Politics is becoming more and more polarised. How does the radical left grow in this context? Kieran Allen offers a solution.
The present social order is showing remarkable signs of decay. Slowing economic dynamism and growing geopolitical rivalries have produced a dangerous and chaotic world.
Overlaid on these signs of decay, is a looming threat to the planet itself. Huge floods in countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and the U.S. indicates that climate change has already started. Yet even the modest targets for carbon reduction have been frequently missed—and that was before Trump tore up the Paris accord.
One result of these developments is a polarisation of politics to both the left and the right. The ‘extreme centre’ which dominated Western politics is weakening. This was built on a consensus around the priorities of capital and an Atlanticist orientation whereby both conservative and social democratic rivals in EU countries forged a consensus around U.S. ‘leadership’. In recent decades, however, the organisational roots of mainstream parties have wilted.
In his last book, the political scientist, Peter Mair suggested that the mass roots of conventional parties in Western democracies were declining. By the 1990s, just 5% of the population of Western democracies were members of a political party whereas in the 1960s it was three times higher. Even before the crash of 2008, the fall in mass membership has been accompanied by a decline in the ideological grip of the main conventional political parties. Since the crash, there has been an acceleration in this trend in many parts of the world.
The Rise of Populism?
In many countries the extreme right and fascist forces have moved more quickly than the left to capture discontent. They have developed an extensive social media presence and have sought to frame opposition to austerity in the context of a nativist rhetoric about ‘looking after our own’. Typically, they combine anti-globalisation rhetoric with attacks on immigrants and Muslims. Often they use fake-left themes designed to appeal to ‘white workers’. These are entirely instrumental rhetorical devices designed to serve a more statist form of national capital. However where there is a radical left that attacks the corporate agenda, it can draw away support from the extreme right. For every Trump there is a Sanders; for Le Pen there is a Melénchon; for the Dutch Freedom party there is a Green Left.
The liberal mainstream media, however, uses a different narrative. Typical of this approach is an assessment from the Washington Post which suggested that ‘Marx didn’t have it quite right. A spectre is haunting the European Union—but it is the spectre of nationalism.’ This type of approach typically highlights the growth of the extreme right and plays down the shift to the left. It suggests that the mass of workers have an atavistic, uneducated response to globalisation and are more attracted to extreme right ideas. It defines the cleavage as between a liberal centre and an undifferentiated ‘populism’. The latter term is then used increasingly to equate the ‘extremes’ of left and right. Both of these ‘extremes’, it is implied, contain deeply authoritarian tendencies that arise from an overarching concept of a homogenous people versus a tiny elite. The appeal to ‘the people’ apparently ignores the right of minorities and ‘the rule of law’. This tendency, the liberal mainstream press suggests, is pre-dominantly shaped by the right and where the radical left exists, it is simply feeding from the same trough.
However, as Marco D’Armo has pointed out, the term populism is not a self definition:
It is an epithet pinned on you by your political enemies. In its most brutal form, ‘populist’ is simply an insult; in a more cultivated form, a term of disparagement. But if no one defines themselves as populist, then the term populism defines those who use it rather than those who are branded with it.
As an insult, the term draws its intellectual sustenance, from 19th century theories of the irrational crowd that were popularised by Le Bon. It serves the ideological supporters of the mainstream parties today in a similar way that the term ‘totalitarianism’ served their equivalents during the Cold War period. In other words, it is a catch all term designed to warn people against moving away from the safe paths that have been forged by the predominant consensus between the centre left and the centre right.
The problem of defining populism in this way is that it ignores the manner in which the prejudices which fuel right wing ‘populism’ have been fostered by the very same ‘liberal centre’. Contrary to its own self image, Western liberalism has historically been deeply implicated in constructing racist images and discourses which today permeate modern culture. In the contemporary period, the ’extreme centre’ has often legitimated racism in their attempt to reconnect with their electoral base. EU leaders, for example, may challenge Trump’s rhetoric about building a wall but they have created their own fences and frontiers against immigrants. When they want to connect with their more alienated voters, centre politicians are more than capable of re-enforcing the worst stereotypes of outsiders. Manuel Walls, the former French Minister from the centre left may serve as a useful example; faced with growing unpopularity, he launched a scathing attack on immigrants and refugees in terms that do not appear dissimilar to those of the National Front, claiming that Europe was under threat from immigration. If Europe was to accept more refugees, he claimed, it would be ‘totally destabilised’. The Dutch centre right Prime Minister used a similar discourse when he stated that ‘migrants should behave normally or be gone.’ At a deeper level the austerity programmes that have been promoted by the centre has created the conditions under which the extreme right thrives.
