Spontaneity, strategy and politics

Issue: 104

Chris Harman

Sometimes the symbolism of events gives them an importance out of all proportion to the numbers of people directly involved in them. Such was the case with the protests outside the Seattle meeting of the World Trade Organisation on 30 November 1999. The demonstrations themselves were not particularly large compared with many since. There were perhaps 30,000 demonstrators at the height of the protests.

But they signalled something of enormous importance. Almost exactly ten years earlier the fall of the Berlin Wall had been presented as the end of socialism, leaving capitalism in apparently unchallenged control of the world for the rest of humanity’s existence. Seattle was the eruption of a new challenge. Capitalist media right across the world were suddenly reporting thousands of people consciously disrupting one of capitalism’s great international gatherings, and televising interviews with people denouncing ‘corporate globalisation’ in its entirety. In every factory, mine, office or school in the world a minority of those watching those images metaphorically raised their fists in the air and said to themselves, if not to others, ‘Right on!’ A decade and more of frustration and disillusionment, of resignation and despair had suddenly found a focus. Out of Seattle a new international movement began to coalesce.

Five years on few people dare deny the reality and significance of the movement. Those on the left or the right who dismissed it as a passing fad among white middle class youth were forced to change their tune, or at least keep quiet, after the successive demonstrations in Washington, Melbourne, Quebec, Prague, Nice, Gothenburg, and above all Genoa. Also proved wrong were those who predicted that the destruction of the World Trade Centre would doom the movement. Four months after 11 September 2001 the second World Social Forum in Porto Alegre was twice the size of the first. As the movement merged into the wider movement against the US’s new wars on Afghanistan and Iraq there were protests in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece and elsewhere far greater than those of movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The 100,000 who attended the fourth World Social Forum in Mumbai in January this year were final proof of its vitality. So were the demonstrations that greeted the expansion of the European Union at the end of April (in Warsaw and Dublin), Bush’s visit to Europe a few weeks later (thousands in Istanbul, Dublin and Paris, 2 million in Rome) and the Republican convention in Washington (half a million at least). After each great expression of the movement pessimists have predicted its demise. On each occasion they have been proved wrong.

But the growth of any movement forces it to confront arguments it has often been tempted to avoid in its initial period. As I noted in an article in this journal in the summer of 2000:

Every successful protest movement goes through two phases. The first is when it bursts upon the world, taking its opponents by surprise and bringing joy to those who agree with its aims. The longer the time since the last great movement of protest, the greater the joy. And it seems that the sheer momentum of the movement is bound to carry it forward from strength to strength. This draws its adherents together, and leads them to play down old differences of opinion and old arguments on tactics. 
But those against whom the protests are directed do not simply give up. Once the initial shock is over they strengthen their own defences, seek to ensure they are not taken by surprise again, and try to stall the movement’s forward motion. At this point, arguments over tactics necessarily arise within the movement, even among people who have sworn to forget old disputes in the interests of consensus.1

In the case of the international anti-capitalist movement, the summer of 2001, with Genoa and 11 September, constituted the turning point after which differences of opinion could no longer be avoided if the movement was to grow. Some of leaders of the movement got cold feet in the face of the sheer ferocity of police violence at Genoa,2 some backed out of further protests after 11 September,3 and some saw the movement against the war as a distraction from the movement against neo-liberalism. The movement could only advance if people went beyond merely detailing the economic and environmental horrors of neo-liberalism or ‘globalisation’ to serious debates into what was happening to the world system and on the strategies and tactics required to fight back. Polarisation between different perspectives necessarily occurred. As Karl Marx once put it, ‘Without division no progress’.4

Four main trends can be seen within the arguments over strategy and tactics that have opened up in the movement, influencing its further development. And although very many activists insist that the movement cannot be political, each trend is characterised by its distinct attitude to the power of the state—that is by an approach to politics. In this sense, the movement has spontaneously generated political currents within itself.

In this article I look at these trends, how they interacted at key moments and what the political implications are for those who want to build the movement further.

The politics of fighting neo-liberalism

The reformist currents

A key to the success of the movement from Seattle onwards had been drawing together people involved in a mass of single-issue campaigns and, in so doing, creating an awareness that they have a common enemy. But the inevitable corollary of this was an initial tendency to see things in terms of reforming the present system in some way, not overthrowing it. After all, single-issue campaigns are about forcing a change to certain abhorrent features of the present system, that is about getting reforms.

Reformism of a sort is not some foreign implant in any great struggle. It is the first reaction of any group which begins to protest against oppression and exploitation. Its members have been brought up in existing society and usually know no other. They take it for granted things can only be organised in certain ways and that they can only fight for adjustments to these.

But the momentum of struggle for reforms can open people up to an awareness of the need to fight for much more thoroughgoing change—and of the power of their movements to do so. The coming together of the single-issue campaigns over the last five years to create what is sometimes called the ‘movement of movements’ has created precisely such a momentum. The tendency to see things in terms of a confrontation with the system as whole, rather than just one aspect, has grown ever more marked. From being implicitly anti-capitalist, the movement has become increasingly explicitly so.

Such radicalisation does not take place in some uniform manner. Reformism is not merely a set of ideas about how to improve society. It also finds embodiment in institutions of a various sorts—especially parliamentary institutions—which are based on channelling such ideas. Individuals who are prominent because of the connections with such institutions can play a very important role in providing a focus for bringing movements about in the first place. By pulling people around them to press for change they create a focus for activity—and in doing so set off the tendency for movements to grow that look beyond mere reform. For this reason, the involvement of such individuals in initiating movements is not just something to be tolerated—it is to be positively encouraged. It is often the key to the movement growing.

Once a movement begins to make an impact, the role of the reformist leaders becomes increasingly contradictory. On the one hand they can still attract new, previously passive, people. On the other hand, their reformism implies keeping things within safe grounds for existing society (and often boosting their own position within it). They tend to want to dampen down the militancy, the self-confidence and the self-activity of those already in motion. Figures that seem on the left before there is any movement can rapidly appear to be on the right when it has taken off. At this point the movement can only further develop in so far as challenges emerge to the leadership of such people.

A case in point has been that of the French activist Bernard Cassen. He played an important part in helping to build the post-Seattle movement as editor of the very influential Le Monde Diplomatique, founder of the organisation against financial speculation, ATTAC, and initiator of the annual World Social Forums. He set out to counter the adoption of neo-liberal policies by governments by building ATTAC around what he has described as ‘an action-oriented programme of popular education’—with particular emphasis placed on the involvement of parliamentarians and other opinion formers.5 Cassen’s efforts helped ensure that ATTAC gained a membership of tens of thousands. But a point was reached where he began to take a hostile approach to its further development, resisting the merging of the movement into the struggle against the war. At the very time that the French government was working with the US to attack Afghanistan, the energies of his movement in France were devoted to lobbying ministers over the Tobin tax.6 He was bitterly opposed to the militancy on display at the Florence European Social Forum of 2002,7 his solution to the power of US imperialism was to say the left should consider supporting the creation of a European army,8 and by the time of the mobilisation against the G8 meeting on the Swiss-French border in the summer of 2003 he was attacking the movement for becoming too radical.9

Certain reformist leaders have played a similarly contradictory role in the anti-war movements in Britain, Spain, Italy and elsewhere. The huge mobilisations of 15 February 2003 depended on the initiative of far left, Muslim and peace organisations, but also on the participation of well known figures from parliamentary reformism—for instance, the Democratic Left in Italy, the PSOE in Spain, the Greek PASOC, and in Britain people like Robin Cook. Their presence helped ensure there were millions, not just hundreds of thousands, on the streets. Yet once the war started, many held back from going on to come out clearly against the occupation and merely called for it to be under UN rather than US auspices.

In a similar way, leading figures in the Brazilian Workers Party played a very important part in the building of the first three social forums in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Their involvement made the events a focus for activists from all over Latin America and beyond. Now some of those leading figures are in a government implementing neo-liberal policies through an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. But the momentum of the World Social Forum movements is likely to challenge such policies.

Autonomist trends

One expression of the way in which the movement has ‘spontaneously’ begun to go beyond its own starting points has been the growth of what is often called ‘autonomism’.

This catch-all term encompasses a whole range of very different ideological positions and practical activities—the building of mass single-issue campaigns, working through NGOs, taking part in militant non-violent direct action, a stress on local community organising, ‘do your own thing’ alternative lifestyles, forms of co-operative production—and, on the fringes, the term is even applied to the minority militarism of the Black Bloc directed against the police and property.10 However, there are two features that typify all those to whom the term is applied.

There is a rejection of compromises and manoeuvring of official politics and the reformism that looks to it. Autonomism of all sorts stresses the role of activity from below, of the way in which people begin to challenge bureaucratic structures. It is a celebration of the way in which in struggling people begin to display incredible levels of initiative and creativity, matched by a growing capacity to organise themselves in ways which challenge established notions of hierarchy.

Autonomism at the same time rejects revolutionary organisation around strategic goals directed against the system as whole. Its denunciations of the revolutionary left are as hard as its denunciations of parliamentary careerists. It typically accuses revolutionaries of ‘vanguardism’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘manipulation’ or even ‘totalitarianism’. For it, politics of all sorts, whether directed to reforming the system or to overthrowing it, must be kept separate from the movement. Some versions of autonomism (what might be called ‘soft autonomism’) recognise that political parties have a role when it comes to elections. But that has to be a role external to the movements, so that the activities of the movements and the parties are ‘parallel’ to each other. The parties must not intervene within the movements.

The strength of autonomism lies in its emphasis on activity from below and its moral rejection of compromise with the system. But it finds it difficult to go beyond that. It is an assertion that the system is horrible and that the way to fight it is to develop forms of action by which particular groups assert their independence from aspects of the system. The system is to be fought simply by the summation of different groups doing their own thing.

Autonomists rarely express their views theoretically. Theory, after all, is usually linked to concerns with the elaboration of strategies, and autonomism by definition rejects strategy as hierarchising some forms of action over others. There have, however, been two influential attempts to theorise its positions. The first, Empire, by Michael Hardt and Toni Negri, is referred to more than it is actually read (its language is often very obscure indeed). Its ‘strategy’ is essentially a non-strategy of rebaptising the conglomeration of different autonomous activities as a ‘multitude’ and justifying this by metaphysical references to Spinoza. Insofar as it hierarchises anything, it is the role of what it calls ‘informational workers’, which to me sounds very much like extolling the narrow base of some of the existing ‘autonomous’ movements among people who have been through higher education.

The second has been John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power.11 This is a more readable book than Empire and, despite a peculiar terminology of its own, does in places expound powerfully Marxist ideas about exploitation and alienation, complete with some notion of the working class. Its attack on Stalinist and authoritarian approaches to organisation has found it a following in those countries (South Asia, Latin America) where these approaches long dominated what claimed to be revolutionary movements. However, its strategic conclusion, like that of Hardt and Negri, is a rejection of strategy. In Holloway’s account, the shrieks of anger with which different groups react to the horrors of the system will somehow come together to dissolve the ties of subordination that bind everyone to the system—including the armed thugs of the state. There is no need ever to take power because the state will simply collapse as autonomy takes over.

