For Ethical Politics by Andy Blunden, 2003
“Collectivity” has had a succession of different names over the past 200 years. These are the “flora and fauna” which inhabit the political terrain, the social agencies, or forms of political subjectivity which populate the changing political field.
The first of these definitions of “us” was the “brotherhood” or “league” - the secret society of “brethren” who swore to die for one another in pursuit of a quasi-religious millennial doctrine; usually locally based and isolated from one-another, operating with masonic secrecy but in reality easy prey for police spies.
The first modern radicals were those like the young Parisians who threw up barricades and began firing on the police in 1830, and repeatedly over more than 40 years thereafter. Auguste Blanqui, former law student and hero of the French working class, was both spokesperson and critic of this form of radicalism:
“The army has over the people only two great advantages: the breech-loading rifle and organisation. This last especially is immense, irresistible. Fortunately one can deprive him of this advantage, and in this case ascendancy passes to the side of the insurrection.
“... Superior to the adversary in devotion, they are much more still in intelligence. They have the upper hand over him morally and even physically, by conviction, strength, fertility of resources, promptness of body and spirit, they have both the head and the heart. No trooper in the world is the equal of these elite men.
“So why do they fail to vanquish? They lack the unity and coherence which, by them all contributing to the same goal, fosters all those qualities which isolation renders impotent. They lack organisation. Without it, they haven’t got a chance. Organisation is victory; dispersion is death. ...
“Each barricade has its particular group, more or less numerous, but always isolated. Whether it numbers ten or one hundred men, it does not maintain any communication with the other positions. Often there is not even a leader to direct the defence, and if there is, his influence is next to nil. The fighters can do whatever comes into their head.” [Auguste Blanqui, Instructions pour une prise d’armes]
All that is at issue is how to take power. The objective of the revolution, its policy and the identity of its friends and its enemies were never under question:
“... it goes without saying, that the revolution must effectively work against the tyranny of the capital, and reconstitute society on the basis of justice.” [ibid.]
Blanqui spent almost all his adult life in prison, and was a very old man by the time he was allowed to take up his position as Deputy for Bordeaux. The paramilitary posturing of his followers took on a tragi-comic aspect. But in the meantime, chiefly through the work of small, dedicated, anonymous and secret bands of proletarians, the nascent working class got organised and entered the political arena.
The modern system of production was only beginning to emerge; poverty was extreme but solidarity was unknown and repression was immediate and total. Only in England had the modern working class really come into being. The elemental form of working class organisation turned out, however, to be not the military formation that Blanqui called for, but the trade union movement.
The “Communist Party” which published the Communist Manifesto in 1848 existed in the brilliant imagination of the author, not in Germany.
“What the members of the Communist League wanted in 1847 was a ‘profession of faith’, and an early draft written by Engels in June 1847 shows that they were still wedded to the initiation rituals favoured by the French underground sects. ... Engels’ Catechism might have been appropriate for a secret society such as the old League of Outlaws or the League of the Just.” [Karl Marx, Francis Wheen]
The growth of “economic” activity among workers, the creation of Trades Councils, Cooperative Societies and so on, opened a space for more or less public legal or semi-legal activity, especially in England, but also in France and Germany and elsewhere. Many of the revolutionary conspirators took the opportunity to broaden the scope of their activity. The declaration of the Communist Manifesto, that “the Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims” marked a turn away from the secret societies to open political propaganda.
When some English trade unionists got together in November 1864 and declared the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association and co-opted the German emigré Karl Marx on to its General Council, a completely new political force showed itself. Over a couple of decades before, there had been a number of attempts by the various secret societies in different European countries to come together, with London invariably the meeting place. Political refugees mingled with Chartist agitators and trades council delegates. The Democratic Association and the Universal League invented the organisational forms later adopted by the International. In 1864 the leagues and brotherhoods of the early communist movement gave real flesh to a dramatic new form of political radicalism, with international reach, an historical vision and a program.
The founding General Council was made up of 27 English trade unionists, three French Proudhonists, two Italian revolutionaries, Marx’s supporter, the German tailor Eccarius and Marx himself. While Marx loved the work, wrote many of the policy documents and manifestos, and attended meetings tirelessly, he was more than ambivalent about his own right to be a member. Membership was restricted to workers, and members of the professions and middle-class intelligentsia were rarely allowed to join. In general, the International grew by the affiliation of whole organisations, in the manner of a trade union federation.
The French section, initially controlled by Proudhonist study cricles who hated strikes, recoiled at the growing militancy of the International and aspired to the peaceful transformation of the workers into petty-bourgeois, was fixed up by the French government. The whole section was thrown into prison. While inside, its young members became acquainted with the older generation of Blanquists; meanwhile outside, the International was signing up French workers by post. By the time they got out the International had the genuinely radical and proletarian French section it deserved.
The International had numerous affiliates in each country, rapidly spreading across Europe, trade unions, educational associations, cooperatives and political groupings affiliated directly to the International; when the Amalgamated society of Engineers affiliated, 33,000 workers of indeterminate political persuasion, joined the International. Its membership was always indeterminate; thousands would sign up in the wake of a successful strike, and then drift away.
The principal activity of the International was its intervention in strikes, blocking the importation of strike-breakers and raising strike funds; with an industrial working class springing up all across Europe, the International spread rapidly and soon became a genuine organisation of the working class. But it was not a trade union federation and nor was it a political party.
Italian revolutionaries, Spanish republicans, English trade unionists with no political agenda at all, Polish nationalists, Blanquists and Bakuninist anarchists, millennialist socialist sects all had their own idea of what the International was. But no longer were they isolated; radical literature of every imaginable variety and language circulated around the slums and factories in every part of Europe, all bearing the name of the International.
The IWA was not a secret society, but was open and public. Its Congresses were reported in The Times:
“It is not ... a mere improvement that is contemplated, but nothing less than a regeneration, and that not of one nation only, but of mankind. This is certainly the most extensive aim ever contemplated by any institution, with the exception, perhaps, of the Christian Church. To be brief, this is the programme of the International Workingmen’s Association.” [The Times, September, 1868, from History of The First International G M Stekloff]
Many a time members of the International, when brought before a court charged with membership of a secret society, could claim their innocence on the basis that the International was not a secret society but openly declared its aims and recruited in public.
The International was the organisation of class formation par excellence. Along with capitalist manufacture, the proletariat was just coming into being. The International actively fostered and promoted its self-consciousness. The International was not a mass political party, though here and there it contested elections and over time its socialist program did take shape; it was not a trade union, though it did succeed before it collapsed in irreversibly implanting in the trade union movement, an internationalism, a socialist consciousness and radical political spirit.
The conflict between anarchism and communism began in 1870. By 1872, Bakunin enjoyed the majority support in the International, commanding support mainly in those countries where capitalist industry was least developed.
