Future Left

Phil Hearse reviews Beyond Capitalism? by Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy (Zero Books 2012)

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There could hardly be a more timely book for the socialist left, facing in most countries a dual crisis. On the one hand since 2008 the working class has faced a brutal austerity offensive which has not been thrown back. On the other, partially as a result of the austerity offensive and working class defeats, the socialist left has suffered a series of political defeats which have seen organisations in several countries decay, split or go into crisis. Closely connected with the far left crisis is the fate of the global justice, ‘anti-capitalist’, movement which announced itself spectacularly at the November 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle.

When I heard about the Seattle demonstrations I rashly predicted “Now the American left is going to grow spectacularly”.  At a big London conference the next year a speaker from Global Exchange in the US said to huge enthusiasm from the audience “We’re winning”. In July 2001 the huge demonstrations at the Genoa G8 summit were politically dominated by Italian Communist Refoundation with a significant input from the Fourth International – Fausto Bertinotti and Olivier Besancenot were the key speakers at the main rally. The global justice movement was on the offensive and the militant left seemed to have a significant role in it.

Twelve years on the situation seems very different, despite the Occupy movement and despite the Arab Spring. Obviously the main objective factors that changed were the post-9/11 situation which enabled the huge new military-political offensive of American imperialism and its allies; and the financial collapse of 2008 and the utterly ruthless offensive against working class living standards that followed.

For Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy, two young militants of the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, the thing to be explained is this:

“The capitalist crisis poses profound questions about the future of left wing politics because of its sheer depth and severity…After all, in these conditions radical political ideas should be striking a major chord amongst millions of workers. If they are not we have to look hard at ourselves.” (1)

Part of the problem, obviously is the relative weakness of anti-capitalist ideas in most parts of the world:

“In most countries in the world not only is acceptance of capitalism fundamental to the assumptions of the major political parties, but a specific variant of neoliberal ideology has come to be seen as the exclusive road down which politics must travel.” (2)

Contemporary mass movement

This reflects itself in the weakness of anti-capitalist mass consciousness. But more than this, there seems like a perennial problem in the existing revolutionary left linking up with major movements of resistance and in particular with the young rebels who emerged in the global justice movement, going through the anti-war movement, the various Social Forums and into such contemporary mass movement as the Indignados and Occupy!

That doesn’t mean, they point out, that militant leftists don’t play leading roles in the movements and protests, indeed they do especially in labour movement based campaigns, but their leading roles are often quite separate from their identity as political militants. This problem seems particularly obvious during the anti-war movement of 2002-3, when in Britain the Socialist Workers Party led a coalition which mobilised two million on the streets but failed to grow at all. By contrast the Vietnam movement in the late 1960s, much smaller in numbers, saw every left organisation grow.

Luke and Simon explain that thy were themselves radicalised during the upsurge of the anti-capitalist movement, and the failure to effect a junction between the existing revolutionary left and the anti-capitalist movement is a theme to which they continually return. Their argument on this is quite nuanced but it is the pivot on which much of their basic position relies. Briefly summed up it goes like this:

  1. Resistance movements are themselves pressured by ‘capitalist realism’ and “still largely remain within the assumptions of liberal democratic ideology” (3).
  2. The way that this is expressed among many youthful protestors is a disastrous rejection of ‘politics’.
  3. BUT the strength of these movements has been their democratic and participatory ethos and practice, their rejection of rigid hierarchies and bureaucratic procedures and their capacity for rapid initiative from below – in other words the things that precisely differentiate them from much of the existing revolutionary left.
  4. By contrast, the existing revolutionary left is dogmatic, wedded to routinist, uninspiring and non-participatory events, and above all cleaves to a form of ‘democratic centralism’ that is top heavy and (at the very least) outdated.

They say:

“The positive side of the current political conjuncture is that it exposes the limitations in the political practices and philosophy of the organised left and the libertarian activist milieu simultaneously. A growing number of activists, who might be labeled ‘libertarians’ or ‘Trots’, depending which side of the divide you are on, are starting to question the limitations of their preferred form of organisation. If activists from the libertarian left are starting to see the social power of organised working class action is crucial to the resistance to austerity, then new organisational forms can also start to overcome other differences. For the ‘old left’ far less dogmatism in their organisational and ideological assumptions coupled with genuine attempts to build organic unity among socialists would go a long way to reach a situation where we no longer  ‘old and ‘new’ as dichotomies.” (4)

The authors then temper this with an insistence that this does not mean an attempt at eclectically muddling irreconcilable positions and quite rightly they take aim at people who dodge the question of government and political power with the pipe dream “that we can create a prefigurative space within capital that has a liberating function somehow outside the power relations of the system”(5).

