We are everywhere. We clasp hands across the globe, offering solidarity and support to our sisters and brothers in the struggle, and gaining strength from them in turn. We are the “invisible international.”
The phrase was coined in 1940 by Franco-Russian revolutionary and novelist Victor Serge when he found himself stateless, penniless, trapped in Vichy France, and on the murder-list of both the KGB and the Gestapo. He survived and eventually escaped, thanks to the solidarity of what he called an “invisible international” of comrades around the world, a far-flung yet close-knit network of survivors of shipwrecked revolutions struggling to stay afloat in the rising tide of fascism. Scattered between Vichy France (a trap), Mexico (welcoming to political refugees and to KGB assassins alike) and New York, they maintained contact by the thin thread of the mail—when Serge could find enough money for stamps—sending political analyses along with money orders, lending support in the battle for visas in “a planet without a visa.”
Serge’s comrades were themselves persecuted dissident revolutionaries—Spanish Republican refugees of the POUM ; antifascist and anti-Stalinist refugees from Italy, Germany, and Austria; Russian Left Oppositionists still resisting in Stalin’s camps; plus a few socialists and leftist intellectuals in New York.
Serge’s comrades were also battling for the survival of their beleagured ideals, publishing small exile reviews when they could manage to, arguing, exchanging their Marxist “theses”—even within the Gulag. These independent socialists and revolutionaries had resisted both Stalin’s hijacking of the Russian Revolution, as well as the rise of fascism. Now they wanted to understand their defeats, and if possible to trace new paths on which they could advance. If they were unable to prevent Communism’s betrayal and fascism’s triumph, they could at least remain lucid and seek theoretical explanations for these events. Forged in the heat of a great world crisis, their resulting analyses remain useful—even critical—today.
The Historical Invisible International
If we imagine Serge’s “invisible international” spanning time as well as space, we can include revolutionary dissidents of the past and what remains relevant in their writings,experiences and examples. This “Historical Invisible International” would be comprised of persecuted, marginalized socialist and anarchist minorities—revolutionary heretics like Serge—whose critical thought and experience as fighters against the totalitarianisms of the Right and so-called Left still have great value.
Let’s picture our imaginary “Historical Invisible International” convened in a large virtual meeting hall, where holograms of the world’s outstanding radicals and socialists of every clime and epoch stand assembled. At this assembly of rebels and rabble-rousers we might encounter figures dating back to revolt of the Roman slave Spartacus, and extending across the planet to every movement from Autonomists to Zapatistas. Imagine if we could listen in on their conversations and even ask questions, learning from them whatever there is to know about class struggle down through the ages.
Whom would we find in this crowded hall of defeated heroes? Here are some of the faces I recognize well enough to point out in the crowd:
• See, over there, those guys with long bows? That’s Wat Tyler, John Ball and other peasant revolutionaries of 14th Century England. And that’s Jan of Leyden, who took over the Münster Utopian Anabaptists in the 16th Century. In the corner stand Winstanley and a band of 17th Century English Levelers (who believed in equality) and Diggers (who held all in common). In the French Revolutionary corner we find sans culottes, enragés, and Babeuf, who organized a “Conspiracy of Equals.” And over there’s Tom Paine who agitated in three countries, and Mary Wollstonecraft who fought for womens’ equality. Among them I spot Luddites, Chartists, Canuts from Lyon, Teipings from China, and of course, over in the corner a bunch of Wobblies from Montana hanging out with Joe Hill. . .
• Down in front there I see some great American rebels, including Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Agnes Smedley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Fred Hampton, Mother Jones, E.V. Debbs, and One-Eyed Big Bill Haywood. With them are their predecessors who resisted the colonization of the Americas in the first place, like Tecumseh, Osceola and Crazy Horse. Look: Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu Jamal are now free, mingling with Haymarket martyrs Albert Parsons, August Spies, Adolph Fischer and George Englel!
• Others who fought for liberation from colonialism and imperialism are huddled together comparing notes: Dessalines, Bhagat Singh, Ho Chi Minh, James Connolly, Bobby Sands…
• Among the Utopians I see jolly old François Rabelais, a somewhat more prim Thomas More, Fourier, Saint Simon, Robert Owen, and William Morris. Oscar Wilde argues about esthetics with Edward Bellamy. Plus my own friends and contemporaries Paul Goodman, Starhawk, Ernst Callenbach . . .and, is that Manny Wallerstein lecturing about Utopistics over there?
• In the Anarchists’ circle I can make out Montaigne’s friend La Boétie, who wrote that all servitude is voluntary. And farther along Proudhon, Fourrier, St-Simon, Bakunin, Louise Michel, Kropotkin, Marius Jacob, Mexico’s Flores Magon and Subcomandante Marcos, Durruti (who perished fighting Franco in 1936), Emma Goldman (my hero among them all!), Voline and Makhno of the Ukrainian rebellion. And even a few I knew in the flesh: Marcel Body, Russell Blackwell, Sam and Esther Dolgoff . . .
• Among the intellectuals reading in the hall’s library, I see historian Howard Zinn swapping stories with critical socialists like Antonio Gramsci and Georg Lukacs. And of course Karl Marx, suffering like Job with boils as he studies world labor statistics on the hard seats of the British Museum.
• George Grosz and Diego Rivera draw sketches together of the entire scene, while poets Nazim Hikment and Walt Whitman embrace warmly.
