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International Socialism, Summer 2001


Chris Nineham

An idea whose time has come


From International Socialism 2:91, Summer 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Memories of the dark days of the 1980s, when even activists started to believe in their own powerlessness, are fading fast. The cancellation of the World Bank meeting in Barcelona is just one more proof that the anti-capitalist movement has real momentum and real power. The movement is flexing its muscles around the world and growing – growing strong enough to frighten the establishment into a shambolic and very public retreat. Success is a very good reason to take the time to look carefully at the movement and how to go forward. This article attempts to outline a socialist perspective, but the first priority for all activists must be to build the movement as broad as possible. Anyone who wants to restrict it to those with a particular ideological position doesn’t understand the dynamic of what is happening. Millions of people are being radicalised by a neo-liberal offensive symbolised by the apparently deranged figure of George W. Bush. The last thing we should do is put up any blocks to people who want to get involved. Size matters, but also the energy, the initiative and the ideas of new people getting active are priceless.

Strategy and politics matter too. Activists are already confronting questions that seem new and daunting. Some of these questions are immediate – how best to organise activist networks, how to deal with police repression, the relative merits of direct action over lobbying, and so on. Others are more general – we know what we are against, but what are we for? Today’s movement is not starting from ground zero. The tradition of anti-capitalist struggle is as old as the system itself. It is a history full of inspiration, but also of warnings. We would be frittering away our chances if we did not take a serious look at that history to help us chart a way forward. Socialists argue that the immediate and the general questions are linked. Looking at the struggles of the past can help us understand how best to organise and fight for immediate demands. But it’s also in the struggle itself that we can discern forces that can make a different world possible.

At a recent London debate about globalisation Martin Wolf from the Financial Times ended his summing up by saying, ‘There’s clearly a lot of people in the room who think there is an alternative way of running society to the market system. Well let me tell you now, there isn’t.’ He then just sat down. The moment nicely captured the state of our opponents. They are sticking to their guns, but they are running out of arguments.

Susan George and Walden Bello have described the disarray of our opponents in this journal. Seattle shocked elites around the world. The tide of resistance has been rising ever since. The turnout of 70,000 made the Quebec protests in Canada against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) bigger than the Seattle protests, and this in a country with a population of 30 million. The more intelligent among our ruling classes recognise they face a crisis of legitimacy. That’s why they are pursuing a charm offensive of NGO co-option. That’s why they send their representatives to various debates. That’s why, in Britain, Clare Short was given the brief to defend the Bretton Woods system in the media.

On some fronts we have forced them to make concessions. The defeat of the pharmaceutical companies over their court case against South Africa was particularly heartening. It proves our movement is strong enough to win real victories. But we haven’t stopped the neo-liberal juggernaut. The US government backed by Pfizer and several other drug giants is taking the Brazilian government to court to try and outlaw the production of generic drugs – the market in South America is much larger than that in sub-Saharan Africa. The debt relief contained in the highly indebted poor countries (HIPC) package was minimal. Bush’s criminal attitude to Kyoto, Blair’s defence of patenting in the pharmaceutical industry and the continued commitment of all the major powers to GATS show they are still pressing ahead with their project.

At the same time their ideological positions are crumbling. Open defence of neo-liberalism is just not winning hearts and minds. A recent poll in Britain showed that 87 percent of the population think the big corporations are too powerful, 72 percent don’t trust the government on technology and 54 percent believe the political system has been bought by the corporations. [1] The establishment’s best hope is Thatcher’s last ditch, ‘There is no alternative’. [2] Even this defence is being breached. A series of polls in Britain, for example, show massive support for the renationalisation of the railways despite the fact that no conventional political party is proposing it. [3] The flip side of this is huge sympathy for the ideals of our movement. One normally apolitical entertainment columnist reflected this recently in the liberal newspaper The Guardian: ‘Anti-capitalist demonstrators’ ... message is so shamefully obvious: that it behoves all of us with any ethical sense whatsoever to join in passing a global judgement upon the crippling wickedness of exploitative, unethical big business.’ [4]

So what kind of movement is this? The obvious historical point of reference is the 1960s. As Susan George points out, we are quite simply facing the biggest activist mobilisation since that decade. Though we haven’t reached the scale of radicalisation that swept the world in 1968, the similarities are striking: the number of young people flooding into the movement and the energy and optimism they bring, the spontaneous internationalism, the vigorous shake up of the left.

