Can A Shared Ideology Unite Leftist Activists? (A Guest Post By Lambert Meertens,Computer Scientist and Professor,Netherlands,IOPS)


 Drastic change is needed now. Millions upon millions of people are denied a decent life. Our environment is being ravaged in the name of profit for a few. Natural resources are being wasted and exhausted. The emission of greenhouse gases is accelerating and seems unstoppable. Governments everywhere are increasing the surveillance of their citizens and other means of controlling the population. Many problems facing humanity are urgent and must be addressed, requiring concerted action at all scales, from local to global.

If we all keep waiting, this is not going to happen. Not now, and not ever. And what are we waiting for? As civil-rights activist John Lewis, one of the original thirteen “Freedom Riders” who fought to end racial segregation in public transportation in the Southern US said in May 1961: If not us, then who? If not now, then when?  What he and the other Freedom Riders wanted to achieve seemed an impossible dream at the time. But in the end, they succeeded. What we hope to achieve may seem even more impossible. But we believe that in the end we will get there. And if not, we will at least have tried.

We do not want to wait. We have a vision of a world in which everyone, young and old, men and women, majority and minority, can contribute to and enjoy the fruits of a just and peaceful society, a society that respects human rights and that values education, science and culture. We want to start realizing our vision now. But that is only possible if enough people join forces to realize it. We believe that everyone who agrees with the vision of an equitable and sustainable world can contribute to make this vision come true.

Activism is globally on the rise. Within a short time we saw the emergence of movements for democracy in China and against corruption in India. We experienced the dawn of the Occupy movement in the United States and the Idle No More movement in Canada. We witnessed the formation of the Indignados (15-M) in Spain as well as the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. And there are countless other examples around the world – all unplanned and without leaders in any traditional sense, bearing witness to people’s desire to have control over their own lives.

The new movements have inspired people all over the world, giving a sense that change is possible, but they have remained relatively isolated and their aspiration to change the world for the better has not yet found an organizational form that allows for long-term sustained and effectively coordinated efforts. The traditional left has mainly ignored these developments, unable to interpret them in their established ideological frameworks and to adapt to a new spirit of people who do not seek to be led but who want to be free to decide for themselves.

Capitalism, socialism and anarchism

These developments should be seen in an historical context, starting with the rise of the workers’ movement in the 19th century in response to the worsening conditions created by the advance of profit-driven capitalism in the wake of the first industrial revolution. This period sees the birth of socialism and anarchism, two traditions in the workers’ movement that seek the emancipation of the worker by overthrowing the ruling class and abolishing all class distinctions.

The primary aim of the socialists was social justice. They wanted an economic system that fairly catered for the needs of all and did not favour a small, powerful elite. This would require abolishing private ownership of the means of production. Anarchists emphasized freedom from coercion by a ruling class – the word ‘anarchism’ comes from Greek ‘an-’ + ‘archos’, meaning ‘without ruler’. But apart from the different emphasis, their demands for social justice and freedom were pretty much the same. A major difference between 19th-century mainstream socialism and anarchism was that socialists sought (and largely still seek) to use the State as an instrument for the emancipation of the worker, whereas anarchists saw (and still see) the State as being a necessarily oppressive institution, not only used now by the ruling class as an instrument to retain its power but also bound to create a new ruling class and new oppressive relations if not abolished in a revolution. The devolution of the USSR after the seizure of state power by the Bolshevik party in the October revolution of 1917, from what was supposed to become a worker state into a brutally oppressive form of state-run capitalism serving the interests of a small power elite, shows that that is not a merely theoretical danger.

Communism : Power To The People

In the early days of the workers’ movement, the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were synonyms.
Only after the founding of the USSR did the term ‘communism’ get its present connotation of orientation on the policies of the Communist Party of the USSR, the continuation of the Bolshevists that grabbed power in 1917. In many countries, factions split off from the socialist parties that payed allegiance to Moscow and styled themselves ‘Communist Party’, while the mainstream of the socialist movement lost its revolutionary perspective and focused on improvements of worker conditions by reforms that do not challenge the nature or logic of capitalism. In the present, the term ‘socialism’ is now often used to refer to social democracy. Neither of these present-day common uses of ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ bear much resemblance to the meaning of these terms during the time of Karl Marx. Some movements and parties still use these words though in pretty much their original sense.

