Mapping the coming split on the radical Left
This paper by Dominic Heilig, Mapping the Left in Europe, has really got me thinking we may be watching the final disintegration of working class political parties. If you follow all the splits in the working class movement since the 1st International, as Heilig suggests, it soon becomes obvious the working class movement is not recombining on a new basis after each split, but only splintering further. The anarchists/Marxist split, the splits within social-democracy that produced the third International, the split within post-WWI communist parties beginning in the 1950s, etc., seems only to deepen the fragmentation of the working class movement; leaving it still less capable of effectively employing political power to emancipate itself from wage labor.
Heilig’s argument in this essay suggests the European Left is about to undergo still another disastrous split in the wake of the SYRIZA catastrophe.
When SYRIZA won the election in Greece in 2015 and formed the first radical Left government, it soon found it had no means at its disposal to put an end to austerity. SYRIZA had invented this complete fantasy that the EU and IMF would relent on austerity and ride to rescue of the Greece working class using the European Investment Bank to implement a Keynesian style progressive anti-austerity program. When this utterly delusional expectation did not materialize, SYRIZA was screwed and had nothing to fall back on.
In his essay, Heilig devotes a considerable amount of space to explaining the history of today’s radical Left parties and tracing the evolution that makes them successful in the wake of the collapse of the traditional social democratic and Marxist-Leninist parties. Oddly enough, however, he spends almost no time answering the question posed by the SYRIZA debacle itself: what will make them successful after actually winning an election? How will they implement their stated aims when governments of the EU have no effective means to control their national capitals?
Every radical party coming after SYRIZA is going to run into a brick wall that it has no power to implement its goals. Taking control of Greece turned as useless for SYRIZA as taking control of the city of Athens or the city of Boston or, more graphically, gaining control of a single factory to end austerity.
In what has to be considered the 21st century manifesto of the rejectionist wing of the working class movement, John Holloway has argued gaining political power should not be the aim of the workers’ movement; we must change the world without taking power. Holloway and his rejectionistas may very well be right because political power, as we have come to conceive it, (national state power), is itself an illusion in the era of the neoliberal state.
Heilig offers nothing in the way of an assessment for why SYRIZA would try to gain power when it knew it had no capacity to alter things.
Heilig’s essay can be considered an answer to Holloway’s electoral rejectionist position: We go into electoral politics because that is where the working class voters are.
“On the other hand, it can be argued that left parties in the form of protest parties are not viable in the long run. Times of social crises in no way cause people to turn to the proposals put forward by the radical left. In fact, the left has to “enter” the system it criticises in order to be able to carry out the changes it hopes for. Admittedly, all left parties in Europe move within this contradiction. However, it is increasingly difficult for those parties which hold to “revolutionary” solutions to give convincing answers, translating into successful electoral arithmetic, to the question of how people’s concrete problems can be solved. Since in the foreseeable future in Europe we cannot expect revolutionary tendencies, these parties cannot achieve decent results in the short and middle term.”
The radical Left, argues Heilig, is like old Moses who had to return to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage and on to the Promised Land? Moses could not simply stand on the border with Egypt and scream, “You niggahs better get your asses out of there and come over here and taste some of this freedom! Ain’t nothing over there in Egypt. but slavery and pyramids.” All Left parties, says Heilig, move within the contradiction that they must enter politics to put an end to politics. Even parties that hold to “revolutionary” solutions have to give convincing answers to concrete social problems.
True enough. But are these answers only to be found in the illusory political sphere? Heilig doesn’t assert this directly, but it is implied in his argument and he does offer the argument that revolutionary solutions are not practical in the near term.
I suppose this argument works at some level among radical Leftists — especially in those countries where the alternative is Trump, FN, UKIP or AfD. For sure, no one is in the streets demanding an immediate end to wage slavery and a society founded on the principle of “to each according to their need.” Indeed, people aren’t even in the streets demanding a Keynesian program of full employment and a higher minimum wage.
The working class of Europe just are not in the streets demanding anything at all — the streets of Europe are as quiet as a chapel despite six years of an aggravated political-economic crisis.
But Heilig is actually using misdirection here on his readers: rather than arguing his own case for a renewed social democracy, he slams the rejectionistas for their opposition to to modest reforms within the existing state. To accomplish this misdirection, he imposes on the rejectionist wing of radical Leftism the same standards of success as apply to the ‘electionistas’. The rejectionistas, says Helig, cannot “give convincing answers” to concrete problems that translate into “successful electoral arithmetic”.
Well, duh! Rejection of all politics within the existing state doesn’t translate in electoral success?
No. Shit. Sherlock.
I don’t know, but I think people are not looking for this sort of genius insight from Heilig when they picked up this essay. More likely than not they’re looking for an honest answer for how the radical Left (electoral or rejectionist) can prevent getting its ass kicked like SYRIZA did.
SYRIZA got its ass kicked by the EU for reasons that had nothing to do with its electoralism, but for lack of a realistic program it could implement without relying on the acquiescence of the EU and IMF.
Essentially, SYRIZA went into government with a gun pointed to its own head, declaring it was prepared to pull the trigger if its demands were not met. The response of Merkel and the rest of the EU was just what would should have expected:
“Okay. But not in here — we’re eating. Please step outside the room and shoot yourself in the head.”
Here is the question Heilig completely fails to answer satisfactorily: Why, in God’s name, would any radical party go into government with a program that relied on the acquiescence and cooperation of its enemies?
