Six years after helping initiate PODEMOS in the Spanish State, and four months after Pablo Iglesias led that party into a coalition government with the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (SPOE), the revolutionary socialist Anticapitalistas have changed course. As Spain suffers one of the highest per capita Covid-19 rates in the world, with 25,613 having died as of May 6, questions facing the left loom large in what has been one of the most tumultuous and creative international sites for socialist strategy and organization in the past decade.
Julia Cámara is an historian based in Zaragosa. She helped organize the mass feminist strikes and mobilizations in the Spanish State on March 8 in recent years and is a member of Anticapitalistas. Here, Cámara describes the theoretical and historical concepts that have guided Anticapitalistas in their work. Originally published in Viento Sur, translated by No Borders News. In part 1, Cámara discusses strategic guideposts, part 2 will take up the question of socialist organization.
No matter how much times passes, or how often history is declared to have ended, the debate over socialist strategy and organization always returns. This foundational question appeared in embryo at the very start of the workers movement in the nineteenth century and was raised explicitly by Lenin when he described his perspective as “tactics-as-plan” and when revolutionaries split with social-democracyduring World War I.
Organizational and strategic questions can be considered separately, but in reality (and inevitably at the theoretical level), they present themselves as mutually related. Therefore, it is necessary to address both in order to systematically explain either. Over the course of the twentieth century, diverse combinations and conjunctural implications have given rise to many debates and concrete formulas, such as what defines revolutionary organization, the much-discussed reform or revolution, Popular Front and United Front formations, vanguard versus mass parties, entryism as a tactic, and the great strategic hypotheses that dominated the past century, of which the Insurrectional General Strike and the Prolonged Peoples’ War are only two. Rather than attempt to review each of these, this text offers some basic tools by which we can orient ourselves theoretically and in our political practice.
In these confusing times, when the political horizon has become blurry, we must bring it into focus and consider how to organize ourselves to achieve some clarity of purpose.
Some basic concepts
Our strategic understanding can be strengthened by considering several concepts developed through hard-won experience that may provide a theoretical base upon which other ideas can be arranged.
In 1915, in the Collapse of the Second International, Lenin began to develop the notion a revolutionary crisis. Lenin’s conception has been popularized as “when those above cannot, and those below will not, tolerate the situation, while those in the middle hesitate and lean towards those below,” such a situation supposes a conjunctural crisis of social relations occurring at the same time as a national political crisis. This notion emphasizes that there are particular and relatively exceptional circumstances in which the State and the system as a whole become vulnerable and, thus, can be overturned. Such a constellation of factors does not take place at just any moment and, therefore, there is a rhythm to the class struggle, one that includes ruptures and discontinuities that must be considered in terms of an understanding of crisis as a political phenomena.
Lenin’s second concept is the political event.Lenin grasped that a crisis may be detonated by any number of events, that is, the totality of contradictions inherent in the capitalist system may express themselves, in a condensed manner, in what at first glance may appear to be minor conflicts. For instance, we have seen student revolts, democratic demands, women’s mobilizations, and national conflicts set off crises. These moments of compression and eruption define what Lenin calls political events.Knowing how to detect such events, how to exploit contradictions and resolve a crisis victoriously, requires conscious intervention, that is, it requires political organization. Because when we start to discuss strategy, this already implies initiative, decision-making, a clear project, implantation in the working classes, and a certain balance of forces.
Political time, accordingly, does not march in linear fashion towards progress, rather, it is broken time, marked by crisis and interruptions of normality, opening possibilities for those who are prepared and know how to approach it. French revolutionary socialist Daniel Bensaïd spoke of empty, homogenous timeand dense time, which is to say that there are periods when nothing happensand periods when, all of a sudden, time accelerates and many things happen all at once. Revolutionary politics implies the mastery of this kind of political time, of knowing how to react in the face of rapidly changing events. To prepare, as Trotsky put it, for the “forcible entrance of the massesinto the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”
One of the recurring debates on the radical left revolves around whether we need a political party or mass movement? Or what is the relationship between political organization (the party) and the social movement?… what a century ago was called the workers’ movement.