“[In 1870], the working-class movement had not yet assumed permanent shape; in such lands [other than England and Germany] there was no socialist party; even the trade union movement existed as yet only in a rudimentary form. Concomitantly with the birth and development of these national [socialist and trade union] organisations, the International grew weaker and lost ground ... a firm foundation for the International could only be built upon stable national organisations; ... during the period when the latter were coming into existence and being developed, the old International had temporarily to leave the stage.” [History of the First International, Stekloff, 1928]
The failure of the Paris Commune of 1871, which had repeated on a larger scale the absurd lack of coordination noted by Blanqui in 1830, opened up a decade of reaction in Europe. It also emphasised the need for an ideologically coherent and organised national form of organisation for the working class if such heroic farces were not to be repeated. The influx of Blanquist and Bakuninist refugees into Swiss and English branches aggravated the already growing tensions within the branches of the International, the growing gentrification of the English union leaders led to a growing distance between the International and the English working class. Marx and Engels proposed the removal of the International’s centre to New York, where it died a natural death. The Anarchist International continued for some years afterwards. But as Stekloff suggests, once the working class of a country had found its feet, it had to form its own political party, and the “mutual aid” of the old International was of little use.
Wilhelm Liebknecht declared at the inaugural congress of the Second International in Paris in 1889:
“The International Workingmen’s Association pointed out to the workers the general aim, made clear to them the need for a solid front and for fighting shoulder to shoulder like brothers; the First International fulfilled its mission. It did not die, but passed into the mighty working-class movement in many lands, and it continues to live in this movement.” [from History of the First International, Stekloff 1928]
The word Communism had entered the language in the 1830s. In the following decades the words solidarity (1840s), internationalism (1850s) and collectivism (1880s) entered the English language. What arose in the aftermath of the demise of the International were Social-Democratic political parties resting on the working class of each nation.
The liberal and conservative, protectionist and free-trade parties of the bourgeoisie would gradually, over the next 50 years, give way to political parties resting directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, on proletariat or bourgeoisie. It was the era of “class against class.”
This sharp class division, which is implicit in the structure of Marx’s Capital, only reflected how things were done in the manufacturing industries of the Britain when it was the “workshop of the world.” This was much the same as what we would today associate with the sweatshops of Thailand, the Philippines or enterprise zones anywhere in the world - workers are literally locked inside the factory for long hours, paid barely enough to live, and fined for underproduction or minor infractions. The definition of productivity under these conditions was to have as few “unproductive” supervisors and overseers as possible and make the workers work as long and as hard as possible.
Naturally, under such conditions, leaders of the workers’ movement, such as Karl Kautsky, anticipated the ever-increasing size of the proletariat, its ever-growing militancy and organisation, alongside the continued concentration of capital in the hands of great trusts and corporations, the eradication of petty-capital, inevitably leading to a polarisation which would place the social democrats in a position to form a government and implement the socialist program with overwhelming numbers on their side.
“We consider the breakdown of the present social system to be unavoidable, because we know that the economic evolution inevitably brings on conditions that will compel the exploited classes to rise against this system of private ownership. We know that this system multiplies the number and the strength of the exploited, and diminishes the number and strength of the exploiting, classes, and that it will finally lead to such unbearable conditions for the mass of the population that they will have no choice but to go down into degradation or to overthrow the system of private property. ...” [Kautsky, The Class Struggle, 1892, Chapter IV. §1. Social Reform and Social Revolution]
“Ever larger and more powerful grows today the mass of the propertyless workers for whom the existing system is unbearable; who have nothing to lose by its downfall, but everything to gain; who are bound - unless they are willing to go down with the society of which they have become the most important part - to call into being a social order that shall correspond to their interests. ...
“As things stand today capitalist civilisation cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism.” [The Class Struggle, Chapter IV. §6]
Not only would economic forces fashion the modern working class and compel it to make revolution, there was no need for the working class to seek alliances with other parties or classes:
“The last decade has certainly nurtured a growing hatred for the proletariat amongst the petty bourgeoisie. The proletariat must base its policy on the expectation that it will fight the coming battles alone.... because of his intermediate situation between the capitalist and the proletarian, the petit bourgeois wavers back and forth between the two, now on one side, now on the other. We cannot count on him, he will always be an unreliable ally ... But that does not exclude the possibility that, some day, under the impact of an intolerable burden of taxation and of a sudden moral collapse of the ruling class, the petit bourgeoisie will come over to us en masse, and will perhaps sweep away our opponents, and decide our victory.” [Road to Power, 1909, Chapter 9]
“If there is one thing that will rob us of the confidence of all the honest elements among the masses and that will gain us the contempt of all strata of the proletariat ready and willing to fight, that will bar the road to our progress, then it is participation by Social Democracy in any bloc policy.” [ibid.]
While “scientific consciousness” presupposes assimilation of the whole body of the culture of society, and Kautsky no more than anyone else denied this, Kautsky relied upon the emergence of a “general crisis” to awaken political or “class consciousness” in the working class, and underestimated the relative independence of the political and economic class struggle. Better to allow this crisis to mature than to either short-circuit history by pre-emptive action or parliamentary compromises:
“Anxious friends fear that the Social Democracy may gain state power prematurely by means of a revolution. But if for us there is a premature attainment of state power, it will come from gaining the appearance of state power before the revolution; that is, before the proletariat has gained real political power. As long as it has not gained this, the Social Democracy can only obtain a share in state power by selling its political strength to a bourgeois government.” [ibid.]
The above words of Kautsky are chosen from the period when he was the foremost advocate of social revolution, before the break with Lenin or Luxemburg.
Rosa Luxemburg was distinguished by first coming out clearly and strongly against the implications of the reformist social-democratic perspective which relied on the inevitability of such a polarisation as an alternative to self-emancipation. Luxemburg realised that proletarian subjectivity was not fully formed in the economic or sectoral struggle, but required political-ideological formation and that this had to be a specific element of the socialist programme. Luxemburg shared Kautsky’s conviction that the working class would make the revolution alone, but challenged the conception of a party able to represent and direct the class struggle on its behalf, constantly emphasising the interpenetration of the self-organising capacity of the working class on the one hand and political and ideological direction of the social democratic party on the other.
“... the task of social democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but, first and foremost, in the political leadership of the whole movement.
“The social democrats are the most enlightened, most class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. They cannot and dare not wait, in a fatalist fashion, with folded arms for the advent of the “revolutionary situation,” to wait for that which in every spontaneous peoples’ movement, falls from the clouds. On the contrary, they must now, as always, hasten the development of things and endeavour to accelerate events.” [The Mass Strike, Ch 6, 1906]
Two lines of development sprung from this conjuncture however, which transformed the political landscape and led to new varieties of political flora and fauna: (i) the effect of “combined and uneven development” as the methods and organisation of large-scale European and America industry penetrated into regions where neither an indigenous bourgeoisie or proletariat had developed, and (ii) the introduction of Frederick Taylor’s methods of production, initially in America in the 1880s and later in Europe and elsewhere.