• Among the Russians over by that wall, we find a collection of several different types of revolutionary opponents of Communist totalitarianism: Left Social-Revolutionaries, Anarchists, Left Mencheviks and dissident Communists, members of the Workers’ Opposition (Kollontai, Shliapnikov), the Left Opposition (Preobrejenski, Joffe, Trotsky, Smilga, Victor Serge), Sapronov and the Democratic Centralists, as well as the dissidents of Third International (Balabanova, Bordiga, Souvarine, Sneevliet). . .
• Over there’s another group speaking German with the martyred Spartacist leaders Karl Leibnecht and Rosa Luxemburg. Milling around them I see the Dutch and German Council Communists with Anton Pannekoek, Paul Mattick and Karl Korsch. . .
• And of course there are the post-Trotskyist revolutionaries—some of whom I have talked (and argued) with in person as well as with their books—among them Raya Dunayevskaya, Cornelius Castoriadis, Tony Cliff, Hal Draper, Maximilien Rubel, Danel Guérin, Ngo Van, Paul Mattick, and many others. . .
• There are also many others here—people from every time and place who have struggled and sacrificed no less than those few whose names and faces I personally recognize. South African miners who risked being shot for going on strike, garment workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Haiti rising up to demand higher wages, people from Peru, Nigeria and India valiantly defending their land from the ravages of resource extraction.
I used to dream that if my comrades and I could enter that imaginary meeting hall and participate in the discussions among these revolutionaries of every era, perhaps we might pick up the red thread that would lead us out of the political labyrinth in which we are lost.
Well, Halleluiah! Today we can, thanks to the Internet! Today any curious teenager in Vietnam or Vermont can check into an Internet café, go online, and visit all these historical rebels through Wikipedia and other sites, often run by active militants eager to network with new people. Today, revolutionary texts that previously could only be found in the great libraries of Paris, London and New York are, for many more people, just two or three clicks away on the Internet.
As a student eager to read Victor Serge, I had to travel to Paris and hand copy his writings at the Bibliothèque Nationale. Now Serge is on Facebook! Today, our imaginary Historical Invisible International meeting hall exists, albeit virtually, on a platform wide as the planet itself, with sites and Wikipedia articles devoted to all these visionaries. We are free to visit, argue with, and learn from them whenever we wish.
I’ve often wondered if a consensus could emerge in this great assembly among rebels of every time and place? Could we imagine these anti-totalitarian revolutionaries evolving some sort of synthesis of their common ideas and social experiences? Could we imagine them agreeing on a minimum program, a Virtual Charter which today’s internationalists might find illuminating?
If so, what would such a Charter look like? Perhaps like a 21st Century globalized version of the Charter of the International Workers Association (First International), or like the the Preamble of the Wobblies (IWW) which was written in 1905 over a three or four day period in a hall in Chicago by an assembly of about a hundred men and women: Marxists, socialists, syndicalists, labor organizers, anarchists and working stiffs. They got off to a good start by agreeing that:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life. Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production, and abolish the wage system.
(This wouldn’t have been a bad perspective for the 99%-ers and Occupiers of 2011 to start with too!)
One thing is certain: even if these witnesses to revolution cannot give us infallible formulas for achieving a socialist society in the future, they can, by their critical thought, put us on guard against what we must not do if we want to get there. The lessons, however negative, that they bring us from their defeats, are an unavoidable point of departure.
These hard-won lessons constitute a treasure of Occult Learning collectively built up by the working class though its victories and its defeats, analyzed by its best surviving thinkers, distilled in the alembic of historical experience, and purified by critical spirit. This knowledge remains “occult” because it has long been marginalized, forgotten, buried under party lines and official lies. But as Victor Serge wrote, “nothing is ever lost.” The Occult Learning of yesterday’s rebels is still there to discover. Their examples and their writings survive. It’s up to us to extract their quintessence!
So let’s begin by looking back at several historical Workers’ Internationals, to see what lessons they might hold for the 21st Century:
The Example of the Multi-Tendency IWA
The First International, known at the time as the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), came together in 1863 and fell apart not long after the defeat of the Paris Commune a decade later. I would like to propose the IWA as a model for horizontal, bottom-up worker self-organization that defined long-term goals and had ramifications among organized workers in many lands.
Essentially a correspondence network, the IWA served a practical function by keeping workers informed of each others’ struggles in various countries, and by organizing solidarity where possible. At the same time, the IWA fulfilled the two functions which, according to the Marx-Engels 1848 Communist Manifesto, distinguishes the activities of “communists” (we should say “socialists” today) from other participants in the class struggle: 1) in every local struggle, to look out for the interests of the working class as a whole, worldwide; and 2) in every partial struggle, to look toward the long run, the ultimate historical goal of total worker self-emancipation.
In contrast to the “vanguard,” “hub-and-spokes,” or “general staff” models of organization exemplified by the bureaucratic parties of the Second (Socialist), Third (Communist) and Fourth (Trotskyist) Internationals, let us look at the structure of the IWA and at the actual practice of Marx himself, who served as its General Secretary. The IWA’s Charter stated that its purpose was to “establish relations between the different associations of workers in such a manner that workers in each country would be constantly informed of the movements of their class in other countries.” In other words, the IWA was first of all an international workers’ information network, with an extremely practical purpose (a purpose that I believe can be greatly facilitated today by a network which exploits the information-sharing technology of the Internet).
