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Slyvia Smith - Fri Aug 26, 2016 17:07
This article is a response to an article posted on The North Star by Sophia Burns, a comrade and fellow member of the Communist Labor Party titledÂ Don’t Run for Office.Â It can be found here:Â http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12742 — The tradition of movements commonly … Continue reading →
This article is a response to an article posted on The North Star by Sophia Burns, a comrade and fellow member of the Communist Labor Party titledÂ Don’t Run for Office.Â It can be found here:Â http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=12742
The tradition of movements commonly grouped under the umbrella âthe leftâ is diverse. It includes movements rooted in ecology, labor struggles, women’sâ struggles, fights against racism and many other currents. Likewise, the tactics employed by these groups have varied across time and space.
One of these tactics, standing candidates for government offices is perhaps the most divisive. In the early years of the socialist movement, the Marxists, and others, argued decisively in favor of using the popular assemblies conceded by the ruling coalition of classes to further the cause of the workersâ movement against the anarchists. The electoral socialists would create the movement known historically as âsocial democracyâ which is distinct from the modern ideology using that name. Many communists, including those in the Marxist tradition, have argued since these days that the failure of social democracy in the early 20th century to achieve revolution is proof that the tactic of standing candidates for democratic assemblies in capitalist society is either outdated or was never correct to begin with.
The theory that electoralism is a dead end is primarily rooted in three arguments: 1) that the terrain of civil society is stacked against the workersâ movement and so its candidates are unlikely to be elected. 2) that participation in state organs produced by capitalist society necessarily leads to compromise of the values of the representatives or party in order to âmanage capitalismâ and 3) that even if you are elected and maintain your revolutionary principles through connection to the concrete movement, the ruling class will simply abandon the constitutional system to oust you (like in Allendeâs Chile or when Yeltsin took power in the later years of the Soviet Union).
However, those not in favor of using electoral politics as a political strategy propose several alternatives: councilist faith in working class spontaneity, anarcho-syndicalism, anarcho-autonomism (which is a modern variant of classical platformism) and insurrectionism.
We will look at some of the anti-electoral arguments in turn.
1. âIf Voting Changed Anything It Would Be Illegalâ
A common mythology spread in Marxist and anarchist circles is that âbourgeois democracyâ is a uniquely capitalist form of government. They theorize it was created in society by the capitalist class, rather than being forced by the workers, when they assumed power and began recreating society in their own image, and therefore it can only be used to capitalist ends.
However, this is manifestly not historically accurate. The progressive sections of the French Revolution, the Jacobins, were largely comprised of independent producers and the early working class rather than the manufacturing or merchanting capitalists. Even the reforms implemented by Napoleon were enacted because the freedoms of working people simply couldnât be rolled back. Â As Vivek Chibber argues in Post Colonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, the capitalist class’ drive was towards centralization, while what democratic structures were won outside the realm of ideology were the product of the sublatern working class.Â Napoleon understood he needed to include many former supporters of the Jacobins and remake the hegemonic order to secure French imperial ambitions.
Also never to be forgotten were the Chartists, workers who bled in Newport to secure such radical demands as the end of property requirements for franchise and proportional parliamentary constituencies. Similarly, the democratic reforms won in Germany in the 1848 revolutions, were pressed for by the working class in their alliance with the âDemocratsâ who were more than happy to leave the revolution at the point of establishing the end of feudalism. The same is true of the establishment of the Weimar Republic, which in spite of falling short of socialism gave considerable concessions to workers politically. And, in the United States, fights for universal suffrage, direct election of senators, freedom of speech, and the emancipation of the slaves were actively spearheaded by the working class (and their farmer allies), especially among immigrant communities in the West.
When we look at purely bourgeois revolutions like the overthrow of the Articles of Confederation in favor of the Constitution in the US, we see a strong anti-democratic streak. Despite all the grandiose phrases about the equality of men, the constitution created the separation of powers and the institution of electoral college, the effects of which we see playing out in every election since the republic was founded.
Concessions like the Bill of Rights were not given out of idealism, but realpolitik out of fear of insurrections like Shayâs Rebellion, led by free farmers and laborers of whom Madison and Jefferson were the self-appointed political representatives.
