Learning lessons in dark times

Submitted by martin on 4 May, 2020 - 1:28 Author: Luke Hardy
Dark times

Photo by Harald Pliessnig on Unsplash

Things are dark now for socialists almost everywhere. Nationalism, nativism and violent reaction are on the march across the globe.

Two points of hope in the English speaking world, the Sanders and Corbyn movements, whilst not dead are defeated, disillusioned and disoriented. Great workers' movements like those of Brazil, India, and Turkey fight for their continued existence against creeping despotism. Almost everywhere else zombie neoliberalism or murderous state capitalism reigns.

Coronavirus makes many of us feel more helpless. It makes us feel we can only protest the murderous incompetence of our ruling class and the cruel indifference of the economic system virtually within our social media algorithms.

105 years ago this month things looked far bleaker still. From prison Rosa Luxemburg looked at the ruins of a great socialist movement. The German Social Democratic Party was a mass party of socialism rooted deeply in a growing, combative, and confident working class. It was also the centre of a true international of millions of socialists around the world.

Yet the parties of this world-shaking movement had collapsed at the point of crisis and had meekly abandoned their fraternity, their internationalism, and their independence to fall in behind the war drive of their respective governments. On the battlefield the working classes of Europe and the world beyond were slaughtering each other in the name of God, imperial vanity, and capital to keep monarchs and plutocrats on their thrones.

At home repression, disease, and starvation loomed.

In that darkness Rosa Luxemburg wrote one of her most famous works on The Crisis of German Social Democracy (also called the Junius Pamphlet).

One of her key arguments was for socialists to be clear-eyed and face up to the situation. To face the extent of the crisis, to face their own failures, and go forward without illusions in short cuts and cure-alls.

She wrote:

“Its [the proletariat’s] tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow.”

Instead, she counselled: “emancipation depends on this – is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.”

So in the same spirit what do we need to face up to? What is the depth of our fall?

We need to face up to the failure of the socialist left in the last decade. That should have been a decade of massive advance for our class, for socialist movements worldwide. The 2008 crisis had utterly undermined the ideological dominance of capital. The idea that there is no alternative was dead. History had not ended, and, no, we were not all middle class now. Yet it was ultimately the forces of the nationalist right that won out.

So why did the socialist left fail over the last decade? That’s what we need to discuss, however hard it is.

I suggest three historical errors our movement made. This is not exhaustive or particularly original. It is open to challenge. But the point is to start a debate. As another socialist of sorts in a period of defeat, Stuart Hall said, we must “address ourselves violently to the present as it is”.

1. The problem of Left Populism

Much of the left adopted "left populism" as the strategy for advancing the cause of socialism. The Occupy Movement famously talked of the 99% versus the 1%.

As an analysis of why the 2008 financial crisis happened, it had obvious explanatory power. A vanishingly tiny number of people and corporations had driven capitalism to collapse. Even capitalists, politicians and journalists had never heard of the complex financial instruments that caused the crash. The dash to earn superprofits in a subset of the financial markets brought down the whole world economy.

The second key influence of the Occupy movement was to talk in terms of radical democracy as the politics to take on the 1%. Short-lived through the Occupy Movement was, the broader socialist left, whether elements of its revolutionary wing, union leaders, or the left of social democracy took this up as their creed. Against the 1%. With the 99%. For the many, not the few.

That obviously had some advantages in getting ideas over. The work had already been done to popularise these ideas. It also seemed a way around 40 years of calumnies against socialism, a route around the historical weakness of working class consciousness and the low level of working class struggle.

Yet a problem with the left adopting populism is that its explanatory power fails when it comes to the more fundamental workings of capitalism, the nature of the state, and ruling class ideology. It explains the world in moral rather than structural terms.

Most capitalists had nothing to do with causing the 2008 crisis. Many pay their taxes onshore. Populism doesn’t explain how exploitation, inequality and crisis are inherent within the capitalist system. Instead the left populists talked of a “rigged system” or making the economy “fairer”, nebulous phrases which do not undermine the rightwing “common sense” of what is fair.

Moreover the rhetoric of fairness actually undermine measures needed to shift wealth and power into working class hands. Fairness does not deal with the politics of class power or class interest. Is a Tube strike that disrupts the public going to work fair? Is secondary picketing fair? Are closed shops fair?

Or is it only fair for the poorest or most ill treated workers to go on strike? Is taking into public ownership relatively profitable or well run private enterprises fair? – or is it only fair when companies or services are failing?

