Thunder on the Left, Lightening on the Right, Alex Callinicos’s Slow Impatience.
Alex Callinicos begins and ends his latest assessment of the “present situation” by resigning himself to the weaknesses of the “radical left”(1). A paradox, given, apparently, the SWP leader asserts, that capital is also weak.A feeble economic recovery after the Bank crisis of 2008 is not met by any renewed left. Indeed there is a “weakness of credible anti-capitalist alternatives.” Not only in the larger continental European organised parties, he modestly cites his own small group the SWP’s ‘troubles’, a subject which his article addresses.
The King’s College academic stops short of advocating the “communist pessimism” of Pierre de Naville or Walter Benjamin,. But he finishes by citing Daniel Bensaïd need for “a slow impatience”—in other words, “an active waiting, an urgent patience, an endurance and a perseverance that are the opposite of a passive waiting for a miracle”. This implies, an ” effort to intervene in and shape the present …”
Callinicos claims that there was a time when all seemed sailing towards a renewed radical left. This was, “the era of good feelings (1998-2005) the impulse of a growing movement was to play down or finesse political differences in the name of unity.” Not everybody will recall the creation of communalist groups like Respect, and the part played in its formation, and self-destruction, by the megaphone Ego of George Galloway, in the same way. The “Split” in this lash-up, in 2007, was apparently of great importance, though only the SWP (the splitters) took it as the milestone it apparently was – for the SWP. The subsequent misadventures of this ‘party’ are passed over, as if they had been written out of history.
Nor is the judgement that, “The radical left began to have an impact on the bourgeois political scene” quite as secure as it might appear. The May 2005 French referendum on the European draft constitution, lost by the neo-liberals backing it, was certainly significant. But the effect this had on the French left, notably the scission of what is now the Parti de Gauche from the French Parti Socialiste, and the formation of the Front de Gauche, are apparently (for Callinicos) of less significance than the fact that the LCR/Nouveau parti anticapitaliste, lost three tendencies (he does not bother to name them or describe their politics) to the FdG, one at its formation in 2009 (Gauche Unitaire) the other two in May 2005.
Callinicos manages to avoid discussing the mass basis and actions of the Front de Gauche (which has plenty of its own problems, starting with Jean-Luc Mélenchon) not to mention its election results (11,11 % for Mélenchon in the 2012 Presidential election’s first round, 10 MPs, and 4 MEPs this year) . He does however devote space to criticising the much more successful electorally Greek left bloc/party Syriza (26.5% of the vote in the 2012 European elections), apparently on the slippery slope to neo-liberalism after backing Juncker as European Commissioner.
Let us state clearly. This analysis of left retreat is lop-sided. The results of the May European elections indicate that the ‘radical left’ did not do badly at all. Indeed in Spain they reached historically high levels of support, adding to the weight of the Greek Syriza. In France (FdG) and Germany (Die Linke) left groups remained at stable levels of support. But the Front de Gauche (for all its internal problems) remains a player in the political and social game. These observations would be extended across the continent. Only if we take the ‘revolutionary left as a measure of left influence can we reach Callinicos’s conclusions about weakness and marginalisation.
Callinicos observes that for some parties may be in crisis, but the movements are fine. On the basis of some well-publicised protests (beginning with Callinicos ‘ high moment’ Seattle protests of 1999, though this remains firmly stuck in the – good – period of “good feelings” ) there has been a ” panorama of decentralised horizontal struggles that simultaneously subvert capital and outflank the ‘old left'”. These (initially referring to Paul Mason’s wildly over- enthusiastic, Why its All Kicking off Everywhere 2012 – really? ), “started with the Arab revolutions (rebellions as much against the polarising and impoverishing effects of neoliberalism as against autocracy) and the echoes it gained in the North with the 15 May movement in the Spanish state and Occupy Wall Street and its numerous imitators.Other protests—somewhat earlier (British students, 2010) or later (Brazil and Turkey, 2013)….”
Callinicos does not discuss the view widely circulated by commentators, that these are protests of the liberal middle class, or their inability to effect any substantial change in any government’s policies- a serious balance-sheet. They have all, in other, words, been kicked into the long grass, if not brutally suppressed. The sole exception, Tunisia, looks increasingly, a ‘normal’ democracy, a welcome result compared to the alternatives. As with the mass ‘centrist’ parties (see definition of the ‘radical left below) this is carried our without any serious examination of these movements, in all their diversity. Above all there is no serious attempt to grapple with politics of the ‘movement’ that has become the focus of British activists, trade unionists, and the grass-roots left: the People’s Assembly. Instead it is largely dismissed on the basis of the strategy of the union, UNITE, to “reclaim Labour”.
Instead, the SWP theorist reminds us of the timeless truth, “The trouble is that the state, the broader political process of which it is the focus, and the parties that struggle over it remain fundamental determinants of the social, whatever autonomists and neoliberals fondly claim. ” Furthermore, “The wager of Leninism is that a revolutionary party can intervene in the political field in order to help bring about the overthrow of capital. From this follows, as Bensaïd also stressed, the centrality of strategy—of the determined, persistent, organised effort to relate specific tactics to the overarching aim of socialist revolution. ” There views are bolstered, by appeals to Gramsci. One might say that citing Leninist aims does nothing to answer those who see Leninist practice, or rather the SWP and other groups, in the multiple crises Callinicos only begins to sketch.
