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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 15. A Critique of ‘Vanguardism’ and the ‘Party-Form’


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A Critique of ‘Vanguardism’ and the ‘Party-Form’

The formulation today that ‘the revolution’ cannot be ‘made’ without ‘the revolutionary vanguard’ is not valid globally and never was sustainable in the more advanced capitalist countries in the twentieth century. Under the evolving global, structural crisis-conditions of capital’s rule today, the outmodedness of trade unionism as a form of proletarian organization brings in its wake – with the necessity and inevitability of the operation of a natural law – the crisis, implosion and dissolution of the left-wing sectarian, vanguardist groups. The historic impasse reached by trade unionism under conditions of capital’s deepening structural crisis – and the resulting outmodedness – means the ‘end of the road’ for the assorted vanguardist groups. Moreover, it raises the question of the sustainability of the ‘Party-form’ in general as a form of agency for the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle against the capital order. The ‘party-form’ is understood here as an explicitly, exclusively and wholly political organization which is not fully and organically integrated with the socio-economically restructuring functions of agency. ‘Party’ as a separate political body from these restructuring functions of agency and, in the dialectical sense of the word, is ‘external’ to these same functions.

Lenin and Trotsky did the proletariat in the more advanced capitalist countries the greatest disservice when they insisted on the ‘democratic centralist party-form’ (at the founding conferences of the Third International) as the historically necessary form for the organization of the revolutionary agency...

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