There was an interesting discussion on the discussion-list Meltdown recently, between Mac Intosh of IP and a Meltdown regular, GS. It started on democracy and continued on revolutionary defeatism and ended with Mac Intosh sighing that it boggled his imagination that GS could claim that in such a war, one must choose one imperialist camp against the other, and still profess to be a revolutionary internationalist. To which GS replied that his imagination was boggled too, as it seemed to him beyond discussion that any sane person would have ardently hoped that Nazi-Germany would be defeated. “I give up”, he wrote, and so it ended.
Asides from the fact that no credible scenario can be conceived in which Germany could have won the war, the consequences of such an unlikely outcome are unknowable: we are in alt-history here, in which the global extermination of entire races is as possible as a global uprising, or anything in between. Intriguing perhaps, but not very relevant to our reality, it seems to me.
The essential point to make is that any hope to escape from the atrocities of war and genocide springs from the autonomization of the collective worker from capitalism. Identifying with “our own” capital in war against another does the opposite: it ties us to the interests of our oppressors. That’s why those who refused to support the war like the IWW were so brutally persecuted.
The war was not about competing ideologies. We have often stated that capitalism was driven to it by its own crisis. With respect to World War 2, that is quite clear, but the case has to be made in a much more detailed way to be convincing, because the narrative of this war as being a war between fascism and democracy is deeply imprinted on people’s minds, and the relation between the economy and war is usually treated superficially, even by those who consider themselves Marxists. We need to show concretely that the war was not caused by fascism, but rather the inverse, that fascism was facilitated by capitalism’s drive to war, as was Stalinism and nationalism everywhere. For all war-participants, the war was also a means to tie the wage slaves to capital.
The winners wrote history, so everybody knows that what the Nazis did was monstrous (and it was indeed) and that the atrocities committed by the winners were done for a good cause. GS does not say this. But his claim that one can condemn the atrocities committed by one’s “own side” and at the same time support its general war-effort, reflects the same utopian belief in “capitalism with a human face” that Marx criticized when he wrote: “What divides these gentlemen from the bourgeois apologist is, on the one side, their sensibility to the contradictions of the system; on the other, the utopian inability to grasp the necessary difference between the real and the ideal form of bourgeois society, which is the cause of their desire to undertake the superfluous business of realizing the ideal expression again”.
GS would object that his goal is not “an ideal form of bourgeois society” but revolutionary socialism. What does this mean for him? He writes: “The point of socialism, as I understand it, is to extend democratic principle and practice to the sphere of production. That may mean workers’ councils, worker and community co-ownership of enterprises, equal stakeholder representation on enterprise governing boards, industry-wide coordinating groups strictly accountable to individual workplaces, or other democratic forms.”
Mac Intosh doesn’t directly address this, but it’s really the foundation of GS’s position. Revolution equals the establishment of “real” democracy’, in all spheres of life. This is a view which is widely popular in anti-capitalist expressions such as Occupy and Nuits Debout.
But it addresses only the form. The world will still be an economy of enterprises, but now they will be owned by the workers or “the community,” and their governing boards will have “equal stakeholder representation”. GS assumes that once the democratic principle is applied in the sphere of production, socialism follows automatically. But that’s wrong. Once again, the dynamic is going the other way: when proletarians begin to refuse to produce value, non-hierarchical relations flourish, new forms of organization are developed, and the base of the existing organizations starts to crumble. It’s true that form and content impact each other dialectically, but a merely formal change, an extension of the democratic principle to production, is something that capital (the value-system, not necessarily the capitalists now in power) can absorb.
It can absorb it because capitalism and democracy are isomorphic, as Mac Intosh stated in this debate. GS didn’t like the word and I agree it shouldn’t be used without explaining its meaning. The way I understand it, is that they are not contradictory but rather similar, that they are both in form and content reflections of the value-system that created them. Democracy is the most efficient form of capitalist rule, though not in all circumstances. Obviously, that requires much elaboration, which is, something we in Internationalist Perspective are currently working on. We hope to publish a text on this in the near future.