In his analysis of capitalism, Marx thought that capitalism would dig its own grave, producing crisis after crisis and eventually and unavoidably collapsing under its own contradictions. He saw a proletarian revolution as inevitable. But as we know now, the State uses its power to intervene continually to protect capitalism and save it from going under. The notion of a “free” market is an illusion, as is most evident when the market collapses again in yet another crisis. Then the idea that the market is supposed to be free is suddenly abandoned and instead the State bails out the capital owners at the expense of the tax payers. Rather than risking an uprising, the ruling elites of many countries have granted several State-enforced reforms that alleviated the worst effects of worker exploitation, such as a prohibition on child labour, a limit on a worker’s working hours, and minimum wages.

After World War II

It took a World War to restart the economy after the Great Depression that had started in 1930. More than before, the Western capital world took on the nature of an Empire after the war, with the United States in a hegemonic role and the West-European states as vassals. The war had weakened the grip on the colonies in Africa and Asia, allowing independence movements to gain massive support, and the so-called decolonization of the Third World accelerated. In many newly independent countries popular movements and democratically elected leaders strove to end the exploitation of the workers and the appropriation of natural resources by mostly American-owned corporations, but almost everywhere the Empire intervened, cynically invoking the need to protect freedom while suppressing these movements, killing their leaders and substituting brutal dictators who could only remain in power by continued Western support.

Socialism : The Radical Idea Of Sharing

In the course of the 20th century the developed countries extended universal suffrage to men and women alike, a process that was only completed well after World War II. Rather than suppressing demands for more rights by force, they were given a legitimized and controllable outlet through the medium of political parties and parliamentary representation. Instead of threatening the established order, this actually strengthened it. The formerly revolutionary parties became entrenched and encapsulated in the system.
In the general population the view took hold that the only legitimate way to demand social justice, or even moderate changes in general, was through elected representatives. Protests outside that system were depicted by mainstream politicians and media alike as undemocratic and unrealistic, but as long as they were not gaining much strength they were mostly left alone in what Marcuse called “repressive tolerance”. A general view took hold that capitalism combined with the parliamentary system was the best of all possible worlds. There were of course always many people questioning this and pointing out the evident and gross problems with the system, but they were mostly depicted in the media as being unreasonable and either extremists or lunatics.

The counterculture of the 1960s

In the sixties of the 20th century, a youth movement originated in the United States, which became global in the mid-sixties. While variegated, it had strong countercultural elements, rejecting the materialist economic orientation and complacent submission to unearned authority of an older generation. The “flower children”, as hippies embracing the concept of “flower power” (passive resistance) styled themselves, were averse to involvement in politics, but others joined the civil rights movement and opposed the US military intervention in Vietnam. The student revolt of May 1968 in Paris resonated among students and other young people elsewhere.

Unlike the earlier revolutionary workers’ movement, which had been dominated by the issue of economic justice and depended on strong leaders, the new countercultural movement took on many issues: civil rights, women’s rights, sexual liberation, ecology, anti-militarism and anti-authoritarianism. None of these issues were new, of course; what was new was that so many were engaged with all these issues. The movement was revolutionary in the sense that it refused to respect the confines imposed by the political system. Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible (“Be realistic, ask the impossible”) was one of the slogans of May 1968 in Paris.

In the United States the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) movement represented the most politically oriented and engaged part of the youth movement. Explicitly anti-capitalist, the SDS demanded democratization of the system of production, but was also oriented towards a broad spectrum of issues, including racial equality and international peace and justice. Its platform is described in the 1962 Port Huron Statement. Unlike the typical political manifesto of revolutionary left-wing groups, the Port Huron Statement “connected the dots” and analyzed the multifarious “single issues” as being manifestations of a common underlying cause. It advocated the establishment of a participatory democracy for the political and economic spheres while espousing nonviolence in the struggle for change.

Although the SDS broke up in 1969 (the present-day SDS represents an attempt to revive it), its ideas and values have continued to inform and inspire many students and other activists aspiring to a better world and remain influential to this day.

One of the characteristics of the system of repressive tolerance is that it allows people to protest, but insists that they formulate “realistic demands”. If the protest movement gives in to that requirement, these demands are like an opening bid in a negotiating process with the powers that be. But these are negotiations between parties with very unequal power: the authorities have behind them the full potential violence of the state apparatus – riot police, and if that is not enough military forces. The final bid will be described as the ultimate compromise, but leaves their power intact.

