A response to the comrades of the CWO and their “What’s the System? Review of an Angry Workers Pamphlet”

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We want to thank the comrades for their thoughts and respond briefly to their criticisms of our ‘system-series’. [1] Before we go into the actual content we think it is fruitful to take a step back and look at the bigger picture:

What we see is two minuscule revolutionary groups with a dozen comrades, who, in general terms, will agree on a lot, having a bit of a row. We feel that at the core of the disagreement is not really a dispute over who has the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation of Marx’s value theory, but how we relate to the fact that as ‘organised revolutionaries’ we are minoritarian within our class. As AngryWorkers, we focus on workers’ inquiry and efforts to bring practical organising into a new relationship with ‘revolutionary ideas’. The ‘system series’ was published in a newspaper that we distribute to 2,000 largely migrant workers, whose grasp of the English language is medium to crap. We engage with these workers on a daily level as workmates. This might not explain all the simplifications in the text, but many of them. For us it is unclear how the CWO relates to the working class around them.

We know you as a group that primarily publishes texts online, engages in debates during leftist meetings or hands out their newspaper as ‘observers’ on pickets. The recent ‘practical intervention’ in the courier strike in Liverpool seemed to us to be an exception. We don’t see CWO engaging in more concrete analysis of working class conditions and struggles with practical strategical suggestions to expand workers’ self-organisation beyond the general assertion: “Don’t trust the union, build your own organisation’. There have been articles on ‘gig-work’ and Amazon, but they seemed largely a collection of mainstream media articles, rather than shop-floor analysis. While we don’t want to neglect ‘theoretical debates’, focusing solely on theoretical matters, as your review of our article does, seems limited to us. We think that a wider discussion about how a ‘communist program’ relates to concrete conditions, struggles and our own efforts is more significant.

We could also go into psychology at this point. What makes certain people choose certain groups and how do these groups relate to the working class? Some people feel they have to remain on more solid ground, focusing on theoretical differences with other ‘politicos’, rather than getting into messy debates with people who have no fucking clue about Marx and overwhelm you with mundane day to day problems. Our personality type has a major influence on our seemingly ‘purely rational’ political positions and choices. This particular personal role might then also lead to emphasising the importance of whatever you’re best at, e.g. the propagation of positions. In this sense there is a subtext to this discussion. Just some things to consider before we now go into the actual content.

We follow the structure of your review: history, crisis and revolution. Before we do that we want to hint at the main point of contention which links all three subjects and which leads you to term us ‘autonomists’ rather than ‘Marxists’. The point of contention is what constitutes the ‘driving force’ in society. You criticise the fact that we see the ‘struggle against exploitation and oppression’ as the main driving force of development and oppose this by saying that it is the ‘development of the historical ‘forces of production’, primarily represented by the ‘expansion of farming and trade’ which gave rise to the bourgeoisie and their revolutionary role; and through the law of accumulation, driven by the competition on the market under the condition of capitalism.

We think you misunderstand and actually misrepresent us when you say that we reduce everything to some kind of unmediated relation of ‘struggle against exploitation and oppression’. We describe clearly how this struggle is very different under conditions of serf and peasant labour compared to industrial wage labour. At the same time, and here we can refer to Marx himself, we think that we have to go deeper into what actually constitutes the ‘driving force’ of the development of the forces of production. Is it an inbuilt ‘human drive’ towards betterment? There might be something like that, but it wouldn’t explain the massive differences in development depending on the concrete social formation. Is it the ‘drive to violence’ of individual feudal lords against other lords? Surely, once you presuppose a situation of armed conflicts then individual lords will be forced to squeeze more out of their subjects in order to provide for their soldiers. But what would explain the dis-equilibrium that ‘drives them to war’? They could be happy consuming whatever their serfs provide them with. Is it the ‘greed’ of farmers and merchants to want to expand their influence? If there is no universal market relation yet that could enforce the competition as ‘Verlaufsform’, then that would be one explanation, but a pretty bourgeois one. Or is it chance, e.g. a natural calamity which enforces the improvement of means of production in order to, e.g. counteract a shortage of labour after a pandemic or bad harvests? These ‘natural calamities’ played a relatively greater role at times where the ‘forces of production’ were less developed, but couldn’t describe a historical systemic continuity.

We refer to the Brenner debate, surely a debate referring to Marx, when we try to understand why ‘capitalism’ originated in England, rather than in France or Germany. Here we don’t say that ‘the serfs and peasants’ struggled hardest in the UK and therefore this is where the bourgeoisie was forced to develop trade and industry the quickest. We just say that as an outcome of the rural disputes, the situation was the most unstable and that industrial development was both made possible by the abundance of ‘free labour’ and a way to contain it. We think history is indeed a history of class struggles and that this struggle forced the rulers into ‘development’, which broke the form of ‘personal containment’ of feudalism and brought forth a new system, which had ‘development’ as an impersonal force at its core and new contradictory constraints within which it has to channel this development, e.g. the money and commodity form.