Likewise, the white supremacist establishment in the United States south, after the âRedemptionâ overcame the Reconstructionist Republicans, did all in their power to limit the access of Black Americans to vote by introducing poll taxes, âliteracy testsâ, and blatant intimidation through violence and murder. It was defeated by the Voting Rights Act, won through mass mobilization of communities of color, the progressive faith establishment, radicals and the bulk of organized labor.
Beyond the USA, the English Revolution, under Cromwell and his monarchist successors, as well as the liberal reforms of Alexander II of Russia, demonstrate the capitalist classâ preference for exclusion of the working class from the political life if at all possible. The democratic republic, as opposed to a pyramidal council republic, or decentralized confederation of communes, is one possible form that the socialist state can take and is the one most likely to take hold in the United States for cultural and economic reasons. Such a republic would need to be radically more democratic than any which has existed before and there is no reason that some of this democratization canât be done by socialists along our road to power. That isnât to say that we can simply âvote inâ socialism in any conceivable revolution, at least without enough strength behind us that the capitalist class knows it is beaten, but many social organs that are currently a part of the state can serve as scaffolding on which to build a new state that serves the whole people.
Emma Goldman once said that if voting changed anything it would be illegal. If the bloody history of workers, women and oppressed people fighting for the right to access the vote demonstrates anything, itâs that voting is indeed an effective vehicle for change. Itâs through the power of working class institutions like unions and independent media that the right to the vote and participation in formal politics are safeguarded for working people. This is why the assault on democracy has taken place in the US after the back of organized labor was finally broken in conditions of rising worker militancy where in Europe, the assault of capital is still focused on labor and economic concessions.
2. âRunning in Rigged Elections is a Waste of Timeâ
This then inexorably leads us to today. In the United States, there are numerous examples of anti-democratic efforts carried out by the capitalist state: programmers have gone on the record admitting to rigging electronic votes, restricting access to polls, purging voters from rolls, and overturning the campaign finance reform.
In Europe we also see similar [anti-democratic] trends, such as the raising of vote requirements for parties to gain seats in the legislature, criminalization of democratic protest, as well as the formal criminalization of left wing political parties deemed âextremistâ. To the abstentionist, these forces aligned against the working class movementâs electoral prospects seem clear proof of their views but in reality the reverse is true.
Democratic reforms are make sense to the vast majority of people existing in capitalism and are themselves a vital demand for any revolutionary minimum program. They also serve as a strong basis for propaganda. An example of such reform is implementing proportional representation on the state and local level, as well as in a patchwork manner on the federal or preferential voting. The fight to win such democratic reforms bolstered the Industrial Workers of the World in its early 20th century heyday, via the Free Speech Fights, and helped to build communist led institutions like the ACLU, that only under the repression of McCarthyism fell from the grasp of the working class. Running candidates on the basis of concrete democratizing demands, even if they fail to get elected, is a means of winning people over to socialism, which is in its essence the democratization of the whole of society.
It is certainly true that the electoral terrain is stacked against political movements that do not already have institutional backing. However, electoral socialism does not necessarily take place in the context of a revolutionary sect, without a real connection to a mass base of workers, fielding candidates to attract people to its program.The characterization of all electoral work by communists and socialists as such by abstentionists is disingenuous. In The Road to Power, Karl Kautsky outlines the aim of the working class movement under capitalism as to build independent institutions, or take and transform existing institutions, from capital, unions, cultural organizations, mutual aid societies, cooperatives and so on, which can then be used as a mass base upon which to contest parliamentary struggles and enact reforms which will enable this mass base to grow. A workersâ party needs to contest all areas of struggle, political, economic and social, both to demonstrate that it is a party of mass action and to use victories in each to reinforce the others.
Claims that under the present political regime working class candidates are at a structural disadvantage arenât wrong, they simply ignore our ability to level the playing field. Similarly, the idea that because electoral work as a practice creates unhealthy dynamics for building concrete class power in a situation where there is a vacuum of working class institutions means that electoralism in and of itself is invalid does not logically follow. Contesting elections should be done when there is a clear political advantage to capturing specific state organs, like city councils or state legislatures, in order to make the ground more fertile for proletarian organs. Socialists who root their politics in a firm analysis of the history of the working class movement as a whole applaud abstentionists for denouncing attempts to run presidential candidates by left wing parties under present conditions, but remind them in a comradely way that present conditions are not immutable.
