DiscussionTransformative power: rethinking political organisation? – Len Arthur
Russell Elliott, who organised the Compass Wales meeting, responded to our last discussion paper by Darren via our WLG Facebook site, and drew our attention to a recent paper by Hilary Wainwright published in Socialist Register. Hilary uses the term ‘transformative’ to describe a process of challenging power in a capitalist society. She argues that achieving this will require a rethinking of what a political organisation would look like in the context of a ‘plurality of sources of transformative power’, by which she means trade unions and the range of social movement organisations. Her paper is of great significance to us as socialists, relating to directly to the current crisis of capitalism, the neo-liberal politics of austerity and the emergence of a new politics like Syriza in Greece. Moreover, on a personal note, I have also been writing about the same theme for the last 10 years and her paper provides an opportunity to explore conceptual and practical synergies.
Recently, our third and fourth discussion pieces shared some rather abstract thoughts about challenging the hegemony and power of capitalism, developing Gramsci’s notion of a war of position and a war of manoeuvre. In some earlier papers these ideas have been explored more extensively by me, arguing for some new thinking about socialist parties through ZCommunication: beyond Pilger and Monbiot and deviant mainstreaming. Essentially, I have been arguing a key point: that to mount an effective challenge to capitalism, it is unhelpful to continue with a dichotomy of resistance between social movements more interested in alternative space and movements of mobilisation that challenge power directly through collective and generalised struggle. The dichotomy leads to a divided movement where the different forms of resistance are seen as alternatives, and worse, one is privileged over the other. Cooperatives, for example, are seen as ‘islands in a sea of capitalism’ just ripe for the picking, and trade unions are seen too narrowly focussed on the interests of members and collective agreements, as opposed to fundamental social change.Historically, including in the later works of Marx and Engels and in the decisions of the first four conferences of the Communist International, this dichotomy hardly features, the differences are recognised, but are seen as part of the same struggle. That provides a useful starting point.
First, some terms. Hilary Wainwright uses the term ‘transformative’ to describe effectively challenging the power of capital and I would prefer ‘transgressive contention’ but for this piece I’ll go along with Hilary. Second, I would prefer to use the term ‘alternative space’ to describe social movements like cooperatives, whereas Hilary uses ‘prefigurative movements’; again, I’ll go along with this. We would both argue that we should be not be exclusively focussed on taking state power sometime in the future as the only way to be transformative; that it is possible to, ‘build the future in the present’ through prefigurative organisations.
Hilary Wainwright has this key sentence in her paper:
‘In effect, the problem with creating prefigurative change in the present with a dynamic toward future change is as much about ourselves creating new forms of self organisation in the present as about reforms through the state.’
It is important to explore this a little further. In both organisations of mobilisation, like trade unions, and prefigurative organisation such as cooperatives, there is a problem of the direction or trajectory of change. Trade unions can lead to incorporation into capitalism, as well as mount a transformative challenge such as a general strike. Cooperatives can be seen as having an incorporated boundary with capitalism or Trojan horses for privatisation, but in aggregate they can be seen as a prefigurative challenge to capitalism both ideologically and in terms of ‘crowding out’. How, then, is it possible to influence the direction of the trajectory of these organisations? Hilary talks about ‘new forms of self organisation’ but I would argue that it is possible to be more specific.
Both trade unions and prefigurative organisations should be seen as ‘terrains of struggle’. The dynamic and trajectory of the organisation is influenced by the action of the members and it is here that the politics of transformation need to be clear: it is for socialists to argue, frame and seek to lead the strategic debate among the members. In trade unions we are familiar with rank and file or broad left organisations, so in prefigurative organisations similar progressive organisations should be formed. Moreover, it is possible to go further and suggest the form of the political process that could take place to try to ensure that the trajectory is toward transformation.
Transitional demands and actions are the key to this process. They have a long history which is outlined in my ‘deviant mainstreaming’ paper mentioned above, but essentially they are intended to form a bridge between where the struggle is now, in terms of action and consciousness, and where we would like to be in terms of transformation. To achieve this, the debate needs to be framed by asking the question as to what can be done to transform capitalism? So, for example, demanding that we do not pay for the bankers’ crisis legitimates both the struggle against austerity politics and alternative answers, involving the control and redistribution of wealth to the working class. By establishing cooperative control – such as at Tower colliery – the management is elected and the full product or revenue of the organisation is under the control of the workers, demonstrating that transformation can work. Through recycling and using renewable energy under cooperative control, we can provide a similar demonstration of what is possible, as well as having a direct effect on climate change.
Now, of course, this does not happen spontaneously and we are back to the discussion about the type of party that is required, that can facilitate socialist leadership within the ‘terrains’ of struggle. Hilary Wainwright talks about networks and new forms of communication, but she also points to Syriza in Greece and in great depth explains how they are in fact providing leadership both in terms of representative politics and work with prefigurative organisations. That is where I agree entirely. I talk about Syriza’s earlier work in my papers. At the moment, it seems that Syriza is not only showing us how to fight back within a traditional context but also on the ground, in terms of collective mobilisation and prefigurative organisations. They are very brave and it may come unstuck, but at the moment they offer us the best example of a successful socialist organisation seeking transformative change whilst at the same time being rigorously internationalist in argument and practice. Can we do this in the UK?