February 4, 2015

Comments on renewing the left in Britain

Posted in Class Struggle, Crisis, Europe, Greece, Politics, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , , , at 13:08 by Matthijs Krul

Since the electoral success of the left social-democratic Syriza coalition in Greece, and the immediate challenge to austerity and the rule of finance capital in Europe that it represents, many people are understandably keen to consider how this could be repeated in the UK. While it is clear to everyone that Syriza is not presently a revolutionary outfit and not seeking to become one in the short term, it is equally clear that for a sustained left challenge to the politics of the last few decades to emerge from this countermovement requires a deepening of political organization of the left across Europe. The northern European left has an important role to play here because of the very real possibility of isolating a left confined to Greece alone, or even just Greece, Portugal, and Spain. If we are to break the back of the intellectual coalition between the neoliberal social imagination and the economic policies of austerity and debt enforcement, it is of the greatest importance that the left in the creditor countries makes a priority of making the enforcement of such regimes by their own governments impossible – not just domestically, but internationally. In the current European context, internationalism is not just a desirable principle but an absolute precondition for success.

Given this problem, it is worth looking at some of the analysis of Syriza’s success and the possibilities of replication elsewhere that has been making the rounds. One starting point is the discussion by comrade Pierce Penniless of what it would mean to renew the left in Britain, taking inspiration from Syriza. This discussion is based on a series of discussion points raised by a certain ‘Alexander Trocchi’, attached to the post. The main points for Trocchi of why Syriza succeeded was the combination of its ability to become the electoral weapon of the social movements, and its integration of both ‘horizontalist’ and ‘bolshevik’ elements on the basis of uniting behind a (fairly moderate) programme for the short term. However, Trocchi also points to a few other points of significance: the funding of political parties in Greece, allowing membership to more effectively lead to large-scale mobilization, the collapse of the extant social-democratic party, and its charismatic leadership in the person of Alexis Tsipras (and perhaps we should now add Yanis Varoufakis too).

However, as Pierce also points out, quite a few of its claims as to what it would take to replicate such dynamics in Britain are contestable, to say the least. I agree certainly that some of the strengths of Syriza derive from its ability to become the electoral front for a variety of social (and political!) movements, and this is something for which potential on the British left scene exists and is not currently realised. Other points are also surely right but not easy to replicate – one cannot for example engineer the collapse of the Labour Party just like so; on the other hand all European social democracy has for a long time been suffering a slower version of the death that is now described as ‘Pasokification’.

More dubious are the claims ‘Trocchi’ makes about ‘identity politics’ as a major inhibiting factor for the British left, or for that matter the presence of ‘Islamic leftism’; I do not know enough about Greece to say for sure, but I rather doubt that identity issues are irrelevant there, and I do not in any case know of any evidence that either of these political phenomena have been a problem to forming a more fundamental left political organization. Rather the opposite: so-called identity politics often acts as a mobilizing factor, stemming from the confrontations people face on an everyday basis with the structures of social and economic life, and are in that sense as good as any union in the classical Marxist analysis: namely in generating the awareness of conflict between the fulfilment of human needs and the organisation of society. Equally, I don’t think that George Galloway’s opportunistic coalitions are particularly significant for the left as a whole. His modest successes have had little to do with some kind of fundamental religious defect in the British left, but rather with his campaigning on a consistent antiwar platform, combined with his Labour Party skills at mobilising local ‘community leaders’ and ward bosses to his advantage. Generally, one of the problems of the author’s analysis is the use of rather straw figures for contrasting the Greek situation to ours – ‘horizontalism’, ‘Bolsheviks’, ‘Islamic left’ etc. are not really defined, nor is it evident that their counterparts do not exist in Greece as well.

In a sense this expresses one of the actual problems of the British left, namely its rather stubborn refusal to first analyse the political and economic situation empirically before deducing what mechanisms and ideologies have most salience within it: something more than a little ironic given the long British tradition of excessive empiricism. Having said that, I want to add a few critical notes both to ‘Trocchi”s claims and to Pierce’s discussion in somewhat the same style as the original, since the question itself is really worth asking, and I think it is right to discuss the various answers that have been given to it in a straightforward way. So here are some provocations intended to sharpen this discussion a bit, written on purpose in a kind of ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion that hopefully stimulates discussion more than it suggests definitive answers.