In reality, Holloway’s argument amounts to little more than a reformulation of the old reformist argument that if enough people want to change society, the ruling class will be forced to hand over power without a shot being fired. Its popularity among sections of people in Latin America suggests that they (and Holloway) need reminding of what the generals did to what were genuinely ‘autonomous’ movements of workers, peasants and indigenous people in, say, Brazil in 1964 or Chile in 1973.

But much of Holloway’s focus is not on the spontaneous dissolution of the state at some hypothetical time in the future. It is on the ability of movements to achieve things in the here and now, without any need to worry about the state or the future. His prime example is the Zapatistas in Mexico. They, he argues, have provided an example of how to become autonomous while leaving the state machine intact.

Unfortunately, the reality is rather different. The Zapatistas started off as an armed movement directed against the state. They came to prominence in 1994 when they staged armed uprisings across parts of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Their proclamations of hostility to neo-liberal globalisation found an echo right across the world, and became one of the first focuses for the movement that burst through at Seattle. But the uprisings themselves failed and the Zapatistas were forced back into being essentially defensive organisations for the indigenous people of the Lacandon forest region. From there they have on occasions been able to bargain with the Mexican government for an improvement in indigenous rights and local government structures—especially when they have received wider support from other sections of Mexico’s workers and peasants, as during their march to Mexico City three years ago. But this has been bargaining over reforms in an existing system which leaves them impoverished. As a journalist sympathetic to the Zapatistas from the Mexican left wing daily La Jornada wrote a year ago:

The very structure of the life of the community is cracking under the blows from life outside, which are particularly hard at a time of neo-liberalism, recession and massive emigration… The rebel territory…cannot isolate itself from the markets for coffee, for handicraft products, for labour, for wood and for other resources, above all because the maize and products for self-consumption only provide food for a quarter of the year and everything else—food, medicine, clothes, etc—has to be bought in the market for money.12

The indigenous communities are virtually imprisoned by the units of the Mexican army that patrol the roads leading to the forest and this in turn has led to a certain internal ‘militarisation’ of them, so that subcommandante Marcos himself has spoken of ‘the military structure of the EZLN contaminating in some ways the tradition of democracy and self-government’.13 The small reforms the indigenous people have gained are not to be dismissed out of hand. But to see them as an adequate response to the horrors inflicted on them by the world system is to collapse into the meanest form of reformism. In extolling such ‘autonomous’ movements as an end in themselves, Holloway is close to the century-old formulation of the theorist of reformist social democracy, Eduard Bernstein: ‘The movement is everything, the final goal nothing.’

This is not some strange deviation of Holloway’s. Autonomism, insofar as it is not a question of simply making moral gestures and is concerned with doing something about the horrors of the world, easily flips over into reformism, albeit radical reformism. Those attracted by its anti-authoritarian emphasis on struggle from below can then only keep that emphasis by questioning some of the tenets of autonomism.

Radical reformism

Reformism, it has to be repeated, involves more than manoeuvring within established political structures. It also involves the mobilising of people to exert pressure on those structures. And even as some reformist leaders retreat from pushing the movement forward, others continue to do so. So in Britain, for instance, the figures who still put some faith in parliamentary structures, like Tony Benn, Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, the Green Euro MP Caroline Lucas, have all played an important role in building and sustaining the anti-war movement. So too people from the rump of the old Communist Party.14 A similar role in building the movements internationally is played by writers and journalists like George Monbiot, Susan George and Naomi Klein. They play a very important role in putting arguments against neo-liberalism and war, yet take it for granted that ultimately change will come through pressure on the existing system. They say the argument between reform and revolution is irrelevant in the world today, with the implication that all that we can do is fight for reform.

Radical reformists usually see more clearly than do proponents of ‘pure’ autonomism that the movement needs strategy and tactics. Even if their view of what is necessary is sometimes tinged with elements of manipulation, bureaucracy and parliamentarianism, they usually have some sense of strategy and tactics. They can see that some things are more important than others are and have to be prioritised if we are to be effective. They have an understanding that the movements face enemies who will destroy them (and in some Third World countries, the activists as well) unless they work out when to fight, how to fight and with what forces. They see that we cannot afford to follow the autonomist precept, ‘Anything goes.’ Hence the apparent contradiction that such reformists can sometimes have a better notion of what the movements need to do next than the apparently more radical autonomists.

Yet radical reformism can end up accepting autonomist arguments in much the same way that autonomism flips over into radical reformism. So Tony Benn, faced with the question of what to do about the New Labour leadership, has repeatedly replied that what matters is not the leadership but the movement from below—as if the movement from below is built by ignoring what happens at the top. George Monbiot, after writing a book outlining his scheme for reforming the world by a transformation of the United Nations, can then speak of it as ‘totalitarian’ for people to want clarity of ideas within the movement.15 Naomi Klein extols the creativity of the piqueteros movement in Argentina but rarely gives any sense of the problems it faces.16 A member of the national council of the French Communist Party can criticise the record of the plural left government (in which the party had members) and then praise the arguments of Hardt and Negri.17 In each case, when trying to pressurise existing institutions leads to an impasse, the radical reformists easily fall back upon simply extolling the creativity that can come from below. They run away from the need to hammer out strategies and tactics for fighting, in exactly the same way as the autonomists—and then often justify their stance by talking about the need to keep politics out of the movement.

The revolutionary trend

This is the trend which insists, very clearly, that the enemy is capitalism, of which neo-liberalism is just the ideological expression of the latest stage. It sees this stage as also involving the deployment by states of armed force in the interests of the capitals based within them. In other words, it sees imperialism as an organic outgrowth of capitalism and does not look to the state to deal with the ‘excesses’ of the system. Rather the workers and other exploited classes have to organise with the goal of overthrowing the existing state, and take the means of production into their own hands.

The trend was, to be honest, marginal to the new movements when they took off five years ago and remains very much a minority trend today. Its weakness was a product of the long period of defeats and demoralisation for those fighting the system. When movements have been defeated, activists victimised and their efforts fragmented, only relatively small numbers manage to hang on to notions of changing the whole world—and they find themselves marginalised from the main sections of the working class. They find themselves defending ideas that have very little resonance among workers whose only recent experience has been of atomisation and defeats. Their organisations have difficulties sustaining themselves, as people fall by wayside, tired, disillusioned, sometimes won over to non-socialist ideas, and new recruits are only gained in ones and twos at a time.18 At best they find themselves treading water to keep afloat, rather than moving forward.

Something else often compounded the weakness. The years of defeat inevitably encouraged a certain sectarianism among those who stuck to the revolutionary tradition. They could only survive by feeling that they were right against virtually the whole world, including those who had retreated from the revolutionary talk of the late 1960s and early 1970s into single-issue campaigns and identity politics. Under such circumstances they could be very defensive in the face of new movements influenced by these. Revolutionaries easily fell into a sectarian practice that involved standing aside from those movements—and even denouncing them—so making it easier for movement activists to dismiss the revolutionary approach out of hand even when they began to feel the reformist and autonomist approaches to be inadequate.

Finally, the heritage of Stalinism has added to the suspicion of the revolutionary approach among many in the movement. They fear that revolutionaries simply want to use the movements as ‘transmission belts’ for their own political projects. The record of many revolutionary organisations in identifying the regimes that fell in 1989-1991 as somehow socialist—or at least ‘degenerated’ and ‘deformed’ ‘workers’ states’—encourages such suspicion. It has even produced a situation where far left organisations who used to hold such views now say themselves that any political intervention of the far left within the movements would mean trying to turn them into transmission belts. Such an approach characterises the position of the leadership of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and of many in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire in France.19

The result is a blindness to the way in which the movement—like any mass struggle—is giving rise ‘spontaneously’ to debates which, whether people like it or not, have political parameters. And if revolutionaries do not provide an organised pole of attraction in these debates, then the argument will be won by default by those (the reformists) who offer a strategy of working within the existing system or those (the autonomists) who offer no strategy at all.

Reform, autonomy and revolution in the movements today


The movements in Western Europe and the US have grown enormously over the last five years. As I write the anti-Bush demonstration in New York has been at least ten times bigger than Seattle was. But the growth has not taken the form of a simple upward curve. At points the forward momentum has been checked, and when this has happened some people have concluded the movement is over. Others have tried analysing what the problems are and how to take the movement forward by overcoming them. It is at such a point that the interaction between the four tendencies within the movements has played itself out.

France was the first European country in which a movement around globalisation and neo-liberalism began to take root. Various single-issue movements—referred to as ‘social movements’—took off in the early 1990s (for example, the ‘sans papiers’ movement for legalisation of immigrants, the movement of the unemployed) and then the wave of public sector strikes and demonstrations at the end of 1995 began to create a feeling of solidarity against the neo-liberalism of the then right wing government: the eminent sociologist Pierre Bourdieu famously told rail workers at the Gare de Lyon station that theirs was the first great struggle ‘against globalisation’. As a ‘plural left’ government headed by the Socialist Party and including the Greens and the Communists continued with neo-liberal policies, ATTAC held its founding meeting at Saint Denis university six months before Seattle. The first massive post-Seattle European mobilisation was the festival in the small southern French town of Millau in the summer of 2000.

Yet after Genoa and 11 September a year later, the movement in France seemed to disappear from the streets. There was no real movement over the war against Afghanistan (in which France was directly involved), and the movement against the war in Iraq was much weaker than in other European countries. People claimed that this was because France was not involved directly in the war, but this cannot in itself explain why the movement was smaller than in other countries not involved in the war, like Germany, or even Ireland (whose population is one eighth of France’s). A key factor was political. People were waiting for ATTAC to take the lead—and the politics of the ATTAC leadership mean it gave no such lead. Yet the mood against the system had not gone away. This was shown in April 2002 when 10 percent of voters—3 million people—supported revolutionary candidates in the presidential elections, and more than a million people then demonstrated against the fascist Le Pen.

The movement came to life again in the early summer of 2003. A hundred thousand people from France marched against the G8 summit in Evian (near the Swiss-French border) just as the biggest wave of public sector strikes since 1995 were transforming the atmosphere. A festival in Larzac a few weeks later was the biggest anti-capitalist event in the country so far and laid the ground for tens of thousands to attend the European Social Forum in Paris. Yet within a year there were again some activists saying the movement was in decline. The government had, after all, beaten back the wave of strikes and used its parliamentary majority to impose counter-reforms. There seemed no way that the movement could beat it. Inside the movement there was a shift away from the ‘autonomist’ euphoria of the summer of 2003 to the discredited reformism of the plural left. José Bové, the leader of a militant peasant organisation, who had incurred the wrath of a plural left government by physically smashing up a Mcdonald’s restaurant, had declared at the time of Larzac that the way to change things did not lie through parliament. A few months later he was telling people to back Socialist and Green candidates. His was not some isolated aberration. Millions of people who were so disgusted with the Socialist Party and the plural left in the presidential elections of 2002 that they refused to vote for it (the Socialist candidate for president, Jospin, received only 17 percent of the vote) decided that there was only one alternative to the right—the previously discredited plural left. Once the movement did not seem powerful enough to defeat a right wing government, people who had been attracted to the autonomists, and even voted for revolutionaries, now retreated back to a reformism which had already shown its incapacity to deliver reforms.