3. âParticipation in ‘Bourgeois Government’ is Inherently Corruptingâ
In their polemics against electoral efforts by socialists, abstentionists often argue that participation in bodies whose primary function is to regulate capitalist society end up necessarily moving rightward in order to effectively participate in government. They cite SYRIZA and Mitterandâs Socialist Party among others to bolster their claim that since some parties that claimed to be leftist capitulated to capitalism it follows all will. However, there is a qualitative difference between how say SYRIZA, or Podemos approach electoral participation and how the pre 1914 Social Democratic Party in Germany (and its Scandinavian contemporaries with the Norwegian Labour Party even joining the Comintern at one point) or Communist Party of Italy under Gramsci and later Togliatti did so.
In 1976, after 25 years of labor oriented social democratic reforms which gave unions an increasingly strong role in the economy, Swedenâs trade union confederation, LO, adopted a proposal for the socialization of firms by taxing profits and using them to buy stock at a rate which would make most firms 51% employee owned within 25 to 30 years, and eventually wholly owned, as a means to deal with the distorting effects of capital concentration on the social market economy. The Social Democrats, although less enthusiastic on the whole, having a vocal liberal current, also adopted the proposal. Following their electoral defeat, due to a variety of factors, the Social Democrats moved closer to the Third Way consensus and watered down the proposal when it was finally enacted beyond recognition. However, had the election been won, the original unmodified, or only slightly adjusted, socialization proposal would have been introduced as a part of the democratic mandate. This example shows that it is possible, though difficult, to make genuine socialist economic reforms provided the working class has strong enough institutions of its own to pressure the political establishment as hard as the capitalist class does.
The notion that it is structurally impossible to replace capitalism with socialism through parliamentary means reifies the state and fails to recognize what it is: a battleground, among others, for various class forces as well as the technical apparatus for the administration of a specific form of society. Of course weâre not going to win socialism through the democratic assembly as a movement when the global workersâ movement is at such a low point but the conditions of this moment are not transhistorical. And of course we canât just take the ready made technical apparatus of social management of the existing state and apply it to socialism; we have to metabolize it.
Even if these parties themselves would be co-opted by right wing social forces due to specific international historical conditions, the first world war on the one hand and the degeneration of Soviet socialism on the other, their policies were militantly democratic, socialist and progressive. It was the groundwork they laid, changing people’sâ lived practice and expanding class consciousness that gave birth to the movements that would carry on their legacy and propel the workersâ movement forward, the Spartacus League and KPD and the Autonomists in Italy. Some abstentionists argue that the periodization of elections to democratic assemblies under capitalism make them inherently corrupting because they normalize the practices associated with getting elected, gathering votes and so on which requires a revolutionary party to adjust its internal structure in a way that somehow undermines their revolutionary work in other areas.
Itâs true that a small party which, having few resources and members, orientates itself almost wholly to electoral organizing would do so to the exclusion of other forms of struggle; but this doesnât hold for a party which has established a mass base in a given region and therefore has more resources to commit to different areas of struggle. This could be said to be a dialectical transformation of quantity into quality; when we are a small party and disorganized, the communists should not field candidates but focus on building a social base, and when we are a developed party with functional ties to independent social organs, we must engage with electoral work or be crushed.
Similarly, criticisms of Chavismo on the basis of its failure to transform Venezuelan society into a socialist one through electoral means fails to engage with that revolution in good faith. Chavistas never promised that the state would seize production on the soviet model like the People’sâ Democracies did after the second world war, but instead promised they would use the state to facilitate worker self-emancipation, the creation of collectives, improving literacy, supporting factory occupations and so on. Itâs precisely the self-emancipation of the class that abstentionists and left wing communists want so deeply that Chavismo is ideologically structured on. Regardless of the failures of policy under the Chavez and Maduro governments, such as the dual currency system and overreliance on oil exports, as we speak workers are running factories themselves, people are organizing into communes and the fight against the economic war of capital is being taken up by the workers themselves. The abstentionists simultaneously demand that we wait for a far off revolution after years of employing their prefered strategy be it syndicalist, platformist, or autonomist, while also demanding that the electoral strategies prove their success immediately after representatives take office and fail to recognize that electoralism can be a small part of a much larger strategy.
