OLD VERSION: socialist governments and cooptation

i’ve been working on this article for a while, but am not satisfied with it. I think i’m trying to incorporate too much, and am making it muddled. any thoughts on how to improve it?

Socialism and the Recuperated Factory Movement: capitalist development and delusions

Todd Hamilton

"It is one of the peculiarities of revolutions that just as the people seem about to take a great start and to open a new era, they suffer themselves to be ruled by the delusions of the past and surrender all the power and influence they have so dearly won into the hands of men who represent, or are supposed to represent, the popular movement of a by-gone epoch1" (Marx)

The course of capitalist development in our time brings with it conflicts which are familiar from history, but easily ignored under the cacophony of propaganda. As power is restructuring in the wake of the collapse of the soviet dictatorships, there have been twin movements. One the one hand we see the consolidation of capital. Capitalist infrastructure, organization, and coordination has grown increasingly global and unified internationally. On the other hand there has been a corresponding increase in nationally-based power conflicts whose sources are complex. States attempt to structure conflict along national lines to diffuse the more threatening opposition to the state and capital as such. This should not be surprising given the largely successful capitalist legacies in the post-colonial world (let alone within the socialist movements of the 20th century), it is a tactic which has born fruit for those who seek to immobilize popular movements. Yet, despite the illusions, struggle does emerge along these lines and autonomous pressure arises that pushes factions within the political apparatus to formulate and develop national reforms, conflicts, and restructuring that resist the face of capitalist expansion without disrupting or slowing that development. Out of this dynamic we see a number of tendencies arising such as those that seek to overturn the present in favor of racist and authoritarian nationalism, those who seek to unite social movements with elements of the state and capital, those who seek the creation of global states, those who wish to turn back time, and so on.

The debate around these issues has tendended to focus on the role of the state and its relationship, or sometimes more boringly its potential relationship, to autonomous social movements. This approach to the question ignores a second pole, which is crucial to any such understanding, namely the place of these movements in the historical development of power and counter power.

Moved by claims that it will help the metabolism and productivity of his fellow citizens, President Hugo Chávez said clocks would be moved forward by half an hour at the start of 2008. He announced the change on his Sunday television program, accompanied by his highest-ranking science adviser, Héctor Navarro, the minister of science and technology. ”This is about the metabolic effect, where the human brain is conditioned by sunlight,” Mr. Navarro said in comments reported by Venezuela’s official news agency2” (NYTimes)

Particularly surreal are the attempts of revolutionaries to portray the government of Venezuela under supposed socialist leadership as revolutionary. The claims do not only come from the familiar pantheon of leninists, leninist-burn outs, and authoritarian sects, but also from those that fashion themselves anarchist anti-imperialists. The facts are that venezuela is a capitalist nation with a coercive centralized institution of power. The supposed revolution arose out of the autonomous activity of the populace against the development of capital and the machinations of power of a segment of the bourgeoisie. The government of this nation has implemented social reforms that have led to improvements in some elements of the living conditions of its populace. These changes are viewed unfavorably by other states as it encroaches upon the model of capitalist expansion favored by some, and worse represents a potential path of resistance to oppressed classes (whether or not it even would be a successful path of struggle). These conflicts lead some to side with one capitalist state over that of another. They accuse others who oppose the state in Venezuela as siding with imperialist and reactionary forces abroad.

Yet we need to be clear about the nature of the Venezuelan state. The state is not organized against capitalism, but rather is the entrenchment of capitalism which evolved to incorporate popular struggle and thereby diffuse resistance. Anarchists in Venezuela have documented through their publication El Libertario that the reforms the Venezuelan government have introduced do not represent any great break with prior government practices, and are fueled more by the development of capitalist business within Venezuela than revolutionary political practice. Moreover the attempt to link social movements to the state provide a vehicle within which to control and diffuse those struggles, which during the proper stage, might otherwise be direct against central power as such. This understanding leads us to opposition to the state and capital, at the same time supporting the struggles of the oppressed classes in social movements. This is far from supporting the supposed imperialists or capital as Frank Fernandez argued about the anarchist position on the Cuban revolution: “…It’s one thing to make charges similar to those of non-anarchist forces and entirely another to place oneself under their command”3

An interesting case is that of recuperated factories in Venezuela, which have evolved alongside the more robust Argentinian experience. Yet in Venezuela the factories have largely aligned themselves with the state. This has not been without consequence though. The state intervenes directly to ensure the maintenance of capitalist organization of the workplace and the containment of workers struggles within organs such as private management and unions.

