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.
Mandela and Socialism
The passing of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the greatest national liberation figures of the 20th century and one of the world’s great inspirations in the struggle against white supremacy and other forms of oppression, has naturally led to an outpouring of commentary and analysis. It is hardly necessary to add to this yet another overview of his life and accomplishments: his forging of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP – of which he was a Central Committee member when he was imprisoned for treason – is well known, as are his roles in the founding of the militant anti-apartheid organization Umkhonto we Sizwe and his heroic resistance against all attempts to bribe or suborn him during his long imprisonment. These accomplishments have nothing to do with the image of Mandela as a hero only of pacifism and reconciliation. While Mandela and his comrades rightly did not choose lightly to engage in violence, they did not spurn it when the needs of the day required it either.
That Mandela has undergone a process of modification akin to that long ago achieved with Martin Luther King, that is to make both seem as much more friendly, conciliatory, and moderate than they really were, is precisely a testament to the strength and effect of their actual militant efforts: these have been so powerful that even their very enemies are unable to simply oppose them, but must pretend that their own aims and those of Mandela or King were always reconcilable. As Bob Herbert writes in Jacobin, “the primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.” Continue reading “Mandela and Socialism”
The Spirit of ’45?
Leftwing filmmaker Ken Loach has launched a movie and corresponding campaign in the UK called “Spirit of ’45”. Already avidly promoted by the usual union and Labour left figures, the purpose of the movie is to have working people speak on behalf of the social-democratic achievements of the 1945 Labour government, and what these meant for them. This was the government that radically expanded and restructured the British social system, transforming it from a country of austerity conservatism into one of the main bulwarks of social-democracy – the pinnacle of course being the introduction of a healthcare system wholly free at the point of use, unprecedented then as it indeed still is now. Many left-leaning British people understandably have a certain pride in these accomplishments, and the Labour Party has been coasting on them in its claims to working class loyalty for practically all of the postwar period (“party of the NHS”). The purpose of the corresponding campaign is to revive this sense of pride and loyalty towards social-democracy, presumably in the hope that this will strengthen popular resistance against the attempts by the current conservative-liberal coalition to privatize swathes of the NHS, reduce or abolish elements of the ‘welfare state’, and generally to force market exchange where there was redistribution.
As a purely defensive campaign to mobilize for genuine reforms away from the basis of capitalist social relations, that is the mediation between working people through ‘free’ markets, and in favor of some manner of organized and collective solidarity, this is fair enough. Yet the spirit of ’45 is a ghost which, once conjured up, may turn out to do more than haunt the conscience of the coalition. The spirit of ’45 is first and foremost the spirit of nostalgia, a nostalgia for an idealized past of Labour governments and miners in caps speaking at union rallies. This makes it, as many of the commentators on the right promptly pointed out, little more than an extended political broadcast for the Labour Party. And this shows its limitations: not only would the Labour Party of Ed Miliband probably unrecognizable to the members of Attlee’s cabinet, but anyone whose political horizon is wider than that of Labour has little reason to be enthused by this. Continue reading “The Spirit of ’45?”
Slouching toward Weimar: Once more on the Crisis in Greece
There are perhaps not many places in the world where it is possible for several general strikes to follow in succession, uniting private sector workers, public sector workers, officials, even shopkeepers in resistance to the politics of the government, and yet little seems to change. But this is the case in Greece, where today once more Syntagma was filled with the banners and shouting of demonstrators protesting against the austerity policies of the old oligarchy ruling the country. Let nobody be deceived about how dire the situation truly is: this summer, Greek unemployment hit an official 25%, with more than half the young population out of work, and the real figure is almost certainly higher due to the number of workforce ‘dropouts’ and the considerable informal sector in the country. Educated Greeks try to flee the country en masse for any place that will have them, while paramilitary toughs in black uniforms roam the streets, beating up immigrant pedlars and gay actors alike without any repercussion. The police force is now estimated to be majority at least passive supporters of the fascist movement Chrysi Avyi, a situation no European country has seen since the fall of Berlin. The enormous increases in the contradictions between the different sectors of society is making itself felt across the country as a consequence of the deeply severe ‘austerity’ imposed by order of the creditor countries to which Greece, despite previous partial defaults, remains hopelessly indebted. Indeed, the policies of shoving the costs of repayments off onto the masses of the population not only increases insecurity and resentment against foreigners and outsiders, putting lives at risk, but also so deeply damages the short and medium-term income of the working classes and small bourgeoisie, so that state policy appears as the despairing attempts of a dog to bite itself in the tail.