4. âNone of it Matters Because the Capitalists Will Just Suppress Us Anywayâ
The third line of attack abstentionists level against advocates of electoral participation is that past experiences have demonstrated that revolutionary groups who do capture the legislative or executive bodies of a state within a democratic constitutional framework are inevitably overthrown by the capitalists who are more than happy to violate the very democratic principles they supposedly operate on. There is some merit to this criticism, insofar as it is an issue that many communists who seek to take the democratic road fail to consider; however, it fails to account for the fact that this very same reality applies to their own proposed policies. One only has to look at the criminal syndicalism laws of the United States, the use of fascist thugs to attack leftists and their organizations, or the suppression of cooperatives in Spain during its period of liberalization to see that the capitalist state has no compunction with using legal and extralegal means to suppress dual power organizations. Thereâs no objective or material reason that once dual power institutions, be they red unions, cooperatives or serve the people projects became a threat to the establishment that they wouldnât be crushed or dispersed with arms just like a red parliamentary majority, and with an honest evaluation of history we can see they have been.
The notion that we can build self-sustaining and growing social bodies which produce socialist ways of living to supplant capitalist systems of social reproduction, without participation in electoral bodies, ignores the fact that not only can the state intervene but so can private capitalism. Without a stake in local governance, the most we can do when capitalist gun-thugs come to evict our squats or banks call in the debts of our cooperatives is to beg for help from saviors from on high. When the Communist Party and Socialist Workersâ Party members were arrested they were only saved by pronouncement by the Supreme Court, and even then, their mass organizations like the International Workersâ Order and many cooperatives were smashed up with no possible recourse.
Notions of self-defense of the class are well and good, and even necessary, but can a plucky band of cooperative grocers, picketers, free store operators and teachers, in conditions long before we have the majority of workers on our side, really be expected to put up armed resistance against the militarized police? The conditions where autonomist theories of self-organizing workers who could replace the capitalist economy without needing to rely on electoral institutions, emerged were precisely conditions where mass electoral participation and an already existing formal ecology of socialist institutions had already won significant legal and social space for these forms to exist in. The material conditions of that movement do not exist in the United States today. This isnât to say those theories are not worth engaging with, but that their strategies have to be critically examined instead of being pasted onto a very different period of the class struggle.
Further, when advocates of electoral participation say that running candidates and holding office is a legitimate tactic for the struggle they do not necessarily advocate a pacifistic approach to revolutionary transformation where the capitalists could suspend democracy without consequences. Instead, the vast majority argue for building the capacity of the class for self-defense when it comes to that. It should never be forgotten, as it often is by leftists that the Paris Commune began as a cross-class city council and became revolutionary on the basis of a proletarian majority, elected by democratic vote.
As Engels said in his preface to The Class Struggles in France:
And if universal suffrage had offered no other advantage than that it allowed us to count our numbers every three years; that by the regularly established, unexpectedly rapid rise in the number of votes it increased in equal measure the workers’ certainty of victory and the dismay of their opponents, and so became our best means of propaganda; that it accurately informed us concerning our own strength and that of all hostile parties, and thereby provided us with a measure of proportion for our actions second to none, safeguarding us from untimely timidity as much as from untimely foolhardinessâif this had been the only advantage we gained from the suffrage, then it would still have been more than enough. But it has done much more than this. In election agitation it provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people, where they still stand aloof from us; of forcing all parties to defend their views and actions against our attacks before all the people; and, further, it opened to our representatives in the Reichstag a platform from which they could speak to their opponents in Parliament and to the masses without, with quite other authority and freedom than in the press or at meetings. Of what avail to the government and the bourgeoisie was their Anti-Socialist Law when election agitation and socialist speeches in the Reichstag continually broke through it?
With this successful utilization of universal suffrage, an entirely new mode of proletarian struggle came into force, and this quickly developed further. It was found that the state institutions, in which the rule of the bourgeoisie is organized, offer still further opportunities for the working class to fight these very state institutions. They took part in elections to individual diets, to municipal councils and to industrial courts; they contested every post against the bourgeoisie in the occupation of which a sufficient part of the proletariat had its say. And so it happened that the bourgeoisie and the government came to be much more afraid of the legal than of the illegal action of the workers’ party, of the results of elections than of those of rebellion.