Taylor redefined what could be meant by “productive labour,” holding that about 25% of employees in large-scale industry ought to be engaged in the “science” of work, observing, measuring, supervising and directing the work of others.
“The belief is almost universal among manufacturers that for economy the number of brain workers, or non-producers, as they are called, should be as small as possible in proportion to the number of producers, i.e., those who actually work with their hands. An examination of the most successful establishments will, however, show that the reverse is true.” [Shop Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor, 1903]
Taylor enumerated seventeen different roles in a manufacturing workshop that were formerly performed by a single “gang-boss” or the “productive” workers themselves. He proposed that a specific department be established for each of these functions, employing one or a number of functional bosses. Most of these new positions were filled by promotion from the shop-floor, and participation in the new form of management brought wage increases of at least 30% to gain acceptance by the workers, and financed by productivity levels that were up to ten times what they had been previously. Every single worker would be in receipt of pay set individually according to their level of productivity and responsibility. Active efforts were made to gain the consent of the workers, one at a time, to increasing productivity, while time-and-motion measurements were used to make it also impossible for workers to “go slow” without being detected. Collective bargaining practices were not to be banned by the management but simply undermined by the offering superior wages on an individual basis to what was negotiated on a collective basis. Increasingly workers who took a “class-stand” would be marginalised and ghettoed into low paid jobs, while others moved into technical and supervisory positions or enjoyed high rates of pay working under the new “scientific management.”
This led to an ever-evolving stratification of the proletariat, including theoretical and supervisory work as component parts of productive labour. The profundity of this change cannot be overestimated: the orthodox social democratic perspective of increasing polarisation would become unviable.
“Taylorism” is usually, and not without a real basis, associated with ultra-discipline and control of labour and the fragmentation of the labour process into mindless and repetitive tasks measured and rewarded by the stop-watch. [The symbol of the giant decimal clock in Fritz Lang’s movie Metropolis was pointedly based on Taylor’s decimal stopwatch.] But this misses the main point, as in this respect it was only the replacement of brute force and terror by science so far as the mass of manual workers was concerned. It was the dramatic blurring of class lines, associated with very significant increases in productivity and, for many workers, increases in living standards, which was the real social impact of Taylorism. Life inside the factory itself no longer resembled the picture of class polarisation which lay at the foundation of socialist and trade union strategy. Whole new social strata of productive wage workers grew up whose relations to the employers and the other employees were entirely problematic. And it was exactly this outcome that Taylor was aiming at.
“One of the marked advantages of scientific management lies in its freedom from strikes. The writer has never been opposed by a strike, although he has been engaged for a great part of his time since 1883 in introducing this type of management in different parts of the country and in a great variety of industries. ... The writer has seen, however, several times after the introduction of this system, the members of labor unions who were working under it leave the union in large numbers because they found that they could do better under the operation of the system than under the laws of the union.” [Frederick Taylor, Shop Management, 1903]
The other element which contributed to the change of political terrain, but this time specifically on the international plane, was the introduction of modern manufacturing plant into countries where there had not already grown up an indigenous bourgeoisie and proletariat.
The effect of the penetration of imperialist production into Russia (for example) meant that the proletariat growing up in its cities, attracted by the employment opportunities offered by the giant new manufacturing plants, had to lead a mass of dispersed, semi-literate peasants, aspiring not to socialism, but to land-ownership, in a “proletarian-democratic” revolution, catching up and telescoping the protracted development which had taken place in the “West.”
Since the 1870s social-democrats had looked forward to a revolution in Russia which would be led by social-democracy, based in the militant Russian working class, but which would introduce, not socialism, but capitalism and bourgeois democracy in Russia. This is implicit when Rosa Luxemburg remarks:
“In the case of the enlightened German worker the class consciousness implanted by the social democrats is theoretical and latent: in the period ruled by bourgeois parliamentarism it cannot, as a rule, actively participate in a direct mass action; it is the ideal sum of the four hundred parallel actions of the electoral sphere during the election struggle, of the many partial economic strikes and the like. In the revolution when the masses themselves appear upon the political battlefield this class-consciousness becomes practical and active. A year of revolution has therefore given the Russian proletariat that “training” which thirty years of parliamentary and trade-union struggle cannot artificially give to the German proletariat. Of course, this living, active class feeling of the proletariat will considerably diminish in intensity, or rather change into a concealed and latent condition, after the close of the period of revolution and the erection of a bourgeois-parliamentary constitutional state.” [The Mass Strike, 1906]
Lenin solved this conundrum by means of a class alliance in which the organised working class, amounting to no more than a few percent of the population, led the peasant masses, and created the most progressive revolution in history. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was executed along the classic lines anticipated by social democrats, by the urban proletariat led by the Communist Party; but the Soviet state thus created could only be defended by winning over the peasantry who would make up the ranks of the Red Army which defended the Revolution against the invading armies of imperialism. However, the dynamic set up by the Russian revolution, which conditioned progressive struggles throughout the 20th century, was contradictory in its impact. This will be considered presently.
Already, early on in the 20th century a new process of restructuring of capitalist production had begun, which was to have profound effects on the political landscape and the flora and fauna inhabiting it: Fordism. Henry Ford redefined profit and market-share. The truism that the lower the wages you paid your employees and the higher the price you charged for your product, the higher would be your profits, was turned inside out by Ford who deliberately paid his workers more, reduced hours of work and sold his cars for less. His highly profitable revolution transformed America and the entire world.
The kind of political problems which would arise from this kind of industry were probably first glimpsed by the communist-sociologists of the Institute for Social Research (the Frankfurt School), who first applied the opinion poll to political science and delved into the mass consciousness of the working class.
Antonio Gramsci was the first to theorise the new political landscape, adapting the concept of hegemony to grasp the way in which politics was structured in this epoch. Gramsci rejected the Kautskyian model of class representation for a politics of class formation.
“if it is true that parties are only the nomenclature for classes, it is also true that parties are not simply a mechanical and passive expression of those classes, but react energetically upon them in order to develop, solidify and universalize them.” [Prison Notebooks, Q3§119, 1930]
Gramsci welcomed the Russian Revolution in 1917 as a break from the determinist conception of history which meant waiting for the pre-conditions for socialism to mature within the framework of capitalism, initially calling it a “revolution against [Marx’s] Capital.” At the same time Gramsci criticised Luxemburg for underestimating the depth of the defences of bourgeois society, likening it to the trenches of contemporary warfare, against which a “war of movement” and frontal assault was foolhardy.
In his understanding of the concept of hegemony, he recognised that the advent of the national state and the entry of the broad masses into political life required specifically political and ideological struggle to win them over and integrate them. Specific mechanisms were required to extend and concretise the class alliances first elaborated in Lenin’s policy of a class alliance between the working class and the peasantry.