However, that this strategy can only further sharpen the political and economic contradictions is something clear enough to the oligarchy both within and without Greece. This is not, as some (post-)Keyenesians would have it, a mere manner of stupidity, a strategy for capital that cannot possibly work. Instead, it is the only possible strategy for capital under the circumstances of the country. It must not be forgotten that there are two forces at work here: one is the bourgeoisie of Greece and its ossified, entrenched political establishment, which attempts by means of ‘austerity’ to present the Greek people with the bill of its own mismanagement, corruption, and prestige spending. The other force is the creditor classes of northern Europe, the Germans, Dutch, Austrians and so forth. Not only is their credit to the Greek state in peril, but more generally this threatens the position of the credibility of all European states altogether, because of their monetary union. In the final instance, the credibility of a currency stands or falls with the credibility of the issuing state vis-á-vis the creditor classes, most particularly the financial speculators and banks, and vast sums of fictitious capital have already been conjured into existence to prop up the appearance of liquidity among states and banks alike.
But the irony is, as Marx so well understood but even many of the ‘Keynesians’ do not, that the more the capitalist classes of Europe attempt to stave off disaster by further ‘quantitative easing’ and further cheap credit, the worse they make it for themselves in the long run. All this accumulation of fictitious capital only serves in the longer run to further depress the rate of profit. Therefore, those states in which austerity is followed either directly on behalf of the financier class (as in the UK), or indirectly by foreign imposition, as in Greece and to a lesser extent other debtor states of southern Europe, are perfectly following capitalist rationality to its final end-point. Only the destruction of value on a large scale, the failure of many of the national capitalists and much of the credibility of the financial institutions, the destitution and devastation of much of the European population, and the generation of an enormous ‘reserve army of labour’ in the form of mass unemployment, can in the long run restore the rate of profit in value terms.
This implies that any other strategy is a strategy of deception: it will prop up the capitalist institutions of today in appearance, and thereby seem to prevent a freefall in the living standards of middle and working class alike; but in the longer term, it will inhibit further capitalist investment, burden an already low-liquidity system with more debt, and eventually an even greater and more severe crisis will be the consequence. It doesn’t matter how well the post-Keynesians regard the European peoples and their struggle, no matter how good their intent in attempting to stop the vicious and regressive campaigns to maintain the position of a proportionally tiny group of financiers and creditor organizations as myopic as they are self-seeking. If they attempt to tell the Greeks and other suffering peoples that the capitalist order can prevail but without having to also accept its terms and conditions, they are consciously or not deceiving the population as to the true nature of capitalist crisis.
The political consequences of this are dire, because it will work in favour of the decaying social-democratic forces whose strength diminishes by the day, and who can form no secure basis for the future, and it will also encourage those – such as the fascists – who consider the crisis to be a purely contingent phenomenon, the fault of ‘international bankers’, foreign impositions, money crankery, or even immigrants and refugees. To politically confront the consequences of capitalist crisis, we must be honest about what we are facing: capitalism will always return to crisis, no matter how many counter-cyclical measures and state investment programmes are undertaken. If the rate of profit is not restored, instead of papering over the crisis by accumulating further debt and shifting vast sums of value artificially towards the financial institutions and the speculators, the consequences can only be a greater crisis in 10, 15, 20 years’ time, and in the short run a tremendous waste of the people’s money on bailing out insolvent capitalist entities to which they owe nothing.
It is of course understandable that such sentiment has become so widespread. For the latter day fans of laissez-faire and for the lackeys of the financier class the situation is clear enough: where profit rates cannot be maintained, the population must pay and overaccumulated value must be destroyed one way or another until investment once more resumes. The balance within the capitalist class between the interests of industry and of finance in this battle is essentially a political question, and in Europe today it is the financiers who hold the power, especially in Britain. But for many people the situation is in absolute terms not yet dire enough to create a truly revolutionary prospect: the workers of Europe have still too much to lose for that, in particular the older workers who have built up pensions, own houses, and have accumulated all manner of stakes in society in the waning years of the social-democratic consensus. Demographically, this is the largest group. At the same time, it is clear that their position and that of their children is being rapidly undermined by forces outside their control, and this creates a great unrest and a great wave of resentment and sentimental opprobrium.