1) There is I believe no prospect whatever of the Labour Party splitting into a left and right wing any time soon, nor are British unions at all interested in generating such a situation. People have been talking for years about how ‘when the Blairites take over’ the party would split and the opportunity for alliance with the Labour Left would come. But this is illusory. The party is already firmly in the hands of the right and in fact almost always has been in the history of its existence, and more often than not the unions have firmly preferred it that way. British unions are too weak to challenge even the rule of its ‘business wing’ even within their own party, let alone at a national level; and they are timid beyond even what is justified by their weakness. The lesson they have learned more than any other from the confrontation with Thatcher is that when an open war breaks out between their side and that of capital backed by the state, they will lose. If this was true in the 1980s, it will be true a fortiori now, and they know it. Simultaneously, they are too conservative and nostalgic in their social base and political outlook respectively to attempt any kind of regeneration based on new kinds of unionism, direct action, and so forth. The only split that can occur in the Labour Party is the split of the right from the left, not vice versa, as exemplified by the SDP and by the expulsion of the RMT. And unless the right massively overplays its hand in this, the result is simply the isolation of the left. The Blairites have proven to be competent enough not to overdo this, as shown by their willingness to indulge Ken Livingstone even after his direct challenge to Labour’s official policies and candidates in London. This being the case, there is no immediate collapse of Labour on the horizon, and talk of ‘general strikes’ is especially illusory. If Labour fails to win the upcoming election, this will probably strengthen the right over the centre (David Miliband over Ed Miliband), but these kind of factional shifts in a fundamentally centrist party are not where we should seek our own opportunities.

2) It does no good to accuse Syriza or its supporters of ‘electoralism’. Generally, the accusations of electoralism and the subsequent back and forth about parliamentary power give more heat than light. Of course the power to control the capitalist state ultimately resides in the combination of the property relations that are the legal foundation of capital and the social relations of production that are its material foundation, plus the use of violence to enforce and reproduce these relations. Parliamentary power can affect the property relations to some extent, but the amount of leeway that exists there is very variable and ultimately depends on extra-parliamentary struggle and confrontation. But this is obvious: everyone knows this. When Lenin suggested that Communists take part in “even the most reactionary Duma”, this was not a sign of his belief that the limited franchise talking shop created by the Czar’s advisors was the instrument of revolution. Equally, neither Syriza nor its (radical) supporters think this is the case: indeed Syriza functionaries have several times said the contrary. The only relevant question about electoral participation, in Britain or Greece or wherever, is whether the ability of socialists to advance social revolution, which itself depends on the class struggle in general, is increased or decreased by it, all things considered. That being said, I think there are relatively few situations in which parliamentary participation is worse than abstentionism, and I certainly do not think that this is true in Greece. Even for morale reasons alone the victory of Syriza is significant in stemming the tide of austerity, and I do not see any a priori reason to believe that it would weaken the larger social struggle in Greece.

3) In any case one observes that generally the social struggle reaches a peak very soon after the imposition of the worst reactionary measures, and then dies down within a few years at the visible level – but retains or even increases its radical potential even when seemingly slumbering in the lap of civil society. This pattern is visible in the UK and in Greece as well, where great solidarity and cooperation at the everyday level, as well as some cases of heroic strikes and occupations, have gone together with a very weak level of larger organised movement of opposition in the recent period. The Greek unions have, as far as I can tell, as little capacity to affect things in Greece as they do in the UK.

4) One factor that is relevant in electoralism that is not mentioned in the analysis often is the impact of the voting system. There’s no reason at all to think that the Green ‘surge’, if it were to materialize, would affect anything as long as the net outcome is at best a gain of 1 MP. The room for any party to be an electoral weapon of left parties and movements is much narrowed in countries that have highly restrictive voting systems like the UK does, and for this reason this is a matter of significance beyond policy wonks and LibDem naifs. It is worth pointing out that Syriza obtained its result under conditions of a more proportional representation, and that in fact its actual seat tally is an overrepresentation of Syriza MPs compared to its share of the vote – a ‘bonus principle’ introduced by previous governments of the Greek establishment precisely to keep a radical challenge out and to diminish the necessity of working with such a party! This has now backfired because of PASOK’s complete collapse.

Nevertheless it underlines that the restrictions on the possibility of electoral action in the UK greatly limit relatively the potential for a Syriza-type formation to translate a broad membership base into an equally significant electoral and institutional front. This goes also for the funding of parties based on members, something which is favorable to radical parties with a greater activist base – a fact used to its advantage by Syriza, but also for example by the Socialist Party in the Netherlands. Since the UK allows neither of these possibilities to be used, the electoral strategy must be correspondingly different: trying to maximize the number of candidates standing, for example, or using electoral participation as a means of gaining short-term political traction is probably hopeless.

5) It is worth pointing out that Greece has not suffered the worst austerity regime ever – this dubious honor surely goes to Russia in the 1990s. It is to Syriza’s credit, and indeed more so to the credit of the Greek people, that the political results of this have been considerably better there. That said, one aspect of Syriza’s reformist tactics that is underappreciated is the fear of fascism: Yanis Varoufakis has said multiple times that his desire to save the European Union and even the Eurozone within it is motivated not by love for these institutions, but because for him saving the EU as such against the New Right in Europe is an essential precondition for the survival of the left. Whether this is true and whether their tactics are helpful or counterproductive in this regard is debatable, and a discussion that should be had intensively in the coming months. But it should be understood as part and parcel of the peculiar combination of radical intellectuals and reform-oriented short term policies of Syriza, and if it has merit, it should be kept in mind elsewhere also.