The harsh truth is that the ‘autonomous’ social movements themselves could not defeat the government. They are by and large minority movements, networks of activists who try to express the interests of much larger numbers of people, but who lack organic connections with them. ‘In France they have a feeble penetration in the popular milieus’.20 What is more, each social movement is organised separately from the others—and from the traditional working class organisations, the unions. They might come together as a ‘movement of movements’ on big protests, like the one against the G8, or at big social forum gatherings. But that does not translate into ongoing organisation capable of developing strategy and tactics in a major confrontation with a neo-liberal government. There was no ‘spontaneous coming together of the teamsters and the turtles’.21 The very ‘autonomy’ of each component stopped that:

A social movement without mass organisations to put across its demands and arguments, to intervene in public debate, to make explicit the common interests of the different sections of white collar workers, found itself unable to deal with the divisive strategy of its adversaries.22

The movement could not have overcome these handicaps without activists who saw the problem getting together and fighting for a different approach. But that meant going beyond mere talk of ‘autonomy’ without being afraid of being denounced as ‘vanguardist’. In default of that, the struggle could not win and many of its supporters see no choice but to reluctantly put their faith in reformist politics again.


In Italy there was a similar sense of impasse and a tendency to slide towards reformism, in this case in the early summer of 2003. The country had seen a succession of great street protests—demonstrations in every city in Italy in late July 2001 over the police repression at Genoa; the 3 million strong demonstration and one-day general strike over workers’ rights in the spring of 2002; the million-strong march against capital and war at the European Social Forum in November2002; three million-strong demonstrations against the Iraq war on 15 February 2003. Central to all of these were two crosscutting sets of activists—on the one hand the network of town and city ‘social forums’ that made up the ‘no-global’ movement; on the other the party Rifondazione Comunista, with its 100,000 members,23 its influence among sections of militant workers and its MPs.

Yet despite the huge scale of the protests, the US had achieved military victory in Iraq, and Belusconi’s government had pushed through its attacks on workers’ rights. A last attempt to widen these rights, through a referendum initiated by the main union federation and Rifondazione, had failed in the face of hostility from the whole political establishment (including the centre left official opposition to Belusconi).24

There was a widespread sense of crisis among many of the activists. These feelings were expressed most clearly at a national meeting of Rifondazione in June of that year. Speaker after speaker used the word ‘crisis’ to describe the situation, pointing out that while the party had been at the centre of all the agitation its vote in recent administrative elections had fallen and its membership was not growing, while the centre left DS with its record of neo-liberalism in government and its at best half-hearted involvement in the movements was picking up electoral support.25

The response of the majority of the party leadership to the ‘crisis’ was to talk about the need to be more ‘innovative’—and to announce that it was approaching the centre left for discussions over a common electoral programme. The mainspring press began to speculate which ministries the party would hold in a future left centre government.26 This was a stunning development, since the party had been formed in opposition to the creation of the Democratic Left out of the old Italian Communist Party—and had split with a minority of its own members in 1998 when they continued to support the then centre left government with its neo-liberal policies.27

The root of the crisis lay in the limitations of the new movements, despite their massive support. As three leading activists in the party who opposed the new turn towards reformism explained:

As regards the movement, we have to say that it clearly has limits… The movement operates in a symbolic fashion, based on an ethical criticism of existing reality, expressing itself in certain events, but without translating itself into an everyday movement, without mechanisms for rooting itself that would be capable of fighting for defined goals. It lacks clear objectives and a programme for obtaining victory. It was like that at Genoa, after Genoa, at Florence, at Porto Alegre. Today this reality is obvious. The ‘social forum people’ formed part of the referendum vote without doubt, but could not cause a chain reaction, they did not establish strong relations in the localities, in the workplaces, in other places which permitted them to ‘contaminate’ the rest of the population… We are not in the presence of a movement like that of the 1970s, socially strong, rooted in the factories…28

Rifondazione had made a very important turn to the movement at the time of Genoa. This distinguished it clearly from the sterile Stalinist sectarianism that characterised some other European Communist Parties. It played a very important role in making sure people from all over Italy went to Genoa the day after the murder of Carlo Giuliani to assert the movement’s right to be on the streets and in the massive demonstrations that took place in most Italian cities in the following days.29 In doing so, it prevented Belusconi’s repression destroying the movement, and attracted towards itself many young people. But in making the turn to the movement, it absorbed many of the prevalent autonomist ideas.30

In its discussion on the party and the movement, it never spelt out clearly that divisions would arise within the movement about how to move forward, and that revolutionaries aimed to organise those who were clearest about this so as to win the arguments. Instead it had a sort of ‘live and let live’ attitude to those who put their faith in symbolic, moralistic ‘do your own thing’ versions of autonomism. Its leading figure, Fausto Bertinotti, would repeat the same mantra as that of autonomists, about the irrelevance of debates over reform and revolution since ‘reformists have not been able to deliver reform, or revolutionaries to get revolutions’.31 Now, faced with the limitations of the autonomist-influenced movement he began a slide of his own towards reformism. The slide was not complete and some speakers at the national meeting clearly wanted to take it further than the leadership, who retained a commitment to activist struggle very different to the approach of the Democratic Left.

The Italian episode brings something else out as well. Rifondazione has long been pointed to by people elsewhere in Europe as an example of the successes the far left can have electorally. And such activity has enabled it to provide a national left focus for the minority (about 5 percent of the population) sickened by the centre left’s embrace of neo-liberalism. That helped it play an important role at Genoa, at Florence and in the movement against the war. But its parliamentary representation as such does not give it power, and could not prevent the general feeling of frustration and impotence in the early summer of 2003. It was then that the futile exercise suggested itself of using parliamentary representation as a bargaining chip over the exact composition of a possible government of the centre left, even though such a government would be a neo-liberal government.

The movement revived in the spring of 2004, with the 2 million-strong demonstration against Bush’s visit and significant industrial struggles. But the lurch into pessimism in 2003 shows that politics is not something extraneous to the movement, but is thrown up by its development.

The United States

The point is born out very clearly in the US. The movement recovered from a setback in the immediate aftermath of 11 September, with very big anti-war demonstrations in 2003 (much bigger than anything seen at a comparable time in the struggle against the Vietnam War). But its very growth forced it to confront the central political question of how to achieve its goals. After the failure to stop the war through huge demonstrations and big non-violent actions, large sections of the movement turned to the Democratic Party as the only apparent alternative to Bush. In the campaign for the Democratic nomination in the autumn of 2003, thousands of activists threw themselves into working for the best know anti-war candidate, Howard Dean. They then switched over to backing John Kerry when he did best in the primaries—even though he had voted for the war in the first place and is in favour of the continued occupation of Iraq. Many articles on the most important anti-capitalist website in the US, Znet, have been devoted to attacking Ralph Nader for daring to stand against both pro-war big business parties, even though some opinion polls showed him getting the support of 5 percent of the electorate. Michael Moore, the radical film-maker who has done so much to build hostility to the war and corporate domination of the political system, has come out for Kerry, after initially pushing the candidacy of Wesley Clark, the man who headed NATO’s operations in the war against Serbia. Noam Chomsky too is urging people to vote Democrat in marginal states. And the Green Party, which backed Nader in 2000, has put up its own candidate against him, producing still more confusion and debate. Politics, supposedly evicted from the movement’s front door at Seattle, has re-entered through the back door. The movement has not been killed by such debate. The huge demonstration in Washington showed that. So do the networks of anti-war groups in the most unlikely places and the massive popularity of Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. But the debate is likely to continue in one form or another, whichever of the big business parties wins the election and continues the occupation. For rejoicing in the size, diversity and autonomy of the movement will not do away with the questions about what it needs to do to win.


The highest level of struggle since Seattle has not been in Europe, but in Latin America. Spontaneous uprisings against the effects of neo-liberalism and economic crisis led to the overthrow of governments in three countries in three years, beginning with Ecuador in January 2000.

‘It seemed a bit like the assault on the Winter Palace. What a beautiful sight: hundreds of soldiers arm in arm with thousands of indigenous people’,32 so tells Alexis Ponce of the uprising. The country’s President Mahuad, a Harvard-trained economist, was pursuing neo-liberal policies, epitomised by a plan to replace the local currency, the sucre, by the US dollar, at a time when unemployment had risen to somewhere close to 30 percent. Indigenous people had already been involved in three militant demonstrations in the previous year. This time their organisation CONAIE did not only demonstrate. They occupied the congress, the palace of justice and the presidential palace—and as they did so received the unexpected support of units of the army. The president fled the country to be replaced by a three-person junta, including a colonel sympathetic to the protests, Lucio Gutierrez, and a representative of CONAIE.

The rejoicing did not last long. The chief of staff of the armed forces replaced Gutierrez, appointed Mahuad’s deputy, Noboa, as the new president and reimposed military discipline. Gutierrez and other soldiers who had supported the rising were imprisoned while Noboa continued with the neo-liberal schemes (including the dollarisation) of his ousted predecessor.

The next two years saw repeated road blockades by indigenous people, long and bitter strikes, and bloody clashes over price increases. Freed from prison, Gutierrez was soon making militant speeches attacking the government’s neo-liberalism. ‘We do not want our strategic enterprises to be sold, we do not want to give up our financial sovereignty, we are against Ecuador’s involvement in Plan Colombia, we are against the stain on our sovereignty of the US military base at Manta’,33 he told the first World Social Forum in 2001. Such language made him a hero of much of the Latin American left and ensured he gained the support of the indigenous movement CONAIE and of the left when he ran successfully for president of Ecuador at the end of 2002. CONAIE held the ministries of foreign affairs, agriculture, education and tourism, and the Popular Democratic Movement, a party of Marxist origins, held the ministry of the environment. The indigenous leader and foreign minister Pacari celebrated the ‘recognition of historically disregarded peoples’.34 Movements which had failed to change society through uprisings were now convinced they could do so by electoral victory within the existing framework.

The results were disastrous. The government agreed to IMF terms and support for Plan Colombia. The CONAIE ministers resigned and were replaced by people from a right wing party. Gutierrez had ‘betrayed the indigenous movement’, declared the indigenous leader Humberto Cholango.35 The Ecuadorian Marxist sociologist Francisco Hidalgo speaks of ‘the first defeat of the present day indigenous movement’.36

The defeat brings out the insufficiency of a politics that does not go beyond extolling the autonomous activity of a particular group, even where the struggle for autonomy is a necessary stage in the process of fighting for emancipation.

