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“.

June 18, 2013

The Spirit of ’45?

Posted in Class Struggle, Communism, History, Politics, Social-Democracy, United Kingdom tagged , , , , , at 22:15 by Matthijs Krul

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. Read the rest of this entry »

March 2, 2013

Convergence and Divergence: A Reply to Comrade Hamerquist

Posted in Asia, Communism, Economics, Europe, Fascism, Imperialism, Politics, Social-Democracy, Theory, Trade, United Kingdom, United States tagged , , , , , , , , , , at 03:38 by Matthijs Krul

Since I recently wrote an extended, appreciative review of Zak Cope’s book of Third Worldist Marxism Divided World, Divided Class on this blog, some other radical commentators have provided reviews and replies as well. One of these is Don Hamerquist, who wrote what is in essence a review of my review. It can be found on the blog Sketchy Thoughts. Hamerquist’s commentary was critical of my analysis (on which it focuses more than Cope’s), but in a constructive manner, and has thereby given me occasion to restate and clarify some of the positions I have developed in recent times on this medium and elsewhere. Even though I don’t wholly agree, such focused, intelligent criticism as Hamerquist’s is of great value, and it would be foolish to dismiss it out of personal egocentrism or puffery. Read the rest of this entry »

January 30, 2013

On Communism and Markets: A Reply to Seth Ackerman

Posted in Communism, Economics, History, Social-Democracy, Theory tagged , , , , , at 15:56 by Matthijs Krul

In his recent essay on Jacobin, Seth Ackerman makes a number of common arguments in favor of some form of market socialism over and against central planning as well as other designs for non-market, non-capitalist economies. The essay contains much that most socialists could agree with. He rightly cites the failure of the neoclassical argument for general equilibrium to apply in real-world situations under the devastating theoretical impact of the Cambridge capital critique and the so-called ‘theory of the second-best’, and the lack of statistical evidence proving the superior efficiency of market capitalist societies over those of the former Soviet bloc. The historical record of capitalism to achieve general efficiency, equity, and democracy is, in short, atrocious, and neoclassical economics always serves first and foremost as apologetics for this system – we probably need not go into this further.

Also understandable is Ackerman’s negative response to models of a post-capitalist economy along the lines of some form of direct democracy, such as Albert and Hahnel’s “Parecon” approach. For Albert and Hahnel, democratic councils would gather data from individuals regarding their preferences, debate these according to socialist and ecological norms, and process them into a planning system, which would regularly update its information according to the same political processes; all this in order to regulate production for human need. Ackerman is justifiably skeptical of the workability of this proposal, as it would require millions of political debates about millions of input-output processes from wildly divergent sources and for wildly divergent ends. If every aspect of the planning system would have to be truly democratic – in the sense of being up for immediate political input ‘from below’ – any system with more than a rudimentary division of labor would quickly come to a shuddering halt.

For Ackerman, this is proof of the validity of the so-called calculation problem, an old argument from liberal critics of Marxism (in particular the Austrian school of economics), alleging that it is a priori impossible for centrally planned economies of any kind to operate: only prices, the argument runs, are accurately able to convey the necessary decentralized and distributed information that makes up the relative exchange value of goods. Therefore, in any system seeking to replace prices (and by implication, profits) with some form of central management, there necessarily follows a shortage of information in the decision-making process in production and exchange, with the familiar results of shortages, gluts, famines, and failures of supply. Read the rest of this entry »

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