New Left Politics
But this same austerity can also lead to a new class awareness and a polarisation to the left as well.
Since economic crash of 2008, there been a slow re-emergence of left politics. The sheer scale of the crash has been one factor propelling these developments forward. But an interesting feature of the current period is the re-emergence of party-based political activism. Social movements have played a major role in radicalisation but they are often at their strongest around episodes; sporadic upsurges that seize media attention and grab public attention around occupations or major demonstrations. Through these events the Occupy movement helped to enlighten a whole generation about the class divide in society. But it has also left little behind in terms of coherent organisational structures that can strategise to achieve victories. One result is that many who thought social movement activism was sufficient are now starting to look again at the party form as a vehicle for advance. The growth of the Democratic Socialist Alliance (DSA) in North America or the emergence of the Public Unity Candidacy (CUP) in Catalonia are just examples of social movement activists making their way into political parties.
The left politics which is growing today has a number of characteristics. It breaks with the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism. Sometimes there is an organisational separation from older labour or social democratic parties. A classic example here is the emergence of Die Linke in Germany. On other occasions, however, there are revolts among the supporters of traditional organisations which create a space for a vibrant opposition to neo-liberalism to emerge. The rise of the Momentum movement in the British Labour Party serves as an example here. The current left politics often coalesces around a particular personality who articulates wider class grievances such as a Sanders or a Corbyn. At its core there is a belief that a left government which is true to its principles can alleviate the conditions of working people. In brief, the sentiment is largely one of left reformism.
Limits of Left Reformism
The context for this growth is twofold. First, the workers’ movement has experienced many defeats at the hands of a resurgent capitalist class. The older methods of adhering to the rules of ‘ industrial relations’ and seeking to use the state apparatus to pressurise capitalists to abide by legal obligations has been no match for employer strategies. The result is that workers feel they have little ability to effect change on their own—but want a left government to do it for them. Second, the networks of politicised working class activists that were shaped by communist or social democratic parties have weakened. The collapse of the USSR and the embrace of austerity by the social democrats have disorientated them. While such networks often exerted conservative restraints over working class radicalism, they also served as a ballast for more stable leftist attitudes. With the ballast removed, there is a greater volatility in working class outlooks. Electorally, this volatility can lead to a withdrawal of support for parties that embrace neoliberalism and in a swing to the radical left.
While shifts to the left can start with the politics described above, they cannot achieve their aims within this framework. Some of the leaders who articulate broad working class discontent with austerity are trapped within parties that brought about that austerity. Bernie Sanders was a voice for ‘socialism’ during the U.S. Presidential elections but afterwards he mounted a unity tour to heal divisions in the Democratic Party with Tom Perez, a labour secretary under Obama. Jeremy Corbyn is a stronger advocate for left politics—and the British Labour party he leads has considerably deeper links to the organised working class than the U.S. Democrats—but he is being held hostage by a parliamentary party that has systematically disappointed its working class supporters. More generally, the articulation of leftist sentiment occurs largely on the terrain of electoral politics. A failure to mobilise and encourage a sense of empowerment amongst workers limits its possibilities. The reason is that a key element in right wing ideologies today is a promotion of a fatalism which both recognises discontent but dissolves it in a rhetoric that ‘we are where we are’. A purely electoral strategy—or even a strategy that subordinates mobilisation to electoral considerations—will therefore only lead to limited advances.
More broadly, attempts to capture state power to manage late capitalism run into a number of contradictions. The installation of a left government can increase the aspirations of working people but the very structures of the state hinder any attempts to fulfil them. Bourgeois democracy separates the political from the economic so that a political move to encroach on capital will be met with sustained economic sabotage. In this context, elected governments find that they are unable to control the unelected officials inside the state apparatus. None of this is to suggest that reforms should not be attempted or that certain gains may not be won. It is rather to claim that the contradictions that arise from the establishment of a left government can only be resolved by breaking the power of capital. As the state machinery is structured to prop up the rule of capital it cannot be the vehicle for uprooting it.
