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Does a movement need its ‘theory’?

This article is over 21 years, 10 months old
Socialist Worker looks at some of the issues that will be raised at the European Social Forum
Issue 1813

THE European Social Forum, which takes place in Florence, Italy, in November, promises to be one of the most exciting political events for years. Thousands of activists, from across Europe and from a range of political backgrounds, will be discussing how we can create a better world.

This is the first in an occasional series in Socialist Worker highlighting some of those debates and the ideas socialists are putting forward.

Many people who have been involved in the growing anti-capitalist movement are questioning old ideas and ways of organising that have gone before. One of those discussions is whether we need to have ‘theory’ that tries to explain the whole world. Some people argue that ‘big theories’ are part of the past they want to reject.

There is the unyielding ‘free market ideology’ that hails privatisation around the globe and multinationals plundering the world’s resources. Some people argue that socialism is also a set of dogmatic ideas which does not fit in with the many-faceted nature of the movement today.

They say that ‘grand narratives’, such as Marxism, are out of date. Rather we need a movement where different and diverse ideas about society can coexist and are equally valid. Above all, some argue, it would be wrong for one particular set of ideas to be imposed on and to dominate the movement. Revolutionary socialists are also totally against imposing a set of ideas on the movement.

People are quite rightly opposed to the idea of top-down leadership and what passes for democracy in mainstream political institutions like parliament. Socialists want to forge the maximum unity in the movement, working alongside people with a wide range of views.

But there are crucial moments when it is important which particular ideas are dominant and hold sway in the movement. Political ideas are not just free floating or abstract. In a capitalist society the ruling class does not just own the businesses and factories, or the ‘means of production’ as Karl Marx described them.

He argued that they also own the ‘mental means of production’-the newspapers, TV and radio that constantly broadcast a view of the world which suits the ruling class. They want to mask the real exploitation that is at the heart of the capitalist system.

Most people in our movement agree that we need to cut through these false explanations and present an alternative way of looking at the world.

But the spontaneous coming together of the ‘multitude’ to fight capitalism, which Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri write of in their much talked-about book Empire, is not likely to sweep away the hold of the global ruling class. We need to develop political strategies to combat capitalism. By doing this we can organise to win support among wide groups for those ideas.

In other words, we have to clearly say what our ideas are if we are to be successful in challenging capitalism. Already in our movement there are real, important differences about ideas. At the second World Economic Forum in Porto Alegre earlier this year there was a more radical atmosphere among most of the ordinary 70,000 delegates. People were arguing that our strategy should be mass protests against neo-liberalism and war.

But there were also six ministers from the French government at the forum. Jacques Chirac, now France’s Tory prime minister, even sent an envoy to Porto Alegre. Clearly these people are at one extreme end.

But there are others in our movement who argue that we should aim to reform aspects of the system we live in and do not agree with a movement that is built from the grassroots upwards. The ideas adopted by the movement are linked to people’s practice.

In Barcelona there was a big argument about whether anti-capitalists should have supported the trade union demonstrations against privatisation, for example. We obviously can’t just agree to differ on these kinds of questions. A decision has to be made and acted on if the movement is to have any impact. The strength of Marxism is precisely because it does explain the totality of human relationships under capitalism.

Marxism is able to show the connections between globalisation, racism, imperialism and war. And because it understands that capitalism is based on a system of exploitation, where it is workers who produce all the wealth in society, Marxism points to the force which has the collective power to overthrow capitalism-the working class.

Inside the movement we want to build a coherent revolutionary organisation that puts these ideas forward. In the coming weeks and months revolutionary socialists will be building for the biggest possible turnout at the ESF, and among a wide range of people. But at the same time we will be hoping to convince people that Marxism offers the best way of understanding capitalism and how we can overthrow it.

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