Further, the original IWA was also a socialist organization defined by its Statutes and Congresses, and a General Council. Let us recall that membership and voting at congresses were restricted to “workingmen,” which excluded both women workers (regrettably) and intellectuals (perhaps correctly). It was when the organizers couldn’t find the right words to express their aims in a Preamble that they appealed to “the eminent writer Dr. Marx” whose position was that of unpaid volunteer secretary and “scientific” advisor (through his addresses to the Council on history, economics, and politics).
Far from being a “Marxist” organization, the IWA was a broad, multi-tendency coalition of worker groups reflecting the theoretical level of the organized workers of its time. In the beginning, the followers of the French socialist Proud’hon were in the majority. The Proud’honists believed in a form of socialism based on mutual credit, while opposing strikes, revolutions and women’s rights. The IWA did not really take off until the economic crisis and strike wave of 1868, and it was “not the International who threw the workers into the strikes, but the strikes that threw the workers into the International.” Only then did Marx’s ideas win general acceptance. In 1869, Bakunin and his anarchist followers were accepted into the IWA and introduced yet another political current, federalism.
Two years later, the Paris Commune, the first workers’ government, was created by French workers and soldiers in the wake of Napoleon III’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Although Proud’honists and Internationalists of the IWA participated in the Commune, it was an improvised affair rather than the application of anyone’s theory.
In May 1871, the short-lived Commune was brutally repressed by the French Republic with the help of the Prussians. The capitalist repression spread to every land with massive police repression of workers’ associations. Thus, the First International was effectively destroyed as a practical movement, but only after having “stormed the heavens” with the first practical workers’ government.
After the Commune’s tragic defeat, Marx was assigned by the IWA’s London Committee to sum up the basic lessons learned by the Paris workers, for the benefit of future generations of workers. They were “anarchist” lessons: smash the state and replace it with the armed people governing themselves through elected, revocable representatives paid at workers’ wages. Marx was the first to acknowledge that it was not he, the revolutionary intellectual, who created this essential model of workers’ self-government, but the workers themselves through their own experience. Further, Marx made an important change in his major theoretical work, Capital, after observing that the actions of the Parisian workers had “stripped the fetish off commodities” and revealed their essence.
Nothing fails like failure. It was later, during the repression following the defeat of 1871—and in the midst of the subsequent quarrels and factionalism among demoralized, embittered, exiled revolutionary intellectuals fighting over what remained of the IWA—that the famous split took place between the so-called “Marxists” (Marx famously denied he was a “Marxist”!) and the anarchists following Bakunin. In this ugly aftermath, the conspiratorial “libertarian” Bakunin maneuvered to raid the moribund rump of the IWA and take over the name. He was outmaneuvered by the wily Marx, who sent the General Council across the Atlantic to New York to wither and die. In retrospect this “battle of titans” seems like a battle of pygmies revealing the small side of these two bearded, 19th Century patriarchs blinded by national prejudices (Bakunin’s anti-Semitism, Marx’s fear of Russia). Unfortunately, the split remained permanent between the two great branches of the socialist family, still sharply divided between “anarchists” and “socialists.” Sadly, all that people remember today about the IWA is the nasty split between two factions of a half-dead exile group, rather than the vigorous and suggestive history of this first and highly successful attempt of working people to organize themselves internationally. But the living history of the IWA, rather than its ugly postmortem, remains rich in lessons for workers today who wish to unite in an international network.
Rich Lessons of the First International
The first lesson is that collective experience and self-activity, rather than doctrines, lead working people to their revolutionary discoveries. As Marx put it, self-activity is the workers’ “method of cognition” which the revolutionary intellectual can only later formulate, not prescribe. In other words, there is a movement from practice to theory which precedes the movement from theory to practice. Marx caught it, as did Luxembourg in 1905.
Karl Kautsky, the main theoretician of the Socialist Second International, could only see the movement from theory, and it was he who taught Lenin the erroneous idea that socialism is imported into the working class by party intellectuals. In reality, a two-way road between theory and practice results in the unity of workers and intellectuals, as Raya Dunayevskaya demonstrated in her 1958 book Marxism and Freedom.
The second lesson is that such an international network must, from the beginning, offer practical advantages by providing facilities for the exchange of information about workers’ struggles, the gathering of statistics about conditions of labor, and the linking of organized workers for international action. With the Internet, this becomes a more practical possibility.
The third lesson is that genuine international workers’ organizations must be horizontal rather than vertical, must be multi-tendency and democratic rather than top-down authoritarian, if they are to leave room for the development of class consciousness through lessons drawn from experience.
If we take these lessons to heart, we can be sure that we are on the right track when we imagine the emergence of an international network. But it is equally certain that it is not just a few thousand Altermundialistas, but billions acting together, who can create a vast international movement and unleash the human power necessary to uproot capitalism and save the planet (if it can be saved).
So for the moment, let us agree on two main points borrowed from the Communist Manifesto: 1) that the emancipation of the working people can only be the result of the activity of the working people themselves; and 2) that this emancipation will take place on the planetary scale, or it will not take place at all.