And after discussing the forces that insurrectionary attempts at seizing power will face and how the tactics contemporary revolutionaries supported were outdated, Engels continues that the elected forces of the workersâ movement are nothing less than the shock troops of revolution. Engels does not call for timidity like the reformists, instead he says
But do not forget that the German Empire… and generally, all modern states, is a product of contract; of the contract, firstly, of the princes with one another and, secondly, of the princes with the people. If one side breaks the contract, the whole contract falls to the ground; the other side is then also no longer bound [as Bismarck showed us so beautifully in 1866. If, therefore, you break the constitution of the Reich, then the Social-Democracy is free, can do and refrain from doing what it will as against you. But what it will do then it will hardly give away to you today!].
While quoting dead revolutionaries as an authority to justify a position rather than directly gathered material facts is not scientific I cite Engels here because he puts the strategy, that he proposed as a result of scientific analysis of the class struggle he himself took part, in in much more eloquent terms than I ever could. As the late wobbly troubadour Utah Phillips said, âYes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.” While we should engage with dead revolutionaries critically, their writings are a part of our collective memory and we shouldnât be so temeritous as to think that with their lives spent critically examining scientific principles of revolution they have nothing to tell us today.
By occupying elected bodies, during periods of class peace, revolutionaries can âgum up the works,â so to speak, and reduce the capitalist stateâs ability to suppress the independent organizing workers towards dual power. During conditions of open class war, when the norms of democratic society are suspended, we are likewise free to abandon democratic convention. Refusal to occupy these seats only allows a legitimate constitutional means for our suppression instead of forcing the capitalist class to show their true colors. Citing the overthrow of Salvador Allende as proof that there is no electoral road to socialism only shows that faith in the electoral system alone, without the credible threat of force that can be used in self-defense, is insufficient for socialism.
5. The âSuccessesâ of Abstentionism
The manifest failure of many past socialist movements that participated in elected governments to secure power for the working class is ironically a much better record than the complete failure of revolutionary groups that advocated strict abstentionism to do so. Nearly every communist movement which successfully secured power for any amount of time from the socialists of the Paris Commune, to the Bolshevik Party, and the Communists in Cuba had participated in electoral work in order to build their movement. Whatever their failures after securing power, these parties and groups did in fact establish proletarian dictatorships, that is to say economically democratic regimes, for at least part of their existence. Conversely, the only revolutionary situation where self-professed anarchists successfully established a socialist system, they did so with elected representatives in the Spanish popular front. Where are the successful platformist, anarcho-syndicalist, or council communist revolutions? What lasting changes have they won for the working class that didnât involve the aid of electoral socialists? Looking at the history scientifically, all available experimental data shows that the hypothesis of abstentionism as a workable strategy for interfacing with political organs to be a failure in building class power.
A recent case-study is the class struggle in Ireland. By looking at the recent history we can see how in an advanced capitalist country two strategies , abstentionism and revolutionary electoral work play out. On the one hand, the Workersâ Solidarity Movement, a platformist organization formed in 1984, adopted a program of dual power building without contesting elections. This organization did have many successes, actively participating in the labor movement, abortion rights access and antiracist work. Their mass work led them to a growth from 12 members in 2001 to 60 in 2008. However, by today their membership has collapsed down to numbers close to 2001 and while their zeal for mass work has not faded, the resources they can commit to any given struggle has suffered accordingly. Contrast this with the Socialist Party, an ostensibly Trotskyist outfit, which has engaged in the same struggles while also committing resources to electoral campaigns under the banner of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and has secured three representatives in the national parliament for itself and six for the broader coalition. The Socialist Party emerged out of a split from the Labour Party in 1996 out of its small left wing and today the Anti-Austerity Alliance has only one less TD (member of parliament) than the Labour Party. This electoral participation has, rather than turning the SP from its social base, enabled it to commit more to dual power organizations like ROSA, which is dedicated to womenâs liberation and providing abortion access, even illegally, to Irish women. The growth of the Socialist Party is directly tied to the issue of water charges which they have campaigned against and have helped get a large majority of citizens to refuse to pay. Electing members to government have only helped them gain a platform for further struggle without any need to compromise their positions and moving to the right. By having TDâs the Socialist Party is able to draw the attention of the capitalist press to issues they would otherwise ignore and they are able to make meaningful changes in local councils where they have seats. Like many Trotskyist parties, the Socialist Party overemphasizes the role of the electoral party against the ecology of workersâ institutions that it relies to and so the content of their electoral proposals suffer accordingly, for instance, rather than advocating for mutualization of firms theyâre pushing for a better welfare state. Their line is based on the outdated âtransitional programâ model. But the flaws of their particular strategy only serve to demonstrate that electoralism works, even when done by unscientific revolutionaries.
