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Capital-in-Crisis, Trade Unionism and the Question of Revolutionary Agency

Shaun May

The entry of the capital relation into its epoch of structural crisis forms the basis for the development of the author’s conception of revolutionary agency. Drawing on the work and achievements of both Marx and Hungarian socialist thinker István Mészáros, May relates the emergence and deepening of the structural crisis to the decline of trade unionism as the traditional and universal form of organization deployed economistically by workers against capital. In the relationship between the «defensively-structured», universal, trade union form and the growing contradictions of the global capitalist system, May seeks to unearth the possibility of a higher form of agency which is more adequately adapted to address the immediate and long-term objectives facing millions of people today worldwide in the age of capital’s «destructive self-reproduction». Looking back in order to look forward, he also subjects the form of agency within the Russian Revolution to a critique which relates it directly to the conditions prevailing in Russia at the time. In so doing, he questions its supposed validity as a form of revolutionary agency for the struggle to put an end to the global capitalist system today.

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Chapter 1. Introduction: ‘Practical Critical Activity’ and the Conception of Revolutionary Agency


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Introduction: ‘Practical Critical Activity’ and the Conception of Revolutionary Agency

‘The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth – i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question’.1

We commence with the second of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach because an understanding of it here vitally informs the approach to the historically precedent question today for the survival of humankind: the question of revolutionary agency. The primary historical, and therefore theoretical, ground of this question is capital-in-crisis – what Mészáros refers to as the ‘structural crisis of capital’2 – and the relationship of the currently prevailing stage of political organization of the proletariat to this deepening crisis. Most students of Marx would readily concede the second thesis here on a formal theoretical level. They acknowledge its truth formally. However, and this is absolutely fundamental to the question of agency, it is quite a different matter to integrate Marx’s incredibly profound thought here into a method of approach in the theoretical development of their work on revolutionary agency.

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