Like the black movement of the US in the 1960s, the indigenous movements in the Andean republics are based on people both resisting material discrimination and exploitation and expressing pride in their own roots—in this case elements of culture that went back to before the Spanish conquest. They are about exploitation and oppression. And because of the way the two issues interact, there can be powerful trends within such movements which do not see any common interests with the Spanish-speaking, mestizo (‘mixed race’) lower classes, themselves often increasingly impoverished, who made up most of the other half of the population.

In the rising of January 2000, says Ponce:

There was sectarianism and exclusiveness directed…against…popular layers and social organisations similar to and with affinities to the cause… But there was exclusion of the other social and political sectors… No prior work was done to bring social support for the uprising into existence… The trade unionists of the big cities, like the United Workers Front (FUT), and the teachers and students of the Frente Popular were not incorporated explicitly, but marginalised.37

The result was that, ‘if in three previous attempted uprisings in 1999, the indigenous peoples were acclaimed massively by the population when they arrived on foot in Quito, this did not happen in January 2000’.38

In other words, the separatism, the ‘autonomism’, of some of the movement’s leading activists prevented the rising having the maximum impact and ultimately left it undefended in face of the ruling class determination to defeat it. But events soon made it clear that the uprising needed allies. If these were not to be found among the popular classes, they had to be found elsewhere. Hence the faith put in Gutierrez on the night of 21 January—and the faith put in the governmental alliance with him two years later. As Francisco Hidalgo has put it, ‘The principal indigenous organisation suffered from…the loss of political direction’.39

The fact that Ponce comes very close to similar conclusions is quite significant. Only shortly before the uprising he was praising the Zapatistas for ‘overturning’ the revolutionary conceptions held by ‘the left on the continent’ before ‘the 1980s and 1990s’, and for not making ‘political power’ central.40

Assertion of ‘autonomy’, in the sense of an oppressed people making their own decisions and breaking the 500 years of subservience to others, was absolutely essential to the struggle. But it was not enough. In any ‘autonomous space’ different political positions necessarily arise as to the way forward. And the character of these is determined by the capitalist society within which the oppressed people finds itself. The fight against oppression cannot restrict itself just to talk of self-assertion and autonomy. If it is to go beyond a certain point, it has to confront the key question of reform or revolution of the wider society—and of the forms of organisation right across that society that are necessary to answer this question. Those who argue that ‘autonomy’ means parties cannot intervene to try to influence movements are in effect saying that those opposed to the drift to reform have to keep quiet while victory gives way to defeat.

The lessons of Argentina

Argentina’s uprising on 19 to 20 December 2001 was spontaneous, without the central axis of organisation that was there in Ecuador in January 2000. The accumulated anger of different social groups—the unemployed from outer Buenos Aires, the white collar workers of inner Buenos Aires, wide sections of the middle classes—exploded on the streets and forced the president, De La Rua, to flee by helicopter. It was a month before there was anything approaching a stable government to replace him.41

In the aftermath of the uprising popular forms of self-organisation mushroomed. In the industrial belt (and in many provincial industrial cities) the piqueteros organisations of the unemployed multiplied, taking to the streets to demand food, ‘work plan’ doles from the government and jobs. In inner Buenos Aires asembleas, gatherings of 50 to 100 people, emerged in every locality, co-ordinating their actions through a weekly ‘assembly of assemblies’ for the whole city. Such bodies were the centres from which successive protests were organised and they took on some of the day to day functions necessary to help people survive the crisis: piqueteros groups would grow food on waste land, bake bread communally, share out what doles could be forced out of the state; the asembleas set up barter clubs where people would exchange jobs and services without relying on cash which they did not have.42 They provided forums for people completely alienated from the old political parties which they had supported until recently. At the height of the influence of the asembleas one opinion poll showed 40 percent of the population of Buenos Aires as seeing in them the model for the future running of the country.

The sheer level of self-organisation and vibrancy of the movement made many people on the left, inside Argentina and worldwide, conclude there was no need for political organisation. Influential left intellectuals in Buenos Aires embraced the ideas of Holloway and Negri. Zamora, the former Trotskyist whose stringent attacks in parliament on the two mainstream parties made him the country’s most popular politician for a time, elaborated his own version of autonomism. Autonomist ideas were also very powerful within one of the important piqueteros organisations, the Coordinadora Aníbal Verón. When I debated with Michael Hardt, the co-author with Negri of the book Empire, the Argentinian example was the one most quoted by Hardt’s supporters.43

Yet today political stability has been re-established (for the time being, at least): the asembleas no longer exist and the piqueteros organisations face a sustained attack in the media and an increasing degree of repression both from the state and some strong-arm groups connected to Peronism.

The movements of 2001 to 2002 were able to paralyse the activities of the state and to force the Argentinian capitalist class onto the defensive. They were able to raise the spectre of a different way of running society. But they were not clear enough in what they wanted to achieve or co-ordinated sufficiently to oust the ruling class and establish a new economic and social structure based on democratic self-organisation from below and production for need, not profit. Their critical failure was an inability to develop a strategy for pulling the employed sections of the working class into the struggle. Fear of losing their jobs held these from taking the sort of militant actions coming from the unemployed, while the Peronist bureaucrats running the two main trade union federations endorsed the interim government finally established by Adolfo Duhalde a month after the rising. Without wider support, the unemployed half of the working class remained dependent on the government for the doles (however miserable) needed to keep people alive. Duhalde used some of these doles to placate sections of the piqueteros. He used others to try to rebuild networks of his own.

The recuperation of political stability was completed with the election in mid-2003 of another Peronist, Kirchner. Sections of the movements, after 18 months of failure to provide their own solutions to the crisis, turned to him as, seemingly, the only credible alternative to the right (especially the former president Menem). At his inauguration he was being backed by the third, supposedly more left wing, union federation, the CTA, by certain piqueteros organisations like the Barrios de Pie and the MIJD of Raúl Castells, by the section of the Madres de Plaza Mayo headed by Hebe de Bonafini and by other civil rights groups. In their eyes, ‘Kirchner competed with their adored Chavez for the title of the most left wing president in the continent, with a more “rebellious” image than Lula’.44

The ‘autonomy’ of the movements that had overthrown De La Rua could not, in itself, provide an alternative to him, and in default of that alternative people were eventually bound to feel the only choice was between different variants of the old order. Politics could not be kept out of the movements, The decisive question was which sort of politics would predominate. As in Ecuador, if revolutionaries with a strategy of uniting and extending the movements did not succeed in drawing around them the most active and militant activists, reformism would predominate, and with it a return of ‘all the old crap’. Those who simply extolled the movements, or insisted that political parties had to keep out of them, ensured that what prevailed were the ideas that least challenged the ‘common sense’ of bourgeois society.


The aftermath of the Bolivian uprising of October 2003 follows very much along the same lines as the Ecuadorian and Argentinian. The president, ‘Goni’ Lozado, fled the country in the face of a siege of government buildings in the capital, La Paz, by tens of thousands of protesters, including contingents from the satellite city of the poor, El Alto, peasants, coca growers and miners armed with gelignite. But his vice-deputy, Mesa, was able to take over and persuade the protesters to return home.

A textile union representative, Alex Galvez, told an enlarged assembly of the country’s COB union federation heard two days later:

Mesa is a tool of the bourgeoisie. What is more the same neo-liberal parties still dominate the congress. We’ve got rid of the president, but his followers remain in power. Goni was brought down, but the neo-liberal capitalist model remains in force. We have won a battle, but we have not won the war.45

Nine months later Mesa not only remains in power, but has managed to win a referendum over the central issue which provoked the uprising—the sale of Bolivia’s output of natural gas to foreign multinationals.

The uprising was the culmination of a rising tide of struggle that had three initial components. There was a massive campaign of workers and peasants against water privatisation (and consequent massively increased water charges) in the Cochabamba region, led by the trade unionist Oscar Olivera. There was a movement of coca46 growers led by Evo Morales and his MAS party.47 And there was the movement for indigenous self-assertion and rights led by Felipe Quispe of the confederation of peasants.

Quispe’s focus was on the demand for the establishment of an independent or autonomous Aymara nation and he denounced Marxism as an expression of ‘European’ and ‘white’ thought.48 Evo Morales—a star at many gatherings of the movement around globalisation—had an orientation towards electoralism (he had achieved virtually the same 21 percent as Lozada in the 2002 election, with Congress deciding the winner). Oscar Olivera was a determined working class fighter, but rejected talk of revolution.49 This did not stop them all playing a vital role in the agitation of 2000, 2001 and 2002, with a succession of strikes, road blockages, demonstrations and physical confrontations with the forces of the state. But their limitations were shown in 2003. Even though the whole of La Paz’s massive poor suburb of El Alto was under popular control and armed miners had joined the struggle, no one was able to successfully resist Lozada’s replacement by Mesa. Structures and ideas which had seemed sufficient when it was a question of building ‘autonomous’ mass movements were no use when it came to the question of what to do when the power of the state was in the balance.

In the months after its greatest triumph the whole movement suffered profound confusion. Evo Morales and MAS gave support to the new government and urged a yes vote in its referendum. Other leaders waited to see what happened, while union activists in La Paz and El Alto talked about a fight to take power, but did not have the forces around them to do so.

Many of the participants in the enlarged COB meeting had concluded that, ‘after taking part in a great social eruption that tragically led to around 70 deaths, the workers, peasants, oppressed nations and the impoverished middle classes did not seize power from the dominant class because they could not count on a revolutionary party’.50 There could not be a clearer affirmation of the limitations of relying on the ‘autonomy’ of movements. However, it leaves open the question of what the alternative, the ‘revolutionary party’, is and how it is to be to be built.

Precursor 1: Germany 1919

It is common for people involved in upsurges of struggle to believe that what they are doing is something completely new. And often they do indeed develop new ways of struggle. But there are also, invariably, some patterns of development similar to those seen in the past. In particular, the thinking of many people involved in the new struggles continues to be marked by the assumptions of the society they are struggling against. Their attitudes are a mixture of their deference to established ideas with the radicalism which comes from beginning to discover their own collective power. They have a contradictory consciousness, which is partly revolutionary and partly reformist.

The classic instance of this was in Europe in the period of revolutionary upsurge between 1918 and 1920. The majority of the old reformist leaders had supported the First World War and reacted with horror to the new radicalism sweeping through the working class under the impact of the Russian Revolution and the collapse of the old empires of central Europe. ‘I hate revolution like the plague,’ leading German social democrat Noske said. Not surprisingly, vast numbers of workers turned away from such leaders. But the revolutionary left was very small (a mere 3,000 people in Germany when the empire collapsed) and disorganised. What is more, the great mass of workers, however enthused by the idea of revolution, did not yet have any great confidence in their capacity to achieve it through their own actions. That could only come as a result of the experience of further struggle. Their consciousness was therefore one in which revolutionary and reformist notions were interwoven.

