New Internationalist off the rails

Marxism, self-organisation and power 

The whole of the September 2003 issue of New Internationalist is devoted to arguing for changing the world by building alternative social relations ‘from below’. According to Phil Hearse, this strategy is unworkable and diversionary. In order to sustain their case, he argues, people who hold the New Internationalist-type positions are forced to caricature and distort the views of Marxists. 

New Internationalist has a decades-long record of fighting for peace and social justice. Its marketing techniques and professional presentation have enabled it to reach a wide audience. Alas, its current political outlook, taken over wholesale from John Holloway’s book Change the World Without Taking Power (1), abandons the political terrain to the right internationally. If widely adopted, it would disrupt the mass movements for social justice and sabotage the creation of real alternatives. Why so? 

The keynote article in September’s NI is by editor Katharine Ainger. According to her, we have to recognise than in fighting the powerful no usable political alternatives exist:- 

“For an opposing ideology around which resistance can mobilise today seems to be non-existent. Gone are the grand narratives that fuelled revolutions of the past – the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty and the ‘rights of man’ of the French and American revolutions; the Marxism of the Russian Revolution; the Maoism of the Chinese Revolution; the Third Worldism and nationalism of the fuelled the independence movements of former colonies…Worse the vacuum left by the death of an alternative ideology is being filled by religious fundamentalism and racism.” 

Katherine Ainger

The notion of the ‘end of the grand narratives’ is a leitmotif of reactionary postmodernist theory, one recycled in Fukuyama’s idea of the ‘end of history’. It deliberately confuses defeats for Marxism and socialist movements with their death; and it all too easily conflates the end of Stalinism with the ‘end’ of Marxism. I’m sure that Katharine Ainger knows very well that non-Stalinist Marxist currents got 11% in the last French presidential elections. Unfortunately for our radical-democratic opponents, we’re not dead nor have we gone away. Go to any anti-war or global justice demonstration and look around. Marxism isn’t dead because it is the most coherent critique of capitalism, and theorisation of its overthrow, to have emerged. As long as the fight to overthrow capitalist social relations continues, Marxism will stick around. 

Ainger claims: “What we need is not a new political theory, but to widen the very notion of what politics is, to access the sources of our own power, regrounded in the reality of our own lives and practices…The idea of mutual aid is a potent source for the renewal of the Left, leading us beyond the old dichotomy that social welfare is best provided by the State or the market. Ideas of mutuality and co-production put people back into the heart of local services; and these ideas are catching on. Examples range from the much-vaunted participatory budget of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, to the neighbourhood committees of Argentina, all the way to the run down English social-housing estates of Luton, Manchester and Newcastle, where as Hilary Wainwright shows in her book Reclaim the State, people are initiating popular participation in public services.” 

Ainger’s arguments are given weight by contributions from radical activists in Mexico and South Africa, basing themselves on community organisations in both countries, and of course the experience of the Zapatistas in Mexico. What they are saying is basically this: forget about conquering the state to change the world – that leads only to co-option or the brutal wielding of oppressive power – and get on with changing social relations in the here and now by taking control of our own lives and communities, building a co-operative economy, sharing our own resources and making lives tolerable again. That, in the words of John Holloway, is ‘the meaning of revolution today’. 

This line of argument has some positive things going for it, but is globally unworkable. Take the situation today in the ultra-poor barrios of the Venezuelan capital Caracas. There, because of the politicisation caused by the left-leaning government of Hugo Chavez and his ‘Bolivarian revolution’, self-organisation in the poor barrios is massive. People are taking the provision of water, electricity and other basic services such as the running of schools into their own hands. Administration is in the hands of local committees – the poor are running their own lives. A barrio activist recently told The Observer, “We don’t want our own government to represent us, we want to be the government.” 

This is a very progressive line of argument. But it omits crucial factors. Why is there the massive agitation and self-organisation in Venezuela in the first place? Because of the election of a left wing government. That government has many limitations, but if it is overthrown from the right – but local reaction backed by US imperialism – the self-organisation in the barrios will be repressed and collapse. The many activists in the poor neighbourhoods who express impatience and hostility to the ultra-politicised debates in the Bolivarian committees risk cutting off their nose to spite their face. It is in those debates that the possibility of a popular political alternative, which links local self-organisation into a national network of self-administration, is being hammered out. 

Do-it-yourself local activism seems very attractive because it addresses concrete problems in the here and now, rather than apparently ‘abstract’ questions of national state power. This issue has arisen in all the debates about the tremendous wave of struggle and self-organisation in Argentina. According to Naomi Klein (2), this vast movement started to decline because the revolutionary left organisations bored everyone to death prattling on about a workers’ government. The truth is very different. 

Economic collapse, which led to the expropriation of the saving of millions of people, mass unemployment and pauperisation, engendered a multi-million movement of revolutionary proportions. Such a movement can easily survive the boredom of sectarian interventions. It declined, not because it had no more self-organised tasks to accomplish, but because it could not hammer out a national political alternative, a real alternative to Peronism at the level of government. 