Rule of Thumb Internationalism
How then do we, as revolutionary internationalists, differ from other working men and women in struggle? What do we have to add? What is our role? Certainly not that of chiefs, but perhaps the more modest roles of leaven, of yeast helping dough to rise; of idea-viruses spreading the contagion of revolutionary thought; of memory-cells and teachers in the movement, making the lessons of the past actual in the present.
Like the “communists” in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, our role is two-fold: 1) in every particular, local or national struggle, we pose the question: “How does this struggle increase international/planetary worker solidarity?”; and 2) In every partial, limited, immediate struggle, we pose the question: “How does this struggle advance the historical task of abolishing wage-labor and capitalism?” These are the questions, the historical and the planetary, that we internationalists seek to bring to the fore in every struggle.
From this follows a relatively simple rule-of-thumb that can be applied to nearly any situation or movement:
The Mighty Second International Collapses
Based on rule-of-thumb internationalism, we see that the failures of the Second (Socialist) International and the Third (Communist) International derive in a large measure precisely from their lack of consistent, thoroughgoing internationalism.
Sectarians are perennially trying to create new Internationals based on “revolutionary Marxism.” But ideology is not enough. The powerful Socialist International was officially based on “revolutionary Marxism,” and it organized millions of workers within a vast network of Socialist parties and trade-unions with a mass press, and important youth and women’s sections in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Russia. During the previous international Congress, the revolutionary tendency spearheaded by Rosa Luxemburg had gained the majority over the revisionist faction led by Bernstein, and the Socialist Parties had pledged, in the event of war, to respond with a general strike. Yet this powerful network of international Socialist parties collapsed like a house of cards in August 1914, when the majority of the German and French socialists instead supported their “own” capitalist governments at the outbreak of the First imperialist World War—turning millions of workers into fratricidal murderers.
The Second International was so firmly based in “revolutionary Marxism” that at the outbreak of war in August 1914, Lenin himself still looked upon its chief theoretician Kautsky as his “master” and literally refused to believe the press reports of the German Socialists’ betrayal. (At first he imagined that the reports were planted as part of an Imperial disinformation campaign, rather than accept the truth).
The Third International Promotes Counter-Revolution
Our same “rule-of-thumb internationalism” exposes the sham of the Third International, which was also firmly based on a bureaucratic, Russo-centric version of “revolutionary Marxist internationalism.” It, too, foundered on the rock of chauvinism by conflating the interests of the working people of the planet with the interests of the Russian state. In the end, the international-minded Trotsky concluded that under Stalin, the Moscow-directed Third International (or Comintern) had been degraded to the role of “border guards” protecting the interests of Russia.
The Comintern had also become an active agent of international counter-revolution. Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom shows how, during the Spanish Revolution of 1936, the Comintern allied itself with the Spanish Republican bourgeoisie and introduced police-state methods to crush the magnificent social revolution of the Spanish workers and peasants, whose self-activity was creating a new society while fighting Franco. While the POUMist and anarchist militias were marching to the front to battle against Franco fascists, as well as occupying and self-managing the land, the war industries, the telephone networks, and the streetcars in Catalonia, the Spanish Communists—under Stalin’s orders—were preparing to destroy them.
Moreover, the Moscow-centered Comintern under Zinoviev, with its bureaucratized structure and bullying, manipulative methods, was tainted from the start. Consider the fiasco of the 1923 Communist putsch in Germany. Victor Serge, an eyewitness, recounts in his Memoirs of a Revolutionary, how the Comintern held back the workers’ insurrectionary mood of the summer so as to “order” a German revolution to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. But when October came around, Moscow panicked and gave the order to call off the German uprising at the last minute, exposing the German Party—and particularly the workers of Hamburg (who didn’t get the message in time and took over the city)—to violent repression.
But instead of drawing lessons from this Moscow-directed disaster, the “revolutionary Marxist” Comintern placed the blame on the local German leaders (some of whom had not even been kept informed of the insurrectionary plans!) and purged them. It could be argued that this Russian-engineered disaster of 1923 closed the period of international revolutionary struggle that had opened with the Soviet victory in 1917, and ushered in the era of fascism. This is a practical example of how badly the hub-and-spokes model of an international network functioned from its inception, well before Stalinism.
The Fourth and (virtual) Fifth Internationals
Stalin took over Russia and the Third International in 1928. One of his first acts was to exile his arch-rival Leon Trotsky, who, since 1923, had been criticizing the Soviet regime as bureaucratic and nationalistic. During the Thirties, Trotsky attempted to create a rival Fourth International based on “Bolshevik-Leninism” from the top down and in the absence of existing anti-Stalinist national labor parties. The inevitable result was an ideological sect, which immediately split into two factions and has not stopped splitting since.
Does our imaginary Invisible International include present-day disciples of these mico-parties? Of course—as long as they have not sunk into stagnant and fanatical sectarianism, and as long as they go on searching and asking questions. In spite of the sectarianism that often divides and embitters the factions of the international far left, these groups include many possessors of Occult Wisdom, bearers of revolutionary ideas who continue to defend and expound upon them. Alas, Dear Comrades, all our efforts to unite into an ultimate international have sunk into sectarian power-struggles and squabbles over the “correct political line” (as if any group could have a monopoly on the truth).