An important dimension here is the dimension of time: Syriza’s reformist tactics are aimed at the very short term, whereas the question of ‘Grexit’ and its potential consequences, or the possibility of an alliance with left parties elsewhere (if they should win), arises in the short to medium term. Equally, the KKE’s critique of Syriza, namely that over time their reformism can only disappoint the hopes and radical potential of the situation, must be kept in mind: what is good in the short run can become actually an aid to the radical right (as the ‘real alternative’) in the longer run.

6) Coming to the point of mass organisation: the first observation is that Syriza is, in fact, a ‘lash-up’ of a number of divergent Communist parties (sects) from Maoists to Eurocommunists, plus elements of the left of social-democracy. This coalition came together a considerable time ago to form an electoral front of the left outside the more classically Marxist-Leninist KKE, in particular to make the connection between party organisation and the electoral and organisational possibilities this offers and on the other hand the significance of the ‘social movements’. The original formation of 1989 actually consisted of an ad hoc coalition between the KKE and the various Communist factions that had left the KKE or were outside it. The KKE left the coalition after the fall of the USSR when it made a turn towards ‘fundamentals’, following party congresses in 1991 and 1996 which focused on rebuilding the party (very damaged by the collapse of the USSR) according to traditional Third International lines, quite contrary to the general rightward trend of other ‘official’ Communists. This meant the loss of the largest and most organised faction of this coalition, but the alliance of the other groups endured.

What is significant here is to point out that throughout the 1990s this coalition remained in existence while achieving virtually nothing at the level of electoral results, membership growth, or other kinds of impact based on size. After the departure of the KKE, the coalition (Synaspismos) never achieved over 5% of the vote, usually hovering around 3% or so in national elections. In 2004, this extant ad hoc coalition then merged with more independent left-wing groups, including the DEA – formerly the UK SWP’s sister party in Greece. The charisma of its new young leader, Alexis Tsipras, certainly helped, but even so the new Syriza coalition did not get beyond the usual numbers for far left groups in continental parliaments. It is only with the current crisis and the great economic, social, and political changes it entailed that Syriza suddenly rocketed upwards into its current position.

The reason I discuss this is because this is exactly the type of narrative that many on the British left do not consider possible: that various sects can coalesce in an ad hoc way, achieve very little in the short run, and yet by the sheer fact of sticking together and forming the alternative over the long run can come to play a historic role in national politics (even if just as a political instrument). The sheer fact of party organisation does undeniably play a role here, despite the understandable skepticism of the ‘horizontalists’. While formations like Left Unity and similar groups are easy to sneer at (and there is perhaps reason to do so), it is worth observing the fact that Synaspismos and even Syriza started out in no way organisationally or politically differently to these. What seems to have made the difference is to a small extent the willingness to keep a more or less broad and nonsectarian party form going that could be identified as a ‘pole of attraction’ and the basis for communication and organisation with social movements, and to a greater extent simply the seismic shift in economic and social conditions.

Here I am afraid that the primacy of historical materialism must be recognised: the success of Syriza, such as it is, is much more the product of historical and economic factors outside the control of any of the parties or activists than it is the result of any merits or demerits of Syriza itself. Even the collapse of PASOK is the symptom of a major shift in the allegiance of the Greek working class that resulted from the falling away of old patronage networks under the pressure of austerity: a sequence of causal relations not in any way brought about by Syriza, but instrumental for its current significance. Something similar applies to the experience of the KKE, whose economically superior and more radical programme has nonetheless totally failed to bring about any reinforcement of its political or social ability to intervene: even of the unemployed vote in Greece no more than 5.4% went to the KKE.

Therefore if we want to take Syriza as a model – and there should certainly be debate about whether one should – then it may actually make more sense to have a Left Unity type organisation than it may seem, despite the evident inability of such a party to affect events in the short term. (It is generally, I suspect, the case that the British left has a rather short-termist perspective and is liable to swing wildly from one panacea to another; something perhaps the result of the lack of a large ‘official’ Communist party historically, so that the strategies and possibilities for the radical left have never been properly ‘tested’ on a mass basis.) One must then allow that such a party can only justify its existence by operating in the long run, rather than expecting any results in the here and now, so that the emphasis should be rather on playing Syriza’s role as ‘weapon of the social movements’. That this is likely to produce a rather left-reformist outlook must then be accepted as the necessary consequence of present European conditions, as Syriza has (but the KKE has not). Equally, these conditions themselves must be understood as constraining the possibilities in addition to the political-institutional limitations peculiar to the UK that I described above. By this I mean that the only meaningful ‘base’ for such a party is not the working class as such, but rather at the electoral level all those whom one can draw away from Labourism into a more principled oppositional social-democracy, and at the organisational level only those sections of the population for whom something more radical than Labour is a real economic interest (plus, perhaps, leftwing intellectuals like Syriza has in great numbers). The worst delusion of the British left in this regard is always to expect that a rich imperialist nation like the UK will somehow produce within 10 years a class conscious working class that is interested in a revolutionary programme. If the KKE’s programme cannot do this in Greece, a considerably poorer country with a long legacy of leftwing resistance to imperialism and dictatorship, then it is certainly for a long time outside the reach of the British radical left.