Where we are today

Many activists are involved in issue-based movements that present compelling and justified demands. However, in a system of repressive tolerance, formulating demands will not bring us much further, unless we “ask the impossible”. That is, we should not only criticize what is wrong, but address the underlying cause – an unjust system from which a privileged small group profits at the expense of many. If we believe that “another world is possible” – the slogan of the World Social Forum – we also need a unifying vision of that other world.

From Left To Right : Symbols signifying Anarchism, Anarcho-Communism,Anarcho-Syndicalism and Utopian Socialism

A key question is how to unite all the movements and organizations whose core ideals are in basic alignment, putting aside the differences, in order to effect lasting change beyond what each group can achieve by itself.

This need not mean that each group must give up its identity. But it does require some flexibility. Sometimes I wonder how much of the fragmentation of the left is due to genuine and irreconcilable differences, and how much can be traced back to a clash of personalities. If we take the vision seriously that the world we are aiming for is formed by a collection of freely associating communities, each of which is self-managing and can freely choose its own rules and institutions, we can discuss possible choices with their advantages and disadvantages, but we cannot already now make a choice for them and prescribe it. Some of the traditional divisions are about the “right” way to organize future society, but the notion that we can prescribe this now is pointless and harmful. New rules and institutions will be needed, but they will derive their legitimacy from the fact that the people bound by them have themselves made the choice.

More difficult to overcome are differences that result from different insights in the strategy to be followed. But, obviously, no organization or movement has yet been particularly successful in finding a winning strategy – or else the revolution would already have succeeded a long time ago. This ought to be a somewhat sobering thought for the revolutionary groups that believe they are in the possession of the one and only correct strategy – a bit of humility wouldn’t hurt in this respect.

One thing is certain. Without mass participation, there can be no successful revolution. There can be a coup in some places, where one group of people who hold the power is replaced by another group. But that cannot be our goal, and a strategy that stands in the way of mass participation is therefore bound to fail.

If there is an ideology that can bind us together, with all our differences, it is this: the vision of a world in which every person counts, in which no one is considered insignificant and everyone has the opportunity to have their say and to contribute their share, and the conviction that if we work shoulder to shoulder we can make this vision come true.

IOPS, the International Organization for a Participatory Society, has been set up to offer a home that can bring all people together who share this vision and this conviction. Whether it can succeed in this mission is really up to all the people who could profit from this. If they keep standing outside, waiting for IOPS to “take off”, the project will surely fail. But if enough people come aboard who are willing to work on turning this into a success story, then succeed it will.


About The Author - Lambert Guillaume Louis Théodore Meertens (born 1944) is a Dutch computer scientist and professor.

While still a student at the Ignatius Gymnasium in Amsterdam, Meertens designed a computer, together with his classmate Kees Koster.

In the 1960s, Meertens applied affix grammars to the description and composition of music, and obtained a special prize from the jury at the 1968 IFIP Congress in Edinburgh for his computer-generated string quartet, "Quartet No. 1 in C Major for 2 Violins, Viola and Violoncello" based on the first non-context-free affix grammar.The string quartet was published as Mathematical Centre Report MR 96 in 1968.

Meertens was one of the editors of the Revised ALGOL 68 Report. He was the originator and one of the designers of the ABC programming language. He was chairman of the Dutch Pacifist Socialist Party (PSP) from 1975 until 1981. He was co-designer of the Bird-Meertens formalism. He was chair of IFIP Working Group 2.1 on Algorithmic Languages and Calculi from 1999 to 2009.

His original work was at the Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica (CWI) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands (originally called the Mathematical Centre). He was later researcher at the Kestrel Institute in Palo Alto, United States. He is Professor Emeritus at Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Meertens has an Erdős number of 3.

The Meertens number is named after him.He has been awarded the IFIP Core Award in 2007.
You can refer to the Wikipedia Page on Lambert Meertens here.
You can visit his IOPS profile here.

Refer to the post I have written on IOPS (International Organisation For A Participatory Society here.)

Disclaimer : The article has been completely written by renowned computer Scientist and former chairman of the Dutch Socialist Party Lambert Meertens and is thus,subject to Copyright.I have full permission from the author to publish his works on my blog.

The photographs added are from miscellaneous sources.

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