Author and socialist, David McNally, reflects on the tasks of socialist organising in dangerous times.
In a public talk given for the New Socialists in Toronto on 4 November 2018, following a spate of far-right terror attacks, David McNally surveyed political and social developments across Britain, France, Germany, Canada and the United States. McNally argues that the crisis conditions of late capitalism fuelling the advance of the far-right today have also launched a new wave of offensives from a youthful and impassioned Left.
In a moment characterised by both peril and possibility, McNally argues that the existing Left must preserve its radical commitments to emancipation against the forces of adaptation. It must also reach new mass audiences from whom it has long been estranged. The Left must recapture its historical creativity and ambition, when there is so much to lose to the advance of the right and so many new constituencies ready to fight for the world we have to win.
In Britain, the Labour Party has experienced a new flood of activists into its ranks, while on the streets there are signs of a new feminist insurgency of anti-fascist organising and a new wave of environmental militancy. How the Left advances in the future will crucially depend on how it responds to the challenges and opportunities of the current moment. It will have to draw on the living traditions of the oppressed and their analyses, initiatives and responses. To paraphrase Stuart Hall, socialists need to find a way to intervene meaningfully in the struggles of the new period, if they wish socialism to compete as an “active faith” within the social movements of the day.
Listen to the talk here, or read the transcript below, made for rs21 by Seth Uzman with David McNally’s permission.
I’m going to start with a premise – and I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the premise, because I suspect that everybody here shares it with me – and that is that we are living and operating politically in incredibly dangerous times. I don’t think I need to prove that to you: you need only to look at the events of the last ten days or so, particularly in the United States, but also the presidential elections in Brazil to recognise what I’m talking about.
Whether it’s the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, whether it’s the racist execution of two African Americans at a Kroger store in Kentucky, or whether it was the murderous rampage that a misogynist male in Florida engaged in on Friday at a yoga studio: the degree of danger that confronts everybody oppressed in late capitalist society stands in very, very powerful and sharp relief for us right now.
So, I’m going to take that as a starting point assumption. And I’m not going to spend a lot more time elaborating it, because I think most of us are in a room like this, just like many of us were protesting Steve Bannon on Friday, because we’re focused on what can be done about all of this.
I am going to frame my remarks in reply to that classic “What can be and what is to be done” question in terms of the interconnections among social regression, despair and anger and political polarisation. Let me explain what I mean when I talk about social regression, despair and anger, and political polarisation.
An Age of Austerity
There was a turning point a decade ago that was generally called “the global financial crisis.” With that crisis of 2008 and 2009, several things kicked in, in very rapid succession. They were all trends that you could see earlier, but they were accelerated and intensified and are producing qualitative shifts. The changes aren’t gradual and molecular anymore; they’re becoming rapid and qualitative. What I mean is, on the one hand, the ruling class – through central banks and governments – massively intervened to bail out the global financial system to the tune of something over $20 trillion. In the course of doing that, they deliberately implemented programs of austerity designed to cut social spending and working-class living standards to effectively pay for the bank bailouts.
We have been through now a decade of austerity. When the G10 and G20 gathered in Toronto in Huntsville in 2010, the first term that they used in their documents was “decade of austerity” – they thought we were looking at ten years – and then in the final communique they scratched that out and wrote “age of austerity”. They recognised, in other words, that a decade might not be enough. That declaration of a war against the poor, a war against the working class, was carried out in the first instance by many of the traditional parties of the political centre. It was carried out under Obama, for instance, in the United States. It was carried out under Angela Merkel in Germany. They did not, in the first instance, often have the political parties of the Right in power; they often had the parties of the traditional centre to implement austerity.
This meant that when anger and resentment bubbled up about what was happening in ordinary peoples’ lives, it was very, very easy to target and demonise the traditional political centre, the traditional political elites, to talk about the swamp that needed to be drained and so on. All of this so-called “populist” rhetoric – and I’m very, very cautious about using the term – targeted those elites responsible for the age of austerity. Trump was a master at this. Some of you may have seen the article today in the Guardian for instance where working class voters who voted for Trump were saying, “Well, where are the jobs? We genuinely believed, that’s why we voted – we didn’t like the guy – but we wanted the jobs back.”
That targeting of the centre was by and large most successfully capitalised on by the Right – not exclusively, and I want to emphasise that, but it was largely capitalised on by the Right. But it translated into political polarisation. Because as the centre became identified as the parties of austerity – the Democrats under Obama, the Christian Democratic Union under Angela Merkel, so the parties of the political right were able to appeal to a profound sense of alienation and despair.