7) The real question is then the choice between the KKE’s approach and that of Syriza. For the KKE, the strategy is to build on the basis of its own unions and sections of the organised working class, and to maintain an explicitly revolutionary programme; but one combined with an appeal to an ‘Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Monopolies Democratic Front’. Effectively, this combines 1) party unionism, 2) a principled programme and 3) an old fashioned Marxist appeal to working class unity. Its effectiveness in Greece is very limited, and in the UK I suspect would be zero. Galloway’s experiences show that the significance of anti-imperialism and a strong antiwar programme should not be underestimated, but it is insufficient on its own. Chatter about ‘monopolies’ is jargon that belongs in the 1950s, and I doubt anyone will be much enthused by such calls for working class unity without an actual basis for such unity to exist – something less and less the case in the increasingly segmented labor markets of the West. Moreover, in the UK no real party unionism can exist as long as Labour maintains its current structure: this is shown by the total inability of the Socialist Party of England and Wales to translate the RMT union’s membership into votes for its electoral front (TUSC). The same thing applies, for that matter, to Scargill’s futile attempt at building a party based on the NUM left. Whether it may perhaps be possible to undertake such an approach in the longer run, especially given the cowardice and weakness of the existing UK unions, is worth discussing; but the anti-union legislation in the UK does not make the prospect encouraging.

Syriza’s strategy, on the other hand, is as described above: a coalition of left forces with a relatively weak immediate social base, but united on the basis of an explicitly reformist rather than revolutionary programme. The rise of Syriza really has come – as senior members themselves acknowledge – because of its principled rejection of austerity and its image as standing outside the existing power structures, which in the current Western political climate is extremely helpful. Precisely because its function as an electoral and organisational vehicle could accommodate a great deal of different groups and movements, combined with its reformist outlook corresponding to the reality of most Greeks since the crisis, it had the necessary flexibility and organisational knowledge to seize its moment. That the leadership and constituent parts consist mostly of much more radical members than its party programme is in this sense a help, because it gives (hopefully) the necessary theoretical and strategic overview over the complex relations of political economy that such a party needs in order to avoid serious mistakes. However, this does come at a considerable cost: as the KKE never fails to point out, such a strategy also makes the party itself in the longer run rather more a hindrance than a help to achieving actual social revolution, if it does not go beyond its ‘principled social-democracy’, for all the reasons the traditional critique of reformism provides. This is therefore a strategy justified under particular historical circumstances and with a certain temporality, and this must not be forgotten.

8) The bottom line therefore for me is that Syriza shows that a viable coalition of left forces is indeed possible, despite the pessimism of the British left on this point, and that the party form can indeed function as a weapon of existing sects and movements of social struggle. However, the question of time and circumstance is the most important. Syriza’s ‘Marxist social-democracy’ is justified in the short term by the circumstances of Greece and the possibility it offers, but it is not to be mistaken for a long-run strategy, either politically or organisationally. Equally, the potential of such a coalition of left groups is not to be measured in the short term, and its greatest enemy is the expectation of short term successes under conditions totally unfavorable to revolutionary militancy. Such expectations have historically in the British left immediately led to demoralization, splintering, and wild shifts of ‘line’. Rather, one must combine a longer organisational view with a willingness to adjust strategy to shifting economic and social circumstances – in particular a realistic assessment of the conditions of British unionism, changes in working class composition and outlook, the significance of British imperialism, and so forth.

This sounds obvious, but so often in the radical left the ‘wish is the father of the thought’, as the expression goes: whereas the expectation in the short and medium term must be that the room for maneouvre and the social base of such a formation is limited. To do the most within those limitations is more valuable than illusions of being a ‘mass party in miniature’. Since in the UK no immediate economic or political need exists to form another left-reformist outfit next to the Labour Party – at least as long as the Labour left remains within that party – there is no need at all to copy Syriza’s programmatic approach. Rather, the so to speak ‘propagandistic’ emphasis on principled opposition to war and austerity can be the most relevant strategy in the short term as long as this crisis endures, not least by emphasizing the contrast with Labour’s own approach in this regard. One does not for that reason have to undertake Syriza’s extreme short term rescue and repair operations, so that there is no reason why a more principled, perhaps even more direct action oriented programme could not be combined with wider appeals of the kind that have brought the SNP and the Greens into the spotlight in recent years. Ultimately, the potential of any formation of this kind will depend on the vagaries of longer term economic and social factors which are totally outside the control of any small left party, and therefore neither puffed up expectations nor sectarian ‘mass party’ ambitions are helpful. Being honest; not expecting too much; and combining wide appeals against the neoliberal order with strategic concentration on those segments where potential exists is probably the best recipe against demoralization, and the best way to keep a coalition together in the long run. “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories“.

