Pompeii, it will be too late.
But as bleak as things seem, there are still grounds for optimism. People around the world are resisting austerity and through that resistance, socialist ideas are beginning to get an airing. The movement that is emerging, while still only vaguely left wing and lacking coherence, is far more significant than the summit hopping anti-capitalist milieu of the last decade. However, While the people of Chiapas and Rojava have been carrying out their own revolutions, the latter under unimaginably difficult circumstances, people in the old strongholds of the left in Europe, people have found it easier to say what they are against than what they are for; And while there are many different hues of red and red and black vying for support, most of these groups and organisations are vague about how to replace capitalism or have ideas that belong in the previous century.
The dominant classical Marxist approach to socialist construction hasn’t altered all that much since Lenin wrote in 1918, “State capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. If in approximately six months’ time state capitalism became established in our Republic, this would be a great success and a sure guarantee that within a year socialism will have gained a permanently firm hold and will have become invincible in this country.”
Lenin’s conception of state capitalism, was that the state would control the “commanding heights” of the economy (The state, despite Lenin’s contention that the working class were in control, essentially meant the dictatorship of the communist party), the key sectors of economic activity whose developement, in his view, were essential to the project of developing the soviet economy to a point where socialism was possible. Without going into the rights and wrongs of Lenin’s view, and the brutal dictatorship that this idea nourished, it is important to note that it was the product of very specific historical circumstances.
In 1985, leading member of the Militant Tendency in the UK Labour Party, Rob Sewell argued that “A Labour government is always elected in times of crisis, when the desire for change is at its highest . . . Instead of bowing the knee to capital and hoping to run capitalism better than the Tories, it should immediately push through an emergency `Enabling Act’ through Parliament (to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy)”. Back then the formulation was that the top five hundred companies would have to be taken into public ownership, now due to the concentration of the world’s wealth in fewer hands in control of multinational mega-corporations, that has been rewritten as “For a socialist government to take into public ownership the top 150 companies and banks that dominate the British economy, and run them under democratic working-class control and management.”
In his recent book, PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, Paul Mason articulates a 21st century version of this tactic. While he argues that a new mode of production is growing within the diseased body of the old capitalist one, and that this will form the basis of a post-capitalist society, he still calls upon the state to take control of finance capital and big oil – today they are the commanding heights of the economy, and heavily regulate the market sector to make space for the collaborative peer to peer economy to grow.
Both the orthodox Marxist position, and Mason’s post-marxism essentially call for one form of state-capitalism or another as a transitional phase in the movement towards communism (though Mason dissasociates his theory from the ‘C’ word it is still its end point). In this series of essays, I will argue that the state and capital are irreconcilable with the new mode of production that is growing around us and that any attempt to manage capitalism out of existance will fail. For humanity to have a future, a future that is free of exploitation, domination and oppression, communism will have to triumph over the commanding heights and the state.
While anarchist communists (and Libertarian Marxists) have since the time of Kropotkin called for the immediate (or ASAP) dissolution of capitalism and the state, our tradition has been slow to recognise that capitalism in the 21st Century is not the same beast as it was during the Spanish revolution almost eighty years ago. Where we have played lip service to this, and our theory has been supplemented with more complete analyses of other forms of domination (like sexism, racism, transphopia etc), the changed nature of capitalism has not been reflected in our tactics. At best, anarchists have learned new ways to fight oppression, but in the sphere of exploitation have stuck to old forms of workplace organising; At worst, they have abandoned the economic sphere altogether; So, in addition to arguing for the abolition of “the present state of things”, I will put forward a proposal for a movement whose conditions “result from the premises now in existence.”
Each essay will focus on a different aspect of the tasks and challenges that face libertarian communists in the coming years, including movement building, what automation has done to class relations, the growing communist mode of production, the abolition of ‘womens work’ and the coming environmental catastrophe that makes communist transformation more urgent than ever. In the last essay, I will attempt to make the complicated “awesomely simple”, advancing a call to action, a manifesto of sorts, drawn from this collected body of work.
Though the final result may resemble a grand narrative, it will necessarily be incomplete, for it is drawn from the study and experience of one individual among seven billion. What I hope is for this to be the beginning of a process with millons if not billions of participants that will one day render this collection of essays a historical curiosity.