Two sessions at Historical Materialism conference 2018 addressed questions of strategy for the left, each taking very different approaches. Taisie Tsikas reports.
Thinking revolutionary strategy with Marxism
Panigiotis Sotiris, Kostas Skourdoulis and Emmanuel Barot
What does a revolutionary strategy look like today, and what should the orientation of revolutionary organisations be?
Panigiotis Sotiris examined the notion that radical social democratic parties are engaged in a “hegemonic project” to gain power. The leaders and supporters of both Syriza and Podemos often make pronouncements about the “struggle to create shared meanings”. Sotiris argued that the conception of hegemony that this kind of rhetoric relies on is a corruption of its meaning in the writings of Antonio Gramsci. There, hegemony is never a project undertaken by political parties, embodied in a successful communication strategy or election campaign. Hegemony is rather related to social classes and is exercised throughout society by the dominant group. It has an organisational function which naturalises and reproduces the dominant group’s domination of the state; it is a modality of class power. By contrast, the subaltern practice of hegemony is a struggle for the “historical initiative” of the subaltern classes against the initiative of ruling groups.
The concept of hegemony has significance for revolutionary strategy. Sotiris argued that we should resist “spontaneism” (the idea that class consciousness arises spontaneously) and drew on Étienne Balibar’s argument that a revolutionary organisation can function as a collective analyst of the movement, being attentive to the masses’ creativity and inventiveness. This “dialectical pedagogy” is a process of creating and transmitting knowledge – this should be the role of vanguard organisations in building movements against nationalism and racism.
Kostas Skourdoulis spoke about Ernest Mandel’s theory of revolutionary class consciousness. Mandel argued that the Leninist conception of the party relies on the view that class consciousness does not emerge spontaneously from the proletarian experience, which then raises the question of pedagogy. In other words, how can revolutionary organisations approach class consciousness? Mandel argues that class consciousness is uneven among the working class, and so he concludes that a vanguard organisation is necessary to overcome that unevenness and act as a catalyst. The vanguard must embody a high level of militancy and class consciousness and serve as the permanent memory of the class movement. Consciousness is a function of the living thing and reflects social relations; mass consciousness not only reflects but also creates the new world.
Emmanuel Barot started from the premise that we find ourselves in a non-revolutionary or even counter-revolutionary period, which creates a strong pressure for “unity” on the left. What kind of united front must we develop? Barot suggested three theses to orient the left so that it can be non-sectarian, open at the tactical level and ready to make mass politics.
Firstly, there is currently a crisis of bourgeois hegemony which has led to an increasing reliance on force in the place of consensus and a rise of Bonapartism. For Barot, this category is flexible enough to be applied to figures as diverse as Macron and Bolsonaro. In such a moment the subjective factor – the degree of organisation and consciousness among subaltern classes – becomes decisive. The subjective factor is sorely missing today.
Secondly, there is increasing pressure for the left to organise in “broad parties” and abandon some elements of our strategic orientation. Following Daniel Bensaïd, Barot argued that in compromising to form “broad parties” we risk sugar-coating our political platform and creating weakness and confusion.
Thirdly, we should rediscover the idea of revolutionary organisations as “laboratory parties” and avoid dogmatism and formalism. Trotsky wrote ‘On Democratic Centralism’ in 1937: “A party is an active organism. It develops in the struggle with outside obstacles and inner contradictions.”
Some audience members were concerned about the question of the approach to reformist parties, arguing that the left must join them to be part of the fight against neoliberalism. Barot argued that this was not a new question, and that there are also social movements taking off across the world, such as the feminist movements in Latin America, Black Lives Matter in the US, and so on. Organising within and alongside these movements should be our point of departure. Online media also present opportunities for reaching people. Skourdoulis argued that the dominance of reformist parties and ideas is a reason for prioritising questions about the formation and transmission of revolutionary class consciousness.
A World Turned Upside Down? The Left, Britain and the European Crisis
Alan Cafruny, Colin Leys, Rachel Godfrey, Andrew Murray and David Whyte
The panel discussed issues around the Labour Party and the EU, presenting arguments made in the Socialist Register essay collection.
Alan Cafruny argued that the implications of the global financial crisis and the Eurozone crisis had yet to be resolved in Europe, where recovery has been uneven and generally weak. The collapse of the political centre gave rise to the so-called “immigration crisis”, whereas the real problem facing the EU is the institutional constitution of the monetary framework and its role in requiring austerity measures. Germany is a dominant power within the EU, and austerity and the monetary system are essential to its interests. Following Poulantzas, Cafruny argued the EU forms part of an Atlanticist block rather than being a rival to the United States. He expressed scepticism about prospects for Lexit and argued that internationalism means we should not abandon internal EU migrants.
Colin Leys sketched out an analysis of the Corbyn project as, “going beyond social democracy via social democracy” and argued that the parliamentary route to socialism is the only one open to us. He justified this by reference to two “missing assets”: a militant trade unionism and a culture of left thinking, both of which have been suppressed by decades of neoliberalism. He gestured at some problems facing the Corbyn project: the right of the PLP, electoral dilemmas, the opposition of capital and the media, Brexit, and the weakness of both the UK economy and the state. Given all of this, Leys concluded, everyone should join the Corbyn project: “Everyone who wants it to succeed has to help.” Similarly, Andrew Murray argued there was potential for movements against neoliberalism to synthesise with the Corbyn project. If the aim is not just to win an election, but to move to socialism, then the left must prepare for government in a way that anticipates challenges. Momentum has a part to play in political education and building up the extra-parliamentary movement.
Momentum organiser Rachel Godfrey Wood summarised the successes and defeats of the last few years: they had reached new audiences on social media, elections in Scotland still pose a challenge, and they had married community organising with electoral mobilising. Her focus was on continuing the leftward shift in CLPs and other Labour Party institutions, and on building support for left-wing councillors in Momentum. She argued that democratisation is a way to future-proof the left’s control of the party. David Whyte spoke about the “corporate veil” and the insufficiency of corporate fines as a way to ensure compliance with regulation.
Somewhat provocatively, given the arguments put forward by the speakers, the chair then invited questions from the audience by announcing – “Let’s plan the revolution.”
Two rs21 members asked questions from the floor, making the case for autonomous revolutionary organising and expressing scepticism about the track record of Corbynite councils. If the two missing assets for enabling the revolutionary route to socialism are a militant trade union movement and a deficit of class consciousness, then why wouldn’t we make building these our projects? On the idea that the state is currently weak, it has to be emphasised that there is an ongoing shift towards repression and that the Labour Party’s platform on policing, border controls, Palestine, securitisation, NATO, the arms industry etc. mounts no challenge to the state apparatus.
The autonomy of social movements from the Labour Party is not a difficulty to be overcome, but generally a condition of their existence. The HDV episode in Haringey led to a Corbynite council gaining power there, and yet now they are embarking on a project to ‘redevelop’ the Latin Village, Pueblito Paisa. Moreover, the Corbyn leadership seems to make peace with any tendency in the party that agrees not to attack the left in the media.
The responses to these interventions from the panel generally made the argument that there was indeed a militant trade union movement and autonomous social movements and attempted to shift blame away from Labour councillors onto the necessary dynamics of local government. It was recognised that a strong extra-parliamentary movement would generally be an asset, and Whyte optimistically assumed that this would always be welcomed by “any Labour councillor worth their salt”.