Polarisation – to the Right and the Left
The right always has an advantage in capitalist society, because their program and ideology cuts with the grain: racism, misogyny, glorification of the patriarchal family, homophobia and transphobia, islamophobia and antisemitism. All of that cuts with the grain of the dominant society. The Left needs to be able to respond in ways that in a certain sense, ideologically, are not as easy. Now, there is something that we have in our favour in that regard that I’m going to come back to in a moment. But first let me talk about this polarisation –and I want to emphasise this – to the Right and the Left. It is not just an across the board galloping to the Right.
So, for Trump, there was also Bernie Sanders. Without Bernie Sanders, we would not have hundreds of thousands, perhaps, millions of people in the United States today, who self-identify as socialists. The most significant political outcome of that campaign is the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America into a mass political formation. Of course, the Democratic Party establishment was never going to let Sanders get the nomination, and they pulled every dirty trick imaginable to make sure that did not happen.
Once again, why? Because there is something about Sanders’ politics which are essentially social-democratic. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that, “Bernie Sanders is a revolutionary socialist” or anything like that. No, his politics are essentially social democratic. But they have elements of classical social democracy that cut against the grain – that require some notion of class opposition as being inherent to society.
In the British case, of course, there is a significant radicalisation around the Labour Party, represented by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader and the influx of about two hundred thousand more members into the British Labour Party. It was because Corbyn staked out a very similar kind of political terrain to that of Sanders. That is to say, a more classical, as opposed to neoliberal, social democracy. The global trend of social democracy over the last forty years has been to adapt to neoliberalism. To have social democratic political figures who try to break from neoliberalism even within a social-democratic framework, is to start to break out of that neoliberal log-jam.
We saw the same thing in the last cycle of French Presidential elections. Yes, it is true that the National Front under Le Pen rose to about seven million votes. That is frightening and dangerous in all kinds of ways, but the left candidacy of Jean-Luc Mélenchon also drew about seven million, again as a kind of independent, left presidential candidate, pretty much positioned in the same kind of way that I’m describing Sanders and Corbyn.
In some cases but not all, this has had some lasting political effects. I mentioned the two hundred thousand who are inside the Labour Party today, essentially on that party’s left, trying to defeat the old Blairite neoliberals inside the Labour Party. I would argue that the growth of the DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, in the US to something over 52,000 members is itself also an expression of the same kind of phenomenon.
Nevertheless, the advantage that the Right has is the ways in which they cut with the dominant ideology.
Common Sense and Good Sense
Let’s put it this way: we all know that on Friday night Steve Bannon got invited to speak by the Munk Center affiliated with the University of Toronto, and then you ask yourself when was the last time that a hard-left individual got invited to speak by the Munk Center. Well, we could be here all day, because you’re not going to come up with one, okay. We all know he was a central figure through Breitbart in the organisation of the alt-right, and the fuelling of white supremacist and neo-Nazi organising in the US. But what he says cuts with lots of the dominant ideology and so he can be there, and we are very unlikely to get those kinds of invitations. That’s the sense in which our work is harder.
At the same time, I want to emphasise that the socialist Left also has considerable strength. To paraphrase the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, working class consciousness is never uniform; it is never moving in simply one direction. Gramsci, in his famous notebooks written from prison in the 1930s when he was jailed under Mussolini, says to us, “Look, working class consciousness is always contradictory”; it is an amalgam of received dominant ideas. There is not a single one of us who has not been affected by the dominant ideas in this society.
But working-class consciousness also has counter-elements, which Gramsci describes as the “good sense elements”, as opposed to the bourgeois-common sense elements. The good sense elements are those that are derived from practices of solidarity, from practices of resistance, from all the ways in which working class people in neighbourhoods, communities, workplaces and schools create practices by which, rather than scratching out one another’s eyes to get ahead, they actually collaborate, support one another, lend a hand, organise together, and create collective responses that give them more power.
All of that good sense within working class consciousness is derived from those kinds of experiences, but it rarely has the same level of systematic expression that the ideas of the ruling class have. That’s because the ruling class has institutions to develop systematic expression of their ideas and that’s where political organisations, mass parties and social movements come in. These need to be the laboratories in which working-class good sense gets systematised so that it can literally counter and overcome the inherited ideas – and on this, I want to say something about a couple of debates on the Left.
Get Up – Get Out!
Some of you will know that I spent some time in Germany earlier this fall. I found myself, initially unintentionally but once provoked happily, in the midst of debates with people inside the Left Party (Die Linke), who have formed a current called Aufstehen, which means “Get Up.” They are responding to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD), which is polling at around twenty percent right now. The AfD is becoming a mass party on the basis of Islamophobic, anti-immigration, far-right politics – it’s deeply dangerous.
The Aufstehen people have come along and said, “We [the Left] have got to stop emphasising our support for immigrants; we must repudiate open borders; we need to start appealing to the workers who are drawn towards the Alternative for Germany on bread and butter economic issues and not fight with them, not argue with them around issues like immigration.” Probably the best-known parliamentary deputy that Die Linke has is one of the leaders of Aufstehen, so they have a very, very big profile.