What is clear – despite bureaucratic and populist attempts to push real-world problems to the margins of political struggle, and the pretensions of the post-autonomy theorists who claim politics can be dissolved into social struggle – is that social and political struggles form two profoundly interrelated aspects of the same endeavor, although they have their own particular rhythms, characteristics, and reality.
Political struggle, conceived properly, is not reducible to a prolongation or intensification of social struggle. Political struggle is, strictly speaking, the struggle for power. Not in a crude or “politicking” sense, but in its most profound dimension. Constructing an anticapitalist and revolutionary strategy requires the conviction that the conquest of power by the working class is possible. Otherwise, socialist politics ends up inevitably moving in another direction, limiting itself to the promotion of day-to-day resistance (in the best-case scenario) where all transformative goals are abandoned.
A revolutionary strategy implies the actualityof revolution. Not in the sense that the revolution will take place tomorrow, but only that it is possible in our epoch. The actuality of revolution carries with it a sense of anticipation, of an attempt to bring the revolution into present time and to bring present to the revolution. In this sense, the revolution functions like a regulating horizonfor our present-day actions, if the revolution does not form part of our political horizon from the beginning, we are unlikely to approach it. Here we enter the field of politics as a strategic artwhere we must put our collective capacity to developstrategic hypotheses to the test. Political struggle does not operate through imaginaries, nor through improvisations, rather, it must be based on a strong hypothesis, in other words, on a well-founded bet. Yet no matter how vigorously researched and prepared, any hypothesis remains nonetheless a bet. Thus, approaching reality strategically is a precondition for victory, even if it is not a guarantee.
Understanding political struggle in this manner (the actuality of revolution, revolution as a regulating horizon, the elaboration of strategic hypotheses checked against reality) brings with it two interrelated virtues. The first is to break free from a stagist view of political struggle, one inherited from a conception of historical time belonging to classical social-democracy that fails, as we have seen, to correspond to the reality of broken political time. The second is that it allows us to respond successfully to the specific rhythms of this broken time, to anticipate crises, and to prepare for forks in the road and sharp turns.
Seen in these terms, the future is not simply the inevitable result of a chain of causes. Rather, the future is itself a cause that makes us choose one or the other decision in the present, it is the regulatory horizon of our political practice. And in turn, our ability to imagine the present is conditioned (not determined) by our understanding of the past. Escaping teleological politics – where everything happens inevitably and nothing could have been otherwise, escaping the mechanical rigidity that mistakes conditioning with determination and eliminates the subjective factor of history – is a necessary precondition for strategic thinking. Bensaïd expressed this sense with a phrase that I have always liked: “the past is full of presents that never came to fruition.”
In opposition to those who write History as an inevitability after it has already come to pass, we should follow Bensaïd’s suggestion that there is always (and always has been) a range of real possibilities. Whether or not one of them finally ends up being realized depends, fundamentally, on the correlation of forces and the level of class struggle. Typical accounts of the Spanish transition to democracy after the end of the Franco fascist regime and the often-praised Pactos de la Moncloapresent a good example of how the discourse of what happened happened because it was the only thing that could possibly have happenedto obscure political decisions and actions that contributed to the short-circuiting other outcomes which, at a specific moment, were also possible.
Here, by organizing to push one way or the other, we enter the field of strategy. Whether or not any hypothesis is correct will depend, among other things, on accumulated historical experience, the correlation of forces, the capacity for analyzing the national situation, the strength of the State, and a socialist organization’s implantation in and connection with the mass movement. And after accounting for all that, it is always possible to err.
In the traditions of the revolutionary left, strategy is the basis upon which to gather, organize, and educate militants, it is a project aiming to overthrow bourgeois political power. And if politics is the struggle for power, this implies working to build a majority. In other words, having the will to join in the mass, not just differentiate from it. Breaking with the minoritarian fatalism of always being different (and lamenting that nobody understands us) in order to build, in Gramscian terms, a counter-hegemonic project and not merely an alternative political expression. Trying to reverse the correlation of forces is one of the underlying questions of all strategic thinking, and the only possible method is trial and error infused with the spirit of accumulating experience and correcting mistakes. Here the role of the organization comes into play.
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