“The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of class alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the working population against capitalism and the bourgeois state. ... In Italy, the peasant question, ... has taken two typical and particular forms - the Southern question and that of the Vatican. Winning the majority of the peasant masses thus means, for the Italian proletariat, making these two questions its own from the social point of view; understanding the class demands which they represent; incorporating these demands into its revolutionary transitional programme; placing these demands among the objectives for which it struggles. ...
“The proletariat, in order to become capable as a class of governing, must strip itself of every residue of corporatism, every syndicalist prejudice and incrustation. What does this mean? That, in addition to the need to overcome the distinctions which exist between one trade and another, it is necessary - in order to win the trust and consent of the peasants and of some semi-proletarian urban categories - to overcome certain prejudices and conquer certain forms of egoism which can and do subsist within the working class as such, even when craft particularism has disappeared. The metalworker, the joiner, the building-worker, etc., must not only think as proletarians, and no longer as metal-worker, joiner, building-worker, etc.; they must also take a further step. They must think as workers who are members of a class which aims to lead the peasants and intellectuals. Of a class which can win and build socialism only if it is aided and followed by the great majority of these social strata. If this is not achieved, the proletariat does not become the leading class; and these strata (which in Italy represent the majority of the population), remaining under bourgeois leadership, enable the State to resist the proletarian assault and wear it down.” [L’Ordine Nuovo, January 1920]
The Russian Revolution, and the formation of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1919, unified the working class across the world, drawing into its ranks millions inspired by the Revolution and in the wake of the Wall Street Crash which threw millions into employment and penury, opened up new opportunities for the workers’ movement to place itself at the head of mass movements across the world.
Gramsci later described the task before the Comintern as follows:
“Undoubtedly the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium should be formed - in other words, that the leading group [i.e., class] should make sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind. But there is also no doubt that such sacrifices and such a compromise cannot touch the essential; for though hegemony is ethico-political, it must also be economic, must necessarily be based on the decisive function exercised by the leading group [i.e., class] in the decisive nucleus of economic activity.” [Q13§18, 1932]
The Communist International had assumed the leading position on the Left, but the Socialist International did not disappear; it restabilised itself, retaining an organisation in most countries, and generally speaking, with a stable base amongst the unionised and better-off workers. Meanwhile, the Comintern insisted on its exclusive right to lead progressive struggles and characterised its opponents in the workers’ movement as “social fascists.” The problem of class unity now took on an additional dimension.
In the 1930s, this split proved an increasing obstacle social progress and amidst unprecedented social crisis, Hitler threatened to seize power in Germany. Trotsky proposed the policy of class alliance in the form of United Front, aimed at unifying the working-class, now divided between mass Social Democratic and Communist Parties, so as to be capable of drawing behind it the broader masses.
Trotsky’s formula for United Front:
“No common platform with the Social Democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions, no common publications, banners, placards! March separately, but strike together! Agree only how to strike, whom to strike, and when to strike! Such an agreement can be concluded even with the devil himself, with his grandmother, and even with Noske and Grezesinsky. On one condition, not to bind one’s hands. “ [Trotsky, For a Workers’ United Front Against Fascism, December 1931]
emphasised the unity of the working class despite its being split between two mutually hostile political parties. The United Front policy was intended to allow the continued struggle for leadership between the contending working class parties, while maintaining the unity of working class ranks. This unity would not be achieved before Hitler had triumphed and it was too late. The Comintern did then abandon its go-it-alone policy, but developed the Popular Front policy, which aimed to unite “all progressive forces,” irrespective of class.
In Australia, in September 1938 the CPA explained the policy in this way:
‘The general form of the People’s Front in this country might be described as follows: It will consist of the Labor Party, which is the mass political organisation of the working class embracing the trade union movement. It must cover organisations of farmers including groups in the Country Party which are in opposition to the reactionary groups who betray the farmers. It will need to embrace the middle class in the cities and the towns and their organisations and also groups in the United Australia Party [of Robert Menzies] who are discontented with their leadership. The People’s Front implies the participation of the Communist Party and the Labor Party. ...
‘Unfortunately the Labor Party, instead of taking the course of working to achieve agreement with the malcontents of the UAP and the Country Party, set out to abuse them. ... agreement should be extended to the elections and provide that the Labor Party will not run candidates in electorates contested by UAP and Country Party members who have lined up against Lyons.’
Although for very brief moments in separate countries instances of the unity of the Communist Party and the Social-Democratic Party occurred, these were never more than episodic and partial, and in the main it can be said that the policy of a United Front of all working class parties never eventuated. The nearest thing to the United Front (or “Proletarian Front” in Comintern language) of multiple working class parties, coming to fruition was the United Proletarian Brotherhood set up by the Asturian miners in 1934, which launched an insurrection, but was brutally crushed by Franco’s Moroccan troops.
Trotsky argued against the “popular front” and “union of progressive forces” as follows:
“A bloc of divergent political groups of the working class is sometimes completely indispensable for the solution of common practical problems. In certain historical circumstances, such a bloc is capable of attracting the oppressed petty-bourgeois masses whose interests are close to the interests of the proletariat. The joint force of such a bloc can prove far stronger than the sum of the forces of each of its component parts. On the contrary, the political alliance between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests on basic questions in the present epoch diverge at an angle of 180 degrees, as a general rule is capable only of paralyzing the revolutionary force of the proletariat.” [Trotsky, The Lessons of Spain, January 1938]
The Comintern policy of Popular Front aimed at solidarising the workers with “progressive sections of the bourgeoisie” and the peasant masses. Although the proletariat was to be the “leading force” in the Popular Front, in relation to other working class parties, calls for “proletarian unity” only signalled the intention of the Comintern to silence its dissenting rivals.
Where they did form, the Popular Fronts were class alliances, negotiated between the leaders of parties, representing distinct social strata and classes, but did not create an arena for the struggle for influence and leadership of the mass movement in the way envisaged by Trotsky, since the pacts were invariably predicated on mutual “non-aggression” pacts between the respective party leaders.
It was these political formations, the definitions of “collectivity” which dominated the 1930s and 40s - the great United, Popular and Democratic Fronts - which were to define the political geography of the whole globe.
Through these formations, parties representing definite social bases, sought to construct counter-hegemonies, and distribute benefits and capture the intellectual and moral leadership of society. They were not coalitions or alliances though; one party constituted the “leading force,” but the social composition of the Front was deliberately and genuinely diverse.
The consolidation of the Stalinised USSR, the Great Depression and the triumph of Fascism in Europe left little room for emancipatory politics. Nevertheless, it was in this period that the conception of the Front - be it “Democratic,” “Proletarian,” “Popular” or “United” or whatever - took hold.