This left populism also had a massive handicap when faced with rightwing demagogy that used populist tropes. The right are much better at the rhetoric of the people vs the elites. The right has a ideological definition of the people that has been disseminated and reproduced by the state and the media for generations. It's based around identity and "values".

In Britain the right somehow managed to define a pretty tight EU referendum vote as the voice of the people. The 17.4 million who voted leave were defined as “the ordinary people”, and the 16.1 million who voted against as a metropolitan elite. In this conception, migrants, travelers, Muslims are largely not seen as "ordinary people", but millionaire demagogues who talk like a racist down the pub are.

On the socialist left, we saw two broad approaches, both self-defeating.

There is an expansive approach to defining the people. Chantal Mouffe in her book "For A Left Populism" has a long chapter referencing Freud, Spinoza and Wittgenstein, and advances the idea as the people not as a single subject but a multiplicity of identities united around the discursively constructed idea of "radical democratic citizen".

I can see that popular front holding together to overthrow a dictator, an ancien régime, or a foreign occupier, but even then, whose interests the new government is to represent? The possessing classes or the dispossessed? The worker or the capitalist?

And anyway I do not think such a conception of the people works in established bourgeois democracies, where the state has multiple sources and mechanisms that are seen to confer democratic legitimacy on those in power.

A second approach by the left populists is to accept “the people” as defined by the right wing as patriotic, conservative and traditionalist, and try to assimilate into that identity.

You see that from some Labour leftists in Britain, from MĂ©lenchon's movement in France, and from some trade unionists with Stalinist-tinged politics. It fails because they are transparently mis-selling their politics.

Wrap yourself in the flag all you like: still, to be socialist means to be an egalitarian who wants to overturn existing hierarchies. National Conservatism is an anti egalitarian politics that by and large wants to defend existing hierarchies. You cannot convince people to back a radical socialist programme without breaking them from aspects of nationalist conservatism.

The root of all nationalist and conservative politics is "the nation" as the Alpha and Omega of politics. That is not a terrain where socialists can gain any purchase however willing they are to forget their internationalist principles.

2. Striking back

The central and most significant point capitalist exploitation occurs is in the labour process. It is in the workplace that workers are most powerful. The fight over who receives the product of labour, i.e. class struggle, begins in the workplace.

You cannot reduce socialist politics to union struggles, there are other fronts – the political, the ideological, the cultural, the social. There are other questions – the oppression of women, the emancipation of minorities, the rights of oppressed nations and peoples, peace and war. However, by and large, success on those other fronts is aided massively by a growing working-class struggle and hampered by defeat on the industrial front.

This is not an absolute law, but the low level of industrial class struggle throughout the last decade was a key factor in the failure to advance socialist politics and working class consciousness.

Should we just accept this and wait on the tide of class struggle to come in? No, because the low level of class struggle is conditioned by defeats. In many cases defeats that do not have to be.

Beyond that, the subjective element of our movement - unions, parties and social movements - can affect the course and level of struggle.

In Britain there was a flurry of struggle after the election of the coalition in 2010. The student revolt against fees was followed by strikes in the public sector against attacks on pensions. If my experience was anything to go by, anti cuts groups were set up everywhere. There was a flourishing of actions by the likes of UK Uncut.

That had a faint echo in the Labour Party. Its new leader, Ed Miliband, was the first of the three main parties for twenty years or more to question neo-liberalism, however abstractly and weakly.

But the industrial movement was crushed by the leaders of the big three unions selling out the pensions fight in December 2011. From that point on, the other movements wound down and, without the pressure coming from below, Ed Miliband eventually moved to a much more clearly austerity-lite position.

The subjective factor of the leadership of the trade unions refusing to continue the fight made massive difference. Since then there has been apart from a few smaller strikes a lull and a massive failure to organise struggle of workers in the newer or growing sectors of the economy, for example the care sector, distribution or restaurants.

Different dynamics happened in different countries. In France there have been large scale strikes over the last ten years. However, by and large, they have been in the sectors of the economy already well organised. There too there has been a major failure to organise amongst the unorganised.

Where there were struggles, there was a failure to link the political struggle to the industrial, A tendency to defer to union bureaucracies rather than link up with the left.

One of the factors that seem to be common throughout the developed world is the way the socialist left seem concentrated in the big cities and the labour movement as movement of struggle seems to have retreated from the postindustrial smaller towns.

Strikes and class struggle can transform working-class consciousness and the general political situation. The neglect of the industrial front has meant the socialist left fighting with one hand tied behind our back.