May 24, 2014

No Blood for Oil? Some Thoughts on Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism

Posted in Imperialism, Politics tagged , , , , at 16:36 by Matthijs Krul


While virtually everyone on the left would agree on the importance of anti-imperialism in principle, it is by no means always clear what this means. (I will exclude the Euston Manifesto types from our hallowed ranks.) Anti-imperialism can only be effective to the extent that imperialism is defined and understood, and anti-imperialist strategy only works insofar as there is agreement on what imperialism is. Oddly, while the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is a commonplace of left activism and organisational campaigns, there is often a lot of vagueness about what precisely is meant by the term. The fate of the antiwar movements since the war in Iraq has been an illustration of this problem. Despite the unprecedented numbers agitating against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ and its invasion of Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, the antiwar movement has shown virtually no staying power. The election of Obama seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the American activists, despite the extension of drone warfare to many countries and the war in Libya, and in Europe only the occasional Israeli threats against Gaza can mobilise any numbers at all. While the predominance of economic concerns since the crisis have a lot to do with this, I suspect there is also a wider strategic problem. The best example of this is the (unofficial) slogan of the movement against the Iraq war, the concept of “no blood for oil”. By examining the weaknesses of this concept, I will try to nudge the left debate on imperialism away from its usual obsessions and towards a different perspective on the means and scope of imperialism today. Read the rest of this entry »

January 22, 2014

Luciano Canfora and the Question of Democracy

Posted in Book Review, Europe, History, Politics, Theory tagged , , , , , at 17:43 by Matthijs Krul

This is a repost of my review of Luciano Canfora and Amadeo Bordiga’s concepts of democracy, first posted on The North Star.

In The North Star, and the left more widely, the question of democracy is one avidly debated. While many of the classical distinctions within the radical left remain valid, such as about whether or not one should participate in parliamentary elections and what the attitude towards voting should be, this is only part of a larger problem. One of the biggest issues that distinguishes the different ‘strands’ or ‘tendencies’ of the left is precisely the underlying question of what each mode of socialist thought thinks democracy is, and whether this is a good thing — in short, what does it mean for something to be democratic? Are the ‘liberal democracies’ of our time simply stunted democracies, or are they not democratic at all and should they become so? And what of the left communist critique of democracy, as found in the works of Amadeo Bordiga and similar writers?

Luciano Canfora’s book Democracy in Europe1 is essentially a history of the concept of democracy within European political thought and practice, and therefore gives a good opportunity to explore this question a bit further. Written with much wit and a certain historical flair, befitting an iconoclastic scholar of Greek history as Canfora is, the book identifies as the central problem for any left discussion of democracy the question of what is actually meant by that term. Indeed, more often than not socialists tend to proclaim their support for democracy, the need for more democracy in society (especially economic democracy), and criticize the inadequate democracies of our time. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union, adherence to ‘democratic socialism’ (or sometimes ‘socialism from below’) has become something of a watchword for entry into the ranks of the homines bonae voluntatis. But what does this ‘democratic’ mean, and what should it mean for us?

Canfora approaches this question through a kind of reasoned history, a rough chronology of political forms that, in each case, posited the question of democracy in a new way. One must of course begin with classical antiquity, for it is there that ideologically the notion of democracy began: even now, many ‘Western Civ’ textbooks and the like promote the idea that democracy is a quintessentially Western invention, and that it originates in ancient Greece, more specifically in classical and archaic Athens. This view has been criticized by a good deal of classical historians, and Canfora is of course no exception. As we know, the ‘democracy’ of the Athenians was based on mass slavery (four or five slaves to every freeman) and on the exclusion of foreigners and women citizens from the political process. Moreover, what Canfora does not mention as much, the Athenian community was constituted in religious and tribal terms in the same way that the Roman was and its medieval European heirs, and therefore democracy as a secular sovereignty of the people was wholly absent. The frequent use of sortition by lot for the most important positions, including the executive power, had a strong religious significance. It presupposes the equality of citizens; but for the ancient Athenians it followed that therefore the candidates among them were chosen by the gods, not by men.