Yet the mini-parties and radical sects that so many of my generation have devoted ourselves to building and defending over so many lonely and difficult years have not necessarily been sterile or useless. They exposed thousands, if not millions, of young people to revolutionary ideas for the first time. We preserved, disseminated and developed these ideas during a very difficult and confusing period when such ideas were basically “underground” even where they were legal. We served as a transmission-belt passing on the Occult Wisdom we received, often by oral tradition, from surviving revolutionaries of Serge’s generation who remembered back even further. Our groups were the hard nut-shells which preserved the germ of radical critique of the world through the winter of its defeats.
Today we need to crack open those shells, to liberate the revolution, to join what Marx called the “actual movement”—not to lead it or to take it over, but to bring to it organizational skills, socialist ideals, a form of analysis based on historical experience, a perspective for another possible world. In other words, to break open the hard shells of our splinter groups and release to all the Occult Wisdom jealously preserved inside. If the Left of the Left remains with its sectarian shells, it will dry up and die. If it has the courage to break out, it will fulfill its biological function by procreating (something most people find to be fun).
Among such activities, let me propose using our experience and Occult Wisdom in a playful and imaginative way: instead of arguing about whose political line is more correct, let’s hold a contest for the best fictional path to Utopia that shows us how that political line might lead us to a new society, and what the new society might look like.
I’ve participated in various attempts to form networks, alliances and the like on the basis of some sort of Manifesto, and they have all crashed upon the rocks of sectarian power struggles. After my disappointment at yet another failure to form a “Fifth” International (the 1997 Capetown, South Africa Conference for International Network for a Socialist Alternative), I came to the conclusion that as long as there was power to be had in an organizational structure, people will fight over it and mask their power-hunger with doctrinal differences.
It was then that I came across the phrase “invisible international” in Serge’s writings, and began to think in terms of a virtual Charter. What if we made an online game of it? Each player or player-group picks an identity: I’ll be Rosa Luxembourg, you’ll be Bakunin. What could we accomplish if we all meet in a virtual meeting hall to hammer out a virtual Charter? Each participant could add ideas in the open-source spirit, rather than treating their ideas as private property to fight over.
A Wiki for this purpose is ready and waiting at http://billionairesandbillions.wikispaces.com/
So come on all you Marxists, anarchists, socialists, post-Trotskyists, Situationists, libertarians, communists, latter-day Sixty-Eighters: to your computers! Let’s take time off from our usual activities of collecting signatures, publishing unreadable articles and holding interminable meetings, to think about Utopia! Let’s dream, and take our dreams for realities once again! Let’s bet on Utopia while there’s still a planet to save!
The Invisible International of the Alter-mondialistes of the 1990s
The young, invisible international of the Alter-mondialistes seemed to spring out of nowhere, right in the middle of the neo-liberal celebration of globalized capital’s eternal reign. Its diversity was its strength. It brought together movements organized around single issues—from torture in prisons to the nuclear threat, from indigenous rights and water rights to saving the environment. It spoke many languages and with many voices, including voices heretofore un-heard in the largely male-dominated, Eurocentric Left: female, third world, peasant, and indigenous voices. It answered capitalism’s arrogant TINA (“There Is No Alternative”) with a loud “Another World Is Possible.” Not only did it speak, it listened.
Throughout the world, this new network attracted critical spirits and passionate activists, mostly young, who were seeking a way out of this dying capitalist society. It was present in unruly opposition whenever the representatives of global capitalism gathered to divide up the world’s resources among themselves. In the name of the human community and the biosphere, it dared to confront the financial power of multinational capital and the might of the state.
It organized the first global antiwar demonstrations in history (against Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq), uniting millions in many countries to march in the streets simultaneously. Its struggle to save the planet from destruction, now mostly forgotten, was historic.
This young invisible international developed its own form of Occult Wisdom. The World Social Forum, which met for the first time in Porto Allegre, Brazil in 2001, has become an annual event bringing together activists from social movements around the globe, a kind of “movement of movements.” They go to forums to learn, to pose old questions in new ways, to develop original forms of collective action, and especially to weave ties with people of other countries, other movements. They invite radical specialists from agronomy, economics, and other disciplines. They exchange experiences among peasant groups from three continents. They organize around the planet to resist corporate capitalist globalization in the name of humanity and the environment.
Many of its participants grew up with the computer and the Internet, and were among the first to make use of them to inform themselves and to weave their networks. The skill of its researchers, its access to facts, statistics and studies is impressive. Its use of the Internet as an organizing tool has opened up new possibilities for global action. Like the Internet itself, it takes the form of a sprawling web linking individuals, local groups, political organizations, and various networks focused on issues like ecology, war, AIDS, hunger, human rights, and capitalist globalization. Along the threads of that web, information is exchanged to fertilize discussions, and international encounters are planned.
The 1999 anti-IMF protests in Seattle surpassed all expectations, drawing the attention of the whole world to the problem of capitalist globalization. Seen marching there side by side for the first time were timber-industry unionists and tree-hugging ecologists, radical feminists and members of religious orders, anarchists and representatives of professional societies.
Subsequent meetings in Rio, Porto Alegre, Genoa and elsewhere brought thousands of militants and thinkers into common struggle and dialogue. Among them: ecologists, Indigenous peoples, trade unionists, anti-nuclear activists, feminists, LGBT organizers, human rights militants, peasant and ethnic communities, enraged scientists, radicals and protesters of every stripe.