There are important differences as well, ones we can celebrate. The movement in the 1960s grew out of a series of single issues – black civil rights, anti-nuclear protests, the anti Vietnam War movement. The issues overlapped and there were important moments of interaction even in the early 1960s, and as the decade went on there was more and more political generalisation. But this time round the movement has started out with an instinctive impulse towards unity. From the huge social forum at Porto Alegre in Brazil to modest activist meetings on campuses around the world you get the same reports – environmentalists, peace campaigners, socialists, debt campaigners and anarchists are working together, debating together, organising together.

Some commentators see this as a product of the failure of single-issue campaigning – or sheer infuriation with the traditional divisions of the left. [5] Of course it is liberating to overcome old divisions, but there’s more than frustration behind this drive toward unity. Partly it’s a response to new possibilities. As the tide of the movement rises, the rivulets of opposition tend to merge. But perhaps most important, many activists in the different wings of the movement are coming to the conclusion that we have a common enemy even if we have many names for it; globalisation, neo-liberalism, corporate rule, capitalism. You can tell the level of generalisation from the popularity of the main slogans: ‘People not profit’, ‘Our world is not for sale.’

More than anything the anti-capitalist movement is a product of experience. In No Logo Naomi Klein stresses four factors in the birth of the movement: the explosion of corporate branding, the commercialisation of education, the spread of sweated labour and the casualisation of youth employment. Even Klein’s upbeat assessment underestimates the radicalisation. Bitterness at neo-liberal policies goes beyond what is normally regarded as the movement. This is a second important difference from the 1960s, at least in the US. It’s a cliché that the movement then was divorced from the mass of Americans, and particularly from the working class. The case is often overstated – by 1970, for example, the vast majority of the US population sympathised with the anti-war movement. This time around, however, the concerns of the movement echo widely through the population. This is quite simply because the neo-liberal project has touched and hurt so many people. Almost everyone has experience of the effects of privatisation. Every section of the working class has suffered in a boom that has been squeezed out of them through speed-ups, longer hours and pay cuts. At the same time all of the conventional political parties have bought into the project. This is why running alongside the development of the anti-capitalist movement is a huge crisis in support for the mainstream social democratic parties. The fact that the neo-liberal onslaught on welfare, public education, healthcare and work conditions has been combined with an ideological offensive has turned out to be a liability for the establishment. For millions of trade unionists, community campaigners and disillusioned party activists, anti-capitalist radicals make a lot of sense.

So how do we move onto the offensive? First, especially in these circumstances, any kind of alliance with right wing Republicans in the US against the big financial institutions would be disastrous. The sections of the US ruling class who believe that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is a hindrance do so because they want complete freedom for capital to roam the globe for the unchecked exploitation of their workforces. To suggest there is an even temporary convergence of interests between the anti-globalisation movement and these forces is wrong in principle. The movement must surely unite, not just against the WTO, but against the transnational corporations whatever the twists and turns of their political representatives.

Secondly, as Susan George argues, appealing to the better instincts or rational calculation of the elites is a no-hope strategy. What is worrying the establishment is growing mass activism, not private argument. In any case they are committed to the neo-liberal project. The aim of drawing sections of the movement into discussions is to disorientate and demobilise. And it is not only the NGOs that are being targeted here. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that corporate America is rethinking its opposition to labour and environmental accords as part of the many trade agreements it is negotiating around the world. As Geoff Bickerton from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers has pointed out, the aim is both to divide the movement by co-opting a layer of union bureaucrats and to cause confusion as to what is the real substance of the agreements. [6]

Avoiding the snares of co-option isn’t the same as turning our backs on mainstream politics. Some autonomists are so obsessed with ideological purity and organisational independence, they don’t even try and involve new people. For many of them, membership of a reformist party or even a trade union amounts to a sell out. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the experience of the neo-liberal onslaught is potent enough to throw into question all traditional political allegiances and assumptions. For all our successes we still need to make a leap of strategic imagination to fulfil the potential of this situation. We have to find ways of reaching out and involving millions of people starting to question their passive leaderships and compromised political organisations.