More important and useful perhaps than this familiar critique is Canfora’s main approach, which is to examine the uses of the concept of democracy in these times. As Canfora shows, democracy (demokratia) was almost always used negatively, by the opponents of the Athenian system during the period between the Tyrants and the defeat in the Peloponnesian War: a term to describe something akin to our concept of ‘mob rule’. Even some of its defenders, such as the commander Pericles, are hesitant about using the term too readily — for the opposition between democracy and liberty was the argument of the classical aristocracy, and to accept the former appeared to concede the latter. Equally, the concept of democracy in Athens and in the classical world generally was predicated on a narrowness of citizenship, and any attempt to actually extend it — such as in the emergency of the impending defeat by the Macedonians — to slaves, outsiders, and so forth, was immediately rejected by the Athenian assembly precisely in the name of democracy: it could only exist by sustaining a wider elite than the oligarchy, but not by abolishing it.

It is these oppositions and meanings of democracy, Canfora argues, that have structured the concept up to the period of the rise of socialism. Democracy was for most reform-minded philosophers and intellectuals a negative term, so that even as Enlightened a figure as Kant rejects it in his Perpetual Peace, and De Tocqueville’s analysis of democracy is predicated on the concept that the slow victory of democracy is the death of liberty. There is here, as Canfora shows, a kind of double irony. One is the opposition between democracy and liberty, whereas in the modern West these are generally concepts claimed to go together. But there is also the vigorous opposition by aristocracies and elites, Enlightened or reactionary, against the ‘democratic’ movements of their time, when these democratic movements themselves could only be democratic in the Athenian sense: that is to say, democratic in the sense of extending oligarchy to a wider (middle) range of people. Yet often there were also people who sought a democracy in a different sense, one not based on oligarchic rule at all, with a totally new formulation of citizenship — democrats against the democracy. This is the central conflict of Canfora’s history.

The opposition between popular-democratic movements and the aristocratic-oligarchic movements in the early modern period then appears as something like the struggle between the Roman populares and optimates, where both were essentially factions of elites fighting over the control of a captured Roman plebeian clientele. The real secret of the Roman ‘proletariat’ was that it ultimately could play its client role and act due to its reliance on the exploitation of slave labor and the conquered territories abroad (especially Egypt) — and the same is true for the revival of this democracy in the early modern age. The victory of the Parliamentarian party in the English Civil War was a defeat for the old oligarchic faction, but was a victory of the oppressors of Ireland and the gentry class, not a victory of those who took democracy in our modern earnestness, like Diggers or Levellers. The Puritan and Parliamentarian notion of democracy is again one of the Bible, and of the equal but limited citizenship of those in the ‘English nation’ that were not dependent on others for their income — whatever Rainsborough and others tried to argue.

A similar phenomenon holds for the revival of classical democracy and its virtues in the garb of the French Revolution, as Canfora shows. Rightly, he pays much attention to the often too easily overlooked significance of the Jacobin faction’s view of democracy: namely, that despite their adaptation of classical garb, they understood it radically differently from the traditional view of what democracy meant. Indeed, as Canfora suggests, their reading of the classical period was worse compared to their counter-revolutionary colleagues, the more they moved beyond the classical meaning of ‘democracy’ — especially in their firm conviction that liberty and the equality of democracy could and should co-exist.

This is shown by the great events of the 18 Pluviôse, when Danton, Robespierre and others got the Convention to pass a decree abolishing slavery not just on French soil, but in the colonies — something unimaginable in Britain or the United States, the bulwarks of ‘liberty’. For the Jacobin speakers at the Convention, it was impossible that slavery should continue in the colonies, for this would mean they had failed to “raise themselves to the standard of liberty and equality”. For the Jacobins, maintaining slavery was the policy of l’aristocratie. Canfora suggests it was this, more than anything else, that aroused wide hostility towards the Jacobin wing of the revolutionaries and precipitated their downfall.

The Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries, who would eventually culminate in the dictatorship of Napoleon I, were imbued with the classical view of liberty, and therefore saw a democracy that would go beyond its sense of ‘extended oligarchy’ as insupportable. It is equally no coincidence that the revival of the aristocracy after Thermidor also sees a revival of slavery and a revival of the religious basis of citizenship, which the Jacobins had sought to destroy. When the celebrated philosopher Benjamin Constant then inaugurates the modern view of liberalism, its Whiggish history, in his Comparison of the Liberty of the Ancients with that of the Moderns, he praises the liberty and peace that exists in that time — the year 1819, after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, a year before the alliance of absolutist powers in the Congress of Vienna! Such is liberty against democracy.

Of course, the traditional Western view then depicts all these as tragic moments in our distant past, but democracy as a system ‘returning’ in the 19th century, with the extensions of the franchise. However, Canfora gives us much material — if very ambivalently argued — to undermine this depiction. For the victory of democracy in the 19th century is much exaggerated, and has much more in common with the oligarchic notion of democracy than with the positive. The late 19th century certainly sees the rise of mass politics, in particular with the formations of the first political parties in the modern style, integrated organizations with political and electoral strategies inherent in their programme, rather than loose alliances between elite individuals and ‘notables’ following their own sense of liberty or their moral compass. These arise especially there were universal suffrage became a real potential, the first sense of a democracy that would go beyond the classical form: in the German Empire after its founding, with the rise of the social-democratic party (SPD), and briefly in mid-19th century France, around the person of Napoleon III in his use of referenda against the oligarchic, ‘constitutional’ democracy of the 1848 revolution. Of course, in the latter case this false universality did not last, for Napoleon III immediately got rid of it.

