Response to my notes on STO’s TRP

A comrade wrote a reply to my notes I wrote for a reading group discussion. Here is my long delayed response.

“You make a comment that you believe STO changed its views in the 80’s “under the influence of autonomia.” Assuming you mean the Italian autonomist Marxist tradition, you are correct to some extent, although the influence of this tradition was already felt within STO at the time TARP was written, not long after the Hot Autumn of 1969.”

I know next to nothing of the history of STO, so I appreciate the background on this stuff. I was just patching it together from pamphlets I have read.

“I think your assessment of the potential for spontaneous revolt is simply wrong. I don’t believe in the Leninist conception of “trade union consciousness,” but the examples you offer (Hungary and France) both erupted in part because of the well-documented participation of conscious revolutionaries. “Spontaneous” events only appear as such from a certain distance; up close, it is always clear that some groups and/or individuals pushed situations of generalized discontent in a particular direction.”

I agree with your point, but it doesn’t contradict what I was saying. Instead I was trying to draw out a disagreement I have with TRP’s conception of political organization. To recap, they say

The daily struggles of the workers against the capitalists do not develop to the point where the class is sufficiently organized and conscious to undertake the revolutionary reconstruction of society. From this it is clear that the struggle for a socialist revolution is not, ‘inherent’ in the spontaneous class struggle. Whether or not the circumstances and conditions of the daily conflicts between workers and capitalists develop into the basis for revolutionary struggle depends, fundamentally, on the intervention of conscious revolutionaries.”

Your point is, I take it, that revolutions that break out do not have in a vacuum, organized political groups always have some role to play. TRPs point is a much stronger statement, that the conditions necessary for revolutionary struggle are fundamentally a matter of conscious revolutionaries. Perhaps I’m reading this too strongly. I’d give an alternate account. I don’t think that the role of the party is the ultimate basis of revolution, but rather an intervention to help contribute to the direction of the revolution. But I don’t think the causality of the relationship between masses and revolutionaries is as direct as they made it sound. Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. My examples of paris and hungary were meant to show how the struggle itself transformed mass organizations and political organizations beyond the conscious activity of revolutionaries, not that there was no such activity. This must be true in fact since revolutionaries are present in all struggles, but revolution only breaks out in certain contexts. In this way I think we need to talk about the relationship as a coevolution (Marxists would say dialectic) between the mass and political. My reading of the piece was that there were indications towards that position, but they remain tied to the idea of the revolutionaries as the primary element of revolution. I return to this when discussing Big Flame’s critiques of STO at the end of my reply.  

“This is a very different argument from the traditional What-Is-To-Be-Done Leninist argument that the party is the exclusive source of all revolutions. In the end, STO’s position is really not far removed from the especifista view of social insertion, or from the FdCA’s idea of organizational dualism. To the extent that any anarchist revolutionary argues for maintaining specifically anarchist organizations and then engaging directly with social movements, they are replicating most of the organizational approach STO advocated in TARP. (The political content of that engagement is a different question, of course.)”

Could you explain more? I’m not sure I can follow what you have in mind here.

“You are correct that there is a contradiction in TARP between the WITBD approach and the dual consciousness analysis. This was reflective of a tension inside STO that led to the group’s first major split, when the traditionalist defenders of WITBD left en masse in 1973. But this contradiction is to a large extent one-sided: the positive references to WITBD come off almost as obligatory, while the analysis of dual consciousness and the “potential of the class to become a ruling class” is detailed and impassioned.”

This seems correct, I could see that I’m over seeing one element in the piece perhaps.

“STO saw its own role as one of clarification, analysis, and strategic intervention. Again, not too different from the FAU or the FdCA, as far as I can tell. And not particularly Leninist, at least not in the WITBD sense. (I normally describe STO as having been “unorthodox Leninists.”)”

Is there a place where they talk about this perspective? I give people sto stuff pretty regularly so it’d be useful to point to the dynamics within their work in think.

“You stretch things when you connect STO’s critique of other Marxist groups based on their size to apply to anarchist groups. Few anarchist groups accept the “common notions of the strategic functions of the party” that STO identified as the source of the problem.”

While that is true, I was referring to anarchists who argue that our points of intervention should be where the greatest numbers are for agitating independent of other factors. That is, I disagree that agitating in the largest possible venue should be the basis of our mass work. There are other important factors as well. I wasn’t talking about the political organization, but the mass organizations they chose to build or work in. I think that clears up the disagreement below too.