In the most important case, that of Germany, a new political party had emerged in the course of the war which gave expression to these confused attitudes—the Independent Social Democrats (USP, after its German initials). Its leadership was made up of leading figures from the old Social Democratic Party who had been expelled for objecting to that party’s enthusiasm for the war. But the new party was by no means clearly revolutionary. It included not only figures from the left like Klara Zetkin, but also figures from the mainstream of the old party like Karl Kautsky, and even pacifist-inclined people from its ‘revisionist’ right wing like Eduard Bernstein. The official position of the new party was to see a middle way between reform and revolution (referred to at the time as ‘the centre’ or the ‘centrist’ position)—for instance, calling for workers’ councils to be incorporated in the new constitution as a second chamber alongside the existing parliament. The party leadership, whether out of a desire to maintain some influence over their followers or, in certain cases at least, due to confused ideas of their own, gave speeches, wrote articles and published programmes which gave one nod to the Russian experience and another nod to parliamentarianism. And in doing so, they rallied growing numbers of people behind them. Their party, the Independent Social Democratic Party, grew from 300,000 at the beginning of 1919 to 800,000 at the end of 1920, and their vote from 2.3 million to 4.9 million (just behind the 5.5 million votes for the old Social Democratic Party). Meanwhile, the consistent revolutionaries of the newly formed Communist Party achieved a membership of only about 50,000—despite having been founded by the two best known revolutionary martyrs, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

The half-baked policies of the USP party leadership were disastrous at key moments in the struggle. It was their preparedness briefly to join a government with the old Social Democrat Party immediately after the outbreak of revolution in November 1918 that allowed that party to pacify important sections of workers while it worked to bring the revolution to an end. Typically, in the 18 months of near civil war that followed, the Independent Social Democrat leaders would lurch to the left under pressure from their members and give the go-ahead for militant actions, only then to suddenly retreat, leaving rank and file activists undefended against the vengeance of the state. The revolutionary Eugen Leviné summed up their role shortly before he was executed for his role in the Bavarian Soviet Republic: ‘The Social Democrats start, then run away and betray us; the Independents fall for the bait, join us and then let us down; and we Communists are stood up against the wall. We Communists are all dead men on leave’.51

But the Independent Social Democratic Party was also an arena in which very large numbers of workers tested their ideas against reality—and increasingly found them deficient. Just as the party was at the height of its membership and influence, an argument waged within its ranks as to the direction it was going in, with the majority voting at the end of 1920 to merge with the Communist Party to form a large, unified and thoroughly revolutionary party.

Leon Trotsky later explained how the confused ‘centrist’ ideas of the leaders at the beginning of 1919 corresponded to the confused ideas of vast numbers of German workers. But while the confusion was a ‘congenital’ affliction of leaders incapable of political action outside some sort of parliamentary (or trade union negotiating) framework, it was merely a stage in the transformation of consciousness of the workers as they moved from a reformist to a revolutionary perspective.

This change in consciousness did not occur spontaneously. The experience of bitter struggles created the terrain on which it could occur. It caused spontaneous polarisation within the movement. But the polarisation could only work itself out through continual debate between political tendencies. Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg (in the short weeks before her murder in mid-January 1919) all intervened in the debate, criticising those who refused to take a full revolutionary stance, while making it clear that revolutionaries had to be on picket lines and barricades alongside their followers.

Precursor 2: the US in the 1960s

Another example of relevance today is the student movement in the US in the second half of the 1960s. The main organisation, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), began with enormous hostility to what it saw as the ‘old’ politics. Its approach was well summed up in an account of the organisation’s final 1969 Chicago convention:52

Until only a few years ago SDS in its overwhelming majority was anti-centralist and anti-ideological. Action was all that really counted. Marxism was rejected as ‘Old Left’. The working class was seen as non-existent, irrelevant or bought-off. Community organising and participatory democracy were the key phrases which defined the organisation.

In the months after the 100,000-strong Pentagon demonstration of late 1967 there was a radicalisation of SDS but a continued rejection of ‘ideology’. In this phase there was an explosion of various sorts of anarchist ideas, with groups like the ‘Yippies’, the ‘Motherfuckers’ and so forth—what we would call ‘autonomism’ today. But then, in the aftermath of brutal police attacks on demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago and a wave of state repression that included the shooting down of Black Panther Party members, new left activists found that ‘doing your own thing’ was no longer enough.

The struggle against the Vietnam War and the struggle for black liberation exposed the nature of the American capitalist state, and led to the understanding that it must be overthrown. What began as a movement in many ways resembling a super-idealistic children’s crusade to save the world, was becoming increasingly grim and increasingly serious. The stakes had been raised. This forced the radical movement to take itself—and as a result its ideas—more seriously… As SDS members began to search for political definition during this period of rapid flux, their first efforts were coloured by the anti-ideological flavour of the new left. In an ad hoc fashion, each new stage of the various movements emerging in American society, each new phase of the unfolding crisis was analysed as an eternal attribute of the world… Soon ‘anti-ideology’ as an ideology was transformed into ‘the quest for an ideology’ as an ideology. The myth abounded that SDS, out of its own experience, was on the verge of developing a uniquely American and fundamentally new political synthesis.When it became apparent that this home-grown, all-encompassing synthesis was not going to appear, the movement began to cast about for perspectives to import.

At this point a group entered SDS which seemed to provide the ideology people wanted—the dogmatic Maoist-Stalinist organisation Progressive Labour (PL).

‘The initial reaction to PL among indigenous SDSers was extremely hostile.’ But soon ‘PL’s at least nominal possession of a coherent world view was an important advantage’. It seemed to put across a hard, coherent response to the increasingly serious situation in which the New Left found itself. The only way the established SDS leadership—and thousands of followers—could respond to this was to adopt an increasingly hard position themselves. By the 1969 convention a membership which had once had what we would now describe as ‘autonomist’ politics was embracing one or other version of Stalinised ‘Marxism’. Once the real face of US imperialism was visible, people wanted to fight—and fighting meant ideas and organisation. The tragedy was that the genuinely Marxist left was too small (and made mistakes of its own), leaving the field open for those whose ideas and organisation were fundamentally wrong.

Opportunities and challenges

The wrong model of the party

It is not good enough to see that a party is necessary. It has to be the right sort of party, a party that develops within and unifies the movements, not one that holds them back by stifling their own energy and creativity. And that is precisely what certain widespread models of the party have tended to do. Instead of attracting the best fighters, they repel them, and in doing so reinforce autonomism and reformism.

This, for example, has been the impact of some of the revolutionary organisations in Latin America. In Ecuador there was a history of Marxist organisations that tried to substitute for the movements—on the one hand by small guerrilla groups that operated away from any mass movement, on the other, in the case of the pro-Moscow Communist Party, by supporting one of the dictators.53 In Argentina the sectarianism of the two biggest organisations that emerged from the demoralisation of the 1990s was such that each manoeuvred to impose its slogans on the piqueteros and asembleas movements in 2002—at one point they even ended up fighting physically with each other at a mass gathering and had to be separated by onlookers. In Bolivia the insurgency of the past four years has been distinguished from the struggles of the 1950s to the 1980s by new elements, which the old established Trotskyist POR has seemed quite incapable of relating to.54

Such approaches follow from a common model of the party which is abstracted from real, concrete struggles. It sees itself as the embodiment of socialist consciousness and its task as simply being to persuade workers to follow it.

The classic version of this view was that of pre First World War social democracy. Its most influential theorist internationally, Karl Kautsky, came to believe that socialism would come about when the party had persuaded the majority of workers to vote for it. The task of the party, then, was not to lead immediate struggles, but to patiently propagandise for its view until that point was reached.55 It was the domination of this view of the party even within left wing social democracy that led to passivity in the face of revolutionary upsurges, like the Italian occupation of the factories in 1920. The working class would not in its entirety vote for revolution, so revolution was not possible.56

There is a revolutionary mirror image of this view. It sees the revolutionary party as a small vanguard which has to protect its purity from contamination by wider, non-revolutionary currents within the working class while it waits for events to make the people turn to it. Its purity will then supposedly allow it to undertake a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism on behalf of the workers. The view was most clearly expressed by the first leader of the Italian Communist Party, Amadeo Bordiga. Antonio Gramsci described what this meant in practice:

Participation of the masses in the activity and internal life of the party other than on big occasions and following a formal decree from the centre, has been seen as a danger to the unity and centralism of the party. The party has not been seen as a result of a dialectical process in which the spontaneous movement of the revolutionary masses and the organising and directing will of the centre converge. It has been seen merely as something suspended in the air; something with its own autonomous and self-generated development; something which the masses will join when the situation is right and the crest of the revolutionary wave is at its highest point or when the party centre decides to initiate an offensive and stoops to the level of the masses in order to arouse them and lead them into action.57

Trends in the same direction have often emerged since Bordiga. Stalinism, with the notion that the party should wait for orders from Moscow, encouraged them. But so did the isolation of genuinely revolutionary organisations during periods of defeat and demoralisation for the class as a whole. From a correct emphasis on preserving a revolutionary tradition at times when few workers were interested, it was very easy to move to the belief that the party was the embodiment of the ‘real’ consciousness of the class and that revolution depended on it somehow imposing its ideas on the wider organisations of the class.58 It is this model of the party which makes many people in the movements want to keep the parties out. They believe that the intervention of parties means a hierarchical approach in which the party subordinates the movement to its dictates.

There is, however, a very different model of the party. It celebrates and engages with every more or less spontaneous upsurge of struggle. But it also recognises divisions will emerge between those struggling with the way forward. Some will opt for an apparently easy path of conciliation. Others will want to push the struggle as far as they can and to connect with other struggles. The revolutionary party attempts to give cohesion to this second group. This is the model of the party to be found in the writings of Lenin59 and by the early leader of Italian Communism, Antonio Gramsci (who broke with Bordiga in 1924). It starts with an insistence that the party is not the class as whole. ‘A sharp distinction must be made between the concepts of “class” and “party”.’60 It is ‘part of the working class, the most advanced, politically conscious and revolutionary part’61 and tries to work within the class, arguing against reformist currents, to win people to its perspectives. It recognises that divergences open up in every movement between those who want to carry the struggle forward and those who want to sink back into the old ways. This what is meant by the old terminology of ‘vanguards’ and ‘rearguards’ criticised so frequently by autonomists and reformists. The attempt to build the party does not involve trying to impose something on movements from outside. It is the attempt to pull the most committed elements inside each struggle together, so that they can co-ordinate their efforts and strive to win others to their view of what has to be done. What is brought ‘from the outside’ is, on the one hand, knowledge about struggles from the past and internationally that are outside people’s immediate experience, and on the other, a willingness to challenge the residues of the system’s ideas in people’s minds (racism, sexism, deference to the upper classes, for example). Anyone who objects to a party doing such things ends up holding a movement back, not driving it forward.