Zinoviev’s legacy

Now we come to the $64,000 question, or rather series of $64,000 questions for the existing far left. Is it really true that the style, practices and hierarchies of the existing ‘Leninist’ organisations repel young rebels and indeed militants in the workers and other movements? Of course not all these organisations are the same, but in Britain the major far left organisations (the SWP and SP) have a hierarchical conception of Leninism that has been pressurised by Stalinism and is at least ‘Zinovievist’ – having features of the top-down version of Leninism imposed on the Comintern by Zinoviev in the early 1920s. The trade union movement and campaign organisations are littered with ex-members of the different  far left organisations whose basic politics hasn’t changed but whose ability to cope with this version of ‘the party’ has. Typically these organisations express extreme factional hostility to members of other organisations, have a highly manipulative attitude to the movements in which they participate, severely limit rights of internal discussion not minutely led from above, operate a more-or-less complete ban on public discussion of differences and have leaderships that preserve enormous privileges of private discussion and self-renewal by proposing themselves on the leadership slate.

In the Zinovievist sects there is a tremendous pressure towards conformity and obedience, and a huge price to be paid for dissidence, even on quite secondary questions. For Luke Cooper and Simon Hardy this cuts against the spirit of the times, which is towards greater personal freedom.

I think there’s a good deal of truth in that and young people naturally bristle against artificially imposed authority. On the other hand the zeitgeist of the times is not just the desire for individual freedom but a spirit of individualism promoted by neoliberalism. Rejection of all forms of collectivism, majority votes and disciplined action will disable any form of politics. And of course there are still plenty of radical intellectuals who don’t want to be beholden to anyone or anything, least of all a political organisation.

One other caveat here is that all the organisations that referred to the tradition of Trotsky and the Left Opposition cannot be tarred with the same brush. In particular there are many sections of the Fourth International (FI) who wouldn’t recognise this picture at all and the FI’s tradition is generally one of valuing differences and debate  – and often expressing these in public. But it has to be said that some of the more restrictive ‘norms’ of ersatz Leninism have their origin in the US Socialist Workers Party, a long-time key component of the Fourth International,  under James P. Cannon, codified in a document published in 1965 but stretching way back before that (6).

Rebels, socialists, revolutionaries are bound to make plenty of enemies. It is not to the discredit of the existing far left organisations that right-wingers hate them; on the other hand the snarling factionalism of the ‘combat party’ automatically creates disabling and usually  pointless disunity. ‘Everybody hates us, we don’t care!’ may suffice for Millwall football fans, but should not be a guiding principle for a revolutionary organisation.

Now what?

So what is to be done? The authors have a wide-ranging discussion of the experience of the left, particularly in Europe, in the last decade which ranges over the question of politics and the movements, as well as the experience of trying to form new left parties – experiences that have been extremely diverse. In making proposals for the future inevitably there are as many questions as precise answers. The framework however is perhaps contained in their assessment of the experience of the ‘Social Forum’ movement, perhaps the main institutional expression of the global justice movement:

“The post-1999 social movements have shown that potentially millions can be thrown into struggle and resistance to capitalism and for a fundamental social change. But for all the ideological impetus that drove many of these movements, they also paradoxically gave expression to the post-political logic that engulfed the world after 1989, because the social forums were consciously limited to the task of aggregating together diverse campaigns in a manner that retained their social movement as opposed to political movement character. It was not that the forums weren’t highly political – they were. These events bore witness to a vast outpouring of discussion on an array of themes. But they ultimately lacked a strategic perspective for social transformation; a strategy to move from protest to a real challenge for power. And it is the latter that would have necessitated a discussion around new political formations as part of a process of attempting to cohere together what Marxists have traditionally referred to as an ‘international – ie a global political party that seeks to overcome national antagonisms and move towards the transcendence of capital. ” (7)

In the section ‘Drawing Conclusions’ the authors note that the situation is becoming more conducive to overcoming ‘capitalist realism’ – the idea that there is no alternative. While expressing caution towards Paul Mason’s idea that “the age of capitalist realism is over” (8) they argue that the common idea of a decade ago that the market, democracy and modernity go together is taking a severe battering. Rampant corruption and declining living standards are going hand in hand swingeing attacks on democracy. How can the left take advantage of this situation? Simply summed up, Luke and Simon suggest:

  • The crisis of the left is still the crisis of the sect
  • This fuels a drive towards new political formations
  • New programmatic definitions will gradually over time through practice
  • A pluralistic Marxism is needed
  • The left needs to reclaim the idea of democracy
  • Electoral and trade activity needs to be linked with grassroots activity ‘from below’ and community struggles.