Callinicos finally gets to some genuine meat, ‘anti-politics’. “The structural divorce of the political class from the citizens it is supposed to represent and its integration into the moneyed world encourages popular rejection of all parties, summed up in “¡Que se vayan todos!”—All of them must go!—the slogan of the Argentinian revolt in 2001-2. This rejection—which can be called “anti-politics. He continues, “on the whole the right-populist currents that have been most successful in exploiting this mood are not themselves “anti-politics”.” This is not new. Known in France as “anti-system” parties, these are have been a long-standing feature of European politics, going (in the case of the Hexagone) back to General George Boulanger’s at the end of the 19th century.
If this is fast becoming a commonplace – a much better starting point for looking at the May European elections, and the rise of groups like M5S (Italy) and UKIP, as well as the Front National, there are some systematic difficulties with Callincos’s analysis. One certainly does not have to accept a neo-Foucaulean analysis of the articulation of a neoliberal subjectivity to see that these materialised policies have sapped the basis of left politics. Thomas Picketty is a better guide to the ideology of justly reward success – underpinning the growth of the share taken by owners of capital, and high earners – offers an indication of how the “losers” despair at overcoming their inequality by collective action.This is a structural feature of Capital in the 21st century, a deeper causal mechanism behind economic restructuring, and the inability of the workers’ movement to oppose neo-liberalism. The transformation of the state into a gigantic renting operating – by which most of the population pay rent to private owners of public services – is a greater challenge than the venality of the political class.
Significantly Callinicos does not discuss the one leftist bloc, the Spanish Podemos, which has attempted to combine ‘anti-politics’, new methods of organising, with electoral participation and the building of a ‘broad party’.
Attacking the claim that the Leninist ‘model’ has had its day is a necessary task for a leader of the SWP. Awareness of the largely forgotten writings of Alain Badiou on the new “political organisation” that will replace Leninism, or John Holloway’s writings, at least indicates an awareness that Lenin is not an unchallenged authority. It would take longer than this brief notice to discuss Lars Lih’s reconstruction of Lenin’s political ideas. The same applies to Callinicos’ observations of feminism – which others will not doubt discuss in detail.
But one point stands out in Thunder on the Left: what is wrong with broad parties of the left? Why, given the present ideological and political diversity of the left, are they not the ideal vehicle (wide enough…) to work out differences? What is wrong with broad democracy – on the network model? Those who have elft the SWP, engaged in such groups inside Left Unity, are unlikely to be convinced by a few warm words about feminism, and criticism of the tortuous liberalism of “intersectionality”.
Why does a Leninist ‘Combat Party’ – to all the evidence in terminal decline, riddled with problems, from democracy onwards – still fascinate people like Callinicos? Some of us, who recognise strengths in Lenin’s analysis of political conjunctures, have never adopted the model of the Leninist ‘party’ in the first place. Even the Acts of the Apostles were never much of a guide to historical Christian practice. Hankering after a party’s glory years, whose first acts on taking power were to suppress opposition groups – an ever-widening number – raises more problems than it solves. All the evidence is, that we will have to hang around for a long time for a new revolutionary Party that fulfils the role of a Messiah that can do better than these imperfect, “centrist” (as the Leninists call them) broad left parties.
But then the leader of the SWP shows every sign of waiting, impatiently, a very long time in Perry Anderson’s Watchtower.
This is worth reading,
Alex Callinicos: take a look in the mirror Louis Proyect.
It ends with, “Displaying a shamelessness on the order of a Washington bourgeois politician, Callinicos spends a thousands words or so defending his party’s understanding of the “woman question” against Sharon Smith of the ISO who views Tony Cliff’s analysis as lacking to say the least. If Callinicos can’t make the connection between a certain theoretical deficiency in the SWP and the commission of inquiry that asked the female rape victim about her drinking habits, then he is beyond help.
In his conclusion, Callinicos writes:
The present crisis is much more diffuse, but in some ways more threatening, because the revolutionary left is much weaker than it was in 1979. This makes the attempts to split and even to destroy organisations such as the NPA and the SWP so irresponsible.
Now I have no idea what is going on in the French NPA since the comrades are not particularly engaged with the English-speaking left (who can blame them?) but I doubt it has anything to do with a rape investigation that had more in common with those conducted in the American military than what we would expect from a Marxist party. In terms of attempts to destroy an organization, my suggestion to Alex Callinicos is that he takes a look in the mirror at his earliest convenience. There he will find the miscreant most responsible.”
As can be seen above, we do know what happened in the NPA and Callinicos is talking bollocks.
People left it because they saw the Front de gauche (which the NPA denounced – as they memorably described their politics, “between us and the Parti Socialiste, there is nothing“) as the best way forward for broad – mass – left politics.
(1) Callinicos, “By “radical left” I mean those currents that reject neoliberalism, whether on an explicitly revolutionary basis or in a manner that avoids the choice between reform and revolution or even embraces some version of left social democracy. This is the spectrum from the NPA and the SWP to the Front de Gauche and Die Linke, with Syriza somewhere in between. In this article I concentrate mainly (though not exclusively) on Europe.” On this definition alone his claim that the left has precipitously declined is false. Taking the crisis of the remaining ‘Leninist’ groups for the left is, of course, just one of his solipsistic errors.