'The (im)possibility of revolution'-and the need for militant political discussion
"At the next election millions will vote for pro-capitalist political parties that offer little except cutbacks and austerity. Despite economic crisis, climate chaos and disastrous wars, people see no alternative to capitalism - and revolution seems, at best, an impossible dream. Yet all three speakers at this debate believe this situation cannot last indefinitely. Their differing interpretations of anthropology, economics and history each show that a 21st Century global revolution is a real possibility - not just a dream. Could they be right? Come and join the debate."
This was part of the flyer for the meeting on ‘The (im)possibility of revolution?' held at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London on 21st January. The fact that the meeting drew around 100 people is a manifestation of the fact that a growing minority in society is once again asking serious questions about the future being offered to us by the capitalist system. It was addressed by three speakers: the anthropologist Chris Knight; William Dixon, a professor of economics and former member of the old Radical Chains group; and Hillel Ticktin, a Professor of Marxist Studies in Glasgow and editor of the sophisticated leftist journal Critique.
All three presentations made interesting listening. We have previously written about Chris Knight's anthropological theories, centred round the hypothesis that a key element in the emergence of modern human beings was the collective refusal of females to submit to the domination of alpha males, initiating a "human revolution" which installed a truly communal distribution of the products of the hunt. Since the development of our human nature is directly linked to the appearance of primitive communism there is a real potential for mankind restoring, on a higher level, a communist way of living.
Both Dixon and Ticktin, examining the history of capitalism in the light of the recent plunge into open economic crisis, put forward the argument that capitalism was signalling its own end. Ticktin in particular insisted that the perspective of the decline of capitalism has always been an integral component of marxism - and that today capitalism is not only in decline but is already showing signs of disintegration, a wearing out of all the traditional means of prolonging its senile existence (finance capital, social democratic reformism, etc). As already mentioned, Ticktin edits a leftist journal and for years he has been a defender of the essentially Trotskyist view that the Stalinist regimes are not capitalist. But it is still significant that the deepening of the crisis is leading him to elaborate a version of the theory of capitalist decline, which is a foundation stone for the advocacy of revolutionary class positions.
Numerous questions and comments were made by those who had come to the meeting. Someone asked why there had not been more working class resistance in the wake of the credit crunch. Another whether the "Bolivarian revolution" in Venezuela offers us a way forward. Another whether capitalism could go green. Unfortunately, there was little possibility of developing any of these questions. The meeting lasted approximately 2 hours. Each speaker was given about 20 minutes to present their positions, thus accounting for the first hour, there was then about 30 minutes for participants to ask questions and make comments ... followed by another 30 minutes for the speakers to respond to what had been said. In such an atmosphere it is extremely difficult for a debate to actually develop. Unsurprisingly, most comments were not followed up or really taken any notice of, but had the feeling of just being individual responses to the presentations.
The shame of it is that this kind of meeting exactly appeals to the kinds of questions that are increasingly being asked by more and more people: What does the present economic crisis mean? What would a future society look like? And how the study of anthropology is able to help us to understand not just past societies but also key aspects of a future one - the issue of solidarity, how to live in harmony with our environment, etc.
However the elephant in the room was the question of how we are to bring about the revolution which was the topic under discussion. In this respect, the limits of the academic approach - albeit an approach which is able to offer many detailed and even profound contributions to historical research - became apparent. People can come to such a meeting and passively listen to ‘experts' giving presentations and responding to questions, without posing the question of militant political engagement, the recognition that capitalism begins to be challenged above all through the conscious, collective action of workers and through the participation of revolutionary organisations within that action. Debate and discussion are the lifeblood of revolutionary organisations and the working class struggle generally. However, it is the framework in which such debates are held that determines their effectiveness in helping the development of consciousness.