In these new global movements, nobody dominated. No party line was imposed. Rather, a highly organized chaos of organizations, websites, and networks prevailed. Websites loaded with detailed information on each issue intertwined by an infinity of links with other sites. A proliferation of projects and ideas enhanced a discussion open to all. It was a circle, a web, instead of an authoritarian center or group of experts handing down information and commands down to the rank and file. It was enough to drive old politicos and disciplined militants to despair. But when it came to mobilizing—what boldness! What initiative!
For many people, Internet contact with this new invisible international represented their first experience with organized protest. Caring about the earth, about peace and social justice, in love with a simple and sane life, its members seek a way out of a cruel, destructive, and irrational system. This invisible international could not help being anti-capitalist. The same multinational capitalists blocked every reform desired by its constituents, whether preventing war, eliminating poverty, saving the environment, protecting human rights, or blocking the capitalist privatization of the planet’s resources. “The world is not for sale” is its motto. Its slogan is at once Utopian and revolutionary: “Another world is possible!”
At the 2009 meeting of the World Social Forum at Belem, Brazil, the members of the Assembly of Social Movements spelled out their aims in the following Declaration which deserves the widest attention:
We the social movements from all over the world came together on the occasion of the 8th World Social Forum in Belem, Amazonia, where the peoples have been resisting attempts to usurp nature, their lands and their cultures. We are here in Latin America, where over the last decade the social movements and the indigenous movements have joined forces and radically question the capitalist system from their cosmovision. Over the last few years, in Latin America highly radical social struggles have resulted in the overthrow of neoliberal governments and the empowerment of governments that have carried out many positive reforms such as the nationalisation of core sectors of the economy and democratic constitutional reforms.
The social emancipation process carried by the feminist, environmentalist and socialist movements in the 21st century aims at liberating society from capitalist domination of the means of production, communication and services, achieved by supporting forms of ownership that favor the social interest: small family freehold, public, cooperative, communal and collective property.
Such an alternative will necessarily be feminist since it is impossible to build a society based on social justice and equality of rights when half of humankind is oppressed and exploited. Lastly, we commit ourselves to enriching the construction of a society based on a life lived in harmony with oneself, others and the world around (el buen vivir) by acknowledging the active participation and contribution of the native peoples.
We, the social movements, are faced with a historic opportunity to develop emancipatory initiatives on a global scale. Only through the social struggle of the masses can populations overcome the crisis. In order to promote this struggle, it is essential to work on consciousness-raising and mobilization from the grassroots. The challenge for the social movements is to achieve a convergence of global mobilization. It is also to strengthen our ability to act by supporting the convergence of all movements striving to withstand oppression and exploitation.
The International Rolling Revolts of 2011
2011 will certainly go down in world history as a year of massive global uprisings—in some ways surpassing those of 1968. The international wave of rolling rebellions began in December 2010 with the popular uprising in Tunisia, overthrowing the corrupt, French-supported dictatorship of Ben Ali, then hopped over to Egypt the following February, sweeping away the tyrant Mubarak, and from there spread across North Africa and the Middle East.
On the European side of the Mediterranean, Greek workers and youth took the streets and launched general strikes against banker-imposed austerity measures, while in Spain, encampments of youthful indignados spread from Madrid’s Costa del Sol to Barcelona to Seville and Cadiz. At the same time, the example of the Arab Spring boomeranged over the Atlantic to Madison, Wisconsin, where it inspired the Occupy the Capitol protests, the first sign of sustained popular resistance to austerity in the U.S. since the financial crash of 2008. In October, the examples of Tahrir, Wisconsin and Madrid in turn inspired Occupy Wall Street, which then spread to hundreds of other cities around the world, famously changing the subject of the political conversation from debt-fueled austerity to equality. The encampment at Zuccotti Park inspired a movement of 99%-ers occupying locally (and globally) with a strikingly ambitious goal: “Occupy Everything!”
“Occupy Everything!” I can’t think of a more succinct slogan to describe the kind of revolution I’ve always dreamed of. Since my youth, my vision has been of bottom-up social change based on mass assemblies; popular power imposed by forceful—but essentially non-violent—tactics like mass strikes, mass occupations and mass demonstrations (what John Holloway termed “power against” and “power to,” but not oppressive “power over”); a revolution of ordinary people first occupying and then self-managing their work-places and neighborhoods democratically to create a federated, cooperative economy based on human and ecological need, not on profit. These are not new ideas. The slogan “Occupy Everything” pretty much sums up the anarcho-syndicalist philosophy of the IWW (the Wobblies). It also harkens back to the big sit-down strikes and factory occupations of 1936-37 in the US and France, of the student-worker rebellions of 1968, and more recently of the mass assemblies and “takings” by workers of enterprises that had been shut down during Argentina’s IMF-imposed bankruptcy. Though not new ideas, they are ideas whose time has come.
Another great slogan of this period was, “We are the 99%!” How better to draw the Marxian class line? It succinctly expresses the movement’s composition (the poor and the threatened middle classes) and names the class enemy (the economic 1%, not just the government they control). Another brilliant chant of the Occupiers was: “This is what democracy looks like!” It tore the veil of respectability off of the corrupt political systems that parade under the official heading of “democracy,” and invited people to actively participation in changing society, outside of official channels. All these popular verbal inventions express the movement’s half-conscious revolutionary aspirations. They ask, “Why not occupy everything and run society cooperatively, democratically, and ecologically, in the image of our assemblies and collectives?”