There are classic writings in the revolutionary tradition which deal with precisely the question of how the militant minority who have come to revolutionary conclusions should relate to much wider movements and struggles—Lenin’s Left Wing Communism, Trotsky’s The First Five Years of the Communist International and Gramsci’s Lyons Theses stand out. They all point to the great dangers of a ‘sectarian’ approach of standing apart from struggle, and the frequent corollary, an ‘ultimatism’ by which revolutionaries try to enforce their views on struggles from the outside. Such an approach arises when, instead of engaging with the real problems as participants in developing movements, revolutionaries apply preset formulae and make abstract denunciations that do not relate to the developing consciousness of the mass of people. The approach often, in practice, turns into its apparent opposite, into lagging behind the movement, what has often been called ‘tailism’. This arises when revolutionaries do not ‘patiently’ explain to the best people around them the long term prerequisites for victory and raise the question of what the next step should be. Just as much as with sectarianism, there is a failure to build revolutionary organisation within the struggle and a refusal to see that new people can be drawn to revolutionary politics.

The next phase of struggle

All the movements that have developed over the last five years have reached turning points where the question of political direction has become important. The failure to deal with these has led them all to face problems. But nowhere have they yet suffered devastating defeat.

The uprisings in Latin America have not brought capitalism in those countries to it knees, or stopped repeated attacks on workers, peasants, the urban poor and indigenous peoples. But governments still do not find themselves strong enough to turn the clock back to the situation before the risings. They are forced to balance between the pressure from below of popular classes who have tasted their own power and the pressure from above from local capitalism and the imperialist interests like the IMF. This balancing act cannot continue indefinitely, and at some point they will resume their direct attacks. But they will do so in conditions which make a resumption of popular struggle very likely. We are unlikely to have heard the last of the movements in Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador (and, as Mike Gonzalez shows elsewhere in this journal, Venezuela) and of their impact elsewhere. This summer has seen new clashes between protesters and the forces of the state. The whole of South America, from the Caribbean to Tierra del Fuego, with the possible exception of Chile, is in a state of political turmoil.

The anti-war movement was not able to stop the imperialist onslaught on Iraq. But it did create enormous problems for the Bush-Blair alliance, and the rising resistance in Iraq means these problems are getting worse. The US invaded Iraq to assert its control at the strategic centre of the region producing the world’s most important raw material. This was to give it the wherewithal to dominate the rest of world capitalism in a ‘new American century’. Instead it is bogged down in a colonial war which is destabilising the rest of the region. Any retreat will be a humiliation for it—even if its place is taken by a joint imperialist occupation under United Nations auspices. The attempt to stay is likely to mean further barbarities and further military adventures, any of which can reignite the anti-war movement. The continued centrality of the war is shown by the way the movement suddenly revived in Spain, having a decisive effect on the election.

The European governments have made gains in their efforts to impose neo-liberal counter-reforms—the success of Belusconi in reducing workers’ rights, the success of the Chirac-Raffarin government in France in attacking public sector pensions, the success of the Schröder government in Germany in reducing unemployment benefits. But none of these gains measures up to the devastating defeats imposed on the working class movement in Britain during the Thatcher years (when three of the most militant sections of workers were smashed in turn—the miners, the printers and then the dockers). Nor do they do enough to enable European capitalists to match the rates of exploitation (and levels of competiveness) of their rivals in the US and East Asia (in both regions the average annual working hours are 400 or 500 more than in France and Germany).

The French, German and Italian governments have already begun their plans for their next offensive against workers’ conditions as I write. Under such circumstances even the most reformist of trade union leaderships can be forced to call action—as happened when Greek, Italian and Spanish union leaders organised effective 24-hour general strikes in 2002. The union leaders will want to restrict such actions to symbolic displays, but cannot prevent the sheer experience of millions of workers acting together giving confidence to ordinary union members to go further. In Britain we have not yet had 24-hour general strikes, but the ideological commitment of New Labour to attacking workers’ conditions, particularly in the public sectors, has led over the last five years to the rise of the so called awkward squad—union leaders who use some of the language of class struggle, even if most do not put it into practice.62

Italy and Germany provide a foretaste of what we can expect elsewhere. The combination of a revival of popular protests against the war and new industrial struggles (particularly an occupation of FIAT’s new plant at Melfi which paralysed all its operations)63 in the spring of this year swept away much of the demoralisation of the far left of a year ago. Those who interpreted setbacks as a major defeat were proved wrong in practice. In Germany the local section of ATTAC has been able to work with trade unionists to initiate a massive wave of weekly protests against the government’s cuts in payments to the unemployed, especially in eastern Germany.

The pressures on the trade union bureaucracy are having another effect where reformist governments are in power. They are causing schisms within the old established reformist parties, so weakening their influence among wide layers of workers. Most national union leaders alternate between making threatening noises about their links with the parties running these governments and crawling before them.64 .But further down the ranks discontent is spilling over into a break in political allegiance. Many middle level bureaucrats in Germany are backing calls for a new party to stand against Schröder’s SPD and working with activists from the anti-capitalist movement to challenge it in the 2006 elections through a new party, Election Alternative Labour and Social Justice.65 So the disgruntlement with Blair in Britain has caused two unions (the rail workers’ RMT and the firefighters’ FBU) to break the link with Labour and several important branches to support the Respect Unity Coalition or the Scottish Socialist Party. There are very real possibilities for the new left coming out of the anti-capitalist and anti-war movements to establish influence among wide layers of people who have traditionally identified with the main reformist parties.

At the same time, the revival of industrial struggle, even if it is spasmodic and limited, creates the possibilities of the left drawing round it wider numbers of organised workers, particularly young workers not scarred by past defeats, who see the need to fight in a way which often clashes with the trade union bureaucracy. Many of these will already have been influenced by the anti-war movement. The building of rank and file organisations within the existing trade unions is on the agenda in a way in which it was not through the 1980s and 1990s. And the unions remain the biggest voluntary organisations in the major Western countries, despite the loss of membership in the last two decades.

The politics of broadening the movements

Such initiatives can provide massive opportunities for activists from the post-Seattle movements. The strength of the movements has been the vibrancy of their challenge to the devastation of people’s lives by the system. The weakness has been that the challenge has mainly been though great events, through demonstrations and giant forums. It has not translated itself into a continuing, organic connection with the mass of people who are on the receiving end of this devastation in the places where they work and live. The initiatives suggest ways of overcoming this gap, of grouping activists from different struggles together and then drawing much wider numbers of working class people around them. But the building of such groups will not just happen spontaneously, simply by repeating talk about the ‘autonomy’ of the movements. It requires those who see the need for core activist groups to be organised to campaign for them, to argue with others for them—and to argue against those who oppose them. This will happen most effectively where there is a party-type organisation of the most revolutionary people within the movements.

With each success of such initiatives, further arguments will arise. So, for example, rank and file networks in particular unions and industries necessarily involve people who have some faith in some of the existing left-speaking union leaders—or in well known union activists who would like to replace them as union leaders. This means there will always be pressures towards simply looking to the existing union machine, based as it is on a hierarchy of officials whose careers are based upon negotiating compromises with the employers and governments. Conscious effort is needed to put a different emphasis, based on creating networks of activists at the shop (or office) floor level who will reject the vacillation to be expected as left officials bow to the pressures of employers and the rest of the bureaucracy. Revolutionaries who are organised as a minority to argue for their own perspectives within the wider networks can make it easier to avoid such dangers.

Electoral splits from an existing mainstream reformist party necessarily involve activists who reject the policies of current governments, but who have not broken with the whole conception of parliamentary socialism. This leaves open the possibility that many of them will be prepared to return to the party at a later stage if it undergoes a change of policy, or at least of leader. As we have seen, this happened with some of the best known figures of the Independent Social Democratic Party in Germany after 1920. It also happened with those who split the Independent Labour Party from the British Labour Party in 1932.

A more recent example of the same development was the Alliance Party in New Zealand. This was formed in 1991 in reaction to the bitter experience of a Labour government that allowed unemployment to soar, pushed through massive welfare cuts and privatised virtually everything in sight. A split from the Labour Party,66 led by Jim Anderton, a former Labour Party president, came together with the Greens, a Maori party and another group to challenge both Labour and the Tory National Party. The Alliance founders boasted, ‘Nowhere in the English-speaking Western world had such a significant force arisen on the left of the political spectrum.’ The new party gained massively at first from disillusion with Labour, getting 18.7 percent of the national vote in the 1993 general election and 10.3 percent in 1996. This gave it enough seats in the new parliament to make it a significant force—and created immense problems once the Tory National Party formed a coalition government with the far right New Zealand First party. There was immense pressure on the Alliance Party to dilute its opposition to Labour so as to get the right out, and the Alliance finally joined Labour in coalition in 1999, with Anderton as deputy prime minister. Labour, its image refurbished with Alliance support, backed Bush’s war against Afghanistan—and Anderton went along with this, leading to the collapse of the Alliance Party he had founded.67

There is nothing inevitable about this trajectory. It only shows that when the going gets tough there is pressure among activists whose political background has been in mainstream reformism to fall back on the methods of parliamentary alliances. What matters is whether there are other people struggling alongside them and putting the argument that what matters at the end of the day is not parliamentary arithmetic, but the balance of class forces in society at large.

In Germany in 1920 the level of struggle outside parliament and the existence of a revolutionary organisation involved in united struggle alongside members of the Independent Social Democratic Party won the majority of them away from the leaders who were falling back towards the main reformist party. In the case of the Independent Labour Party in the 1930s, many of the most active members were won to the Communist Party (and a very small number to Trotskyism) long before the leaders retreated back into the Labour Party. The disaster in New Zealand was not the creation of the new party under the aegis of a figure who still accepted a basically reformist perspective. It was the lack of an organised revolutionary tendency within the party, working with him in a united front so long as he offered a focus to the left to disillusioned Labour supporters, but also trying all the time to win people to a perspective that would enable them to resist any backsliding.

There is no magic formula that will stop some people who break with a party in government then developing new illusions in it as it changes its language in opposition. The pressures on Rifondazione Comunista in Italy to do a deal with the left of centre ‘olive tree’ coalition show this. ‘The hegemony of the Democratic Left over the working class remains largely intact,’ as one of the speakers at last year’s national meeting put it.68 Recent elections in Europe show a revival of support for social democracy in some countries just as it massively loses support elsewhere. In Spain millions of people who had refused to support the PSOE socialist party in the previous two general elections to it in revulsion at the behaviour of the right wing government of Aznar. In France 10 percent of people voted for the two revolutionary candidates for president in 2002. In 2004 the figure had fallen to less than 3 percent. Even in Britain the vote of the Scottish Socialist Party fell by nearly half in the 2004 European elections compared to the Scottish Parliament elections the year before.69 Such experiences prove that it is wrong to claim that ‘the social democratic parties and to a very large extent the Communist parties are finished as vehicles for working class aspirations’.70 Certainly there is massive disillusionment with them when they are in government (as there was in Britain with the Labour governments of 1929-1931, 1964-1970 and 1974-1979)71 but that has not prevented a swing back to them when they put on a left face in opposition.