Let’s remember here that these are articles for workers, workers who have always been told that historical progress comes either through ‘natural and automatic processes’ or ‘the war lords and kings and their conquests’ or the ‘revolutionary bourgeoisie’ who has brilliant ideas and are great adventurers. Ironically enough you seem to want to fortify this version of history! We want – and here we use propagandistic simplification – to turn things back on their feet: if the exploited wouldn’t put up a fight, society wouldn’t move forward. This doesn’t mean that everything will run smooth and without contradictions. Given the inner structure of the system, the struggle between classes might actually lead to neither side winning.

Which leads us to the question of what propels ‘capital’ into development. Marx himself said that to take the ‘competition between capitalists’ as the starting point would remain superficial. From the individual capitalist’s point of view, who wants to survive on the market, we would probably find as many arguments against ‘risky investments’ as we would find in favour. Here the left traditionally gets hung up on the ‘market form’ and the exchange level of things, which can’t explain the underlying class relations. Development in capitalism is containment of class struggle first and foremost. This doesn’t mean that this doesn’t happen through structural forms which are independent from struggles, but determined by the ‘Verlaufsform’ of how capital exists both in value and monetary form and as means of production. E.g. you write:

“On the question of over-production and under-consumption, which the AWW define as the “most simple form of crisis” and the “most blatant form of crisis” respectively, we would see both as phenomena (rather than forms) of the capitalist crisis of profitability. This might be just a question of terminology, but previous statements in the pamphlet, such as that “crisis mainly happens because too much is produced”, suggest some confusion regarding causes and effects, and, as the AWW write, “there would be no alternative to this system if it would not show clear signs of crisis – so we have to know what actually causes this crisis.”

You are right, these are not ‘independent types’ of crises. But to ascribe everything purely mathematical to the ‘falling rate of profits’ doesn’t account for the fact that a falling rate of profit would not be a problem as such, if the ‘mass of profits’ could be increased indefinitely. Here complex elements beyond value production come into play, e.g. while the capitalist mode of production can churn out cheaper and cheaper consumption goods – at increasingly lower rates of profits – ‘rent’ from a limited amount of land becomes increasingly important. But the main thing is: we agree that the crisis cannot be easily fixed by deficit spending of the state or by an increase in the purchasing power of workers, as our democratic socialist comrades want to make us believe.

When it comes to the discussion about revolutions you criticise that we just ‘describe’ different revolutions and, again, reduce them and their differences to ‘technical questions’:

“What ties all these movements together? According to the AWW they all form part of that continuum of “struggle against exploitation and oppression”. This simplification once again obscures the actual contradictory social forces involved in those movements (peasants, the rising bourgeoisie, workers, students, etc.). The pitfalls of these movements are reduced to mostly technical questions (isolation, repression, separation of town and country, uneven development, etc.), which of course play a significant part. But other aspects, such as the class nature of these struggles, the balance of class forces at the time, or the revolutionary minorities actually involved and their aims, are brushed aside.”

We think that is not justified, as the following quotes might demonstrate:

“During medieval times it was relatively easy for poor peasants to imagine an end of exploitation and oppression: a lot of the land was still owned in common and most of the things necessary to live were produced locally. The lords were only parasites, who owned most of the land and asked for taxes – it would have been easy to just redistribute the land amongst all. Their main problem was that they remained isolated locally – there was no fast transport or social media. They also had only limited access to arms to defend themselves. Most communities were defeated militarily. The revolutionary peasants tried to prove that their communities were ‘following the will of god’ to create an equal society on earth – but instead of supporting them the official church treated them as heretics (disbelievers).”

“By the 17th and 18th century many peasants had lost their land and either worked for wages or as slaves on plantations. More and more poor people lived in towns and cities and the global market started to connect the northern and southern continents of the world. The middle-classes (traders, industrialists) became more important economically, but had little political power, which was still held by aristocrats. Under these conditions the struggle of the poor against exploitation changed: unlike the peasants they were less isolated, living in towns and cities. This made them more difficult to defeat. This also meant that their vision of an equal society changed: while the peasants mainly wanted to be able to live off their land, the poor in the cities and on the plantations could not just go back to a countryside idyll. But overall their numbers in the cities was still relatively small and their power as workers limited, as industries were not developed yet. This forced them into alliances with the middle-classes, who wanted more political influence.”

“This ‘betrayal’ of the middle classes would repeat itself in various revolutions and uprisings, from 1848 in European countries to 1857 in India. The poor sections of these revolutions developed ideas of a free society worth fighting for – but without the power as industrial workers they were forced to take on the enemy militarily, which often failed. The first time that the poor artisans and workers declared their independence from the middle-class politicians, bosses and traders was in 1871 during the uprising of the Paris Commune – they were defeated by the French and German army, but they had shown to the world that working people can run their own lives.”