2011’s world-wide wave of popular revolts represented the biggest challenge to the ruling 1%-ers since the 1960s, when worldwide revolts broke out everywhere from Vietnam to Paris, from Prague to Chicago. Moreover, though the Occupy encampments were effectively dispersed by police forces and the movement has faded, its underlying causes have not gone away. The worldwide convergence of economic, political and ecological crisis continues to deepen, and capitalism’s “solutions” (grind the poor, intensify repression, rape the environment) continue to outrage the mass of humanity.
It is the nature of revolutionary movements that once they knock down an obstacle, a new one rises in its place, and so on until the last barrier is knocked down: that of the world capitalist system. This process can only happen on a global scale.
The Workers’ Invisible International
This huge Invisible International, still in search of its identity, includes all the workers and poor people across the planet who struggle against the power of the banks, multinationals and governments who stand between them and a living wage. (Today we might say the “International of the 99%-ers”).
We’re talking about the crew-members of Spaceship Earth. They run all the machinery, clean and repair the cabins, prepare all the food and are made to slave for and serve the officers. Most of the passengers are their families, deep down in steerage where it stinks, where it’s cold and disease is rife, and there aren’t enough rations to keep everyone alive. The members of the crew have the most incentive to overthrow the officers. They also have the power to STOP the machinery AND the know-how to run the ship afterwards. They have been the backbone of every previous revolution. The officers know this, and employ all their force and guile to keep them down. Yet they continue to rebel. One notable example is so-called “Communist” China, where a police-state apparatus in the service of sweat-shop capitalists working for U.S. corporations has not been able to prevent eighty or ninety thousand violent strikes and uprisings every year.
Working men and women are slowly and painfully learning, through frustrating struggles at the local and national levels, that they are facing a formidable global adversary. They are beginning to recognize how their unseizable, ubiquitous enemy thwarts their every effort to improve their lot in one place or another. They are observing how this adversary divides them, the better to rule and exploit them. They are experiencing the effects of a globalized “free market,” the international borders of which are pried open for the penetration of foreign capital and slammed shut against migrants searching for work.
Workers are fighting back and gaining collective strength. Some examples, among many:
* Brazilian seigneurs, tapers of wild rubber, defending their living and that of the Amazon forest.
* The Korean proletariat whose general strikes overthrew the dictatorship of the generals and industrial monopolies like Hyundai and Daewoo.
* Chinese peasants revolting against arbitrary taxes and driving Communist Party profiteers out of their village councils. There were more than eighty thousand officially counted strikes or uprisings requiring police or army intervention in the single year 2007 (after which date the officials stopped counting).
* Super-exploited Mexican workers in the maquiladoras (free trade zones on the American border) organizing with the help of US unionists.
* The workers and unemployed of Europe and the US struggling against the take-backs, speedups, downsizing, plant closures, out-sourcing, automation, flexi-time, safety violations, degraded working conditions and stress imposed in the wake of globalization.
These workers see the multinationals taking over everywhere. Overworked, underpaid Asian workers are squeezed dry by local subcontractors competing to offer the lowest prices to foreign corporations. In the multinationals’ home countries, workers are forced to submit to wage cuts, factory closings, privatization of public services, and the deterioration of their living conditions. Their standard of living has been swept away in a global race to the bottom for the lowest possible labor costs—all justified by the imperatives imposed by the global market and “foreign” competition.
Similarly, farmers of Africa, Latin America and Asia are being ruined by low agricultural prices, unable to compete with the cheap grain (grossly subsidized by the governments of rich countries) that is dumped by giant multinational agribusinesses like Monsanto. Billions of Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are deprived of schools, hospitals and infrastructures through reductions in social budgets and privatization imposed by the IMF and World Bank—all in the name of “free trade”!
Faced with intense suffering and even the risk of extinction, these folks on the bottom need to organize themselves to fight for their lives, on the planetary level.
The way forward will not be easy. National pride, as well as racial and religious prejudices, are huge obstacles. Establishment trade unions, narrowly focused on local fiefdoms and marginal improvements, will prove unable or unwilling to address their members’ most pressing problem: the decline of wages to the worldwide lowest common denominator through globalization. Only international solidarity can possibly solve this problem, but the union bureaucracies, locked into the wage-system and the legal systems, sanctioned and often subsidized by each of Europe’s and the U.S. national governments, are unlikely to jeopardize their privileged situation as intermediary between labor, business, and government within the national territories. Ditto for the political parties of the Left, to which unions are often affiliated.
Established unions (U.S.-American or European) will, by their nature, resist any kind of global activity that might violate sacrosanct contracts and labor legislation, or subject them to fines, etc. Most of the unions fight losing rear-guard actions, attempting to rescue pensions and a few jobs out of factory closings, locking the barn door after the horses have been stolen.
The situation in the U.S., where many must be envious of the European tradition of general strikes, the situation is best described by the laborer turned teacher-writer, my late comrade Robert Fitch in the title of his must-read book, Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise (2006). Fitch points out that U.S. unions function as parochial feudal fiefdoms, monopolizing the labor supply in a certain field and location and selling it to the bosses as the workers’ “representatives” (on whom individual workers must depend to find or keep their jobs). With such a blatant conflict of interest built into U.S. labor law, it is small wonder that bosses buy sweetheart contracts by kicking back under the table to union leaders, who are often related to organized crime and use union pension funds for their private enrichment. Because of this very structure, valiant attempts over the years by rank-and-file members to take over their unions, get rid of the gangsters and stand united against the bosses have proved extremely difficult and prone to cooptation by the bureaucracy.