But in none of these cases was a form of democracy found that would go beyond the oligarchic structure underlying its historical concept. What’s more, this remained true even into the 20th century. This manifested itself in two ways. One was the restrictions on the basis of wealth or education that prevailed within the widening scope of suffrage, such as in the UK, despite its two Great Reform Acts. When the great imperial powers went to war in WWI, a war Michael Gove assures us was a fight for democracy, the only country among all the combatants with universal male suffrage was Germany. In Italy, France, the USA and the UK, the suffrage was limited by either wealth or race. (In Russia and Japan, there was only a derisory imitation of elections.) Over time, however, these restrictions proved exceedingly vulnerable to attack, because they made explicit the oligarchic restrictions on a now increasingly positively depicted concept of ‘democracy’. They were of course justified in each nation according to the self-evident needs of the national interest, of liberty, or of the Germanic need for leadership, but after the carnage of the war and the revolution in Russia, this proved difficult to maintain.

Therefore, Canfora argues, a different approach was taken in response. The vote and the conception of citizenship was extended much more widely, now finally incorporating also the full half of citizens that are women — although it is no coincidence that this took the most ‘bourgeois republican’ nations and thus defenders of the classical legacy, France and Switzerland, the longest to do. This made ‘mass politics’ an inevitability, and meant the death of the old loose associations of notables constituting the friends of liberty. These mass politics then increasingly incorporated also the socialist parties, whether split into their Communist and social-democratic halves or not.

But, as early critics such as Bordiga noted, this sense of democracy as mass politics was by no means the overcoming of its oligarchic nature in effect. It would never have been possible without revolution if that were the case. Rather, what happened according to Canfora is that the major powers increasingly sought other ways to restrict the meaning of universal suffrage. Here Canfora’s own analysis becomes increasingly superficial, but we can attempt to extend its implications. One was by the genesis of mass media and the usage of it by economic and political oligarchies to influence public opinion, especially in the form of limiting the ‘range of the possible’, known as the ‘Overton window’. More importantly, and often underappreciated by the left (and here I think Canfora is quite right to give it a central role) is the use of electoral systems that are inherently oligarchic in nature. The replacement of proportional representation systems with one or two round majority vote systems guarantees wild distortions of the actual distribution of opinion, generally at the expense of ‘radical’ parties and of political or social minorities widely distributed. Gerrymandering, the reinvention of the ‘rotten borough’, which especially in the United States is a widespread and accepted practice, should be added to this.

The left has traditionally ignored these issues or minimized them, seeing them as minor problems of liberal practice or simply part of the scam that is voting anyway — but they mistake here the real nature of such restrictions. It is no coincidence that the most oligarchic countries, the one with their revolutionary content dating furthest back, are the most wedded to single district systems. The nature of such restrictions is precisely equivalent to those of ‘direct’ restrictions on voting by wealth, race, and so forth. In the United States, white conservative (or liberal) supermajorities are manufactured by aggregating all the black voters into one or two districts. In the UK and other countries with first-past-the-post voting, often a majority of the votes cast never has any effect on the outcome: a result no different than that of the ‘elections’ in the Roman Republic, where the aristocracy had so many votes that there was little point for most of the lower ranked citizens in even showing up. The ever-increasing rates of nonvoting are a clear sign of the nature of such voting systems. Add to this the constant threats of intervention or repression, whether McCarthyism or the American plan of invasion and sabotage if the PCI won the elections, or even De Gaulle’s quasi-coup and the West German ban on the KPD. If the form of democracy cannot be restricted outright, it will be restricted in other ways.

However, is all this to say then that the problem with liberal democracy is that we do not have enough of it? Canfora is unclear on this issue; for him, the legacy of the USSR and Eastern Europe is no more indication of the direction of democracy in the modern age than is the Western experience. But this is in some sense, as I indicated in the beginning, perhaps thecentral question dividing the left organizationally. Indeed, Canfora at least clarifies, through his historical analysis, two things. First, that democracy has always meant an extension of citizenship beyond the elite, but still on the basis of the oppression of others; and that liberalism, in the sense of the defenders of liberty as the highest value, has historically been hostile even to this. (A modern confirmation of this can be found in the hostility of neoliberal thinkers as well as the Austrian School economists to anything but the most superficial democratic forms.) Against both of these options, the third historical strand, the radicalism of ‘substantive democracy’ with a new formula of citizenship, also always makes an appearance wherever it can, but is generally defeated.

