Anti-cuts alliances: Against cuts or against capitalism?

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Since Cameron’s Coalition picked up the baton from Labour in making brutal attacks on public sector workers and state-funded services a plethora of ‘anti-cuts alliances’ have appeared around the country. In general, these alliances are conglomerations of leftist groups, trade unions or their representatives, and Labour Party members (in some cases including Labour councillors). In other words, most anti-cuts alliances seem to be a typical attempt to build a ‘united front’.

However, in addition to the forces of the capitalist left, people and groups with sincere revolutionary aims are often to drawn to these groups in the hope of mobilising a struggle against capitalism. For example, the Anarchist Federation of Bristol is affiliated with the Bristol & District Anti-Cuts Alliance. We think this strategy is deeply flawed and in this article we will attempt to explain the theoretical basis for our position. We hope to present a more concrete analysis of specific anti-cuts groups at a later date.

Political organs and organs of struggle

Throughout its history, the working class has attempted to build two principle types of organisation: organs of mass struggle and political organs. The first type, broadly speaking, attempts to regroup workers on a class basis in order to take common action in their common interest. In the nineteenth century, the typical expression of this tendency was the trade union. Union struggles enabled workers to engage in broad struggles aimed at winning better pay, safer working conditions and reduced working hours.

Alongside unions, class conscious workers also formed political parties and organisations. Ranging from small revolutionary groups such as the Communist League and the First International to the mass parties of the Social Democratic era, these political organs had two specific tasks. Firstly, they were centres of political and theoretical discussion and clarification – the vigorous debates, for example, around Rosa Luxemburg’s book The Accumulation of Capital in 1913. Secondly, they also took the class struggle directly into the capitalist political arena, fighting for working class representation in bourgeois parliaments in order to win reforms.

In the era of capitalist expansion it was possible, to a certain degree, for the ruling class to accommodate working class demands without this threatening to destabilise the entire economic and political system. This didn’t mean that the class struggle was without upheaval. The wave of attempted revolutions across Europe in 1848 demonstrated the potential threat of the working class even it had not yet acquired the maturity to struggle independently. Moreover, the more lucid factions of the bourgeoisie, especially those around the capitalist state, realised that the system had to restrain its more rapacious appetites in order to avoid literally exploiting the working class to death and thus destroying the basis for its own expansion.

The First World War announced the definitive end of this relatively progressive era for capitalism. From this point onward, capitalism has become more and more unable to accommodate even the most elementary demands of the working class. World wars of unprecedented brutality; protracted local conflicts that destabilise entire regions; the disintegration of nation states; crises that threaten the collapse of entire national economies; these are the visible manifestations of capitalism’s historic impasse.

In order to survive these shockwaves, capitalism has concentrated more and more power in its state. The reformist wing of the workers’ movement was completely integrated into the capitalist political machine, swiftly followed by degenerating communist parties, Trotskyists et al. The trade unions today, while pretending to represent workers, are really the enforcers of capitalist discipline in the workplace or – in cases where workers’ struggle cannot be avoided – act to keep the struggles contained as far as possible.

In these circumstances, the working class has adopted new forms of mass and political organisation. The mass parties of the past have given way to smaller – but far clearer – political organisations that concentrate on the development of consciousness in the working class. Similarly, in a situation where permanent mass organisations are quickly integrated into the state, the working class wages its independent struggle through organs formed directly in the heat of struggle: the soviets of Russia in 1917, the workers’ councils in Germany 1918, the strike committees formed across the decades, etc.

Despite these changes, however, the fundamental differences between organs of struggle and political organs remains.

The role of revolutionaries in mass organs of struggle

If revolutionary political organisations and mass organs of struggle serve fundamentally different functions for the working class, this in no way means that members of the former should avoid working in the latter! Nor should revolutionaries avoid working in such organs simply because they are, at particular moments, dominated by ruling class ideology. When the workers first formed the soviets in Russia, the majority of workers adhered to Menshevik ideology; conversely, the Bolsheviks were in a minority in most soviets. This didn’t prevent Lenin from identifying – to the horror of many of his own party – the soviets as the basis of proletarian class power and issued the rallying cry of “All Power to the Soviets” in his April Theses.