But if you believe like GS that socialism equals the extension of democracy, then all his other positions make sense. Then anything that favors democracy is a step forward. Then in any war, in any election, there is a side to support, since there is always a side which is worse (less democratic) than the other.
The point pro-revolutionaries need to make, with respect to wars as well as elections, is that they are part and parcel of the functioning of capitalism and never a means for fundamental change or to avoid the catastrophes we’re hurtling towards. We struggle not against a specific government, nor for or against a particular country, but against the system that produces these wars and catastrophes, and which dehumanizes us by forcing us to be commodities in competition with other commodities.
Only once did I go into a voting booth. I was living in a country where voting is supposedly obligatory. I wrote on the ballot:
“No ox choses his own butcher
No donkey choses his own boss
People do both.
Alas! Is that not stupid?”
In my native language, it rhymes. It was written by a metal worker who was in the same libertarian-communist group as was I.
Still, for the donkey, it might make a difference who the boss is. One is probably more loathsome and brutal than another. We don’t claim that there are no differences between warring parties or between political parties and candidates. We’re not saying that they’re mere automatons in everything they do. But with respect to the fundamentals, they are: their actions are defined by the needs of capital, they’re all obligated to pursue its accumulation. But on secondary matters which may still make a huge difference for many people, they may differ. If there is, for instance, an election between a candidate who favors discrimination (against women, gays or immigrants) and one who opposes this, it seems quite reasonable to hope the former will lose and to vote against him or her.
We do not participate in elections, we don’t try to drum up votes for the no-vote party. What counts, is not whether the donkey votes or not, what counts is that he realizes that every boss is a boss, the seemingly more humane and rational one as well as the crazy scumbag, and as such, they will both execute what the boss-system demands, which, in our context, means they both will serve the same goal, the accumulation of the national capital, even though they may propose strategies that are quite different (especially rhetorically). Whoever you vote for, you vote for capitalism. That’s what those who say that if you didn’t vote, you can’t complain about what the government is doing or oppose it, don’t understand.
Democracy can never lead society outside capitalism, and thus cannot prevent the catastrophes it causes, because it is an integral part of capitalism. As stated earlier, that is a position we must flesh out. And that also entails that the contrast must be drawn between democracy and the social relations and organizational forms that emerge and develop together with the struggle against capital, and that would flourish once the value-form is overcome. I’m not saying we should engage in political sci fi, but since the strength of democracy is based on the belief that there can only be democracy or dictatorship (or something in between), when we state that they’re different heads of the same dragon, that they’re essentially the same, we have to show that there is something beyond this dichotomy, that there is another way of organizing human life, and that it is not a mere idea but a material force.
Werner Bonefeld has pointed out that capitalism is a symbiotic system in which capitalists and workers depend on each other, and that from this relation, capital cannot autonomize itself (no matter how much it wants to, it remains dependent on the exploitation of labor) while the proletariat can. There’s no certainty that it will, but it can. In that sense, I disagree with Michael Heinrich when he criticizes the view that the working class “on the basis of its particular position in bourgeois society, possesses a special ability to see through social relationships,” even though he’s right that “just like the capitalists, workers are subject to the delusions of the commodity fetish.”
The potential and tendential autonomization of the proletariat or collective worker is really the key issue of our times, the only thing that can prevent the accumulating catastrophes capitalism causes. If that potential would not exist, if the working class is no better positioned than the capitalists to see through social relationships as Heinrich suggests, then there is no hope. It is based on this criterion that we must look at (and look away from) elections, knowing that someone who votes doesn’t necessarily express confidence in the system and that someone who doesn’t, doesn’t necessarily express something else than indifference.
 Marx,‘Grundrisse’ p. 248-249 (Penguin ed)
 Michael Heinrich: An introduction to the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, p.79 (Monthly Review ed.)