The series of mass demos and blockades of finance meetings starting with Seattle have given the movement high visibility. The hundreds of thousands who have been on the protests have been transformed by the militancy of the demos, the international unity and solidarity. Each time the financial jet set meet in a new area of the globe, they give an impetus to the movement locally. But we have to approach these mobilisations in a way that builds the movement, not exhausts it. As Canadian activist and writer Michael Albert points out, for some people, ‘organising for a demonstration means putting out a call and enticing one’s movement’s friends from far away, but not talking to people with whom they share a neighbourhood or a dorm or a workplace’. For all their bravery, the strategy of groups like Ya Basta! stresses the actions of small numbers of highly trained demonstrators, and ignores the question of how to systematically draw more people into the movement. [7]

Some socialist sects also risk isolating the movement from wider support by issuing ultimatums demanding the movement adopts a socialist programme. Such attempts to boil the growing movement down to those with particular ideological positions would be a disaster. Tens of thousands of people are starting to get active at the moment and they bring with them all sorts of ideas. The most important thing is that they get involved and that together we build the biggest, most powerful possible movement against the corporations and their political allies. In the process of organising that movement different political ideas and strategies will be debated and tested in practice.

Outlining a socialist strategy involves going back to some fundamental questions raised, but left hanging by Walden Bello and Susan George. Both are keen to kick-start a discussion about the kind of alternatives we should be promoting. Walden Bello talks eloquently about ‘re-embedding the economy in society’. Amongst other things Susan George demands a world in which the right to basic welfare at least is universal. The question is, how are we going to get there in a society where, as Susan George says, ‘capital never willingly gives up anything to labour, the dominant classes never relinquish their privileges and power without a fight’?

The first thing to say is that mass protest works in a way that private lobbying does not. It was a mass campaign of international protest that won the landmark victory against pharmaceutical patents in April. In Bolivia two years ago it was giant street demonstrations and strikes that forced the government to abandon its International Monetary Fund (IMF) inspired plans to privatise the water supply. From the first struggles for trade union rights to the recent revolution in Serbia the whole history of protest in capitalist society bears out this lesson – mass movements can achieve things reformers only dream about. As bitterness with neo-liberalism grows across the planet, there is the prospect of expanding protests and bigger victories. And this prospect is the key to dealing with the issue of police repression of our protests. It is one thing for the police to attack a few thousand May Day protesters or a few hundred Ya Basta! activists – it is quite another for them to teargas tens or hundreds of thousands of workers, tenants, pensioners, hospital users and so on. The biggest of the recent anti-capitalist demonstrations like the 100,000-strong trade union march in Nice in December 2000 have been untouched by the police.

Talking about alternatives raises the wider issue of democracy, of popular power. Clearly the world financial institutions themselves are desperately undemocratic, controlled by the G8 big powers and stuffed with unelected representatives of big business. [8] For these reasons any talk of reforming the WTO, World Bank and IMF is pie in the sky. But the democratic deficit is much wider than that. There can be few electorates around the world who, if given a choice, would actually vote for neo-liberal policies, but the fact is that ruling classes almost everywhere are committed to variants of neo-liberalism. Billions of people do not even have a vote, but even where we do the main options on the ballot paper accept the basic premises of neo-liberal consensus. Alternative conceptions of how the economy should be run, even when they have the support of the vast majority of the population, are simply not allowed into the mainstream.

This is not a new problem. The exemption of economic affairs from democratic scrutiny has its roots in the very origins of the system. In 1900 Rosa Luxemburg explained that ‘no law obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. Poverty, the lack of means of production, obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism... And neither is the exploitation inside the system of wage labour based on laws. The level of wages is not fixed by legislation, but by economic factors.’ [9] Capitalists have made it their business since to protect economic questions from the spreading virus of democracy. The crucial decisions that affect all of our lives are taken by unelected elites in boardrooms and civil service offices. Any attempt to push legislation that affects even the terms of the accumulation of capital always faces massive rearguard action. Parliament becomes little more than a political mask hiding the economic domination of the bourgeoisie.

Wherever possible we should use electoral forums as platforms for oppositional ideas and campaigns. The Nader campaign in the US played a big part in galvanising the movement. Excellent election results for the left in France this year have given fresh impetus to the already dynamic mass movement there. The Socialist Alliance and Scottish Socialist Party campaigns in the current British elections are becoming a rallying point for trade unionists and Old Labour activists who have lost patience with the Blairites’ big business politics. But at the same time as taking the chances offered by the electoral process it is crucial to be aware of its limitations. If really threatened, big business will intervene by any means necessary to stop legislative programmes that restrict its economic freedom of manoeuvre.

