The 17th World Congress of the Fourth International (8) – mutual aid and self-management

In this series of posts I have argued that the development of working class consciousness is a crucial task for socialists.  This reflects the often unacknowledged decline of such consciousness, reflected in the general disappearance of mass workers parties that had previously developed at the end of the 19th and first part of the twentieth centuries.

Both the majority and opposition in the FI, to different degrees, realise this decline but do not in my view put forward a perspective that addresses this fundamental problem.  The opposition in particular, in its defence of what it sees as revolutionary politics, puts forward a ‘strategic hypothesis’ of protest and strikes etc., which, when combined with capitalist crisis and intervention by revolutionaries, is regarded as the road to socialist revolution.

I have argued that this is inadequate both as a way of conceiving a transition to a new economic and social system (and not just a change in political forms) and as a purely political project that will radically change the consciousness of the working class.  This consciousness is rooted in social existence, the class’s subordinate position in the existing relations of production, which generates resistance and more or less coherent ideas about alternatives among certain layers at certain times.  However, this resistance, made up of strikes and protest etc, is neither consistent, permanently structured or rooted enough to adequately develop a consciousness adequate to socialist transformation and revolution.

The material alternative to capitalist relations of production is abolition of the capitalist class’s monopoly ownership of the means of production, which naturally involves the lack of such ownership by the working class.  The development of workers’ cooperatives as a social and political movement, and not as isolated individual producers, has in the past been seen as a crucial part of the development of an alternative to capitalism based on the growing power of the working class and development of its class consciousness.

The most surprising document put forward for the Congress of the Fourth International is entitled ‘Mutual Aid and self-management: a multiple implantation project’, which appears to have many ideas in common with this view.

The authors explicitly acknowledge the problem: “The workers movement of the 20th century has exhausted its cycle. This does not mean that the working class has dissolved or that there is no longer any trade union or labour movement. What no longer exists is the synergistic whole that had forced capitalism, in Europe and in the world, to change in order to survive.”

I don’t agree with all the judgements made or all the perspectives adopted, and this isn’t necessary for me to recognise an important step forward. The document states that: “The end of the labour movement has been accelerated and centrifuged by the end of “real socialism”. . . The end of the workers’ movement also has another consequence: the necessity for the opposition that lived inside the movement to change its outlook and practices.”

The document reviews the recent history of the working class, mainly relevant to Europe:

“In the last decades in Europe the structure of the lower classes has changed: because of the defeats that have weakened and dismembered the working class, greatly reducing its capacity to be a point of reference for the weaker and more fluid layers of the population.”

It then very briefly notes the more positive recent developments such the movements around Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain before stating what is lacking:

“What appears to be missing everywhere is a strong social connection based on robust experiences of one-off but lasting counterpositional struggles, of alternative societal embryos. “Bastions” that resist the clashes and cultivate alliances, spaces of self-activity that do not end on Saturday in the street, political and cultural discourse that really raises the question of the quality of an economic and social alternative.”

It then explains how it sees its proposals:

“The direction we have adopted is that the present phase resembles the dawn of the labour movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the movement experimented with ideas and practices. Today we can also experiment with new organizations, instruments of direct work organization, employee and cooperativist. Using self-management as an instrument to practice the objective, one able to build political subjectivity and to propose a new democracy in which the state really begins to decline. And organisms that finally break the old dichotomy between spontaneity and organization, between political consciousness codified only in party forms to “import” into the experiences of struggle. The two moments can coexist in a phase where the social practice can no longer be separated from theoretical and cultural elaboration.”

It then notes that “is Marx who points to two of the successive positive factors to the defeat of 1848: the law on the ten-hour work day and the cooperative movement. Marx is aware of the limitations and difficulties and in fact writes that “experience has proved that cooperative work, the practice of which can be excellent, is not in a position to stop the geometric progress of the monopoly, to emancipate and not even to lighten the burden of their misery, if it is limited in a narrow circle of partial efforts of isolated workmen”. But Marx’s contempt is mainly directed at the use of co-operative work by “self-proclaimed philanthropists of the middle class” from whom the “nauseating compliments” of cooperative work originate.”

What is noteworthy in the extracts above is the separation and opposition of the working class movement to the state – “Using self-management as an instrument to practice the objective, one able to build political subjectivity and to propose a new democracy in which the state really begins to decline.”

The document notes some historical experience of the workers’ movement with ‘mutualism’ and what it sees as its mistaken approach developed in the 19th century and carried into the twentieth: “Thus at the end of the 19th century integration into the state created the conditions for the end of the constitutive autonomy of the workers’ movement, its existence outside and against the bourgeois state, its structural otherness.”

In terms of the relevance of its approach for today “The opportunities for politicization in the globalized world of the 20th century are infinitely greater than those of a hundred years ago.”

The authors’ conception of revolution and the development of class consciousness is that:

“Each revolutionary passage and each mass action that did not have a decisive military dimension showed a plurality of instruments, functions, and options, in which, in essence, the difference was represented by the degree of mass consciousness, by the forms of self-organization. And so by instances where the political and the social have been superimposed until they are indistinct. For Marx the social is always political, the revolutionary subject is not separated from the class and the idea of political consciousness imported from the outside does not exist.”

“To act by oneself is the necessary precondition for the formation of a process of subjectivization. The mechanism of formation of a political consciousness – which is the distinctive element of Marx’s “class for itself” – does not begin only at the very important moment of criticism of the existing, the mechanisms of exploitation, rhythms and working times, forms of domination and hierarchy of capitalist societies. It does not come only from the negation of the given reality, although negation is an important form of the process of human identity. The process of subjectivization needs association, the coordination of ideas and common practices, solidarity. “When communist workers get together, their primary purpose is doctrine, propaganda, and so on. But with that, they take ownership together of a new need, the need of society and what seems to be a means has become a goal.” The centrality of associationism as a place of thought and common life allows us to get out of the trap of the consciousness brought to the workers “from the outside” by an enlightened avant-garde of intellectuals.”

The authors appear to be putting forward what they see as a positive element in contrast to the current preponderant approach of the left, which is one simply of opposition, resistance and protest – of saying no, weakly expressed as ‘not in my name.’ Just as the working class must emancipate itself so, it seems to say, workers must develop their own socialist consciousness: “The “working-class” societies of the 21st century will build their own study centres, libraries… because only in this way can the mutualist experience and a project of multiple implantation contribute to the formation of a new Subject, a consciousness adequate to the challenges for social transformation.”

The document is short but it condenses a different view of the role of the Fourth International than that of the majority and opposition. In doing so it is less than clear how the organisations of the FI, even if they agreed or accepted its analysis, would incorporate its views into their programme and practice.

The document situates its views historically in this way: “Starting from the 19th century does not mean cancelling out the past and pretending that the film produced by the labour movement can be rewound again and again . . . At bottom, the great tragedy of the third millennium is this: to have seen the progressive crisis of all hope of emancipation of humanity and to be forced to live a daily life without solutions.”

Back to part 7

For the next post on the debate in the Fourth International click here

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