I must say I was unpleasantly surprised to see Jacobin run a major interview ten or twelve days ago with the leader of this current in Die Linke – very, very uncritically. I know from debates I have had with the editor of Jacobin, one-on-one, that this is a thought-out political position, which is very, to me, deeply problematic. I don’t want to suggest to you that my argument with these people was simply, what I would call, the morally and politically correct one. I was also making, when I was in Germany, strategic arguments, and I want to underline those.
For instance, one of the cities in which the Alternative for Germany has made advances is Chemnitz. Chemnitz is in the old East Germany. It’s an industrial working-class town with very few non-white people and very little immigration. The people who are immigrating into Germany have been going to Berlin and Frankfurt and places like that; they haven’t been going to Chemnitz. But a right-wing anti-immigrant argument has been capable of building an organisation in Chemnitz, bringing a few thousand people into the streets behind AfD banners.
Six or seven days before I arrived in Berlin, there was a mass anti-racist, anti-fascist festival in Chemnitz, which drew 60,000 predominantly young people. So, one of my first questions to all the people saying, “Oh, we’ve got to back off on immigration and push economic demands” was, “Who was there? Who were the 60,000? How did they get there? Who organised them? How are you following up with them? How are you translating their activism in going to an anti-racist, anti-fascist concert into an ongoing movement that can reclaim the streets in Chemnitz?”
Well, of course, if your whole focus is electoral, you’re not asking those questions. Fortunately, to their credit, there are other groups in Germany, some of them inside Die Linke. I’ve spent a lot of time with activists with a current inside Die Linke that call themselves Marx21, who are doing some great work in this area for instance.
The point is there were 60,000 people out there and they’re predominantly young. Are they largely the older white voters, who are shifting over to the Alternative for Germany? No. But they’re often their kids – and one of the things we know from past social radicalisations is that very often when the young people are radicalised they go back into households. They take on the parents, take on the aunts and uncles, argue them down on their drift to the right, and put up political barriers to the shift to the right, because they’re prepared to mobilise, prepared to become part of social movements. Their confidence in political arguments starts to grow through all of that. Then, of course, as some of you will know that two weeks ago, this weekend, 240,000 people turned out on the streets of Berlin for a mass anti-racist mobilisation and the leaders of Aufstehen, recently given pages in Jacobin, deliberately did not attend the demo of 240,000.
There’s a risk for the Left right now. Some sections of working-class people have drifted to the right, have been pulled by the Trumps of the world, have been pulled by the Alternative for Germany, and have been pulled by the National Front in France. There’s a notion that what we need to do is adapt to their movement and take the cutting edge and critical edge away from our politics. That is politically disastrous – you never win by ceding ground to begin with – but it also ignores the very real forces that are there to be mobilised against this trend, whether it’s the 60,000 in Chemnitz or the 240,000 in the streets of Berlin.
Transphobia in Britain
I haven’t been to Britain recently, so I haven’t been directly in these debates, but the same thing applies in principle to the arguments from sections of the British Left, including some who came out of earlier socialist feminist movements, against the legislation designed to create new forms of trans equality in Britain. Overtly transphobic arguments are coming out of sections of the British Left, right now, and you’re hearing a lot of the same kind of stuff in the background: “Oh well, if you push this, you’ll alienate working-class people”.
Okay, one of the things I really want to emphasise here is that the working class is incredibly diverse in every possible way. It is simply not true that there is a single social, cultural norm that characterises working-class life and working-class households. It’s just silly to suggest that even in the 1950s-stereotypical-view of the so-called “Fordist” working-class household – with a mother at home and a working-class father and the kids that always accepted that the father knows best – that that was ever a reality even in the 1950s. But even if you wanted to make a case that there was some reality to it in the 1950s, this society today is so radically different, it’s ridiculous.
This is a society that has not fully turned back on all of the social, political and cultural gains of the last great wave of radicalisation. It is simply not true that on LGBTQ rights, on women’s rights, on fundamental, basic anti-racist civil rights, that we’ve lost everything. Now, that is the Right’s agenda: to make sure that every one of those social and cultural gains is eliminated.
But if you ever look at the Right’s literature, one of the reasons that they believe that some fictitious entity called “Cultural Marxism” rules our society today (and they do, by the way, they actually think that “Cultural Marxism” rules the universities and so on) is that they know that there are a series of cultural and social transformations that have not been entirely rolled back and eliminated. We need to understand that too and to recognise that diversity of the working class.
There are new constituencies for the Left. Those new constituencies are in some cases measurable – tangibly measurable. I’ll use some examples I’ve already used. The two hundred thousand who joined the British Labour Party to support Corbyn against the Blairite Third Way. The Democratic Socialists of America had about six thousand members at the beginning of the Bernie Sanders campaign; they now have over 52,000.