“I also think you are wrong to say that the issue is the nature of the “institutions of power,” because this begs the question: Larger Marxist organizations become institutions of power because of the combination of size and their self-understanding. Anarchist groups, even larger ones, have a different self-understanding, and do not normally succumb to the same sort of opportunism.”

I don’t get the last sentence. Why wouldn’t anarchist groups be vulnerable to opportunism? I was referring again to mass organizing by social insertion, not the organizations themselves.

“Perhaps as a result, your final sentence here about avoiding particular forms of engagement with mass organizations strikes me as a non-sequiter. (It also strikes me as profoundly wrong-headed: if we “avoid working in” “service organizations of the class that coopt autonomous movements” then we guarantee both our own isolation and very cooptation we are opposed to. I’m not a huge fan of radicals liquidating themselves into mainstream labor unions, but on the level of community organizations I think the equation is often very very different.)”

I was being too sloppy here. I didn’t mean we should boycott say community organizations or labor. I meant that we should not try to confine our work within the institutional framework of these organizations if there are political reasons not to (because some people argue that should be our sole intention). In essence I believe in building autonomous working class power whether it is inside existing organizations or new ones. I have to excuse the slackedness I wrote my post with, since it was just brainstorming for a reading group.

“I’m not getting your closing comments on centralization. What is wrong with their assertion that most Leninist party organizations have rejected “critical membership and a genuinely collective organization?” I don’t understand your distinction between issues of conception and those of form. Isn’t the difference between especifista organizations (for example) and Leninist parties one of conception?”

My point was that content isn’t sufficient to ensure collective activity and true democracy. It is also a matter of form or structure. But it isn’t only a matter of either, there has to be a dynamic between content and form. Another way to put this would be that the party too should be an embryonic form of the world we want to see.  Maybe STO believed this. They didn’t make this clear though as they did about workplace organization. In the paragraph I quote they locate the problem in terms of conscious decisions (content) rather than a dynamic that evolves between structure and content.

“Finally, I think you muddle the question of consciousness, which I have long taken to be the central insight of the TARP. Hegemony is to my mind an immensely powerful tool for understanding the disconnect between our desires and the reality of a capitalist world. (You also referenced Chomsky favorably earlier, and his analysis of manufactured consent is strongly reminiscent of Gramscian hegemony theory.) You ask “is he saying that workers follow ruling class ideas during normal times because we are subjugated?” But this is exactly backwards: according to Gramsci, and STO (and me!), workers are subjugated because we follow ruling class ideas. This is why militant struggles, which tend to bring revolutionary ideas to the fore, hold the potential for challenging our subjugation.”

I disagree with this. I think ideology is one of the reasons we’re subjugated, but that the connection between consciousness and action is not that direct. While it is true that mass revolutionary consciousness is sufficient for revolution, the opposite is false. That is because action can precede consciousness. Martin Glaberman’s Wartime Strikes demonstrates this well. I think we are subjugated for complex relation of factors: because we lack the organizational front to settle our problems, because the consciousness is not there, because divisions in the class tie some to capital, because of the ability of capital to recompose and recuperate in light of proletarian struggles, etc. To reduce it merely to factors of consciousness and tie that to the ideological machinery and reproduction of some (section) of ruling class ideas seems distorting to me.

Side point- chomsky’s theory departs from hegemony in that way. Chomsky demonstrates the way in which ideas may be shaped and reproduced from a heterogenous base of ideas, that is how out of a dynamic between structure, power, and individual consciousness, we can find fairly stable ideas being perpetuated. This is closer to complex-adaptive systems ideas than it is to the Marxist dialectics of Gramsci, and likewise my view.

“Also, you mischaracterize STO’s understanding of consciousness earlier on when you describe it as “false consciousness.” TARP deliberately avoided this formulation, and offered dual consciousness instead as a way of articulating the conflict internal to the self-understanding of the class.”

I was being sloppy here again. I didn’t mean to imply they had the simplistic Leninist conception of false consciousness. I should have stuck to dual consciousness in name.

“Of course ruling class ideas are also heterogeneous and contradictory, but you might replace “revolutionary consciousness” and “bourgeois consciousness” here with “correct ideas” and “incorrect ideas.” Yes it’s a standard imposed from outside, but all revolutionaries partake in that kind of assessment.”

