Individual Action or Global Revolt: New activists must become new leaders

Share with your friends


I grew up with the Cold War. Fortunately, the propaganda that communism was responsible for everything terrible, from nuclear war to the common cold, didn’t stick. So, as a young activist in 1960s USA, I looked for the best place to fight for social change. The fight for Black civil rights, the upsurge in feminist revolt, the militant opposition to the Vietnam War, the Gay Liberation movement — all of these struggles were white hot. Millions joined in this rebellion.

By 1972, when I left for Australia, real gains had been made. But around the world, the streets had begun to empty, and imperialism had commenced its next assault on the poor, something we now call corporate globalisation. From questioning authority, people began asking: “What went wrong?”

That question is even more relevant in 2002. As the procession of corporate collapses accelerates, the capitalist system is more and more revealed as rotten to the core. Handed the convenient excuse of the September 11, 2001 attacks, big business — through its puppet, George Bush Jr. — launched the “war on terror.”

The huge, planet-wide anti-corporate movement shows that millions are prepared to answer the attacks with mass action. But the lesson from the ’60s rebellion is that while mass action can bring gains, those gains don’t necessarily last. We need to go further, because the capitalist economy has nothing left to concede. Armed with “anti-terror” laws (see “Anti-terror laws attack basic rights: Organise to force a repeal now!” page 16), governments everywhere plan to crush dissent. “How to organise?” is about to become a life-and-death question for every activist.

The M1 generation. In answering the so-called war on terror, our side has a mighty weapon: an ever-dwindling stake in this barbaric system and the ability to get rid of it. What’s so reassuring is the prominence of young people on the front lines — in Seattle, Davos, London, at S11(2000) and May Day blockades. Fresh, fearless and optimistic, the next generation of working class fighters has stepped forward. Having grown up in capitalism’s decline, and never experiencing many of the gains that earlier generations won through decades of struggle, they have no illusions about a system that’s racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-youth and warmongering. Their righteous anger and defiance is inspiring. They’re so effective that corporate Australia is already trying to co-opt their energy. An upcoming Melbourne rock concert, featuring many of Australia’s top bands, is titled M1. Puhleeese!

Lessons from a revolution. I eventually found Marxist feminism, led there via the women’s movement, trade unionism and opposition to the Cold War. What had happened in the USSR to make capitalists so worried? They were kicked out — that’s what! In 1917, rebellion broke out in the Russian Empire. Kindled by war, hunger and poverty, it was ignited by striking women workers at a munitions factory.

How did the revolution initially succeed? It had an organised, dedicated leadership. Why did it fail? The leadership and millions of revolutionary workers were killed or exiled. A self-serving, cowardly bureaucracy, led by Joseph Stalin, cut a deal with capitalism, stifling struggle to preserve its grasp on the perks of office. But just as Capital is global, so must socialism spread across the planet. The USSR was not socialist, and in 1991 the isolated, stifled revolution was defeated through sheer exhaustion.

Dirty deal-making is a method I’ve seen time and again in unions, and in movement coalitions. These actions by movement leaders are despicable and frustrating. For struggle to progress, leadership must be accountable, democratic and committed. Too many social movements have leaders who see their position as a privilege rather than a duty. Leadership is not a position for honchos. It’s a position for every activist. The women who started the 1917 Revolution, sick of being blocked by timid “leaders,” made a crucial decision: “We are the leaders we’ve been waiting for!”

It’s an easy conclusion to attack the concept of leadership as the problem. To some, leadership means authority over others, and is therefore oppressive. Yet leadership isn’t inherently good or bad. It depends on which class interest it serves. Clara Fraser, a founder and leader of the Freedom Socialist Party, put it this way: “Leadership connotes a relationship between a movement…and its vanguard. The vanguard is composed of a cadre that is voluntary and is democratically selected. The boss or general who hires or drafts a staff is not a ‘leader,’ nor is an expert in some field who does not create a movement. A leader leads others, expresses and influences the ideas and feelings of others, and acts in concert with others to change the social and cultural climate.”

Freedom of choice?  One of the features of the anti-corporate movement is “autonomism,” a sort of 21st century reprise of anarchism. It’s superficially attractive. You can participate in an affinity group at will, decisions are by consensus, there’s no need to formally join anything, and you need only focus on a single issue or action. In my experience, however, this “individual freedom” is too often a frustrating roadblock to political action.