In a recent article by Megan Hise, an organizer working with a recuperated factory, this process is documented. Workers at Sanitarios Maracay in Caracas seized control of their workplace after receiving notice of a plant closure. Workers developed a factory council to run the workplace in order to retain the power they had gained in the organizing preceding the factory closure. “Under worker control, the factory faced serious obstacles. The bad debts of the boss risked the cutoff of utilities
such as electricity and gas. Raw material ran low and without serious credit, capital, and legal legitimacy, it proved difficult to purchase”4 The difficulty of running a business, collective or otherwise, under capital lead the workers to demand nationalization of the business in hopes of having a more stable economic base. The government is implementing a national housing program, and the factory, which makes toilets and the like, sought to help meet that demand. At first the governor gave some minor hand outs (“one month’s pay”) to pacify the workers.

The workers occupied a highway in hopes of furthering their cause, but the police and national guard responded with assaults and arrests. Government contracts overlooked the workers, and have been given to competing capitalist businesses. In the struggle that followed to maintain the business under capitalism the radical leadership of the factory council was deposed by the state-aligned union, who has brought back management functions. This leadership has now created “a new commission organized by the ministry of labor, which would consist of 5 representatives for the owner, 5 for the workers, and 3 from the labor ministry. Entailed is the return of the factory to the hands of [private ownership] in exchange for the back-wages and benefits owed to each worker” (ibid).

We can make sense of this by understanding the role of the state under capitalism is to contain struggle, further capitalist development, and centralize power and resources. The market and capitalist social relations act on businesses through pressure to constantly expand profit. Workers when faced with poverty and alienation have responded by taking over their workplaces and reorganizing them to better meet their immediate needs. Yet these struggles are in their infancy. They face capital as a minority of such industries, and must do so under the logic of the division of industry, the demands of capitalist businesses supplying materials and distributing, and attacks from the state. This isn’t to say that this project is not of significance. It poses a very real challenge to power in the form of prefiguring a way of living that goes beyond the present. Yet it has real limits based upon the place of development of autonomous social movements at present.

There is then the challenge within this movement of continued existence and cooptation. Speaking of the workers councils Maurice Brinton says,

Like all forms of dual power, economic dual power is essentially unstable. It will evolve into a consolidation of bureaucratic power (with the working class exerting less and less control). Or it will evolve into workers’ management, with the working class taking over all managerial functions5”.

When we remain in between, when insurrection stops short at change in the actors of the state, we are faced with movements which must justify their existences. This situation leads to confusion amongst revolutionaries about the nature of the gains won and the state itself. This is not without historical precedent. In all insurrections there have always been those who in the words of a Cuban comrade wish to get behind whatever is happening, when they should be ahead of it.

The confusion in the anarchist camp regarding the Cuban situation was fomented by the Castro government’s propaganda apparatus, which had enormous resources, talent, imagination, and great political ability. It replied to the exiled anarchists’ attacks precisely in that ideological territory which marxism had manipulated so successfully during the Spanish Civil War. The international left consisted of a number of political, social, and even religious groups that constantly attacked capitalism, militarism, the ruling class, and organized religion. The entrance of the "socialist" Castro regime into this political war zone was a very effective tactic in maintaining international sympathy for the regime and for keeping it in power. This was an especially powerful tactic in combination with the Castro regime’s extremely sophisticated methods of repression; and these two factors are the principal reasons for that regime’s durability6” (Chapter 5 Fernandez)

Fernandez analyzes the process of cooptation and repression well here by showing twin approaches of the state. On the one hand it seeks to eliminate revolutionary forces through repressive mechanisms whether it be propaganda, torture, imprisonment, or incorporation into the state. On the other hand it seeks to build support amongst a multiplicity of sectors and tendencies through the perpetuation of the illusion of being anti-capital, anti-imperialist, etc. A failure of revolutionaries to realize this is particularly disturbing in the case of the Iranian revolution. The views of anarchists and elements in the Iranian communist movement here converge. Monsoor Hekmat, though a leninist, pushed for the immediate abolition of wage labor and the demolition of the capitalist state. This understanding caused him, and the party he led the Worker Communist Party, to oppose the Islamic fundamentalists and the left that lent its support to one of the most horrifying dictatorship of our time. I quote his analysis at length for its lucidity and timeliness.