The Second World War and its aftermath, however, led to a gigantic historic compromise which gave new life to the social-democratic project. It also meant a degree of prosperity and stability for the working class of the US and Europe. Ruthless MacCarthyite repression of the Left, welfare-state policies, post-war reconstruction and infrastructure-building projects, controlled inflation based on the US dollar, application of Marshall Aid funds as a geopolitical lever - a whole series of political and economic measures - were deliberatively applied to prevent a return to the civil conflict of the inter-war years.
In Red Army-occupied Europe, the Popular Front policy took the form of governments in which the role of the non-proletarian parties was played by phantom entities created for the purpose by the occupying forces, who in reality constituted the state. But outside of the areas assigned under the Yalta Agreement to the Soviet Union, especially in the former colonies, the Popular Front conception took on real meaning.
Excluded from the post-war historic compromise however, was:
firstly, the mass of the former colonies, now rising in rebellion against a weakened imperialism. The second group which had been excluded from the benefits of the post-war compromise, who were directly inspired by the national liberation movements, were the US Blacks. The third group to be mentioned is women. It was these groups excluded from the post-war compromise which now led rebellion.
The post-war conjunction led to the USSR placing itself in the leadership of many national liberation movements striving for modernisation and national self-determination. National, popular fronts embracing all those who were being excluded from the spoils of empire, whole peoples, all the classes of a given nation, together, albeit led by the international party of the proletariat. These national liberation movements were the beginning of the “new” social movements - cross-class, popular movements in pursuit of an idea, an idea of self-determination and enjoyment, of recognition.
In China, efforts had been made towards a National Front to fight the Japanese, but after the war, national liberation took the form of a civil war against the Kuo Min Tang in which the Chinese Communist Party, whose cadre were drawn from the urban intelligentsia and working class, led a peasant army. Elsewhere the Communist Party played the “leading role” in National Liberation Fronts, with much the same composition. In some countries however, such as Indonesia, the Communist Party did not initially play this role, but the basic social formation was the same, that of a “Front” uniting all social classes in pursuit of national liberation. India was also another story.
The National People’s Front which operated in the Philippines up until the early 1990s was typical of the Front formation. Despite the fact that the Front brought together a diversity of broad organisations operating in distinct social strata, the Philippines Communist Party controlled the Front with an iron fist.
Whether under the whip of MacCarthyite and Cold War terror or under the discipline of Stalinist and social-democratic parties, class compromise eventually prevailed in Europe and North America. The national liberation struggle was the main game so far as struggles for emancipation were concerned. Even where the Communist Parties were not the “leading force” in these struggles, often, such as in Cuba, the newly independent nations had to find refuge within the orbit of the Soviet Union or China. Consequently, the language of class struggle often blurred the cross-class character of the movements. Nevertheless, what was fighting imperialism was not a class, but whole peoples united arms-in-hand under the banner of recognition of their own national independence. This had a transforming effect everywhere.
Frantz Fanon expressed it this way:
“We believe that the conscious and organised undertaking by a colonised people to re-establish the sovereignty of that nation constitutes the most complete and obvious cultural manifestation that exists. .... The struggle for freedom does not give back to the national culture its former value and shapes; this struggle which aims at a fundamentally different set of relations between men cannot leave intact either the form or the content of the people’s culture. After the conflict there is not only the disappearance of colonialism but also the disappearance of the colonised man.
“This new humanity cannot do otherwise than define a new humanism both for itself and for others.” [Speech by Frantz Fanon at the Congress of Black African Writers, 1959]
The victory of the Revolution in Cuba, a short way off the coast of Florida, really drove the point home to Americans.
The fate of the different national liberation struggles was as diverse as the countries themselves, but that does not concern us here. The point is that, as Fanon had predicted, these struggles functioned directly as an inspiration to Black and indigenous people oppressed within the imperialist countries, but first of all the American Blacks.
The complexity of this conjuncture defies narration. Hopefully, the reader will forgive me the schematism of the exposition, in which the objective is solely to bring out the transitions taking place in the form of emancipatory subjectivity.
In the U.S., the centuries-old struggle of Afro-Americans against slavery, “Jim Crow” laws and other forms of racial oppression had already begun to gain momentum as a result of war-time experiences.
When Rosa Parks was arrested in December 1955, for refusing to move to the black section of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King rose to prominence as leader of a rapidly growing mass social movement. King described himself as a “socialised democrat,” and most of his closest advisers were current or former members of the Communist Party until it was banned by the MacCarthyite laws. Mahatma Gandhi was however far more obvious as an inspiration than Mao or Ho Chi Minh in those days. It was a genuine social movement. At its base were Church groups, neighbourhood associations, families, union locals, political party branches, sharing nothing in common but the ideal of racial tolerance.
The character of the movement is captured in King’s “I have a dream ...” speech. Like the Peace Movement, the Civil Rights Movement was organised around an ideal, an ideal purified of even national content, but an ideal capable of mobilising millions and engendering self-sacrifice and life-long struggle and dedication. And many of its leaders indeed died for the cause.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed ... We have waited for more than 300 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace towards gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park ... There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair ...
“Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself and that is what has happened to the American Negro. Something within has reminded him of his birthright and freedom, and something without has reminded him that it can be gained. Consciously or unconsciously, he has been caught up by the Zeitgeist, and with his black brothers of Africa and his brown and yellow brothers of the Asia, South America and Caribbean, the United States Negro is moving with a sense of great urgency toward the promised land of racial justice.” [Letter from Birmingham Jail, May 1963]
The Civil Rights Movement drew strength, confidence and inspiration directly from the national liberation struggles. Soon it began also to draw tactical and strategic lessons as well. Malcolm X observed: “While King is having a dream, the rest of us Negroes are having a nightmare.” By the time of King’s assassination in April 1968, the Black Panther Black Liberation Movement, founded in October 1966, had already become the most dynamic and challenging faction within the Civil Rights Movement, demanding not just equality, but self-determination for the Black community and determined to pursue their objective arms in hand. The Black Panthers were subsequently repressed with murderous force beginning in December 1969.
Like any social movement, once its abstract notion (its ideal) was formed, it developed from abstract to concrete. That is to say, although organised around an ideal, as this ideal was pursued in the various aspects of social life, the movement went through a process of differentiation and crystallisation of its myriad of local groups into a new configuration along social and ideological lines. The struggle of tendencies which was lacking in the Fronts of the 1930s and ‘40s flourished within this social movement. This process led eventually to its institutionalisation and the incorporation in laws and norms of social life, to its objectification. Although there may appear to be a superficial similarity between the organising bodies of the Civil Rights Movement and the National Liberation Fronts, both being organised around an ideal, in essence and in actuality they were quite different.