It wasn’t as if the austerity program had been imposed on Greece by the traditional parties, PASOK and ND. Everybody knows the EU and IMF imposed austerity on Greece. The EU/IMF program that was implemented in Greece actually destroyed both PASOK and ND and made a SYRIZA government possible. Did SYRIZA think the EU and IMF had conspired to bring down the previous governments and clear the way for a SYRIZA government after which they would ease the crisis they produced in the first place?
What Heilig has to defend is the proposition the EU and IMF were ever prepared to accept a radical Left party committed to real democracy. Heilig thinks he can get away with this by making the obvious observation:
“That Europe’s neoliberal elites are not ready to concede power and space to a left anti-austerity party like Syriza that has the majority of the population behind it”.
Really? This is new information? I picked up this essay to find this out? Of course not. I picked it up to find out how a radical party like SYRIZA succeeds despite the open hostility of Europe’s neoliberal elites. Tell us something we don’t know yet, please.
Instead of an explanation for how a radical Left party can succeed in the face of the open hostility of neoliberal elites and complete absence of conventional policy tools to implement a radical Keynesian program, what we get is the rather lame observation that certain radical parties have successfully reformed themselves for electoral success.
“The developments in Spain, but also in Germany, show that success and failure always also depend on institutional conditions (such as electoral law). In addition, factors such as the left’s social mobilisation or its capacity to formulate answers to social changes play an essential role; it is clear that the left—precisely in view of its institutional disadvantage—has to make more effort than other parties to seek out alliances with other, progressive, forces. Only if the traditional divisions of the left are overcome, as in Greece or Germany, and actors agree on common goals—such as the struggle against austerity and de-democratisation— can success be achieved.”
The success mentioned here is obviously not success in actually ending austerity and ensuring democracy, but in convincing the electorate you have a program that can do this when they elect you — even if the facts prove otherwise. Clearly, by the question of power Heilig means only electoral success, not the capacity to implement any actual change in the material relations of society.
In fact, Heilig finally admits, no political party, even if it does gain a majority, can be successful if it is limited to forming a government within a single national-state:
“In any case, the very important year 2015 has shown that the left in Europe can only survive, continue to exist, and perhaps even be successful if it no longer limits itself to the nation-state but cooperates and acts on a Europe wide basis. A single left government in Europe does not make for a red European spring.”
To put this in simple terms: neither SYRIZA nor KKE had a snowflake’s chance in hell of changing existing material relations in Greece — electoral success or not.
Why would this be true?
For the simple reason that no country within the EU has the tools for conventional Keynesian (or Soviet) economic policy intervention in its economy. Without its own currency and, what’s more, without effectively isolating itself from the world market, a nation state is essentially powerless to direct its national economy.
Which is why SYRIZA came to power armed only with the expectation it could convince Europe to not be Europe, i.e., to stop treating European citizens the way it treats Africa’s citizens — to borrow a phrase from Americans, the European Left honestly believed barbarism ends at the water’s edge.
In this way, Heilig neatly side-steps the abject failure of SYRIZA once in power, by making it merely a precursor of a future movement for democratization of the whole EU. What we should learn from the SYRIZA catastrophe is not that it failed once in power, but that it held to vision of a democratic Europe. What matters is not the outcome of an election in a single state, but a process leading to the complete democratization of Europe.
Of course, it turns out that even a vision of a democratic EU relies on the political struggle unfolding in a single state: Germany, where Die Linke battles Merkel:
“If DIE LINKE is able to grow stronger and vanquish Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, the architect of European austerity policy, Europe can develop in a different, a more social and democratic, direction.”
Cool, but let me ask this: What the fuck does everyone else do while Merkel remains in power? Is the social revolution to be held on pause while Die Linke gets its act together and pushes her out of power?
And what if Die Linke never actually expels Merkel from power? Wasn’t this what happened to the Bolsheviks in 1917, when they took power thinking Germany would soon follow? What Heilig has done is simply replace the aim of a social revolution in one country with the old model of a Europe-wide social revolution that begs the question Stalin and his supporters faced: What do we do while we wait for this imaginary future to arrive?
SYRIZA’s answer to this critical question was to sign a third memorandum. Is this what Heilig suggests radical parties should do — just go along with austerity in every country until the whole EU is democratized? Has he nothing to add to this? Any suggestions for how we fight austerity short of complete democratization of Europe?
Another way to put this: Was SYRIZA wrong to take power when it knew the end of austerity required political changes well beyond Greece? And, if SYRIZA was wrong to take power under such conditions, are the rejectionistas, who reject electoral politics, correct all along?
Heilig’s argument does not point to the overcoming of capitalism, but to the further fragmentation of the working class movement, because the proletariat has proved, once again, to be unable to solve the puzzle of taking state power and ruling on its own behalf. The very thing that made the election of SYRIZA possible, moderating its aims with an eye to winning an election, made its success once in office impossible.
To win the elections SYRIZA set out to prove it could manage the existing state, when, in fact, no one, not even the traditional parties like PASOK and ND, proved able to manage it.
It is absolutely critical for the radical Left to understand that SYRIZA won the election only because the existing conventional parties had been broken trying to manage neoliberal capitalism.
What the split in SYRIZA, the collapse of its government and the results of the fall election proved is that we can’t win within the euro nor outside of the euro. Within the common currency or outside it, the working class is incapable of ruling through the existing state in its own name and on its own behalf.
The proletariat has no choice but to put an end to itself, to abolish its conditions of existence, wage labor.
Nobody — least of all the radical Left parties of Europe — wants to hear this.