How then to solve this riddle? Even for Bordiga, it is clear that the first opposition, between the narrow oligarchs and the equalizers, and the opposition of both these factions to the third one, the radical democracy, cannot be conflated. “In its statements of principle, Marxist communism presents itself as a critique and a negation of democracy; yet communists often defend the democratic character of proletarian organizations… There is certainly no contradiction in this, and no objection can be made to the use of the dilemma, ‘either bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy” as a perfect equivalent to the formula “bourgeois democracy or proletarian dictatorship’”, says Bordiga in The Democratic Principle. But the confusion between democracy in Canfora’s classical sense, and democracy as a critique of this democracy, has often led the left astray:

In order to avoid creating ambiguities, and dignifying the concept of democracy, so entrenched in the prevailing ideology which we strive relentlessly to demolish, it would be desirable to use a different term in each of the two cases. Even if we do not do this, it is nonetheless useful to look a little further into the very content of the democratic principle, both in general and in its application to homogeneous class organs. This is necessary to eliminate the danger of again raising the democratic principle to an absolute principle of truth and justice. Such a relapse into apriorism would introduce an element foreign to our entire theoretical framework at the very moment when we are trying, by means of our critique, to sweep away the deceptive and arbitrary content of “liberal” theories.

Our task, then, is to defend democracy against The Democracy, including the alliance of liberals and bourgeois Radicals (in the technical sense as referring to people like J.S. Mill or the left of the French Republicans — hence the capital letter) that until 1848 appeared to be willing allies of the democrats in the radical sense. It is in the split of bourgeois Radical liberalism from the socialist movement, as the embodiment of the radical democracy against the classical democracy, that the problem of left politics presents itself. In the West, where this split is complete, Bordiga’s critique is fully applicable — which does not solve more exact questions of electoral participation, etc., which can only be decided in each specific case and conjuncture. Outside the West, this alliance still exists to some extent, insofar as the conquest of democracy in the classical sense is — as both supporters and opponents of the subaltern project agree — itself a project that is either incomplete or has failed to get off the ground entirely.

Completely in conformity with Chibber’s critique of the subalternists, it is true both in the West and outside it that, as Bordiga says, “the socialist critique of democracy was in essence a critique of the democratic critique of the old political philosophies. Marxism denies their alleged universal opposition and demonstrates that in reality they are theoretically similar, just as in practise the proletariat did not have much reason to celebrate when the direction of society passed from the hands of the feudal, monarchical and religious nobility into the hands of the young commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.” However, the form of democracy has changed rapidly since he wrote this in 1922 (just as fascism was coming to power in Italy), and ‘liberal democracy’, as a carefully balanced mixture of real democratic elements and of oligarchic democracy, has become a completely dominant political form in the West where it has not in the rest of the world. Where we have the indirect oligarchy of district systems, Potemkin parties and the buying of votes, much of the world has these as well as the traditional impositions of the opponents of democracy altogether, the narrow oligarchy rather than the wide oligarchy — this changes the nature of their struggle compared to ours.

For us, then, a more ‘left communist’ posture is permissible in our strategy towards democracy than people in much of the world can afford. But ultimately, as Canfora and Bordiga both make clear in their own way, the form of democracy is less important than its content. The use of ‘democracy’ as a single concept has too often historically hidden that — through its many different forms — there have been two kinds of it: democracy as the equality of limited citizenship based on exclusion, and democracy as a radically new foundation of citizenship. Liberalism has been forced to make itself, against its will, compatible with the former, but only socialism is compatible with the latter.

1. Luciano Canfora, Democracy in Europe: A History (tr. Simon Jones). Oxford 2006: Blackwell.

December 15, 2013

Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection

Posted in Communism, Personal, Philosophy, Politics, Theory tagged , , , , at 21:06 by Matthijs Krul

In this post, I intend to do something perhaps unpopular among the contemporary left: that is, to provide a conditional defense of Theory, with a capital T, and by implication the academy from the point of view of the radical left and its critiques. While the first part of this reflection will focus on the latter, this sets the stage for my discussion of the former; it is the need to defend theory for its own sake, the virtues of abstraction, and the recognition of the nature of knowledge and what this means for a radical view that animates my thoughts.

Much has been written about the ‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement. Everyone is familiar with the way in which Marxism besides moved increasingly within the domain of professional theorizing from its previous points of emphasis: economic history, economic theory and political theory are less and less Marxist, whereas (at least in the Anglosphere) many Marxist academics have either abandoned it altogether or sought refuge in the ‘safer’ domains of literary criticism, cultural studies and so forth. This is, however, in a certain sense a battle within the academy, and takes its institutional framework for granted. While I believe that this shift is a major part of the defeat of Marxism in the 20th century, both as cause and effect, this is not the view in many parts of the contemporary left. Rather, it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead. Read the rest of this entry »

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