3. The coming of the nationalist right

From 2015 onwards, or perhaps earlier, there was a major shift to the authoritarian nationalist right across much of the globe. UKIP and Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump, the victory of Bolsanaro, the rise of Salvini, the AfD, Marine Le Pen getting one-third of the vote in the presidential election. Moves to the right by existing leaders like Erdogan, Modi, Orban and Netanyahu accelerated, and in Britain it all we saw the election of Boris Johnson.

The nature of this right-wing surge varied from country to country, but there are certain commonalities: a conspiratorial world view, anti migrant politics, a nationalist opposition to aspects of globalisation or multinational institutions, direct influenced by and dialogue with the extreme far right, a focus on culture wars, a highly performative politics, and in geopolitics a move away from traditional alliances.

The socialist left neglected its duty to thoroughly analyse these movements and to be the forefront of the fight against them. The socialists too often gave the impression of indifference between centrists or centre-right opponents or these new nationalists, as though we could not delineate the greater threat posed by the nationalists.

The fight against them was reduced to "vote for us" rather than organising with non-party people in the broader labour movement and communities. There was a tendency to suggest it was all or nothing, meaning the left wins power or the nationalist right is in control. We did not have a backup or broader strategy in case we lost or another outcome occurred.

European left parties like Die Linke or Melénchon's LFI seemed happy going from 5 to 7% of the vote and coming fourth even if at this election a post-fascist party now was a serious force coming second or third. People talked with glee about Pasokification shrivelling the social democratic parties, forgetting the key difference between a bankrupt social democratic party being replaced by a party to its radical left (Syriza, in its time) and the major beneficiaries of the collapse of the French Socialist Party or the decline of the German SPD being the fascist FN/RN and the alt-right AfD.

Liberals, Greens and centrists sought a way to bring themselves back into relevance in opposition to the new nationalist right. Thus Macron, Joe Biden, briefly the Lib Dems, the Greens across Europe.

But the centrist analysis of the new right is utterly self-serving and destructively wrong . They diagnosed the problem as “populism”. In this way they sought to label the New Right as the same as the resurgent left. As such they gave nationalist movements of eugenicists, elitists, turbo-charged Thatcherites and white supremacists the label that they wanted – populist - and gave them anti-establishment credit despite them being led by millionaires.

At the same time were told we had to listen to the concerns of former Labour voters going for the Brexit Party but ignore as centrist wreckers those defecting to the Greens or Lib Dems.

The socialist left's failure to articulate the exact nature of the danger of the rightward shift, our propensity to delude ourselves with the idea that these movements were not genuinely winning over working-class people, meant that groups we had managed to rally to our cause began to peel off seeing opposition to the right as a bigger imperative. The centrist explanation of the nationalist-right phenomenon gained followers.

No, the socialist left should not have advocated any kind of popular front or centrist coalition. That would be to disarm ourselves utterly in the fight against the right.

Nor does this mean ignoring building our own forces.

But socialists should have done more of what we traditionally do, and got more involved in organising resistance, standing with migrants or other groups attacked.

In Britain, Labour forces did take the lead in many of the protests against Johnson's shutdown of parliament.

But the only real broader organising against the new right on a mass scale was the anti-Brexit movement, dominated by a Liberal and Blairite leadership. Even if party divisions and party policy made it impossible for the Labour Party to lead in anti-Brexit type mobilisation, it could have instigated pro-migrant campaigns against the right, and it didn't do that, either.

In Europe, we should not be indifferent to the fate of social-democratic parties however wretched. We should argue for them to form a united front with us against the nationalist right but also against centrist neo-liberalism.

In the USA we cannot endorse a corporate democrat like Joe Biden, but socialists should stand with all the social movements, unions, women's groups and migrants trying to force out Trump.


We are not in a condition nearly as bad as Rosa Luxemburg faced in 1915. Even in Boris Johnson’s Britain and Donald Trump's USA, socialists are not thrown in prison. Coronavirus is a pretty unprecedented crisis, but it's not shattering our movement. In fact in some ways it's strengthening our resolve.

This pestilence will recede and I hope the vast majority of us we will be able to meet again soon.

What I hope we can learn from Rosa Luxemburg is that within a few years the socialists who had learnt from collapse of social democracy in the face of nationalism and the drums of war led revolutions that founded the first workers' state and ended the war. Millions of workers came out of that war learning lessons that they took back to the factories of Glasgow, Bologna and Hamburg.

Within five years the world came as close as it has ever been to international socialist revolution.

Let’s fight so that in future years we will be able to see the Sanders runs, the Corbyn leadership, the Occupy Movement, and the Indignados protests as merely dress rehearsals for a much greater and more radical wave of struggles to come.

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