I think you’re missing my critique here. The picture they paint is one of a cohesive ruling class ideology that moves from the ruling class to the working class fairly unmediated. What I see missing is any conception of power, and the lack of an account of how consciousness is developed beyond inculcation and acceptance. This fails to allows us to understand contradictions within the ruling class ideology, and working class reactionary movements. I don’t think for example that fascism is reducible to ruling class ideas. Instead I see the whole thing differently. I think consciousness is a complex affair. Consciousness develops in partial measures as a dynamic between activity, class, and the ideas we are given through upbringing. Dual doesn’t describe this since it is truly heterogeneous.

Incidentally, I was pretty influenced by the reply of Big Flame to STO in this article

http://www.sojournertruth.net/thompson.html

For example

“This Gramscian formulation of the possibility of anticapitalist ideas developing when the parts of the class move in fusion at the height of their power, avoids the cruder Leninist model: where the proletariat is completely dependent on the party for its subjectivity, its consciousness of its real existence and historical tasks. Sojourner Truth utilise their model to place a healthy if over-stress on direct action as the most likely way of the class developing its consciousness as "fused groups." But the model is still too mechanical as a theory of class consciousness. There is still too much of the picture of the working class living its life completely dominated by bourgeois ideas (e.g., private property, selfishness, etc.) and only breaking from them and becoming open to revolutionary ideas under certain situations. For Lenin this was when the class is exposed to the opposite ideological pole to bourgeois ideology; when the "naturally limited" struggles of the class are politicised, by theory necessarily "brought from the outside" — for Gramsci and Sojourner Truth, when revolutionary ideas interact with the class moving in action and organic unity.”

 

They give an alternative account which I find to be more useful.

 

“The working class has a structural antagonism with the bourgeoisie in capitalist society. It is forced with varying levels of intensity, according to the elements at work in the historical situation, to struggle against them, not just industrially but at all levels. Thus most parts of the class exist as and have a consciousness of a class against capital — a class in itself rather than a class for itself, lacking political autonomy, aware of class society and its conflicts but not aware/unconvinced of the need/possibilities of changing it.

We cannot call this consciousness of the class, in itself, bourgeois. It has contradictory aspects, some of which depending on the strata and struggles of the class will be more bourgeois; other aspects will not. We only have to look at attitudes to, say, parliamentary politics or law and order to illustrate this contra-dictoriness. There has always been a cynicism in the class about "politics" and politicians. This has been re-inforced by their ability to win substantial gains in the factories and communities through their own working class struggle, since the war. This distrust and cynicism is at one level a healthy thing; it illustrates the estrangement of the class from representative democracy. "You can’t trust politicians; they’re only in it for themselves"; "the working man never gets a thing from either party." These are the common sentiments of a class in itself. What is missing of course is a consciousness of the possibility of direct democracy, an understanding of what it can achieve —that capitalist-type institutions are not "natural and inevitable." Or take law and order. Anyone who has lived in a working class community knows what most people think of the police or even law. People in these communities are constantly breaking the law and modes of accepted conduct, so they need their own way of understanding that process. Most at the moment don’t take a revolutionary view of law, but then neither do they utilise the same views as Heath or Wilson, etc. The working class view of law and order is structured around their own experience of it. So to many, student demonstrations or the struggle in Ireland is outside that experience and understanding. Thus they may agree with or be acquiescent about the use of law and order in these situations, whilst still conceiving the police and courts as hostile.

So class consciousness is made up of mediated bourgeois ideas in some cases, in others mediated ideas of other social forces, hopefully the section of the working class and other allied strata that consciously uses a revolutionary critique of society, or possibly the petty bourgeoisie, etc. In other words, working class consciousness contains within it ideas which have been generated in common with other classes, e.g., the notions of "freedom" and "democracy" that shaped themselves in the struggle of both classes against the then-ruling class, the aristocracy/ feudal landowners, etc. These ideas are posed as universal and part of a general ideology/culture by governments and the ruling class. Their applicability to working class life, as we said before, in pure form, is doubtful so they exist in a changed sense, from the "national ideology" — but no longer merely a mirror of it. So as ideologies crystallise around the struggles and institutions of major social forces, the working class from these various sources shapes its own ideas and consequent social relations. It is from this perspective that we can talk about a specific, if ever variable, working class consciousness. The interpenetration of these various levels of ideas is so complex, set in the light of the developing social relations between the classes, that to talk of even a dual consciousness as Gramsci et al. do is ridiculous.