This of course is a huge agenda to be worked out in detail and practice. Of course it is impossible for anyone to suck the solutions to the problems of the left out of their thumbs. These will only emerge over time through struggle. But it is essential to know “where to begin”. The authors identify key problems with eloquence and go a long way to establishing a practical agenda for a refounded Marxist left. I will just stress two final points.

  1. The book is evidently weak on the issues of feminism and the environment but these will be vital in establishing the parameters of a future left.
  2. The whole argument  about unity points in the direction of the creation of a new anti-capitalist party  – and this has to be out front and upfront. There will be those who will want to interpret the critique of sect functioning as being a rejection of the party form tout court, in favour of the endless circular networking of campaigns and initiatives, with no overall political coherence or direction. A long term war of position that can go ‘beyond capitalism’ requires the building of a party that can strike the political blows to the left of Labour that UKIP does to the right of the Tories. Simultaneously it is inevitable that there will be a pressure towards the co-ordination in a more coherent and structured way of a refounded centre of pluralistic Marxism.

It is through these processes that we can build a Future Left in the true spirit of the founder of Marxism:

“Hence, nothing prevents us from making criticism of politics, participation in politics, and therefore real struggles, the starting point of our criticism, and from identifying our criticism with them. In that case we do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” (Marx to Ruge, September 1843).

Notes:

  1. Beyond Capitalism p2
  2. Beyond Capitalism p3
  3. Ibid  p11, see also p99ff
  4. Ibid p96
  5. Ibid p97
  6. See for example  James P. Cannon,  The History of American Trotskyism and The Struggle for  a Proletarian Party.
  7. Op Cit pp140-141
  8. Op Cit p153
 

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3 Comments

  1. jane kelly says:

    An interesting and sympathetic review of a book all involved in wanting to rebuild the left organisations should be reading! But Phil is also right in his noting the weaknesses: “The book is evidently weak on the issues of feminism and the environment but these will be vital in establishing the parameters of a future left.” It was striking for me that groups of young women were at the forefront of the student demos in London, often leading the confrontations against the police. And images of the indignados movements in Spain and elsewhere have also shown large numbers of women leading demos.

  2. Dave K says:

    Luke and Simon’s book is indeed a timely intervention and Phil’s review is correct to emphasise it as a positive contribution. The experience of Italy in recent years highlights one of the points both Phil and the other cdes make. After the collapse of Rifondazione after their disastrous participation in the second Prodi government the revolutionary left were unable to build anything significant out of the ruins. They were then unable to spot what was going on around the rise of the Grillo movement. Thousands of people, particularly the young ‘precariat’ were attracted to Beppe’s demands for the whole political caste to be cleared out, for a citizen’s income, for ecological demands and so on. As pointed out in the review young radicalising people today couch their protest within radical versions of individual freedom and do not automatically identify with the trade unions who remember are usually led by people who have done very little to fight for jobs for them. Hence the combination within the Grillo movement of both radical demands and almost right populist ones at one and the same time. A strong revolutionary able to meet and talk with such radicalising forces might have been able to at least compete for the leaderhip of them. The revolutionary left has been very uneven in using the internet as a political organiser – although today’s experience with the explosive growth of the Ken Loach Left unity appeal shows we can use it well.
    Finally it is good that Simon and Luke challenge those views within the movements that organising to challenge central state power can be skirted around with waffle about pre-figurative forms of socialism.
    Having said that there is an enormous space for the left to challenge capitalist hegemony in the cultural or civic sphere that we are not occupying enough at the moment. That is where initiatives like the Counterfire Firebox are to be welcomed although they will be most effective if they are genuine united labour/social movement run institutions not run by a single group.

  3. Roy Wall says:

    “A pluralistic Marxism is needed”

    Marxism is above all else a method of analysis. But many people call themselves Marxists simply because they IDENTIFY with Marxism whilst having little grasp of it.

    That a new type of Marxism is necessary, we are told, assumes that Marxism has somehow failed. It has only failed in its ability to spread. The so-called Marxist left in Britain is at a woefully-low theoretical level. This is, of course, a particularly British tradition.

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