A break with a particular reformist party is not automatically a break with reformism. Reformism is something bred by the way in which the members of any exploited class grow up in the society which exploits them and take many of its ideas for granted. A complete break with reformism only occurs when a combination of their own experience and of access to revolutionary ideas opens them up to a totally different worldview. And that requires that revolutionaries are immersed in the struggle to break with the old reformist party, go through the experience of trying to build an alternative with people who are still at least half influenced by reformist ideas—but also do not hide their distinct views and take every opportunity to win people to them through their publications, their meetings and one to one arguments.

Unfortunately, the record of the far left across Europe in this respect does not seem to have been particularly good in the recent period. The Rifondazione, in Italy, as we have seen, was actually declining in size a year ago. Mike Gonzalez says of the SSP, ‘Current membership figures are more or less at the level they were at a year ago—and only around half of those pay subs.’ Such a decline is bound to happen if the main focus is on electoral activity as seems to be increasingly the case with much of the SSP.72 The LCR in France has done a little better. It probably doubled in size after 3 million people voted for the revolutionary left in 2002. Nevertheless, its membership of 3000 ‘militants’ is still only a very small proportion of the people who say in opinion polls that they identify ‘closely’ with the revolutionary left.73 The omission of the far left has been its failure to build links with at least a proportion of those who have voted for it, finding ways to involve them in struggles of a non-electoral sort and winning them to regular readership of its press. In Britain and Germany (and with the new Socialism and Liberty Party in Brazil) the utmost needs to be done to draw people into building the new electoral interventions. But this alone is not enough. They also have to be encouraged to take part in other forms of struggle. This may not always be easy. People from a background of involvement in reformist politics will often assume activity can only occur in a rhythm determined by electoral timetables. But if it is not done, the far left is building on sand.

Building the party to build the movement

The need for political organisation and intervention proves its indispensability at each turning point in wider struggles. This has been shown very clearly at a number of times in Britain in the last three years. Decisive intervention by the Socialist Workers Party was essential to the building of an anti-war movement after 11 September. Even Bernard Cassen admits to the ‘astonishing activism of the SWP, capable of organising the mass demonstrations against the war’,74 despite what he claims are our ‘limited numbers’. But our effectiveness has depended on being able to react rapidly and politically at each stage. We held a party meeting to prepare for Bush’s war within three days of 11 September and from there took the initiative in involving other people in a wider meeting to resist the US attacks on Afghanistan. Then at the first organising meetings of the new campaign, arguments had to be won to prevent the campaign having demands which were too narrow to involve wide numbers of people. Subsequently arguments broke out over whether the orientation should be to mass activity or minority forms of direct action, and over whether to keep the campaign going after the Afghan war was over. All through there were arguments against those who wanted, in one way or another, to make concessions to Islamophobia. More recently, there have been arguments about the setting up of Respect—both with those who are still committed to ‘reclaim’ Labour and with those sectarians who do not understand the importance of a limited programme which can draw in the widest number of activists.

None of these debates were imposed on the developing movement from the outside—any more than was the debate in Genoa on the evening after the murder of Carlo Giuliani about whether to give up the struggle (as the Democratic Left mayor of Genoa argued) or to return to the streets next day in greater numbers (as Fausto Bertinotti of Rifondazione and Agnoletto of the Genoa Social Forum argued).75 Those who talk of ‘manipulation’ or ‘external intervention of the parties in the movements’ over such issues are, in reality, lamenting the fact that they themselves were not able to ‘manipulate’ the movements into going in a different direction.

But if such arguments arise ‘spontaneously’, the understanding about how to respond to them does not. It depends upon an overall view of the situation, which can only come from integrating immediate events into a much wider theoretical framework. So the reaction of the Socialist Workers Party to the arguments that have arisen at each stage in building the anti-war movement since 11 September has been shaped by discussions which have taken place in the party in the past (including in this journal) over imperialism, political Islam and the united front. Success in building the huge protests depended, in part, on arguments that were hammered out in the past at often relatively small meetings.

As Gramsci put it:

The element of consciousness is needed, the ‘ideological’ element: in other words, an understanding of the conditions of the struggle, the social relations in which the worker lives, the fundamental tendencies at work in the system of those relations, and the process of development which society undergoes as a result of the existence within it of insoluble antagonisms, etc… One certainly cannot ask every worker from the masses to be completely aware of the whole complex function which his class is destined to perform in the process of development of humanity. But this must be asked of members of the party… The party can and must, as a whole, represent this higher consciousness. Otherwise it will not be at the head but at the tail of the masses; it will not lead them but be dragged along by them. Hence, the party must assimilate Marxism…76

The argument over reform and revolution does not just relate to the possibilities of fighting for power elsewhere in the world or here in the future. It also translates into how you understand every stage of the existing struggle—on whether you put the emphasis on trying to mobilise mass struggle from below or on manoeuvres within the existing institutions. Even the most combative people with elements of reformist consciousness can fall back on the second approach at key moments in the struggle. That does not mean following a politics of denunciation in relation to them. It does mean taking up arguments and trying to win them.

At every point it has to be remembered that there is not just one front to the struggle against the system. There is not just the struggle against this horrific war; this wave of racist murders; this pay cut; this round of redundancies; this denial of an indigenous people to use their own language; this racist humiliation of an ethnic or religious minority. The struggles over each such issue necessarily go up and down. But they are all part of the struggle against a single global system, and in each struggle there is a very important minority of people who can be won to see that, and commit themselves to the global struggle. In other words, they can be won to participate in the building of revolutionary organisation

But that will only happen if revolutionaries themselves see the centrality of building such organisation. The party does not arise spontaneously from the struggle, even though the polarisation that creates the need for the party is, in a certain sense, a spontaneous product of every struggle. As well as taking part in the struggle, its members have to meet separately, to organise separately, so as to be able to pool their experiences and arrive at some analysis of how to draw the different struggles together as part of the total combat. They then have to be use every opportunity to convey this analysis to others involved in the various struggles—through meetings, discussion forums, organised intervention in trade union and movement meetings, above all through systematic sale of the party paper within the struggles. Only in this way can they ensure that the most active and conscious people from one front of struggle are won to a perspective that leads them to take part in other fronts.

Such interaction is important if the party’s theory is to develop correctly. Analyses from the past have continually to be tested against the experience of present struggles. Any rising movement involves very large numbers of people thinking and acting creatively, raising new problems and throwing up new solutions. The party can only respond to that creativity, expand old analyses to incorporate it, if it is continually drawing towards it the most dynamic participants in struggles. Again, to quote Gramsci:

Modern theory [ie Marxism]…cannot be in opposition to…the ‘spontaneous’ feelings of the masses… Between the two there is a ‘quantitative’ difference of degree, not one of quality. A reciprocal ‘reduction’ so to speak, a passage from one to the other and vice versa, must be possible…

The party must not ‘neglect’ such feelings, but ‘raise them to a higher plane by inserting them into politics’.77 It cannot do so unless there is a continual two-way interaction between the mass movements and the party. This has important implications for the organisation of the party itself if it is to be a necessary asset for and not an impediment to the wider struggle.

There is necessarily a division of labour within any revolutionary organisation. Intervention in rapidly developing struggles—whether offensive or defensive—demands the existence of a party centre. There is no other way to translate strategy into tactics, transmitting these through the paper, leaflets and posters, to try to integrate different fronts of struggles, to spread initiatives taken by those in one section of the party to those in other sections. This cannot happen without some sort of full time political apparatus, made up of those the party membership decide are best at generalising from the experience of struggle and translating that into strategy and tactics—that is, without a party leadership. It also requires that the party membership impose on themselves a discipline of implementing decisions arrived at by the centre. There is no other way except through such united action that the party as a whole can test whether the decisions made at the centre are correct or not. If every party member simply did what they felt like it would never be possible to tell what interventions were correct and what mistaken. In other words, there cannot be an effective party without a degree of centralisation and discipline within the party.

But no centralised leadership can arrive at the right decisions unless there is a continual feedback into the party centre from the activists on the ground. The activists have to understand the reasons for the decisions they are implementing, and they have to be able to hold the leadership to account when the decisions do not seem to fit with their own collective experience. This depends upon free debate within the party, so that the members both at the centre and in every front of struggle are involved in a continual process of mutual education. The party has to be democratic as well as centralised. It is not only the right of members to express their disagreements in this way. It is their duty. There is no other way to develop the debate necessary to arrive at the correct political conclusions

This is often easier to write down on paper than to translate into practice. Anyone who has been active in any form of organisation in capitalist society will know how arguments can take on a life of their own, how personal antagonisms can colour and exacerbate other disagreements, how people can develop obsessions over minutiae. Revolutionary organisations are not necessarily an exception to this trend—their members have grown up under capitalism and are shaped by its pressure even while they try to fight against it. But if they are to be effective the organisations cannot be simply debating societies.78 The members have to impose on themselves the self-discipline of not getting carried away by petty disputes or irrelevant discussions—and that can mean on occasions collectively taking disciplinary action against members who disrupt the activity of the party by doing so.

Activists who are not members of revolutionary organisations often make two different complaints about them. On the one hand, they complain that they are undemocratic, imposing arbitrary decisions on their members and on the movement. On the other hand, there is the opposite complaint, that they are absorbed in internal factional debates. Both complaints are often caricatures, based upon rumours about what has happened in some ultrasectarian groups. But if either complaint is justified, then the revolutionary organisation is failing in the task it has set itself—to bring together the most combative fighters on every front so that they co-ordinate effectively their struggle for a better society. And this is not only damaging to the organisation—it is also failing to provide the wider movement with a tool it needs.


The revolutionary left internationally was small at the time of Seattle and it was not surprising that the many thousands who took part in the great mobilisations rarely identified with its arguments. But every time the wider movement has encountered new problems, political debate has erupted over how to deal with them. In this debate the existence of an organised revolutionary pole within the movements, alongside those who argue for reformism or autonomism, has been important. Many people who were still influenced by reformist ideas when they entered into the struggle have broken from them as a result of the experiences they have been through. They need to be organised if the movement is to continue to go forward and reach out to wider numbers of people. And those who have only partially broken with the old ideas need to be encouraged to rethink.

This is not going to happen unless those who are already revolutionaries take up the arguments. In other words, a visible revolutionary organisation is a necessity, not an optional extra. Its members need to take part in the wider struggles and operate through party groups in localities and workplaces. They have to organise people around them through regular paper sales and draw them to meetings. And the discussion cannot just be about immediate tactics, but has to raise the question of transforming society in its totality, of revolution, not reform. Only in this way can we move towards fulfilling the full potential of the last five years—towards overthrowing this system and creating a better one.


  1. C Harman, ‘Anti-capitalism: Theory and Practice’, International Socialism 88 (Autumn 2000), p49.

  2. See, for instance, Susan George in Socialist Review, September 2001: ‘I cannot now in conscience encourage our members to put life and limb on the line, to participate in demos where we are going to have the police trapping people and shooting live ammunition on the one hand, and on the other the Black Bloc, completely infiltrated by police and fascists, running wild and apparently unable or unwilling to police its own ranks.’ Fortunately, Susan George has continued to demonstrate, whatever her feelings immediately after Genoa.