Left Reformism in Practice
The abject failure of Syriza is a warning to the left everywhere. It was once hailed as an innovative ‘broad party’ that brought together activists from different left traditions to overcome traditional debates about reform and revolution. When it came to power, it was seen as the first radical left government in Europe since the Popular Front in France in 1936. Its fundamental weakness was that it believed (or at least its leading component believed) that the EU elite could be open to rational persuasion. It presented a Keynesian case against austerity and assumed that if its policy proposals were functional for the health of capitalism it would get a positive response. Its former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, described what happened when he presented this case to EU leaders:
It’s not that it didn’t go down well—It’s that there was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank…. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on—to make sure it’s logically coherent—and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem—you’d have got the same reply. And that’s startling, for somebody who’s used to academic debate.… The other side always engages. Well there was no engagement at all. It was not even annoyance, it was as if one had not spoken.
Syriza did not have a Plan B when persuasion failed because of its naïve illusions in the liberal and ‘progressive’ nature of the EU. The result is that today Syriza has become an enforcer for austerity.
Less well known, possibly, is the experience of the Workers Party in Brazil. This was born under a military dictatorship and its driving force was working class militants from Sao Paola. It spoke a language of participatory democracy and was initially characterised by a strong emphasis on struggle from below. But as electoralist tendencies grew inside the party, its political ideology shifted to an emphasis on entering government at all costs. Lula’s election in 2002 was fought under a slogan of ‘peace and love’ and was devised by a marketing manager who was paid though an offshore account. The Workers Party occupied the Presidential office for four terms and achieved some reforms. The Bolsa familia gave grants to poor families; the minimum wage was increased and there was greater access to higher education for poorer students. None of these reforms affected the health of Brazilian capitalism, however, because as Perry Anderson pointed out, the Bolsa familia cost a mere 0.5% of GDP whereas rentier incomes for the wealthy from public debt amounted to 6-7%. The Brazilian rich were happy to live with the Workers Party for as long as the boom in primary commodities sustained the economy. But when this ceased, they turned on the Workers Party with unprecedented ferocity. Its Prime Minister was driven from office in a parliamentary coup and Lula was arrested. ‘Peace and love’ between the social classes led only to intensified attack on the living standards of workers and the poor. Even the mildest reforms, it appears, will not be tolerated when capital’s insatiable desire for more profit is not satisfied.
Politics and Anti-Politics
If, therefore, there is a rising interest in the left and at the same time clear evidence of the failure of left reformist strategies, where might new political formations emerge and what possible alternative strategies are available to them?
In many countries, there is both a presence of a social movement left and, sometimes, a smaller revolutionary left. By a social movement left, we mean networks of activists who mobilise around specific issues—often on a broad, non-economic agenda. Thus millions have mobilised against war, police violence, racism, climate change, abortion rights, evictions etc. Through such mobilisations a distinct anti-capitalist consciousness can develop but this can be accompanied by a suspicion or scepticism about political organisation. Typically the opposition to capitalism that arises in such movements is not necessarily defined in socialist terms. Nor are the mass of workers seen as potential agents of change.
Where such movements are theorised, they suggest an opposition to all forms of class ‘essentialism.’ This sometimes leads to an injunction among some activists to stay separate from traditional labour organisations in order to safeguard their ‘autonomy.’ Ironically, however, the very break from a class ‘essentialism’ is often accompanied by a search for a populist leader who can transform the divergent strands of a movement into a strong discourses that forges a ‘people’. Reality rarely follows the prescriptions of the theorists who advocate permanent autonomy. Instead movements which start from a distinct ’anti-politics’ position at the outset, are often forced to confront real issues that go well beyond the question of discourses. They may face attacks from the police; they may face sustained slander from the mainstream media; they face the wider problem of ‘what next’? Crucially, these movements are faced with the question of how they can go beyond their existing resources to mobilise larger numbers in effective actions to challenge the status quo. Lastly, a debate emerges about what strategy should be deployed to deal with the state is forced on movements.
In these circumstances, the initial form of ‘anti-politics’ can become a temporary phenomenon—especially if an organised left responds in an open and positive way to movements. Activists may reject the authoritarianism of the modern state but, unfortunately, the state does not ignore them. It intrudes into lives to bolster the power of capital.
The experience of the May 15 indignado movement in Spain, or in a more complex way the Occupy movement in the U.S., indicates this pattern. Although there was an initial rejection of political parties, the power of the state pushed activists into either developing new parties or participating in parties. Podemos grew out of a movement that rejected politics and then transformed itself into a relatively top-down electoral machine. Many of those who joined the Occupy Movement in the U.S. found their way into supporting Bernie Sanders when he ran for U.S. President. The trajectory towards political engagement is not automatic and nor is it the sole trend. But it certainly exists as possibility for sections of the social movement left. If this is the case, the key questions become; What type of party? How does grassroots involvement continue? How does the anti-capitalist impetus continue?