So working class consciousness is in a constant state of flux. Its use of bourgeois or revolutionary poles will depend on the intensity of the structural antagonism between the classes, not the vulgar concept of consciousness reflecting the economic crisis, but from the being of the class: a comprehensive synthesis of all factors at work in society, that make the levels of crisis at its deepest. Any break in the unity of Marx’s set of concepts, a break in our under- standing of the constant interpenetration of the inherent antagonisms in class society and the consciousness the classes have of them, inevitably leads to false polarisation, a situation where theory is thought of as something outside the consciousness of the class, to be brought in by the party and tested in action by the proletariat, in political terms, the formulation of programmes for others, abstract to the real needs of the class.”

I think that they also give an account that agrees with mine in response to STOs ideas about spontaneity. I’ll quote at length again.

“The working class does not develop "naturally" towards a socialist consciousness in the way we would like. The task of the revolutionary organisations is to identify the positive aspects in working class consciousness, to push them in a revolutionary direction and to fuse them in a political process from a position embedded in class struggle. The working class is not a passive object to be "politicised." Only if we realise this can we avoid the situation where the class is in a passive and dependent relationship with the party.

Even as a class in itself it is capable of developing a real critique of capitalism and taking highly combative action against it. It often surpasses the limitations even revolutionaries put on it, like the absurdly a-historical and mechanical idea that left to itself within production it can only reach trade union consciousness. France and especially Italy have shown in the past few years how wrong this idea is. In Italy large sections of the class (without reference to the old groups who said it couldn’t happen without them) broke far beyond the political and organisational bounds of the unions; to demand equal pay rises for all, the abolition of the categories and grades of labour, the refusal of union or line delegates to mediate their struggle and the creation of mass assemblies instead of traditional union structures, etc. The revolutionary groups who did understand the new developments and attempted to live with and develop the new autonomy, were comparatively small (although far bigger than the old currents) — and this weakness in the situation contributed to its partial decline. But the lessons of the possibilities of class action and consciousness remain.

The working class doesn’t jump spontaneously to socialist consciousness; but when the antagonisms are so great that the existing levels of ideas cannot explain the social being, the lives and struggles of the class: then they will begin to break from the limitations of the class in itself and the corresponding patterns of thought and turn towards more revolutionary ways of thinking and acting. But just as the working class is not a passive component of the situation, neither are the revolutionary organisations. We have the vital role, in systematising the developments in consciousness, in giving direction to the struggles: in being inside the situations to develop the necessary strategies to overthrow the rule of capital. We are not spontaneists — there is a need for revolutionary organisation to help make the revolution! The very complexity of the varying levels of consciousness, the different categories and strata in the class, the differing historical experiences give us our role.

The class is not an abstract ideal type that can magically fuse together its objective role with the necessary subjectivity. The class is only specific groups of proletarians with different developments and needs, not just industrial workers but women, youth, etc. The working class moving together in unison, the identical subject-object of history dominated by one goal is unfortunately a Utopian dream. Only the revolutionary organisations can break through and structure this complexity to break the power of capital.”

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One thought on “Response to my notes on STO’s TRP

  1. hey dude,

    I still feel bad for trying to get folk to be part of the STO online reading group then bailing on it. 😦 Ah well.

    I like the back and forth here about the role of political organization in big eruptions. It’s interesting that Mike mentions the FdCA, this reminds me of some of the minor disagreements you and I have had about organizational dualism a while ago. I remember them along these lines –
    you: a specific political organization is necessary
    me: well, I could see how one would be useful, but I don’t like the word “necessary” and I’m not convinced that this stuff can only happen if such an organization exists
    you: [something convincing, the specifics of which escape me now about how being part of a political organization is something I need and that makes sense]
    me: Oh, okay. I agree.

    I know for me I get hung up on the causal claim – I don’t like the claim in what you quoted where STO says things depend “fundamentally, on the intervention of conscious revolutionaries.” It seems to me that none of that is knowable and there’s a problem on either side of under and over-emphasis (no role for ideas and political organization vs too large a role for them). Seems to me best to just say “revolution may come or start in a way that surprises conscious revolutionists, though of course conscious revolutionists ought to get involved whenever they see something like that possibly starting; revolutionists also may be able to help take struggles to the next level, that’s certainly our goal.” Something like that.

    On the points about what groups to work in and how, I think all of that would benefit from being more specific – you think the IWW is a valid place to work, and that running for office or trying to get resolutions passed in a mass organization is not the only or the best (or even a good?) thing for revolutionists to do inside larger organizations. (What I don’t know how to reconcile here is the fact that you and I and other close comrades think that while doing a fair part of our work as IWW officers.)

    cheers,
    Nate

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