The various rival union “internationals” in the U.S. seem to be engaged in a race to the bottom, signing up low-paid workers only to hand them over, bound as it were by a contract, to their employers, with little or no improvement and dues to pay. On the other hand, when the Right has attacked unions of teachers and other government workers, their purpose has been to deprive them of any defense against the deprofessionalization of their work and to drive down wages. Workers must resist hostile forces on all sides.
In 2011, the rallying of the public in support of mobilized workers in Madison Wisconsin, as well as the support of Occupy activists in Oakland, CA for the Longshoremen’s Union’s strike, were extremely hopeful signs of the potential for widespread solidarity for workers everywhere who fight for better pay and conditions.
There have been additional hopeful signs among Latino agricultural and other workers, with laudable attempts at cross-border organizing with Mexico. However, currently only a few maverick unions show signs of going global, and the first planetary solidarity actions will have to be organized without the “help” of labor bureaucrats, if not over their opposition. There is no other choice for workers.
Since the Crash of 2008, governments everywhere have been imposing “austerity” programs designed to make the working class pay for the bailouts of the bankers, who continue to live high off the hog on public subsidies. There have been repeated general strikes in France, as well as in Spain (simultaneously at one point) and in Greece, all suffering under European Union-imposed austerity cutbacks. Yet I am unaware of any serious attempts to link up the anti-austerity and “indignant” movements in the European Union, mainly because of the bureaucratic nature of the left parties and unions, which are so tightly focused on local (national) elections and parochial, sectarian struggles within the system.
Nor did any international network emerge from the great electoral victory of the NO vote against the neo-liberal European Constitution (which was supported by both the Right and the (officially) Socialist Left in the 2005 European referendum). Instead of uniting all those who said NO, the French far-Left fielded seven (count ’em: 7) competing candidates during the following election, and never reached out to the Dutch voters, who had also rejected the neo-liberal Constitution.
On the French labor front, ever since the victorious, weeklong runaway (wildcat) general strike of 1995 that made the government withdraw its neoliberal “reforms,” whenever the French massively demonstrate and go on national strikes in opposition to government attacks on their labor and welfare rights (as in 2003, 2008 and 2009), the official leaders of the unions impose the delaying tactic of spaced one-day national work-stoppages and demonstrations—marches and counter-marches designed quite precisely to “demonstrate” to the government their ability to call out their troops (and thus presumably to reign them in and prove their “respectability”). These demonstrations are great for letting off steam, but inevitably they run out of steam. Time is always on the side of the government and the capitalists in the class struggle. All the people’s energy is then diverted into the ritual of elections, “Left” versus “Right.” Not a word about the monumental struggles a few hundred miles away in Greece.
In Greece the working class, the youth and large segments of the newly-dispossessed middle class took to the streets in 2011, striking, demonstrating, occupying public buildings for months in an attempt to defend their living conditions against the massive layoffs, 25% wage cuts, huge new taxes on poor households (under threat of losing electricity). Yet the unions remained aloof from the popular movement, holding their protests separately, refusing to sanction occupations, putting off decisions on general strikes until after the momentum died down. Meanwhile, rank-and-file workers occupied their own union.
The Invisible International is a living tradition that goes back to Spartacus, and includes the experiences of all the attempted revolutions of the centuries, with survivors passing from one generation to the next the precious formulas of Occult Wisdom, often earned at a terrible price. Since the ’90s, and especially since 2011, new, openly anti-capitalist movements have arisen, first among the youth and now generalized among the population. Their demonstrations and occupations have shaken the establishment to its core, especially when they were backed by workers’ strikes, as in Iran during the 2009 “Green” demonstrations and in Egypt in February 2011, where they were instrumental in overthrowing Mubarak. Clearly the alliance of workers, those who produce and reproduce the life of society, and the social movements of the 99%-ers for democracy, justice and equality, is the wave of the future. Labor is the backbone of society, and workers must find a way past the narrow parochialism of trade unions, and return to their tradition of international struggle. When they do so, they will find a supportive community, ready to back them and to face together the final conflict with world capital.
Today, workers around the globe are reaching out, groping toward international solutions to the international problems posed by global corporations. For the first time, the Internet gives them the technical ability to share information instantly, as well as the ability to access the wisdom of previous generations of rebels and revolutionaries. Chinese dissidents, Korean trade-unionists, striking British dockers and others have already made use of the Internet to communicate, organize solidarity, tell the world about their struggles and develop links with other movements.
This virtual (and alas, still-invisible) international will eventually find its organizational form and come to life. What is implicit in the internationalism emerging since 2011 will be made explicit by and by. One day working people will organize the first global strike against a multinational, and thanks to the Internet they will be able to bring it off.
On that day, when all the employees, subcontractors and subsidiaries of a multinational like Daewoo, Nike, Montsano, BP, Walmart or Airbus Industries go on strike simultaneously in every country—backed by community action and consumer boycotts—the invisible international of workers will stop being a dream or an “occult conspiracy. ” It will take on the flesh and bones of a waking giant, and its rising will be the beginning of the end of capitalist exploitation—if capitalism does not make the planet we live on uninhabitable first.