Even the Black Panthers only demanded the just implementation of the U.S. Constitution, not its overthrow, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence in their founding 10 Point Plan. The Civil Rights Movement did not and could not seek state power or its overthrow (The Nation of Islam notwithstanding), but rather recognition and social equality within American society. All successful national liberation movements, on the other hand, transformed themselves into states and their governments.
It is necessary to mention here the Peace Movement. Peace Movements, of a largely pacifist character have existed in the wake of wars in the past. The world-wide character of World War Two, and the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation which followed, stamped its character on the Peace Movement of this time. The Movement was initiated by Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Linus Pauling and other Nobel Prize winners in 1955, in the wake of Atom Bomb tests by Britain and the Soviet Union and it mobilised large numbers of young middle-class people in Europe and America. The Peace Movement in the US intersected with the Black Civil Rights Movement.
Emulating Gandhi’s tactics in the U.S., the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) launched the sit-in movement, at the segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Supermarkets, libraries, and movie theatres were targeted as the movement swept across the country. In May 1961, the Freedom Rides began. Tens of thousands of students participated, many thousands of whom were arrested and beaten.
These experiences alongside African-Americans transformed the student movement, who then turned to applying the same kind of militancy to issues of principle affecting them as students. The American student movement itself then ignited a world-wide upsurge of student radicalism.
Another factor which needs to be mentioned here is the rift which opened up between the progressive intelligentsia and the working class somewhere around the mid-1950s, possibly related to the suppression of the Hungarian Uprising. This was illustrated in 1968 by the bashing of students by Communists in Warsaw and the betrayal of the Paris students by the CGT. In actuality it was a split between the Stalinist movement and the intelligentsia, who had played such an important part in the Communist Parties and Popular Fronts of the inter-war years.
The coincidence of the bureaucratic suppression of the Prague Spring with the Tet Offensive, including the temporary occupation of the US Embassy in Saigon by the Viet Cong in January 1968, signalled a brand new line up of forces.
The intervention of the National Liberation and Civil Rights Movements in the Peace Movement and the Student Protest Movement, ignited new alignments under conditions where the working class was already facing its prospect of losing its hegemonic position on the Left.
The post-war historic compromise, the resistance of the organised working class, and the integration of the world economy under the US dollar contributed to the emergence of the social movements which by-passed the former “leading role” of the working class. The acceleration of the social division of labour, and most notably the socialisation of women’s labour constituted a dramatically new conjuncture as the post-war boom began to exhaust itself. The chain of reaction which ran from the national liberation movements to Black Liberation flowed on to Women’s Liberation. The third wave of the women’s movement was of a quite different character from the earlier waves. The word “sexism” entered the English language in 1968 by analogy with “racism” marking one of the sharpest discontinuities in social landscape the world has experienced.
Kate Millett expressed it this way:
“The study of racism has convinced us that a truly political state of affairs operates between the races to perpetuate a series of oppressive circumstances. The subordinated group has inadequate redress through existing political institutions, and is deterred thereby from organising into conventional political struggle and opposition.
“Quite in the same manner, a disinterested examination of our system of sexual relationship must point out that the situation between the sexes now, and throughout history, is a case of that phenomenon .... Through this system a most ingenious form of “interior colonisation” has been achieved. It is one which tends moreover to be sturdier than any form of segregation, and more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, certainly more enduring. However muted its present appearance may be, sexual dominion obtains nevertheless as perhaps the most pervasive ideology of our culture and provides its most fundamental concept of power.” [Sexual Politics, Kate Millett 1969]
While the women’s liberation movement introduced a critique of modern society which continues to this day to transform ideas, institutions and relationships and went to the heart of the human condition, it differed from the claim of the civil rights movement in that it introduced a “competitive” claim for recognition. Like the woman suffrage movement of the 1870s, women suspected that Blacks would get equality before women. Continuing in Kate Millett’s words:
“... our society, like all other historical civilisations, is a patriarchy. ... the priorities of maintaining male supremacy might outweigh even those of white supremacy; sexism may be more endemic in our own society than racism.” [Sexual Politics]
or in the words of an anonymous black woman quoted by Raya Dunayevskaya:
“I’m not thoroughly convinced that Black Liberation, the way it’s being spelled out, will really and truly mean my liberation. I’m not so sure that when it comes time ‘to put down my gun,’ that I won’t have a broom shoved in my hands, as so many of my Cuban sisters have.” [Dunayevskaya, New Forces &New Passions, 1973]
Exactly like the Civil Rights Movement though, the women’s movement was a genuine social movement, organised around an emancipatory idea with a social base which defied any notion of organisation, but all the more effectively did it penetrate and transform every branch and avenue of human life. It inspired bravery and self-sacrifice not so much in confronting authority on the streets (though that too!) but in a billion workplaces, kitchens and halls across the world. The invention of the aphorism “The personal is political,” added a quality which no social movement before it had had. In this process of institutionalisation and objectification, the women’s movement also developed radical, socialist, liberal and ... ultimately as many strands of feminism as there are women.
When I say that women raised a “competitive” claim for recognition, this is not to say that there was any essential conflict between each claim for recognition. On the contrary! But their consonance could only be anticipated. Both claims had to be established independently. However, the articulation of these claims had a logic which was quite different from, for example, the claims of the different nations claiming recognition of their independence. Rather than being the generalisation of the claim for liberty, as it had begun, it was a process of particularisation, of a notion of emancipation still in gestation.
“Us” was the whole nation for the national liberation movements, rather than “the working class” as it had been at the turn of the 20th century. This “us” was thus far broader and more inclusive, but it was really an abstract general, masking the relationships of exploitation and repression which made up the nation. What flowed from here was the process of particularisation. Blacks and Women formed different strata both excluded and oppressed within the relations of bourgeois society, but in ways which are inessential to the capitalist mode of production itself.
This process of particularisation gathered a momentum of its own. Beginning by uniting whole nations, it moved to increasingly particular definitions of “we”; vast national movements ignited massive social movements but it moved inexorably towards identity politics, towards a critical notion of power and domination articulated through intricate relations of stigmatisation lacking any centre.
Perhaps Michel Foucault best expressed the logic of this move:
“A task that consists of not - of no longer - treating discourses as groups of signs (signifying elements referring to contents or representations) but as practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak. Of course, discourses are composed of signs; but what they do is more than use these signs to designate things. It is this more that renders them irreducible to the language and to speech. it is this ‘more’ that we must reveal and describe.” [Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault 1971]
“The analysis made in terms of power must not assume that the sovereignty of the state, the form of the law, or the overall unity of a domination are given at the outset; rather, these are only the terminal forms power takes ... power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organisation. ... Power relations are both intentional and non-subjective. There is no power that is exercised without a series of aims and objectives. But this does not mean that it results from the choice or decision of an individual subject. ... Where there is power, there is resistance and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance s never in a position of exteriority in relation to power. ... the strictly relational character of power relationships ... resistance depends upon a multiplicity of points of resistance ... present everywhere in the power network. Hence there is no locus of great Refusal, no soul of revolt, source of all rebellions, or pure law of the revolutionary. Instead there is a plurality of resistances.” [History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault 1976]
So, there was no agency which could in advance validate all legitimate claims to recognition. Just because there were women, or there were disabled people, or whatever, did no ipso facto mean that there existed a legitimate claim to recognition. Each such agency had to form itself and stake its claim to recognition and fight for the objectification of that recognition.