  3. For details of the reaction of the movement to 11 September, see S Ashman, ‘The Anti-capitalist Movement and the War’, International Socialism 98 (Spring 2003), pp7-22.

  4. Quoted in S Hook, Hegel and Marx, p18. Engels repeats the point in a letter to Bebel: ‘For the rest, old Hegel has already said it: A party proves itself a victorious party by the fact that it splits and can stand the split. The movement of the proletariat necessarily passes through stages of development; at every stage one section of the people lags behind and does not join in the further advance; and this alone explains why it is that actually the “solidarity of the proletariat” is everywhere realised in different party groupings which carry on life and death feuds with one another…’ (20 June 1873).

  5. For full details of Cassen’s approach, see his book, Tout a Commencé à Porto Alegre (Paris, 2003). Note that he sees the beginning as being at Porto Alegre, a conference, not at Seattle, an action.

  6. See NLR, as above

  7. See B Cassen, as above, p128. In particular, he was worried about upsetting the leaders of the European TUC after the hostile reaction to one of them—the hostility was not surprising, since the speaker woke a dozing audience by calling for a ‘social market’ economy!

  8. B Cassen, ‘Trois questions pour ATTAC’, May 2003, www.france.attac.org

  9. He went out of his way to launch such an attack in a public forum organised by the Swiss ATTAC in Geneva, deliberately polarising the meeting after previous platform speakers such as Chris Nineham from Globalise Resistance in Britain had avoided doing so.

  10. The Indymedia website contained numerous debates between non-violent ‘white overall’ autonomists and the supporters of the Black Bloc in the run-up to Genoa.

  11. J Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power (London, 2002).

  12. G Almeyra, ‘EZLN; un viraje importante’, Viento Sur 70 (October 2003), p55.

  13. La Jornada, Mexico City, 28 July 2003, quoted in G Almeyra, as above, p54.

  14. The Communist Party of Britain—not to be confused with the sectarian group that calls itself the Communist Party of Great Britain.

  15. He did so while taking part in a Globalise Resistance forum at the WSF in Mumbai in January 2004.

  16. In various articles in the Guardian newspaper.

  17. A Bertho, ‘Un Social Très Politique’, in Critique Communiste 169-170 (summer/autumn 2003), p184.

  18. The two extreme cases were probably those of Spain (where the two remaining reasonably sized revolutionary organisations, the Movemiento Comunista and the Liga Comunista Revolucionaria, dissolved themselves in the early 1990s) and Argentina, where the number of organised revolutionaries in 2000 was about 20 percent of the figure in 1985.

  19. See the various contributions to a discussion on ‘Mouvement Social et Politique’ in Critique Communiste, as above.

  20. I Johsua, ‘Les Nouveaux Movements Sociaux’, Critique Communiste, as above, p168.

  21. The phrase is that used by Sophie Béroud in her useful article, ‘De Decembre Anti-Juppé au Printemps Anti-Fillon’, in Critique Communiste, as above, p142.

  22. As above, p143.

  23. The old CPI had claimed claimed two million members when the leadership dissolved the party to form the Democratic Left. Rifondazione, formed in opposition to the openly social democratic polices of the leadership, was able to attract about 100,000 of these. They usually show loyalty to the party but in a passive manner, with an average level of militancy much less than that of, say, members of the LCR in France or the SWP in Britain. Their importance, however, was shown in the way they mobilised after Genoa or for the Florence ESF.

  24. There were 10 million yes votes—but the turnout was far below the figure necessary for these to have any effect.

  25. For the fascinating transcript of the debate at this meeting, see www.liberazione.it. For the background to the meeting, see the introductory piece by G Buster, in ‘Rifondazione: un Debate Sobre los Movimientos Sociales’, in Viento Sur, 70 (October 2003), p31.

  26. A Rifondazione parliamentary deputy referred to this press speculation in his intervention in the national meeting.

  27. This is not the first time the far left in Italy has been pulled towards conciliation with reformism. A similar phenemonon occurred with the far left of the mid-1970s, with key figures suggesting a call for a coalition with the then Communist Party. See the powerful criticism of this approach by Sebastiano Timpanaro, in Praxis 20, Palermo (October 1977), translated in an abridged form into English in International Socialists, International Discussion Bulletin, no 6 (February 1978).

  28. G Malaburba, F D’Angeli and F Turigliatto, ‘Rifondazione: Un Debate Sobre los Movimientos Sociales’, in Viento Sur 70, as above, p34.

  29. Fausto Bertinotti, leader of Rifondazione, made an appeal on the main public television channel, RAI 1: ‘It is essential that a massive peaceful demonstration takes place in Genoa tomorrow. It is vital that the movement’s underlying reasons—mass democracy—are able to prevail’, quoted in T Behan, ‘Nothing Can Ever Be the Same Again’, International Socialism 92 (autumn 2001), p10.

  30. As Tom Behan has pointed out, it did not have a clear theory before Genoa. See ‘The Return of Italian Communism’, International Socialism 84 (Autumn 1999).

  31. His joke when speaking at the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism 2003 event in July 2003—two weeks after the Rifondazione national meeting.

  32. Alexis Ponce, spokesperson for the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights of Ecuador (vocero de la Asamblea Permanente de Derechos Humanos del Ecuador), interview (in Spanish) by Heinz Dieterich, ‘Solo los pobres tienen patria’ , on www.rebelion.org Much of the detail I give here of the uprising comes from this interview.

  33. Quoted in K Lucas, ‘Ecuador: El otro yo de Lucio Gutiérrez’, IPS report from Quito, 16 January 2004.

  34. As above.

  35. As above

  36. F H Flor, ‘Los Movimientos Indígenas y la Lucha por la Hegemonía; el Caso de Ecuador’, Herramienta 25, Buenos Aires, April 2004, p82.

  37. A Ponce, as above.

  38. As above.

  39. F H Flor, as above.

  40. ‘Lecciones de Zapatismo’, in C Rodriguez Guerra, Los Grupos Insurgents en el Ecuador (Quito, 1999), pp115-120.

  41. For a full account of these events and their causes, see my article, ‘Argentina: Rebellion at the Sharp End of the World Crisis’, International Socialism 94 (Spring 2002).

  42. These descriptions are based in part on what I myself saw as a visitor to a neighourhood asemblea in April 2002 and to a piqueteros meeting in January 2003.

  43. See the transcript of the debate on www.resist.org.uk

  44. M Yunes, ‘Un Análisis Marxista del Gobierno de Kirchner’, Socialismo o Barbarie-revista (September 2003).

  45. For the full transcript (in Spanish) of the fascinating discussion see www.econoticiasbolivia.com

  46. The plant from which cocaine is processed, which is also used in the Andes in its unprocessed state for chewing and making tea.

  47. Not to be confused with quite different parties with the same name in Venezuela and Argentina.

  48. Quoted in R Saenz, ‘Critica de romanticismo “Anticapitalista”’, in Socialismo o Barbarie-revista 16 (April 2004), pp15 and 28. Saenz’s article provides a very good account of the character of the rising and of the problems facing the left in Bolivia today.

  49. He did so explicitly during a discussion in London in 2001.

  50. The report of the meeting by Miguel Pinto Parabá on www.econoticiasbolivia.com, 19 October 2003.

  51. R Leviné Meyer (London, 1977), p133. For full details of the civil war period, see my The Lost Revolution, Germany 1918 to 1923 (London, 1982), pp96-157.

  52. The account by Jack Weinberg and Jack Gerson first appeared in the Independent Socialist in 1969, and was then reprinted in Michael Friedman (ed), The New Left in the Sixties (Berkeley, 1972). All the quotes in this section are from it.

  53. In C Rodriguez Guerra,as above.

  54. The main changes are the rise of the movement for indigenous rights and changes in the industrial structure, which have altered the make-up of the working class so that the miners are no longer as centrally important as in the past

  55. See my exposition of Kautsky’s views in my article ‘Party and Class’, inT Cliff, D Hallas, C Harman and L Trotsky, Party and Class (London, 1996), pp48-50.

  56. The classic account in P Spriano, The Occupation of the Factories (London, 1975).

  57. Antonio Gramsci, letter to Togliatti, Terracini and others, 9 February 1924, in A Gramsci, Political Writing, 1919-26 (London, 1978), p198.

  58. There are interpretations of Lenin’s What is to be Done which seem to justify this approach, but as I argued in ‘Party and Class’ (as above) Lenin’s overall approach was very different. See also J Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (London, 1978), pp36-96.

  59. Although not its full form by the Lenin text most pushed by Stalinism, What is to be Done.

  60. The second congress of the Communist International, ‘The Role of the Communist Party in the Proletarian Revolution’, in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the Communist International (London, 1980), p69.

  61. As above, p68. Gramsci argued the party was ‘part of the working class’, not, as Bordiga claimed, ‘an organ of the working class’. See A Gramsci and P Togliatti, ‘Lyons Theses’, in A Gramsci, Selections from Political Writings, 1921-26 (London, 1978), p360.

  62. See the pamphlet by M Smith, The Awkward Squad (London, 2003).

  63. There is a very good account of the strike on www.eiro.eurofound.eu.int

  64. In Britain there has been the contrast between talk of people like the leader of the GMB union, Kevin Curran, of breaking with Labour in the early summer of 2004 with the ‘accord’ between the main union leaders and the government reached in the late summer. See, for instance, the editorial in Socialist Worker, 21 August 2004.

  65. See A Callinicos, ‘Spirit of 1989 in Germany’, Socialist Worker, 14 August 2004.

  66. Confusingly called ‘New Labour’!

  67. For accounts of the Alliance Party, see www.wsws.org

  68. C Bellotti, in www.liberazione.it

  69. According to Mike Gonzalez, a member of the Socialist Worker platform within the SSP.

  70. M Smith, ‘The Broad Party, the Revolutionary Party and the United Front: A Reply to John Rees’, International Socialism 100 (autumn 2003), p69.

  71. See my piece on this, ‘Faith of their Fathers’, in Socialist Review, November 2003.

  72. ‘It seems to me’, writes Mike Gonzalez, ‘that the political method sees the Members of the Scottish Parliament and parliament as the heart of the party’s activity. The rhythm and direction of the party is increasingly shaped by that.’ Document written for the Socialist Workers Platform of the SSP, July 2004.

  73. An opinion pollster interviewed in Critique Communiste points out that the great majority of those who voted for revolutionaries in 2002 did so because they saw that as a way of putting on pressure for radical reforms—but a minority, about 4 percent of the total electorate, identified closely with the revolutionary left—that is about 400,000 people-Critique Communiste 173 (summer 2004), p198.

  74. B Cassen, as above, pp119-120.

  75. For details, see T Behan, as above, p10.

  76. A Gramsci, ‘Introduction to the First Course at the Party School’, Selections from Political Writings, 1921-26 (London, 1978), p288.

  77. A Gramsci, ‘Spontaneity and Conscious Leadership’, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1971), p198.

  78. This point is made in J Molyneux, as above, p166