Class & Community Struggle
One of the first issues that arise in any such discussion is the issue of social class. A whole generation has gone through universities where it has become common place to equate the working class with male manual workers and then to dismiss its ‘privileges’. Social class, however, is not a matter of a particular lifestyle but arises from the wealth generating structures of our society. We live in a system whereby human labour has become a commodity, measured in unit costs like any other item on the market place. Human creativity, following this, has the unique quality of being able to create more value than its supposed market price. The exploitation of labour whether it is manual or mental or both, is thus at the heart of a profit generating system. Mobilisation against this ‘normal’ form of exploitation is, potentially, the secret of the system’s weakness. If this is the case, why would those who oppose capitalism limit their activity to street protests or attempt to build tiny autonomous zones on the fringes of the system? Surely, the key to change is connecting the radicalism of social movements with more sustained involvement in broader working class struggles.
Sometimes, however, there is a mechanical reading off of the potential for working class radicalism from strike figures and workplaces struggles. This, then, leads to a pessimistic dismissal of the organised working class as an agent for change. However, one needs to recognise that the sheer scale of the employers’ offensive at workplace level has disorientated traditional labour organisations. A re-composition of networks of militancy is needed if workers are to move beyond the terrain of ‘orderly industrial relations’. An anti-capitalist consciousness will be a key ingredient of forging new networks of militancy. But this consciousness can only become a factor if it is not sealed off in universities or in activist communities that are self-referential. The development of networks of working class fighters can start on different terrain to the workplace itself and then rebound back into workplaces. Leftists who focus on building roots in working class communities can play a major role in re-creating networks of militancy.
Building roots in working class communities cannot be done, in the present circumstances, simply by means of general propaganda against capitalism. It requires agitation i.e. campaigning for very specific goals, both locally and nationally. What those goals are, and the nature of the campaigns, have to be determined on the basis of actually listening to what working class people want. This does NOT mean that if local people want something reactionary (to blame the immigrants, exclude the refugees, prevent the location of a facility for the homeless etc) leftists should go along with this. It does, however, mean getting involved and championing their cause if they want to defend their swimming pool, keep some green space, resist an unfair tax, save a hospital or improve the Community Centre in their area.
Local campaigning is not counter-posed to national campaigning. Often one will feed into the other but specific local campaigns are important for gaining footholds in local communities. Sometimes it is more possible to mobilise working people to oppose a local hospital cut than it is to garner to support for a more general ‘Stop the Cuts’ campaign. On other occasions a national mobilisation feeds back into and galvanises local movements. Something that needs to be understood here is that, generally speaking, working class people get involved in political campaigns when they think they can actually win and often people feel more able to win on local issues. In different periods, this leads to involvement in great international mobilisations, such as those against war. On other occasions, the local issues will predominate. Of course, leftists want to change this and broaden people’s horizons; but the way to achieve this is by starting where working people are actually at, not where we would like them to be.
A political alliance that coalesces into a distinct organisation needs to be forged between those who want to want to break from the pro-austerity politics of traditional parties, activists from social movements who want a political expression and a revolutionary left that is willing to break from sectarianism. In many countries, there are similar themes that working people want political action on. These include end zero hour contracts, precarious working conditions, a defence of pension rights, abolition of student debt, for a national health service that treats according to medical need and not the size of one’s wallet. In addition, there are a host of social issues which despite its pretence at liberalism and equality, modern capitalism has not solved. These include a support for refugees, opposition to racism, support for abortion rights, gay marriage. In addition, there needs to be a strong anti-imperialist component to any new left that challenges the role of U.S. imperialism in particular in seeking to dominate parts of the globe. It is perfectly possible to develop a programme to fight on these issues—even if there are differences on how they can ultimately be resolved.
Such an alliance may not always be immediately possible but it should be a strategic goal. It should be promoted and propagandised for. It will not result simply from backroom discussions but from a wider sentiment among layers of activists. In the final analysis, however, it will require initiatives to be taken by individuals or groups. These need to network and build a degree of trust that recognises differences in orientation but promote unity around specific strategies.
There are a number of rationales for such an organised alliance. First, it arises out of the real context of working class political development today. This is in transition from supporting parties with social democratic aspirations to more radical left positions which challenge the regime of austerity capitalism. Second, there needs to be an anchor that provides activists with a base that transcends the high and lows of broad campaigns. Huge mobilisations come like waves but in the absence of real political organisation they often start again from scratch. The alliance structure we have described provide a space whereby militants can recover energy, learn and develop strategies for the next waves of struggle. Third, leftists needs to sink new roots among the working class, both white collar and blue collar. Instead of appearing as relatively atomised individuals, activists need to be able to motivate larger networks.