Why do the self-organised masses need a governmental alternative? Why can’t they just ‘be’ the government? For two linked reasons: first, the local self-organised committees pose questions of resources, of employment, of investment, of infrastructure and security, which cannot be solved at a local level. This is also obvious in the discussion about public services in Britain. You can’t resolve the problems of the NHS by local participation and administration, you need massive national investment, and that needs the decision of government. As someone reviewing Toni Negri’s famous book Empire put it, “you can’t remake society with a Stanley knife”. 

And second, if the radical self-organised poor and their allies abandon the political terrain of the national (and international), capitalism will use its state to crush them, either politically, or if necessary, militarily. That’s what happened during the ‘dirty war’ in Argentina in 1974-6, that’s what happened in Chile in 1973, that’s what happened in Catalonia in 1937. Massive levels of struggle, big experiments in self-organisation, utter and complete defeat. 

How then can we avoid the terrible experience of the Stalinist state, or the experience of social democracy in power, utterly capitulating before neo-liberalism? Ultimately the only answer is a different type of state, a self-organised state, an anti-statist ‘state’ if you want. This is what revolutionary marxists argue; that in a post-capitalist society it is possible to build a national state structure based on the self-organisation of society, federated at a regional and national level. A ‘state’ with its roots in ‘civil society’, with elected officials subject to instant recall of their electing bodies. A state based on the sovereignty of the self-organised working people.  

The fight for such a political alternative will involve the creation of myriad organisations of popular mobilisation, self-organisation and local control. Through such a self-organised movement, social relations at a local level can begin to be changed. But to be consolidated, to effect a real and permanent change in social relations, capitalism has to be defeated and replaced. 

This is the Achilles heal of New Internationalist-type theory, which has its origins in the ‘autonomia’ currents in Italy, and theorised by Negri and Tronti, of whom, despite minor differences, John Holloway is a second-generation student. The idea of withdrawing from the world of labour and creating our own autonomous spaces, into which capitalism cannot penetrate and where we can create our own alternatives, ignores and underrates the power of capital and the capitalist state, especially the enormous coercive and ideological power which it wields today. 

Katharine Ainger claims the power of the state is declining, that “the nation state is less able to deliver than ever.” To substantiate this, she quotes the way Brazilian president Lula has capitulated to the power of international capital. The myth of the powerlessness of the national state is used by the radical right to justify the idea that “you can’t buck the market”, and by co-thinkers of New Internationalist to justify their idea that national states can’t do much, you have to ‘do-it-yourself’ at a local level. But it is a total myth, as the example of the Chavez government, with all its limitations, shows.

National states, even capitalist states, have enormous power to re-order their local economies. The real question – the ‘Lula question’ – is whether they are prepared for the political fights and international confrontation which challenging the dominance of capitalist priorities involves. (Of course Lula has definitively answered this question in the negative). 

Such political battles and confrontations involve two things to have any chance of success – mass mobilisation and internationalisation. A radical government of any sort can only survive the anger of local and international reaction if it puts its fate in the hands of the self-organised and mobilised masses. That, indeed, is precisely what saved Hugo Chavez during the two attempted right-wing coups. Ultimately, a besieged radical government needs to fight for international aid and support as well. 

Finally Katharine Ainger can’t resist the wholesale caricature of modern Marxism based on its descent from Lenin: “Lenin was fixated on the centralized hierarchy as the means of revolution. He wrote about the difficulty intellectual revolutionary vanguards faced in raising the consciousness of the masses without being ‘degraded’ to their level, as he put it. Neither approach shows any faith in the value and intelligence of ordinary people. This is the crucial failure of the Left in the last century, yet it still has its it’s adherents today. Political parties, whether Left or Right, see the homogeneous ‘mass’ as raw material to legitimise their own power.” 

This could only be written by someone who has never read Lenin and doesn’t know anything about modern revolutionary Marxist movements. It swallows hook, line and sinker liberal theories about the ‘totalitarian’ character of Lenin’s thought, pushed further by the Parisian nouvelles philosophes for whom Karl Marx leads directly to the Gulag. And of course it is in liberal political theory that the theories we discuss here have their origin. As such they can never be useful for overthrowing capitalism. 

Marxists base themselves on self-organisation and mass mobilisation, but the political party remains a crucial instrument in that process. As I wrote at the end of a review of John Holloway’s book:  

“Imagine, in a party-less world, five or six friends in different parts of any country, involved in anti-war coalitions, get together and discuss politics. They find they agree on many things – not just war, but racism, poverty and capitalist power. They decide to hold regular meetings and invite others. Next, they produce a small newsletter to sell to comrades in the anti-war coalitions. In six months they discover a hundred people are coming to their meetings, and decide to hold a conference. In effect, they have formed a political party. And – obviously – if nobody else on the left forms an alternative, they’ll have hundreds of members in a year. Revolutionary parties cannot be done away with, not until the work they have to do is done away with as well. The sooner the better.” (3) 


1)      Pluto Press 2002. See my review in International Viewpoint 355, displayed at this site. Click here.

2)      This article is displayed at Naomi Klein’s website,

3)      Op cit.

       This article will be published in the January issue of Socialist Resistance. For an appreciation of the Zapatistas, see Contours of the Mexican Left on the Latin America page of this site, and also the interview with Jaime Gonzalez and Manuel Aguiler Mora, on the same page.