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Our zeitgeist: putting aside our differences to make a difference

Salman Shaheen


overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicerFive years after embarking into a brave new millennium, twenty years after my birth, the miners’ strike, and the year that George Orwell indelibly etched into our minds as the symbol of a nightmare totalitarian society; and what portrait can we paint today? What threads are woven into the intricate tapestry of our world? What is our zeitgeist? There’s an empty space where two buildings once stood in New York, a war rages without end, our civil liberties are under attack, the spectre of Nazism raises its ugly head, the developing world is being bled dry for corporate profit, our environment is being choked to death and global capital marches ever onwards, trampling all those who stand in its path.

If Orwell had named his book ‘Two Thousand and Five’ people may well have written it off as pure fiction. But this is not fiction, this is our reality. And what are we to do? Turn a blind eye? Forty thousand people in Seattle, three hundred thousand in Genoa, two million in London and one naïve student in Cambridge with too much time on his hands and in need of a hair cut say otherwise! There is a yearning to make a difference. The world over people are speaking out. But our voices are being ignored. This is, of course, to be expected. After all, in their seats of power, miles from the barricades, why should the faceless lords of capitalism listen to us? And if we want to make a difference we must unseat them. But how can we do this when our voices are not a harmonious symphony, but a disjointed cacophony?

The Problem

As we stand, we are but voices on the wind, competing with each other to shout each other down. The result is that none of us can be heard. So much of our energy is expended fighting one another that we forget about the real problem. Every party, every grouping, every ideology, professes to hold all the answers. Whilst the SWP are packing meetings to make themselves the vanguard of the masses, the rest of the socialist left are throwing more vitriol at them than the capitalists, whilst the anarchists would probably much rather mix a refreshing Molotov cocktail for the whole bloody lot of them!

The promise of unity in the aftermath of the greatest mass movement of our age, the anti-war movement, is slipping us by. Whilst most of the left is quite content to work together on single-issue campaigns, presenting a united front against the evils of capitalism seems to be nigh on impossible. The words of unity, solidarity and cooperation are on the tips of everyone’s tongues. But when it comes to turning words into practical action everyone is muted. The socialist left, following the death of the Socialist Alliance, remains more divided than ever, SchNews are at the SWP’s throats over the ESF, and the SWP continue their divisive and domineering policies within Respect. All the while George Bush is planning another war and McDonalds are considering setting up shop in Iraq!

If we want to make a difference, we must unite! This may seem a mammoth task, but it is the only way we can hope to make a stand, the only way that we can bring our movement forward, the only way that we can all realise out collective goals. The Socialist Unity Network, of which I am an enthusiastic member, is working hard amongst the socialist left to encourage cooperation and not competition, whilst for the anarchists, SchNews continues to provide an excellent resource for networking and support. But we must go even further, as a collective movement. The only way we can walk the path to reform or revolution is by walking hand in hand.

I remember, one rainy day in Bristol whilst fundraising for Amnesty International, I met a group of anarchist anti-war activists holding a vigil. I pledged my support, gave them a donation, and asked if they would like to join Amnesty. They laughed at me. The trouble is not a few anarchists who do not want to be part of any organisational structure, but with the idea amongst many leftist groupings, that their ideology alone is the correct one. So whilst all agree that we must topple the bourgeois state, there is very little agreement over what should come next. Cyderdelic’s irreverent take on this was the slogan “Overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer!” I think this sums up perfectly the left’s failings to agree.

The Idea

I do not believe that any one ideology holds all the answers, neither for a better society, nor for practical measures to make the change. This is why we must work together. And so I propose, not a manifesto, but an idea. An idea for collective action. An idea for revolution. An idea for the destruction of capitalism. An idea for unity!

Firstly we must recognise our shortcomings. Alone, divided by sectarianism and competing ideologies, and spending much of our time attacking one another, we can never hope to overthrow capitalism. There are no two ways about it. Working together is the only way that we can achieve this goal. I think everyone can recognise this. What we must look to is how we can practically work together. We must go beyond single issue campaigns. Marching down a street together, even in our millions, is not enough. We must unite on every level. We all know the problems, together we must provide the solution.