Crucially, however the radical left needs to develop an electoral and parliamentary presence that can amplify its voice on a wider scale and on a greatly enhanced range of specific issues. Without such a presence it will be permanently marginalised by the mainstream media. It will not emerge as a national party that can become a focal point for masses of workers unless its voice is heard. Parliaments and local councils must be used to normalise left wing politics—to turn left wing ideas into the common currency of everyday conversation. In the current trajectory of working class development, there is no way around the necessity of winning such a presence. The process of electoral intervention and sinking roots in working class communities means leftists learning to express their ideas in popular language, the language of the working people they are addressing and hoping to influence. As a result of their isolation, revolutionary socialists often develop a habit of speech which is the product of getting used to speaking primarily to ourselves. A conscious breaking from these practices is necessary.
At the core of the agreement within transitional organisations must be an embrace of the methodology of ‘people power’. The intrusion of the market into almost every part of society clashes with the aspiration of working people for social rights and decent public services. Conventional politics works by allowing for the expression of some discontent while propagating a fatalistic acceptance of the system as whole. Conventional politicians use clientelist methods or distribution of patronage to create electoral coalitions. A left strategy that attempts to mirror such methodologies is doomed to failure. It must, instead, seek to mobilise in campaigns of people power to achieve even the most limited gains. In practice, the left needs to host events that bring people together to discuss grievances and form broad based action groups that encourage mobilisation.
From People Power to Workers Power
There are, of course, limits to a strategy of ‘people power’. We can block streets, sit down in city squares, occupy buildings, and engage in civil disobedience but the wheels of capital keep moving. From the beginning, therefore, leftists need to press for a focus on ‘workers power’. By workers we mean blue collar and white collar; workers of all colours, religions and none. The term ‘middle class’—unless it is applied to upper professionals who effectively manage their own working lives—is a confusing term. The left needs to recognise that while there are different cultures and issues which energise white and blue collar workers at community level, there are common issues which concern them at workplace levels. Pay stagnation or even cuts, casualisation and precarity, lack of pension rights, work intensification; all of these affect both sections of workers. When organised workers take action, it hits at the heart of the system of capitalist exploitation. It has the potential to mobilise solidarity to win—particularly if more politicised workers do not stick to the restricted legalities. For all these reasons, a focus on ‘workers power’ should be prioritised.
In practice, this means a strategic emphasis on non-electoralist interventions in unions and workplaces as well as electoral interventions. The left must seek to augment the power of workers by promoting methods of struggle that move beyond the constraints of traditional ‘industrial relations’ practices. These practices were originally the outcome of what Gramsci called an ‘industrial legality,’ but as state authoritarianism has accompanied neoliberalism they have become more legally restrictive. The union bureaucracies, however, continue to crave a friendly relationship with the state and a trust in their negotiating relationship with employers. Workers will often start their own resistance by resorting to the traditional machinery of industrial relations but to win serious gains they will have to move beyond it. This process will develop more quickly where there are organised grassroots movement within unions who are willing to challenge existing leadership and promote more active workplace organisation. The growth of such grassroots union movements will help increase the confidence of workers and create more favourable terrain for the left.
Embarking on a strategy of real engagement with the current consciousness of working people is a two-way street. Leftists will seek to promote an anti-capitalist and revolutionary outlook but the more roots they sink in working class communities, the greater will be the pressure to adapt to the current consciousness of workers. A desire for reforms within the system does not arise from a ‘labour aristocracy’ who corrupts an otherwise militant movement. It arises from certain experiences of working class life under capitalism itself—particularly when workers lack confidence in their own power. For these reasons, there is an inherent contradiction in the strategy that is advocated here—but it is a contradiction that arises from reality not mental constructs. In order to overcome it, a dual strategy is required. Transitional organisations that create a political space where different elements can struggle (and learn together) in an open, outward non-sectarian way are vital to win workers to the radical left. But within such organisations, those who want the overthrow of capitalism will need to maintain an independent presence that promotes an opening to deeper Marxist politics. Their existence should be openly declared to avoid all charges of secrecy and manipulation. Their rationale as agencies to combat sell outs and incorporation should be explained. Such a strategy is only possible when revolutionaries also recognise that they must forge close relationships with those with whom they have a lot of–but not total—agreement.