If my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine.’
Bob Dylan’s words echo for a new generation vocalising their dissent, questioning the system, in a million ways today. Over the last five years thousands of activists, students, academics and others have been engaged in political debates at a level and of an importance not seen for 30 years.
A new audience has been created for radical ideas, and while new thinkers and writers such as Naomi Klein have come to the fore, many of the most prominent figures have been activists from the last generation of the 1960s and 1970s. Michael Albert is one such re-illuminated thinker. Albert is absolutely confident that a better world is possible. In response to the popular slur thrown at the movement that we know what we’re against but not what we’re for he wrote Parecon (participatory economics), an exploration of how that new world might function. He co-founded Z Magazine and ZNet, a popular and important anti-capitalist website. Each summer ZNet sponsors an on-line course on radical theory taught by Albert. Thought Dreams is a transcription of the course, including some student participation. It gives a sense of the hunger for ideas and the debates that are taking place all over the net and in meeting rooms and cafes around the world.
In attempting to take the students, step by step, through how one might construct a theory, Albert of course ends up drawing a picture of what his ideal theory would look like.
Albert’s reference point is the theories he sees as having been the main contenders in the battle for ideas in the 1960s and 1970s: Marxism, feminism, anarchism and nationalism. He relates these respectively to the four (equally important) ‘spheres’ of life: the economy, kinship (the family, sexual relations), the polity (the state, hierarchies of political power) and the cultural sphere (‘identity’, customs and religions, language, ‘race’). He argues that we need a theory which can understand the interrelationship between all the spheres – and thus all the different forms and causes of oppression – if we are to fundamentally alter the whole of society. Without that there is a risk that one of the ‘spheres’ will maintain the status quo and thus drag the rest back.
For Albert, the benefit and the drawback of, for example, feminism, is that it starts from the kinship sphere, in which it identifies women as being the primary losers, and then assesses the rest of society – the other spheres – from that perspective. So national hierarchies – imperialism – are simply replicating the patriarchy inside the family, and so on. The same could be said of anarchists and the polity, nationalists and the cultural sphere, or Marxists and the economic sphere. But he reserves special criticism for Marxism.
Feminism set out to work in favour of women and it did. Nationalism set out to liberate oppressed peoples and, at least in some cases, it has. Marxism claims to be an ideology of the workers and yet, he argues, it hasn’t succeeded in improving the lot of workers. Rather, according to Albert, Marxism tends to work in the interests of a ‘coordinator class’, for example the large bureaucracy that developed in the Soviet Union in the years after the revolution of 1917. Albert equates Marxism with the Soviet Union under Stalin (or under Lenin and the Bolsheviks, as for him there is little or no difference between the two eras), and perhaps this simply reflects his experience of parties calling themselves Marxist-Leninist in the US. However, it does lead him to largely discount Marxism as a guide to changing the world.
He also has an interesting discussion about the best way to win a reform – his example is ending a war. He argues that an anti-war movement is likely to be more successful if its scope is wide: the more people you have shouting ‘No more war, no more system’ the better, even if it means the demonstration is half the size of the one on which the slogan is simply ‘No more war’. This would seem to be at odds with our experience of building a mass anti-war movement here, though the question of whether marching makes a difference is a live one in the run-up to 19 March. However, his real point here is that our movement has to run so deep throughout society that it cannot be easily sidelined or forgotten, and that the cost to the ruling class of continuing the war becomes too great. On this he is absolutely right. The war is at the centre of every fracture in Blair’s Britain.
Though the book was only recently published, the lectures on which it is based took place just after the war on Afghanistan. Much has happened since then. In the book Albert encourages us to visit the Vision and Strategy section of ZNet. Visitors will now find there the debate between Michael Albert and Alex Callinicos, which took place throughout December 2003. They focused primarily on ‘life after capitalism’ and their visions have a remarkable amount in common. The question of strategy may be the live one, and it will continue to be argued out even as we march together.
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