We must unite in action. Selling a paper every Saturday and building branch meetings may spread ideas, but it will not create a revolution tomorrow. Nor will removing oneself from the wider movement and chaining oneself to fences at Trident nuclear facilities, no matter how great a statement this may make. We have come a long way together in building for mass demonstrations. But when the sun sets and we return to our homes, where next? We must build this movement together, and support each other, whether anarchist, socialist, environmentalist, pacifist or any other ideological group opposed to capitalism. This, I think, involves working together for collective action.

Socialist parties have traditionally been very organised in their structures, in planning meetings, in building forums and organising demonstrations, whilst a lot can be said for the statements made by direct action anarchist and environmentalist groups. To build for revolution we must look to forms of direct action, as well as the spread of ideas. Not isolated forms of direct action simply geared to make a statement, but mass direct action, involving all sections of our movement, to entirely shut down the workings of the system we oppose. There is a lot we can learn from one another in our approaches to action, and we must combine our efforts, to build massive campaigns, where the prevalent spirit is not the domination of one group over all others, but of co-operation and solidarity in all our work, nationally and internationally. Through mass demonstrations, social forums, the spreading of ideas, and collective, large scale, direct action and civil disobedience we can practically and constructively work together for change.

These ideas are far from new, and to some extent, they have been put into action in the past. However much of these actions have revolved around single issue campaigns over which we can unite. What we must do is transfer this unity into the whole anti-capitalist movement. We are not a homogenous group, nor should we be, but this should not prevent us working closely together in every single aspect of the fight against capitalism and focussing our energies entirely towards these ends.

One of the greatest road blocks standing in the way of this kind of unity in action and in the spreading of ideas is the fact that different ideologies within the anti-capitalist movement have different ideas on what should come after. This should not hold us back from working together. We should unite around the eighty percent that we share in common, and put our differences aside. No one ideology holds ultimate truth in its hands. As such, through working together in action, we can share ideas within the movement. Whilst the central goal of collective action is opposition to capitalism, in our unity in action we can form new ideas and alternatives within a secular, democratic movement.

For example, the end result of Marxist ideology, in theory, is anarchy. That is not to say that Marx was right to assume that the process of creating a planned economy and common ownership of the means of production will automatically be a stateless society. But it does provide a perfect example of how two different ideological traditions can work together to achieve the same ends, and through doing so learn much from one another. We no longer need to march under the banners of  “Overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer.” Instead we can come up with an alternative, together, within one movement.

Our Zeitgeist

Capitalism has a limited shelf life. It has not always been, and will not always be. Fukuyama’s argument that we have reached the end of history, I believe, is wrong. Marx may have underestimated the ability of capitalism to adapt, and the tenacity with which those at its head cling to power, but the world is always changing. The dominant ideology of the time need not be so forever. Capitalism will, I think, come into crisis. The growing gulf between rich and poor globally, perpetual war between nuclear states and terrorist groups, the growing threats of ecological catastrophe, and the ever looming prospect that oil reserves are soon to run out, all present problems for the system in the long term. If it does not adapt it will come into crisis. And whether through reform, or revolution, we must be there, united, in its time of crisis to help to shape a future society for the good of all mankind. If we fail in this task it may not just be the destruction of capitalism that we are faced with, but the extinction of the human race entirely.

So is the spirit of our age to be war, racism, poverty, environmental destruction, Big Brother states and global capitalism? Or is it to be a mass movement of socialists, anarchists, environmentalists, pacifists and anti-capitalists of all walks of life, united in exorcising this bleak outlook, united in action, working together to create new ideas and new alternatives: united in the destruction of capitalism and in replacing it with something a whole lot nicer! Perhaps these are just the ideas of one naïve student with too much time on his hands and in need of a hair cut. Or perhaps we can put aside our differences to make a difference. Perhaps this can be our zeitgeist.


March 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism