How can we change the world if we can’t change ourselves?

In a piece presented at the recent Historical Materialism Conference in London, Panagiotis Sotiris addresses the challenges facing the anti-capitalist left in Europe.

Photo: David Shankbone, flickr
Photo: David Shankbone, flickr

The anticapitalist Left in Europe is in crisis. From the crisis of the International Socialist Tendency, to the political implosion of the New Anticapitalist Party in France, and from the fragmentation of the left-tendencies of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy to the inability of Antarsya in Greece to broaden its appeal despite the immense political shifts in Greek society – most tendencies that refer to a revolutionary critique of socialist and communist reformism and reclaim the legacy of May 1968 are today facing a deep political crisis.

This comes in sharp contrast to a previous period, from the second half of the 1990s onwards, during which the anticapitalist left was more than instrumental in the development of the anti-globalisation movement, was a vanguard in various major struggles at the national level, acted as a catalyst in the formation of broader initiatives and in certain cases made important electoral advances.

What is more impressive is that this crisis of the anticapitalist left coincides with a period of both a systemic capitalist crisis and an impressive return of mass movements.

In this sense, the schema suggested recently by Alex Callinicos – that the era of good feelings for the anticapitalist left was from 1998-2005 , between the electoral rise of the French anticapitalist left (and of the anti-global movement), and the rejection of the European Constitution – however correct it might be as a timeline of a certain form of anticapitalist politics in the 2000s, is also an underestimation of the importance of the current conjuncture and its dynamics.

What better condition could we hope than the one facing us today, despite our problems, crises and shortcomings? Actual cracks in the neoliberal hegemony, an open crisis of the main strategy of European capital in the past five decades, namely the European Integration – societies questioning their certainties, a return of mass protest and mobilisation that in certain cases took an almost insurrectionary character, a desire to reclaim democracy, popular sovereignty and public space, a growing distrust of politicians and an international balance of forces, that not only contradicts any claim to American omnipotence but also offers points of reference of resistances from Gaza to Kobane.

Of course, we do not underestimate other elements of the conjuncture, such as the return of the ugly face of fascism and the rise of the far right. However this is also an expression of a deeper political crisis, and of an inability of the radical and anticapitalist left to become, in its own progressive and emancipatory fashion, a vehicle for the expression of the distrust of systemic parties and politics.

So here is the main challenge: why are we in a condition of crisis? Why, for example, is Syriza, with the impressive right wing turn of its leadership, the most successful example of left-wing politics in Europe today?

I think that the main reason for our problems has to do with the limitations of the anticapitalist left since the 1990s. The anticapitalist left was mainly a force of resistance, of support of movements and of a general ideological defence of socialism and revolution. It could be instrumental in organising anti-neoliberal movements, and could recruit new members, especially to radicalised movements of the left. However, it had no actual strategy.

Questions of power, hegemony, and of revolutionary strategy were left unanswered, despite Daniel Bensaïd’s call to reopen the debate on strategy.

This distance between everyday tactics, either in movements or in electoral coalitions, which were mainly based on a basic anti-neoliberal agenda – that was the main form of “anticapitalism” in the 2000s – and an abstract defence of revolutionary politics per se, in terms of identity rather than practice, defined this strategic void.

It could offer no viable alternative to the “temptation” towards “everything but” coalitions, exemplified in the disastrous participation of Rifondazione Comunista to the second Pronti government (as an “anything but Berlusconi” government) and the limits of the “united Fronts of a special kind”.

Moreover, it could not think in terms of a potential historical bloc – of how we can articulate a broad alliance of the subaltern classes with an alternative narrative for societies. But how could we offer an alternative narrative when the main programmatic position was “redistribution plus defence of public services”? I don’t underestimate these goals but they are not alternative narratives; they do not present an antagonistic social and political paradigm to neoliberalism.

Moreover, especially in Europe, and despite the fact that the high moment of radical left mobilisation in western Europe was the rejection of the European Constitution, the anticapitalist left has underestimated the critique of European integration. The abandonment of any critique of the single currency, and accusing those who attempted such a critique as “nationalists” or “social-chauvinists,” only meant that in a period of growing disillusionment and crisis of the European project, it was only the far right with its ersatz “Euroscepticism” – ersatz because of its their pro-systemic, pro-business positions – that gathered some political momentum, exemplified in the last European elections.

The political space was left open only to positions such as the ones suggested by Syriza – to look like a confrontation with the question strategy, although they do not go beyond simply repeating varieties of anti-neoliberal “progressive governance” positions from the 1990s. In a period when weak links of the chain opened the possibility of combining a radical left government with forms of popular power from below, and actually initiating a highly original revolutionary sequence, the position of important segments of the anti-capitalist left in Europe was practically that nothing can be done and it will be repetition of the 1970s.

Moreover, although there were important mass movements in the past years – in terms of magnitude and duration, but also in terms of the social and political experimentation with new forms of democracy, equal voicing, horizontal coordination and emergence of new leaderships – most tendencies of the left, with the exception of the Spanish anticapitalist Left, did not actually learn anything from these movements, to which they nevertheless made a considerable contribution. They did not learn from the new forms of democracy, they did not incorporate the new leaderships emerging from the movements, they did not attempt to answer the strategic challenges they posed. They simply saw them as movements, not as experimental processes. This is in sharp contrast to the Marxist and Leninist traditions of seeing participation in movements as a learning and transformative experience.

Consequently, current calls to reinstate the process of “building the organisation” are off the mark. Not that we do not need revolutionary organisations, but this is only one, and perhaps not the most important, aspect of the necessary recomposition of the anticapitalist left today. Moreover, the mentality that each group is the bearer of revolutionary truth and it has to get stronger in broader fronts, with the other tendencies in the fronts treated as “reformist” or “quasi-reformist” is not actually helpful in initiating broader processes of recomposition. The same goes with the mentality that what is at stake is the historical vindication of a particular historical current. We need to think in terms of radical novelty.

What is the result of these shortcomings? The result is that today most people in the European Left turn towards Syriza for an example of hope, despite the fact that the leadership Syriza has abandoned most radical positions, has fully accepted the institutional framework of the Eurozone and of the debt, and refused to incorporate the nationalisation of banks and strategic enterprises into the set of immediate demands. Or, to give another example, everyone is putting some hope in the Podemos project, even though its political line has lost some of its more radical edge and there are open questions about the model of leadership adopted. In the appeal of Syriza and Podemos for militants the main point is not the actual politics and strategies, but two crucial elements: the putting in place of a broad political process – one that includes large segments of the movements, and of course the confrontation with the question of political power and potentially hegemony.

However, I am not sure that today the general rule has to be the entrance or incorporation of the anticapitalist left in such broad fronts. The reason is that the necessary autonomy of a potentially revolutionary strategy remains a necessity. This is one aspect of “repeating Lenin” today that is still relevant.

Does this mean sectarianism? The answer is definitively no! The challenge for the revolutionary or anticapitalist left is not to choose between broad electoral fronts or between traditional sects. The challenge is to elaborate upon an alternative project for the left, an alternative project that one way or the other must focus upon what today might be defined a as a potentially revolutionary strategy.

First of all, we need to think in terms of a new historical bloc. In my reading, this Gramscian concept is neither analytical nor descriptive in nature. It does not simply refer to a social alliance. It is a strategic concept that refers to how we can have the encounter between a broad alliance of the subaltern classes, an alternative narrative for societies and new mass political forms.

In this sense, it would be wrong to underestimate the importance of the kind of mass reclaiming of popular sovereignty we saw in recent movements, exemplified in the reclaiming of public space, in the name of some ideal type of the “workers’ movement” or the “general strike”. Rather, it would be more interesting to think that in the forms of common protest and solidarity and democratic thrust we can see the emergence of embryonic forms of such historical blocs.

Such a conception suggests the importance of the political programme. This has nothing to do with the theology of the programme or with some sort of revolutionary political fantasy. The transitional programme is the articulation of the experiences, demands, experimentations and forms of collective ingenuity arising from the movement, with the collective attempt towards actually discerning the different roads that our societies are facing. It is the articulation of the “traces of communism” in contemporary struggles and non-commodified collective practices, with the attempt of the forces of labour to actually lead societies into alternative trajectories, both in terms of social configuration and international position.

In this sense, a contemporary version of the transition program cannot be reduced to simple calls for redistribution and defence of public services. It has to be a more profound search for a different road for societies, including a different social and economic paradigm, based upon new forms of democratic public ownership, self-management, new networks of distribution, and different social priorities. It is not going to be an “easy road”. It would require a struggling society actually changing values, priorities, narratives. It would also require a new ethics of collective participation and responsibility, of struggle and commitment to change, a transformed and educated common sense that becomes “good sense”.

In Europe this necessarily means a rupture with the embedded aggressive neoliberalism of the Eurozone, and in general with the “limited sovereignty” imposed by the various treaties that define the contemporary version of European governance. We have the opportunity to combine the demand for social justice with the demand for popular sovereignty.

However, such a conception also entails dealing with the question of revolutionary strategy today. In the current conjuncture, with the crisis of neoliberal hegemony and the return of mass protest, a more strategic conception has to be a necessary element.

What actually does it mean to have a revolutionary sequence today? In most cases, the question is repressed. One the one hand we have the dynamics of the movement, on the other hand, at some undefined but distant in time point, we will have workers’ control and revolution. Questions – such as the possibility of a left-wing government and whether they can be part of a revolutionary sequence – are treated as the responsibility of “reformists”, with the radical or anticapitalist left simply waiting for their failure.

I would like to suggest that in contemporary European societies, we should think about the question of governmental power not in terms of a progressive management of capitalism, but as an aspect of a possible process of transformation. Such a perspective can include the combination of a radical left government, based upon the necessary transition program, with strong movements from below – movements  of popular power, worker’s control, self-management, solidarity – new profound institutional changes and new forms of democratic participation, a constituent process. It is a path that will necessarily be uneven, contradictory, and experimental in nature. It will be a process that will face fierce opposition from the forces of capital and imperialism.

Of course this would also mean actually opening the debate on what “smashing the state” or the “withering away of the state” mean, on how to implement new forms of democratic planning and self-management in opposition to the compulsion of the market and on how to incorporate the experiences coming from the movements.

One might ask the question: why bother with the full elaboration of a revolutionary strategy instead of simply articulating our critique of reformism? I think that if we leave the debate on left-wing governance to reformist tendencies it is obvious that they will see things through their own lenses, the lenses of the rather ill-fated debates on progressive governance of the 1990s and the early 2000s that led to the disastrous effects of the participation in the Jospin and Pronti governments. Failure then might be a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. It is not certain that it will be followed by a new emergence of the revolutionary forces to the forefront. Such a failure can also simply lead to the even more reactionary realignment of the political scene.

This means that it is actually imperative for the revolutionary and anticapitalist left to think in terms of an alternative project not simply an alternative topography of the left.

This also poses organisational exigencies. What kind of polit­i­cal orga­ni­sa­tions do we need in order to be able to attempt such a rev­o­lu­tion­ary process? The tra­di­tional model that viewed, in a schematic and mechan­i­cal way, the con­fronta­tions with the ques­tion of power in terms of a mil­i­tary logic, plac­ing all the empha­sis on dis­ci­pline, is of course inher­ently inad­e­quate, and more­over runs the risk of imi­tat­ing the model of the bour­geois state. It is nec­es­sary to think that in the strug­gle for a dif­fer­ent soci­ety, based upon prin­ci­ples and prac­tices antag­o­nis­tic to the bourgeois/capitalist logic, we need orga­nisa­tions that reflect the emerg­ing new social forms. In con­trast to the tra­di­tional view – accord­ing to which the exi­gen­cies of the strug­gle and the need for dis­ci­plined com­mit­ment to the rev­o­lu­tion­ary process jus­tify lim­its to intra­party democ­racy, sup­pres­sion of free dis­cus­sion, and rigid hier­ar­chy – we want polit­i­cal orga­ni­sa­tions that are at the same time lab­o­ra­to­ries for the col­lec­tive elab­o­ra­tion of new projects and new mass forms of crit­i­cal polit­i­cal intel­lec­tu­al­ity, and exper­i­men­tal sites for new social and polit­i­cal rela­tions. In this sense, they have to be more demo­c­ra­tic, more egal­i­tar­ian, more open, less hierarchical  and less sexist the soci­ety around them.

How­ever, this should not be con­sid­ered an abstract exi­gency, but as an urgent task which also entails the whole process of recon­struct­ing and rein­vent­ing polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. Con­tem­po­rary rad­i­cal political orga­ni­sa­tions do not reflect only the dynam­ics of the con­junc­ture and cur­rent strug­gles – they are also the result of a whole period of cri­sis and retreat of the com­mu­nist and rev­o­lu­tion­ary social­ist move­ment. At the same time, we must acknowledge the originality, the strengths – but also the lim­i­ta­tions – of the main orga­ni­sa­tional forms emerging from the movement. The “hor­i­zon­tal coor­di­na­tion” of move­ments, which is indis­pens­able in order to cre­ate alliances and open spaces of strug­gle, does not always aid the nec­es­sary elab­o­ra­tion of polit­i­cal pro­grammes, and usu­ally does not per­mit any discussion of ques­tions of polit­i­cal power and hege­mony. The left-wing “elec­toral front” that is usu­ally based on a min­i­mum pro­gramme of imme­di­ate anti-neoliberal reforms can eas­ily take the form of a reformist agenda for pro­gres­sive social demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance. The clas­si­cal model of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary group or sect (along with the respec­tive inter­na­tional cur­rents) tends to repro­duce frag­men­ta­tion, sec­tar­i­an­ism, and a parochial author­i­tar­ian ver­sion of an “imag­i­nary Lenin.”

In con­trast, “repeat­ing Lenin” today means think­ing in terms of max­i­mum orig­i­nal­ity, of try­ing not just to repro­duce some model but to cre­ate lab­o­ra­to­ries of new polit­i­cal projects. This can be accom­plished nei­ther by sim­ple elec­toral coali­tions nor by an antag­o­nism between groups for “hege­mony” within the rad­i­cal left. We need demo­c­ra­tic polit­i­cal fronts, our own version of the United Front strategy, based upon anticapitalist pro­grammes that can also act as processes which can bring together dif­fer­ent cur­rents, expe­ri­ences in the move­ment and polit­i­cal sen­si­tiv­i­ties – that can actu­ally act as lab­o­ra­to­ries of new and antag­o­nis­tic polit­i­cal projects. We need fronts that can bring together different orientations and sensitivities, different experiences and different histories. We need political “constituent processes” based upon the need to overcome the fragmentation and crisis of the anticapitalist Left and actually have processes of recomposition. We need to fully accept that the current organisations and currents of the anticapitalist left are transitory, are aspects of a process of transformation and collective elaboration of new political projects that have yet to emerge, and that they need to be superseded both in terms of organisation but also strategy. This could be our necessary, more necessary than ever, self-criticism.

Therefore, it is imperative to open this debate at all levels, both national and international – learn from our advances and our mistakes, discuss in the most open-minded way our different experiences, avoid sectarian and bureaucratic mentalities, and create not just venues for dialogue and exchange of ideas, but actual laboratories of hope.

Because how can we change society if we cannot change ourselves…


  1. Yawn…jeez now if the SWP argues for the left to come together it doesn’t meet the Rosen seal of approval…love your books and many other things you do but this is becoming a bit of a bore.

  2. Did any organisation reply to the SWP call for Unity which they put out following UKIP’s victory?

    A couple of observations on that:
    1) if an organisation puts out a call for unity wouldn’t the best idea to be to ensure that it comes from more than one organisation? So that the appeal itself represents ‘unity’?
    2) Secondly, wouldn’t it be best if an organisation puts out an appeal for unity that the calling address is a neutral one? Put these two points together and it rather looks as if the appeal is in fact to unite with the organisation doing the appeal, rather than really trying to set up a unity of organisations with equal status? Discuss?


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