“Tactically, the radical Left faltered on two closely related and central issues: first, the attitude towards the Islamic Republic and its Liberal and Pan-Islamic factions and, second, the Iran-Iraq war. The official Maoists and the Tudeh Party showed much more consistency in their tactics than the radical Left. The Maoists soon found in the liberals the very personification of their beloved ‘national bourgeoisie’ and were eventually incorporated into the ‘Coordinating Office of the President’ — a guise for an unofficial alliance of politicians and groups united around Banisadr to fend off the Islamic Republic Party. The Tudeh Party embraced the Khomeini regime essentially for its demagogic anti-American rhetoric and remained a staunch follower of the ‘Imam’s Line’. It went to a great length to appease the hegemonic Islamic faction, to the extent of condoning and aiding the regime of terror, torture and mass executions after June 81. But for the organizations of radical Left, the Islamic Republic posed a dilemma. The problem arose from the Left’s characterization of the pre-revolution Islamic opposition as a political movement of the ‘traditional petty bourgeoisie’, a layer which in the Left’s anti-imperialist frame of thought was part of the ‘revolutionary popular alliance’. This formulation was in itself thoroughly mechanistic and non-Marxist. However, once the same characterization was extended to the bourgeois state after the revolution, it turned into a theoretical and political catastrophe. The majority of radical Left organizations, notably the Fedaii, Peykar and Razmandegan, hesitated and wavered, shifting from one formulation to another to resolve the contradiction between their theoretical assessment of the Islamic current and its anti-democratic, anti-communist and reactionary practices. Events such as the occupation of the American Embassy and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war added to the confusion7

The task then is not to become swayed by the machinations of a capitalist class that seeks to coopt struggle under a red banner. Rather as revolutionaries we must endeavor to build popular movements which have the strength to transform the social relations which constitute capital and the state, and in a revolution reorganize society into decentralized popular power in the force of councils. All states must seek to disrupt this process and reimpose capital, and it will be impossible for such movements to survive with the active suppression of the state. Yet in the circumstances we find ourselves in, we must seek to strengthen, support, and expand struggles such as the recuperated factories that build autonomy amidst capital.

1 Marx & Engels, Collected Works 13, Lawrence & Wishart, London (1980), p. 340.

3Fernandez, Frank. Cuban Anarchism: The history of a movement. See Sharp Press. 2001 Published online by libcom http://libcom.org/library/cuba-anarchism-history-of-movement-fernandez

4Hise, Megan. From an upcoming issue of the North Eastern Anarchist 2007.

5Pg. iii Solidarity. The Bolsheviks & Workers’ Control. Black & Red. 1972.

6Fernandez, Frank. Cuban Anarchism: The history of a movement. See Sharp Press. 2001 Published online by libcom http://libcom.org/library/cuba-anarchism-history-of-movement-fernandez

7Hemat, Monsoor. Left Nationalism and Working Class Communism. 1987 http://www.marxists.org/archive/hekmat-mansoor/1987/left-nationalism.htm



2 thoughts on “OLD VERSION: socialist governments and cooptation

  1. (1) Your essay is good and makes an important point, but, as you say, it covers too much. I would suggest cutting down the examples, chose one country and focus your analysis on that, going into more detail.
    (2) It might also be improved if you discussed alternatives to the state-socialist program (which in practice always becomes state capitalist). In Venezuela, for example, it is not enough to just reject the statist program of Chavism. The poor and working class have illusions in Chavez. How can they be won away from them?
    (3) Of course, I agree with your analysis. I might add that statism in the oppressed nations is due to a layer from middle class which tries to accumulate capital by partially blocking and managing the interactions with the world market.

  2. For some reason I didn’t get the email saying I needed to moderate replies. I just saw yours which is useful.

    In the various re-edits I ended up doing exactly what you said in 1. With 2 I want to do that (and talk about the role anarchists can play in movements which are not clean from the perspective of the state). The third point is interesting, and something worth going into. I guess I was ignoring that to simplify, but I see now why it is incomplete. This is the problem I find with writing on these issues, it seems impossible to be brief.

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