Much of the protest resulting from this is essentially romantic reactionary and disorganized in nature, involving great numbers of people attempting by sheer anger and indignation to restore a situation of ‘fairness’, ‘democracy’, the ‘welfare state’, and so forth; essentially backward-looking idealizations of the existing political economic order, which no amount of demonstrating or striking will bring back. In Spain, the hundreds of thousands who took the streets even identified themselves as the indignados, each called to the streets by the same justified fear and loathing produced by the current crisis, but all individually seeking a return of the good old times of secure work and fair pay. Such times, if they ever existed, will not return. This crisis heralds the final phase of social-democracy, and it is a losing game for capitalism. This is why no government anywhere has ceded even the slightest demand to these protestors, and why they have been unable to translate their numbers and courage into a political change: they fear damaging the political structure of their societies just as much as they fear its continuation, and therefore rhetoric and moral appeals are their only weapons.
In Greece, the left opposition party SYRIZA is the best expression of this. While it contains a number of serious revolutionary organizations in its ranks, its leadership represents the Greek masses very well indeed – it seeks to do away with the debt burden without doing away with the monetary union, it seeks to oppose austerity without confronting the logic of capital, it wants to do away with the old oligarchy without extra-parliamentary mobilization, and it utterly fails to recognize the looming threat of fascism on the horizon, focused as it is on achieving the impossible and incoherent. This is not to sneer at the Greeks. Indeed, not only has the period of roughly 1980 to 2004 been one of enormous increases in the Greek standard of living and a modernization of the country in technological and prestige terms, but the membership of the European political and economic system has made the Greeks feel safely included in the common European project, has given them hope for the future after the long darkness of dictatorship and Cold War strife, and made it seem like the only way to go was up. This is indeed a bitter awakening for the self-proclaimed ‘cradle of democracy’.
One can argue forever about to which extent the Greek people let themselves be bribed and sung to sleep, their Argus eyes closed by the soothing melodies of road-building, Olympic games, peace with the Turks, and all this without any apparent need for state revenues. What matters is that they are now being made to pay the price for the greatest global crisis since the Great Depression, most of which was none of their making and totally beyond their ken. We must not try to lull the Greeks again with easy tales of Keynesian investment and the return of the drachma solving all the economic problems. That which capital has made can only be unmade with the overcoming of capital’s logic itself. It is well possible the current crisis will resolve itself outside Greece far before this point is reached politically; in that case, all will probably go back to sleep again, and will have an even more rude awakening in 15 years or so. If this does not happen, and the crisis endures without a clear explanation of its causes, its logic, and its consequences, the temptation for masses and bourgeoisie alike to force a solution will become very great. Here, history provides us with but two examples. It shows us either the colonization of Greece, Ottoman Turkey, Egypt, and the like by the European creditor powers, impoverishing the masses and inhibiting their political struggles for decades; or the course of the Weimar republic and its inability to overcome the contradictions of that society, after which the revanchist powers forced a ‘final solution’ on their own account. The former was the solution of the 19th century, the latter that of the 20th. It is time for a different solution for our age. The tocsin rings for Greece, and all who wish her well must heed the warning.
What We Can Learn From Hal Draper
Many Marxists have been great theorists. Equally many, perhaps more, have been great practical men and women: great organizers, trade unionists, and practical politicians. Unfortunately, what has been most rare are the people whose genius resides in their grasp of the intermediate field, the field of understanding the implications of general theory for a particular case. This field, what one might call applied theory or political interpretation of theory, is perhaps the most difficult of all. For that reason, insofar as it has been done at all it seems to have been the domain of leaders of petty sects and mini-parties. Their obvious lack of success has led many to think that there is nothing to it: either that one cannot make general rules about the application of Marxist theory in a specific case, or that it is a matter of the individual genius of particular politicians, e.g. Lenin. The latter seems hard to reconcile with the principles of historical materialism and tends to lead to cults of authority, something Marx and Engels always despised and which tends to impede the communist movement. The former is more defensible, but while flexible seems to dangerously underutilize the long experience of Marxism as a tradition and movement. After all, ‘best practice’ is important in any learning, and internationalism demands that we look to experiences of other countries in other times to see how we can improve on ourselves. It is also useful if there is a coherence to our approach, not in the last place with the aim of showing how Marxism can actually help a workers’ movement. Moreover, Marx and Engels themselves were highly active in the political organisational matters of their time, and so were many of the great theorists after them, whether Rosa Luxemburg or Lenin or even Huey Newton. For these reasons, it is interesting to study better the materials that exist on the interpretation of Marxism, in particular the ‘Marxism’ of Marx and Engels themselves, to the level of practical politics, the kind that is reported upon in the newspapers and debated in the parliaments. Continue reading “What We Can Learn From Hal Draper”