So we clearly make differences between peasants and their ‘revolutionary ideals’, the problems of the early proletariat and artisans to have to forge alliances with the middle-class and the first ‘working class revolutions’, which develop a different vision of a classless society.

Obviously, your criticism has to end, like most of your texts, with the question of the party. You write:

“But the actual process of the 1917 Revolution, and the crucial role that the Bolshevik Party played in it, is completely ignored. All we are told is that “Lenin’s party, which had influence in the councils, said that in this situation [famine, invasion and isolation] the councils have to give up power towards a new ‘workers’ state’”. This is a caricature – in fact, the Bolshevik Party expressed the wishes of the most advanced section of the class (summarised in the slogans “All Power to the Soviets”, “Down with the Provisional Government” and “Bread, Peace and Land”). Thanks to the degree to which it rooted itself among the class, becoming a revolutionary tool of the class in the process, the party was able to gain a majority in the councils and make the October Revolution possible. For Lenin personally, the existence of a “workers’ state” was predicated precisely on the existence of workers’ councils. By 1921, when most councils had ceased to function, so did the “workers’ state”. What was left behind was a vast bureaucracy and party apparatus which became one of the agents of the counter-revolution.”

This is obviously a longer debate about the merits and failures of the Bolshevik party. To merely state that ‘by 1921 the councils had ceased to function’ and to fail to relate this ‘fact’ to political decisions made by the Bolshevik leadership doesn’t do the development of revolutionary theory any favours. Yes, we simplify, but we try to state in simple terms the main internal and external pressures which led to decisions, such as the establishment of a standing army and their social consequences:

“Particularly in industrial areas workers and soldiers formed new organisations to organise work and social life: councils. The idea of the councils were that we don’t need professional politicians and a far away parliament to run our lives and no bosses to run the factories. Councils of different factories, industries and areas could coordinate and allow everyone to take part in making the main decisions of society: how do we produce our lives? Through these councils and other examples of organisation and resistance (factory militias, neighbourhood assemblies etc.) by 1918 many working class people all over Europe experinced that a different society is possible. This experience was defeated from inside the revolution and from outside – as we can best see in Russia.

In the 19th century millions of people in Russia were serfs: their owners could exploit them without mercy. By the time of World War I few industrial areas had developed. The revolution against war and oppression started from industrial towns like St. Petersburg and the promise of land and peace made many peasants join in. Wealth was distributed amongst all, manual workers took part in planning of production. Poor people could enter theatres which had previously been only for the rich, workers sent cinemas and reading groups to the peasant villages. The news that workers had formed councils and beaten the Tsar (king) spread around the world. The rulers of all European countries were afraid that the revolution would spread and they forgot the fact that they had just all been enemies: they sent arms and soldiers to defeat the revolution in Russia.

The attack from outside made problems inside the revolution worse:

* The revolution was started by workers, peasants and soldiers themselves, but the connection between councils in the towns and councils in the countryside was weak. Most of the land that was taken from the big landlords did not enter into common ownership, but was taken by middle-class peasants. Supply from the agricultural areas and from abroad failed – the towns starved. Lenin’s party, which had influence in the councils, said that in this situation the councils have to give up power towards a new ‘workers’ state’.

* The outside attack led the new ruling party to form the Red Army – they disarmed the workers and forced them to join the army. A standing army needs massive resources (food, clothing etc.), so everyone who was not in the army had to work even harder. The new rulers decided to bring back the old generals and the old managers to help squeeze more out of the workforce.

The measures by Lenin’s party took away power from normal workers. They became disillusioned and there were rebellions against the new rulers, for example in Kronstadt in 1921, which demanded: ‘all power to the councils’. The new ‘workers’ state’ reacted by turning the guns on workers.”

It is no surprise that you end on 1917. This is always where the debate about revolution seems to get stuck, with a lack of development of the current vision and strategy of revolution, under the current global conditions. Here it would have been more fruitful if you would have said something about our more ’science-fictional final part of the series:

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2019/11/11/pamphlet-we-want-a-new-society-and-dont-we-need-it/

Or would contribute to the debate around our current text on 21st century revolutionary strategy and the historical notions of ’uneven and combined development’ and ‘class composition”.

https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2020/04/07/revolutionary-working-class-strategy-for-the-21st-century-part-1/

We just fear that your main contribution will be to remind us that the class lacks consciousness and that therefore our main task is to preserve the historic program.

In solidarity

some
AngryWorkers

[1]

The review:
http://libcom.org/blog/whats-system-review-angry-workers-pamphlet-27032020

Our pamphlet:
https://angryworkersworld.wordpress.com/2019/11/11/pamphlet-we-want-a-new-society-and-dont-we-need-it/

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