Susan George recognises this problem in her article, but it seems to me that she doesn’t draw the conclusions from it. If incremental reform through parliament or lobbying cannot bring fundamental change, then we have to be honest about the need for an alternative strategy. Building a protest movement is a good start, but we are dealing with a structural problem here. However great our individual victories, if capitalism survives its nature is to continually reimpose exploitation and oppression.

The moments when popular movements have made real headway on the economic front have been periods of mass working class rebellion. Many of the otherwise excellent recent critiques of neo-liberalism tend to play down the role of workers in modern capitalism. At the same time as arguing that the neo-liberal offensive has radicalised even casual workers, Naomi Klein suggests in No Logo that the strategic role of workers in the global North has been eroded by casualisation and globalisation. In the South she thinks the conditions of the new concentrations of workers are too tenuous to allow for traditional forms of resistance. [10] This influential view doesn’t fit the facts. In the last few years there has been a return of worker militancy in important areas in the North including Canada, Greece, France and the US. And this trend is not confined to the northern economies. The World Development Movement’s report States of Unrest shows workers were central to the explosion of protests against World Bank and IMF policies in the global South in the year after Seattle. In that year large numbers of organised workers struck or demonstrated against austerity programmes and privatisations in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Nigeria, Paraguay and South Africa, to pick just a few. The 20–22 July protests against the World Bank in Genoa are set to follow the pattern. Already major trade unions in Britain, Italy, Greece and France have backed the demonstrations.

Workers, the source of the corporations’ profits in the first place, have a unique ability to contest the economic priorities of the capitalist class – if they are prepared to take concerted strike action. It is no coincidence that France, the European country with probably the highest level of strikes, is also the only country in which a shorter working week, an earlier retirement age and government action against redundancies are on the political agenda.

What is more, in periods of intense struggle, workers tend to throw up new and highly democratic forms of organisation. Prolonged and widespread strikes and occupations virtually force workers to co-ordinate locally and nationally. This then begs the question not just about the organisation of the struggle, but about how to keep society functioning. The practical solutions improvised by workers can throw down a direct challenge to capitalist rule. During the revolution in Portugal in 1974 rank and file workers set up inter-factory strike committees. For a time they became the forums in which all the key questions of the struggle were hammered out. Because they were composed of delegates directly elected from the rank and file in the workplaces and the working class communities, they were organically linked and answerable to the mass of the local population in a way no parliament begins to be. [11] Six years later during the mass strikes in Poland workers set up similar committees that started to organise the production of essential food and services, but in radically new ways. Food and fuel were distributed to people according to their need rather than their ability to pay, or the potential for profit in any particular area. [12]

Similar types of organisation have emerged in almost every major workers’ uprising since 1905. In the years after the Russian Revolution. such workers’ councils sprang up across a huge swathe of Europe. [13] They appeared again in the Budapest insurrection of 1956 and the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Workers’ councils are not just formally democratic, not just refuges of democracy and respect in a hostile world. They can pull into their participatory democracy the mass of the oppressed and exploited because they hold out the prospect of real change. Workers have the power to stop the flow of profits by striking. Once they are occupying workplaces they have the potential to begin reordering economic priorities. Most importantly, a mass workers’ movement of this sort is capable of splintering, demoralising and defeating the opposition inevitably thrown at it by the state machine of the old order. In all of these cases the forces of law and order have been temporarily paralysed by the scale and rootedness of the mass movement. In Hungary in 1956 the secret police fell apart in the face of a movement that had the support of the overwhelming majority of the population. In the course of the Portuguese Revolution the majority of the army rank and file sided with the workers. Though the revolutionary process in Serbia has not yet fully polarised along class lines, it did give us the wonderful spectacle of a feared police force melting away in the heat of a huge popular uprising.

These uprisings failed not because the state was too strong, or because they were hijacked by new elites. The problem was that they fatally limited themselves. A mass movement that occupies the workplaces and the streets throws the ruling class into disarray and panic. For a few weeks or months the world is turned on its head and everything seems possible. At this moment, when the repressive machine is paralysed, the movement has a chance to go onto the offensive and dismantle the central institutions of the state without disrupting production. The virtually bloodless October revolution in 1917 in Russia showed this operation takes decisive co-ordination and minimum directed force.