Similarly, revolutionaries should be prepared to work in any genuine organ of proletarian struggle. In the past, for example, members of the ICC were elected to strike committees in important struggles in the 70s and 80s, often alongside leftists and union functionaries. Refusal to work in such conditions out of ‘purism’ would have been catastrophic and only have retarded our capacity to prevent the sabotage of the struggle by the leftists.

Anti-cuts alliances: political organisations or organs of struggle?

So what exactly are anti-cuts alliances? In their present form, they are obviously not organs of mass struggle. For one thing, they do not arise directly from the struggle itself but largely pre-empt it. At best, they are able to regroup a minority of politicised workers. Their activity – organising demonstrations, distributing propaganda, etc. – are clearly political activities aimed at establishing a political presence within the working class. While revolutionaries can and should work in mass organisations, the anti-cuts alliances are actually political organisations or alliances between political organisations.

Where these groups are coalitions of leftists or dominated by leftist ideology, they will spread that ideology. Genuine revolutionary positions will, at best, be submerged in a morass of capitalist ideology. Usually, they are eliminated altogether and genuine revolutionaries are either forced out or reduced to serve as a ‘critical opposition’ to the dominant leftist trend. This can only serve to legitimate leftist ideology and contribute to the ideological domination of the enemy class.

For example, both the Exeter Anti-Cuts Alliance and the Bristol & District Anti-Cuts Alliance encourage people to petition their local councils and local MPs, perpetuating the idea that democracy actually presents a real choice to the working class. The Exeter Anti-Cuts Alliance distributes a pamphlet called “Cuts are Not the Cure” littered with quotations from pro-Keynesian economists such as Paul Krugman, David Blanchflower and Joseph Stiglitz. In other words, they are propagating the idea that curing the crisis simply requires a different economic policy from the ruling class. This flies in the face of the real historical experience of the working class. The Keynesian era of the 1960s and 70s that this ideology harks back to was based on the increasing exploitation of the working class through productivity-linked pay rises and the erosion of real wages through increasing inflation. This ideology denies the reality of the crisis and the nature of capitalism – in order to grow, capitalism must exploit the working class and the only way to overcome crises is by increasing exploitation. Differing government policies simply change the precise way that this increased exploitation is leveraged from the working class but leftist ideology presents one form of increasing exploitation as being acceptable and even beneficial for the working class.

This doesn’t mean revolutionaries should be passive in their approach to such groups. On the contrary. While some within these groups act consciously and openly proclaim their support for state capitalist measures, others (including union activists and leftists) genuinely want to struggle against the attacks of capital. The problem is that, trapped as they are in a capitalist framework, they end up acting against their own intentions. Revolutionaries need to be able to reach such people, show them where leftist ideologies lead, and what the struggle for the interests of the working class consists of.

Revolutionaries should certainly attend the public meetings and demonstrations organised by leftist anti-cuts group in order to engage in discussion with militants who are searching for an alternative to the capitalist system. They should not, however, affiliate to such groupings or take part in their organising committees, etc.

There is, of course, the potential for groups appearing under the ‘anti-cuts’ banner that are not specifically leftist (even if leftism may still have its influence). The ICC has long recognised the importance of discussion groups for clarifying class positions and has taken an active role in several in the UK. We have also participated in several ‘class struggle’ groups that have emerged around the country in the last few years. In London, the ‘J30 assemblies’ that have formed around the slogan of “generalise the strike” have potential for being a forum where militant workers can discuss how to push forward the struggle.

Just as revolutionaries should beware opportunist involvement with leftist fronts, they should be wary of falling into the opposite error of sectarianism.  

Ishamael 30/6/11