Underlying this process of particularisation were new changes in production relations. After Second World War, Keynesian methods of state intervention in the economy, with controlled inflation, had been used to maintain a high levels of employment, growth and political stability. When the Keynesian methods failed with the break up of the Bretton Woods arrangements 1968-71, Milton Friedman’s monetarism, the opposite school of macro-economics was widely adopted, but it too soon proved as bankrupt as its predecessor. By the end of the 1980s, macro-economic strategies were being abandoned in favour of micro-economic “reform.” That is to say, instead of trying to control the working class by pulling strings from high above, the capitalists rolled up their sleeves and got stuck into the struggle at the level of the workplace itself.
Further elaboration of the division of labour, the increasing commodification of social relations, and in particular the growth of “service sector” forms of production and distribution fuelled the spread of “Toyotist” industrial methods (like the system of W. Edward Deming, and the Kaizen or “continuous improvement” methodology of Masaaki Imai), devolving intellectual labour, including product and process design, quality control and supervision right down to the shop floor.
Although these methods were adopted in Japan in the 1960s, it was not until the early 1980s, when U.S. businesses began to believe they were being eclipsed by the Japanese in both domestic and world markets, that they were embraced by the U.S. Having its immediate impact in the large, generally unionised, enterprises, these methods raised the stratification of the working class to new levels, while reinforcing the marginalisation of the lowest ranks of the proletariat.
In a sense, the Japanese industrialists ‘negated’ Taylorism by placing responsibility for the engineering of processes back on to the shoulders of the operatives, who had to form “quality circles,” enforce their own discipline and take responsibility for perfecting the production process. Meanwhile, servicing and supplying the core of full-time, permanent employees who formed these “self-managing” workgroups, was a mass of contractors, casual employees and outworkers. This mass was disciplined by insecurity, and it made little difference whether you were formally an employer or an employee.
Subsequently, the growth of franchises (transforming the former branch manager into an independent proprietor who could be screwed to the wall for the benefit of corporate profit) and the use of quasi-commercial relationships in lieu of direction in the internal structure of the large corporations (one-line budgets, internal competitive tendering, and so on), the widespread turn to out-sourcing and subcontracting (sometimes transforming the very same employees into contractors or consultants) was fashioning a new terrain in which the very contrast between production and exchange was obscured. Workers at the operative level were working in problems-solving teams and supervising each other, whilst line managers were cast as service-providers in relation to other parts of the same firm. Despite its invisibility, the rule of capital had been made all the more secure by its exclusive reliance on the commodity relation, and the diminution of antiquated forms of domination and discrimination.
Capital had become so ubiquitous, the polarisation of the 19th century so dispersed, that the politics of representation and recognition all but obliterated the politics of class. This brings us to the period of dominance of Identity Politics.
When a social movement assembles into its ranks such a degree of particularity that it has become identity, then we have arrived at a definition of “we” which barely merits the plural at all. Identity politics marked the end of the road for the social movements of the post-world war two period.
Naomi Klein, herself a self-confessed “ID warrior” of the 1990s, expressed the situation perfectly:
“We knew the fast food chains were setting up their stalls in the library and that profs in the applied sciences were getting awfully cozy with pharmaceutical companies, but finding out exactly what was going on in the boardrooms and labs would have required a lot of legwork, and, frankly, we were busy. We were fighting about whether Jews would be allowed in the racial equality caucus at the campus women’s center, and why the meeting to discuss it was scheduled at the same time as the lesbian and gay caucus - were the organizers implying that there were no Jewish lesbians? No black bisexuals?
“In the outside world. the politics of race, gender and sexuality remained tied to more concrete, pressing issues, like pay equity, same-sex spousal rights and police violence, and these serious movements were - and continue to be - a genuine threat to the economic and social order. But somehow, they didn’t seem terribly glamorous to students on many university campuses, for whom identity politics had evolved by the late eighties into something quite different. Many of the battles we fought were over issues of “representation” - a loosely defined set of grievances mostly lodged against the media, the curriculum and the English language. ...
“These issues have always been on the political agendas of both the civil-rights and the women’s movements and later, of the fight against AIDS. It was accepted from the start that part of what held back women and ethnic minorities was the absence of visible role models occupying powerful social positions, and that media-perpetuated stereotypes - embedded in the very fabric of the language - served to not so subtly reinforce the supremacy of white men. For real progress to take place, imaginations on both sides had to be decolonized. ...
“The backlash that identity politics inspired did a pretty good job of masking for us the fact that many of our demands for better representation were quickly accommodated by marketers, media makers and pop-culture producers alike - though perhaps not for the reasons we had hoped.
“... for many of the activists who had, at one point not so long ago, believed that better media representation would make for a more just world, one thing had become abundantly clear: identity politics weren’t fighting the system, or even subverting it. When it came to the vast new industry of corporate branding, they were feeding it. ...
“The need for greater diversity - the rallying cry of my university years - is now not only accepted by the culture industries, it is the mantra of global capital. And identity politics, as they were practiced in the nineties, weren’t a threat, they were a gold mine. “This revolution,” writes cultural critic Richard Goldstein in The Village Voice, “turned out to be the savior of late capitalism.” And just in time, too.” [Patriarchy gets Funky, Naomi Klein, 2001]
It was from this ground that a new political animal began to evolve - the alliance, the absolute abstract general collective.
In passing, it should be mentioned that the transitional form through which the Alliance emerged out of the terrain of Identity Politics was the Independent. Individual personalities with standing in the community stood in elections and acted as focal points for a wide spectrum of activists to come together in their support, without any need or ability to work out a program beyond a very amorphous range of progressive, usually local slogans. There have been, of course, efforts to transform these Independent campaigns into political parties and draft up programs, but so far as I know these efforts have never really succeeded. Independents will still have a role to play, but in the main they were a transitional form en route to alliance politics.
Before completing this historical section, consideration is due to the social movement which has proved most tenacious in continuing to exist as a social movement, and that is the Environmental Movement. Like the Peace Movement, the Green Movement was actually initiated “from above,” by the Club of Rome, an elite group of national and business leaders which met in Rome in 1968 focussing on the “North-South divide,” and in 1972 published the epochal document Limits to Growth. The environmental movement became of course a world-wide popular, grass-roots movement which unrelentingly challenges the kind of people who met in Rome in 1968. It’s trajectory varies greatly from country to country, and there is no need to follow its complex history here. In many respects its development has meant, just like other successful social movements, the objectification of its ideal by way of laws, institutions and social norms thoroughly incorporated into modern life.