I spent a couple of hours in Houston three or four weeks ago with one of the co-chairs of Houston DSA. They have 500 members in Houston with a whole series of working groups. There’s a racial justice working group, particularly, working around prison issues and so on in the city. They also have a group, right now, that is mobilising to defend “Drag-Queen Story Time” at the Montrose Library in Houston, because every month on a Saturday afternoon, drag queens come and read stories to kids. This has been going on for some time and now the Right is mobilising against it. And DSA, to their credit, has joined with other groups to defend “Drag-Queen Story Time.” Many of you will know the involvement of lots of DSA groups in anti-ICE actions against Immigration, Customs and Enforcement. So, it’s a real development. I would argue the same applies for the two examples I have given from Germany: the 60,000 largely young people in Chemnitz and the 240,000 in the streets of Berlin.
These are new audiences and they’re much, much larger than the Left has had in a very, very long time. But, one of the challenges this is going to mean for the Left is the overcoming of all of the glorying in marginality that becomes really easy in periods, when you don’t have a growing audience. When you don’t have a growing audience, it’s really easy to get comfortable with the people you know and to get used to being a very marginalised social group and to become complacent with that.
I would say the greatest achievement of the Fight for $15 campaign [a campaign to win a $15 minimum wage plus improved conditions across Ontario] has been to reach out. The campaign has been getting out into communities, going door to door, going to subway stops, signing people up, and petitioning. Last year’s actions at Tim Horton’s restaurants, for instance, again largely spearheaded by Fight for $15, were all about connecting with new constituencies.
The big achievement of the anti-Bannon demonstration on Friday night was that we moved from very small actions against the far right at City Hall over the past year to having over a thousand people in the streets. The point of that kind of action is not just to challenge the Right. It’s not just to make some of the people who went in to hear Bannon uncomfortable, although the more uncomfortable we made them the better. It’s also to build our sense of capacity and our hopefulness about the resonance that our messages can have right now.
But here comes the big challenge. I know from speaking with organisers that the Labor Council Executive in Toronto deliberately refused to support the anti-Bannon action because No One Is Illegal was one of the spearheading organisations. We have to be able to go back to those people and say, “That’s a disaster!” It is not acceptable that whatever differences you had with No One Is Illegal around some action in 2010 in Toronto that that becomes an obstacle to mobilising Labor Council resources to fighting the far right today.
On a smaller scale, I see on my own Facebook feed, often, people whose major pastime is bashing the Democratic Socialists of America. Well, I don’t think the organisation is perfect and, by the way, there are huge debates inside it. But in the face of an insurgent far-right, we need comradely debates, while we’re creating united fronts and common fronts of struggle.
One of the challenges here is how to translate that into anti-Ford organising in Toronto and across the province of Ontario in the next while [Doug Ford is the reactionary premier of Ontario]. That is one of the reasons why the mobilisation against Bannon was so important, because it’s one of the largest and most militant actions that has happened since Doug Ford’s election, and it’s crucial to rebuilding the confidence and sense of solidarity of moving struggles forward in the months ahead.
Radical traditions of socialism must play a central role in the processes of political radicalisation, right now. I identify, myself, powerfully with the socialism-from-below tradition, which says that there is not going to be an electoral, parliamentary road to socialism. It’s going to require insurgent mass struggles from below, which doesn’t mean, by the way, that there’ll be no electoral or parliamentary campaigns as an adjunct of that; it just means they cannot be an end in themselves.
I also believe that that tradition has to be renewed in the era or late capitalism, when a whole variety of social oppressions, which Marx, Lenin, Luxembourg and Gramsci never theorised, have to be part of our political understanding. You’re not going to find a lot in Karl Marx on disability rights; you’re not going to find a huge amount in Rosa Luxembourg on trans rights.
But that just means our tradition has to be a living and developing one in relationship to the new struggles of the day. So the socialism-from-below tradition that I tend to adhere to has to be deeply enriched by anti-racism, by feminism, by pro-queer and eco-socialist politics, by disability rights struggles and so on – these have to inform that political perspective as part of a living tradition.
Raising our game
I’ll conclude by saying that the discussions that I’ve been involved in with activists in Germany, the US and, of course, here in Toronto over the last year, have really convinced me that we are at an inflection point for the Left too.
I think there are a lot people in light of recent events who know that the Left can’t continue in the way it has been. We have to, as the expression goes, “raise our game”, because they’re becoming increasingly deadly serious on the far right.
While that is frightening and while that can produce real despair on our side, there is a danger that we ignore the emerging constituencies that are out there, and mobilisable and organisable. Our task is to move radical socialism from the margins into becoming a much more significant social force.
See David McNally’s pamphlet, Socialist Politics in the Age of Trump, available here from the New Socialist website.