But a movement that fails to take this final revolutionary step allows the institutions of the state to survive and lets the capitalists regroup. After initial shock and disorganisation, the old ruling class regains its confidence and hits back. As they start to re-establish control, the capitalists use maximum force to crush the movement before trying to write it out of history. From Germany 1918–1923 to Chile in the 1970s, the 20th century is littered with half-made revolutions ending in tragedy.

The hidden history of workers’ uprising and self organisation begins to answer Susan George’s query as to ‘what “overthrowing capitalism” means in the 21st century’. But revolutionary overthrow is not just one option for change among many. The capitalists will not allow their state machine to be reformed. They will not allow us areas of autonomy, and we can’t walk round the state. In the end we will have to confront it.

For 20 years the idea of linking a dynamic anti-capitalist movement with the power of organised workers has remained just that – a good idea. Relatively small numbers of revolutionary socialists have been promoting it and trying in small ways to create facts to prove the point. But now it is an idea whose time has come. The link-up of turtles and Teamsters at Seattle is part of the accepted history of the movement. There has been much less comment on the presence of large numbers of trade unionists on other huge anti-capitalist protests. There were 100,000 trade unionists from France, Spain and Italy on the anti-EU protests in Nice last December. There were tens of thousands of American and Canadian trade unionists on the recent protests at the FTAA conference in Quebec – thousands of Steelworkers peeled off from the official trade union demo to join the direct action nearer to the conference’s fortified perimeter fence, the so called wall of shame. [14]

The conditions are set for the continuing convergence of anti-capitalist protesters with growing numbers of workers, but even now the process is not inevitable. In Nice the left checked the momentum by deciding to march separately from the unions on the day of the big trade union demonstration, and putting the emphasis on direct action on the following day, when they ended up feeling a little isolated and exposed. In Quebec activists had to argue patiently in the days before the protests to win sections of workers to join the direct action.

Socialist ideas and organisation are crucial in this situation. No social crisis unfolds in just one sector of society. The crisis of confidence in reformist parties, the growing militancy amongst workers and the growth of the anti-capitalist movement are causally linked but not necessarily connected in practice. The left needs to have a strategy that can start to influence the outcomes in all three of these areas and relate them together. That means helping build the broadest possible anti-capitalist movement bringing together NGOs, students, trade unionists and direct action activists of all shades. It means providing credible and united socialist alternatives to neo-liberalism at the ballot box to prove that there are alternative conceptions of society on offer. In the unions it means setting up rank and file groups to give the new militants a forum for tactical and political discussion and the means to create new networks. On all these fronts socialist activists are having successes not seen for decades.

On their own these are all very exciting developments. If we can link them together they could be dynamite.


[Note by ETOL: the links from the original article have not been checked to see whether they still work.]

1. Survey commissioned by The Ecologist magazine, The Ecologist, March 2001.

2. For a useful refutation of ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA) see S. Healy, Is Globalisation Inevitable? (

3. See The Ecologist poll, op. cit., for example.

4. Guardian Guide, 7 April 2001, p. 3.

5. See, for example, George Monbiot in the magazine of Globalise Resistance, Resist 1 (March 2001), p. 2.

6. G. Bickerton, Labour Side Accords: Trojan Horse for Unions, p. 1 (

7. See, for example, Arthur Neslen’s report on the People’s Global Action conference, Now Magazine, Toronto, April 2001 (

8. K. Danaher and J. Beck, Top Ten Reasons to Oppose the WTO, in K. Danaher and R. Burbach (eds.), Globalize This! (Monroe 2000), p. 98.

9. R. Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution? in D. McLellan, Marxism: Essential Writings (Oxford 1988), p. 116.

10. N. Klein, No Logo (London 2000), pp. 269–274.

11. C. Barker (ed.), Revolutionary Rehearsals (London 1987), p. 100.

12. Ibid., p. 175.

13. See D. Gluckstein, The Western Soviets: Workers’ Councils Versus Parliament 1915–1920 (London 1985).

14. See Judy Rebeck’s report on the Quebec protests, 23 April 2001 (

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