Nevertheless, despite this objectification, the Green Movement continues to exist in many countries as an extremely broad and vibrant social movement as such, including those who function squarely as part of the objectification or institutionalisation of the movement, those who operate within the political sphere within both industrialised countries and in developing countries, and those who live in intentional communities “opting out” of mainstream political life. This is possible, perhaps, because over and above its specific demands in relation to care of the Earth, the Green movement has always incorporated ethical principles which so far defy such institutionalisation.
Perhaps this fact could be understood on the basis that there are, fundamentally, two universals binding humanity into a whole: on the one hand, universal social and political life, founded on the growth of the world market, i.e., the exchange of human labour and material products, and consequently the actualisation of “world history,” and on the other hand, the finite and interconnected bio-sphere we share whether consciously or not, i.e., the fact that we breath the same pollutable air, are flooded by and drink from the same water-systems and so on. There is thus an element of intersubjectivity which transcends the moral common sense which may arise on the basis of relationships mediated by labour or the products of labour. Such a sense can only arise through a shared sense of Nature.
Consequently, the Environmental Movement has a quite special place in the period now to be considered.
In their much-acclaimed Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt also sketched an outline of the development of emancipatory collective subjectivity over the same period. Their outline is as follows:
“Between the communist revolutions of 1917 and 1949, the great anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, and the numerous liberation struggles of the 1960s up to those of 1989, the conditions of the citizenship of the multitude were born, spread, and consolidated. Far from being defeated, the revolutions of the twentieth century have each pushed forward and transformed the terms of class conflict, posing the conditions of a new political subjectivity, an insurgent multitude against imperial power. [Empire, p. 394]
“The first phase of properly capitalist worker militancy, that is, the phase of industrial production that preceded the full deployment of Fordist and Taylorist regimes, was defined by the figure of the professional worker, the highly skilled worker organised hierarchically in industrial production. This militancy primarily transforming the specific power of the valorization of the worker’s own labor and productive cooperation into a weapon to be used in a project of reappropriation, a project in which the singular figure of the worker’s own productive power would be exalted. A republic of worker councils was its slogan; a soviet of producers was its telos; and autonomy in the articulation of modernization was its program. The birth of the modern trade union and the construction of the party as vanguard both date from this period of worker struggles and effectively overdetermine it.
“The second phase of capitalist worker militancy, which corresponded to the deployment of Fordist and Taylorist regimes, was defined by the figure of the mass worker. The militancy of the mass worker combined its own self-valorization as a refusal of factory work and the extension of its power over all mechanisms of social reproduction. Its program was to create a real alternative to the system of capitalist power. The organization of mass trade unions, the construction of the welfare state, and social-democratic reformism were all results of the relations of force that the mass worker defined and the overdetermination it imposed on capitalist development. The communist alternative acted in this phase as a counter-power within the processes of capitalist development.
“Today, in the [third] phase of worker militancy that corresponds to the post-Fordist, informational regimes of production, there arises the figure of the social worker. In the figure of the social worker the various threads of immaterial labor-power are being woven together. A constituent power that connects mass intellectuality and self-valorization in all the arenas of the flexible and nomadic productive social cooperation is the order of the day. In other words, the program of the social worker is a project of constitution. ... a biopolitical unity managed by the multitude, organized by the multitude, directed by the multitude - absolute democracy in action.” [Empire, pp 409-10]
The comparison and contrast of this scheme with the one presented above can be left to the reader. The principal difference this author has is with Hardt/Negri’s assertion that the current conjuncture constitutes the phase of complete formation of the self-conscious “multitude,” while:
“The only event we are still awaiting is the construction, or rather insurgence, of a powerful organization. The genetic chain is formed and established and renewed by the new cooperative productivity, and this we await only the maturation of the political development of the posse. We do not have any models to offer for this event. Only the multitude through its practical experimentation will offer the models and determine when and how the possible becomes real.” [Empire, p. 411]
To begin with acclaiming the constitution of a self-conscious world-wide proletariat, and then go on to “await” the “insurgence” of its world-party, is to gloss over just where the movement is at at the moment, and what ways forward may be open to it.
In sketching this development of collective subjectivity over the past 170 years, I do not suggest that, when one form of subjectivity and its opposite is overtaken by a new form of subjectivity and struggle, that the old form disappears. On the contrary, as Hegel puts it:
“In the sphere of Essence one category does not pass into another, but refers to another merely. ... In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other. The transition of Essence is therefore at the same time no transition: for in the passage of different into different, the different does not vanish: the different terms remain in their relation.” [The Shorter Logic, §111n]
That is to say, the succession of forms of subjectivity which arise and shine like bright stars under certain conditions, continue on, side by side with others. Changes in the forms of oppression and exploitation which spur them to action, and the working out of contradictions within their own internal logic combine at a certain point to throw them into crisis and they are cast into a subordinate role by a new form of subjectivity. They still continue, but they are secondary in the sense that they can only become political effective in and through other forms.
In a second sense also, these forms of radical subjectivity coexist in time. Economic and social development is uneven and combined, both from country to country and within the changing fabric of any society. The first protests against some new manifestation of oppression may take just the elemental form of uncoordinated Blanquist rebellion that we described above. History is “an eternal and veritable present.”
The point is that every generation has had to face changes in the form of radical subjectivity; inevitably the new form is counterposed to the old and usually a generation passes before people adapt to the change. No one particular form should be given the status of Absolute.
We would like to say of the history of radical politics what Hegel said of the history of philosophy:
“The history of philosophy, in its true meaning, deals not with a past, but with an eternal and veritable present: and, in its results, resembles not a museum of the aberrations of the human intellect, but a Pantheon of godlike figures. These figures of gods are the various stages of the Idea, as they come forward one after another in dialectical development.” [Shorter Logic, §86, Hegel]
Within the historical process described above we can discern three successive phases.
The first begins with the secret societies of the early nineteenth century and before in the uncoordinated elemental outbursts of violence launched by small groups of comrades. These formations assemble and develop under the signs of liberty and equality; their decision-making process originates in the procedures of the feudal companies and guilds and is geared towards unity-in-action, majority-rule and takes for granted shared ideological and personal commitment. This historical process comes to an end around the time of the Second World War when the great organisations of the working class became institutionalised and largely reactionary, despite the underlying revolutionary character of their class base.
The second phase begins with the movement of those excluded by the post-world war two compromise, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements. We can mark the National Liberation struggles as a transitional form in this respect. These social movements formed under the signs of recognition and difference. Their decision-making processes were markedly different from those of the workers’ movement, emphasising recognition by eschewing the formal majority decision-making processes in favour of consensus decision-making. This phase came to an end in Identity politics.
The third phase has just begun.