Consensus looks like pure democracy. It’s actually the dictatorship of the minority. Only one member of a group need disagree, and action is totally stymied. Collectives tend to be dominated by the loudest, most confident participants. Another issue is workload. “Open” collectives almost inevitably mean that two or three people — usually women — end up with the bulk of the jobs. Either that or those who regularly turn up  crystallise into a clique with a monopoly of power.

And what does “individual freedom” mean when capitalism has all of us in its bombsights? Even in less warlike times, “individual freedom” means the “freedom” to starve or the “freedom” to work for a boss with total control of one’s working life. But for the rights and liberties we’ve dragged out of the capitalist class, we have few individual rights. The tendency for new activists to gravitate toward the autonomist method of organising is buying into ruling class propaganda. They want us to believe we’re “free agents” in order to divide us up — the better to target us as individual consumers, individual units of labour and individual victims for their courts, cops and militias.

False militancy: how not to free the refugees. When activists broke 36 refugees out of the Woomera concentration camp in late June, the government and media went into a frenzy of hypocritical outrage about “illegality.” Say, what? Just who is breaching a couple of dozen international and Australian laws by enforcing mandatory detention? Free all the refugees, now! And all those who assisted them!

If the refugees weren’t incarcerated, then no one would need to liberate them. But the question is how to do it. Nobody could quarrel with the motivations of whoever tore down the razor wire. But their attempt was doomed to failure, and maybe even tragedy. Tearing down a prison fence is confronting the State head on. When you do that, you better be part of a very large crowd.

I’m all for action to dismantle Ruddock’s immigration jails. But it has to be through planned mass action. Here’s the recipe: organise a sufficiently big demonstration — at least in the tens of thousands. Organise safe houses for the refugees and workers’ defence guards. Elect leadership teams for particular tasks. Then march on the facility, weigh up the balance of forces, take a democratic vote, and get on with it. This is what Marxists mean by “militancy.”

Militancy is not provoking the cops when you’re hopelessly outnumbered. It is not prolonging a strike after the majority calls it off, nor smashing the windows of an exploitative multinational as a substitute for a mass movement to shut down sweatshops. And it is not embarking on an ill-conceived adventure that resulted in people being left in an unfamiliar, freezing desert when, inevitably, the handful of jailbreakers were arrested. Ten people are missing, hopefully safe, but possibly in deep peril. The June breakout was a serious mistake.

Actions like this might be brave, and everybody involved must be defended. But such incidents don’t further the struggle. Indeed they usually provide an excuse for State repression. There is no substitute for patient organising, committed leadership and mass action by the working class.

James P. Cannon, who started out as an anarchist and later became a leader of the American Trotskyist movement, wrote: “Anarchism is all right when it is under the control of organisation. This may seem a contradiction in terms, but if it were not for the anarchism in us as individuals we wouldn’t need the discipline of organisation. The revolutionary party represents a dialectical unity of opposites. In one sense it is, in effect, the fusion of the rebel instincts of individuals with the intellectual recognition that their rebellion can be effective only when they are combined and united into a single striking force which only a disciplined organisation can supply.”

Link Arms, Resist! This was the cry during the successful mass actions that successfully defended the Maritime Union in 1998. It’s a good metaphor for how to change the world.

Our side needs a broad-based and democratic revolutionary organisation. One in which theory and action, history and future vision, experience and new perspectives actively inform each other. Marxists call that organisation a vanguard party, comprised of accountable, committed leaders with deep roots in working class movements. Volunteers need only to exercise one of the few “free choices” left to us: Resist! As U.S. socialist, George Novack, puts it: “The opponents of socialism…contend that to become part of a revolutionary mass movement or [to] join a vanguard party is to endanger or forfeit the most precious of all goods — one’s distinctive individuality. They fail to understand that the deliberate choice of participating in an organised and disciplined way in the struggle for socialism can be the highest assertion of personal freedom.”

Young activists, especially women and people of colour, are presenting themselves around the world as fresh reinforcements and potential leaders. The revolution needs you! Join here!

Share with your friends