The vision of building socialist dual power without any sort of electoral participation is at best teleological, that is to say puts blind faith in inevitable progress, and at worst dangerously naive. The abstentionist nostrum to co-optation, âdirect democracyâ is no solution to the real problems of building the socialist movement. History is contingent, not formulaic; It does not follow neat patterns where certain tactics lead to inevitable results. Practice must be dynamic rather than fixed according to idealistic conceptions of what socialist modes of life are. We canât simply prefigure the world we want to live in in our organizational forms, while existing in a society that is by its very nature hostile to those forms. Direct democracy is proposed as a panacea, or cure-all, for the potential difficulties faced by revolutionary social organs but it doesnât really solve anything as shown by historical example and merely repeats the errors of the council communists.
In 1919, the German revolution produced directly democratic workersâ councils all across the country that were heralded, by those to the left of the Communist Party, as in and of themselves constitutive of revolutionary transformation. After-all, didnât having bodies where workers would directly make decisions make them inherently revolutionary? Unfortunately, these same organs elected by large margins the Social Democrats, who had turned against the revolution early on, and Independent Social Democrats, who were willing to sacrifice the revolution to maintain an alliance with the former since thatâs where the majority of workers were. The SPD would go on to dissolve the workersâ councils in favor of a capitalist republic that they created in alliance with the liberals. Time and again we see the same types of failure that abstentionists point to with electoral participation appear in directly democratic institutions. This is not to say that direct democracy is bad or not necessary for a socialist society, but it is clearly insufficient and does not actually solve the issues that plague many historical elected parties.
6. Reform and Revolution?
The role of electoral work is a divisive one on the left and an issue over which much ink will be electronically spilled for decades to come. However, it is clear that from the perspective of scientific socialism electoral work is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of the work that a workersâ party will need to undertake. When, in conditions of a fractured and disorganized left with no revolutionary base, the situation all professed workersâ parties in the United States find themselves in, electoral work is a distraction from the more important social work that must be done. But once such a base is secured, operating in and through legislative bodies is a necessary precondition for facilitating that very same baseâs continued growth by hindering reactionary legal suppression and enacting reforms that improve the structural position of workers and oppressed people beyond modest increases in living standards which social democrats fight for. Rather than abandon an entire field of struggle in the war of position against capital, the revolutionary party should adopt a position of revolutionary defensism. Revolutionary defensism is the idea of using legal means as they are available, and struggle to increase their availability, while not refusing to use methods outside legality, and preparing for the inevitable violent reaction of the capitalist class.
yeksmesh - Sat Jul 02, 2016 18:25
Extremism as a concept is central to currentÂ popular political discourse. In its common definition, however, it is also a highly flawed. Its use shows a bias towards centrist politics that silences a history of extremism. Centrists are just as well … Continue reading →
Extremism as a concept is central to currentÂ popular political discourse. In its common definition, however, it is also a highly flawed. Its use shows a bias towards centrist politics that silences a history of extremism. Centrists are just as well capable of committing extremist actsÂ upon populations, and violently exclude them from basic rights. The concept extremist should be re-purposed to highlight centrist extremism, and expose the fundamental inclusion-exclusion divide of modern politics.
The most common definition of political extremismÂ is an actor at the edges of the left-right political continuum. The so-called horseshoe-theory underlies this popular usage. Generally ascribed to French writer Jean-Pierre Faye, the theory poses that far-left and far-right political currents are more similar to one another than to respectively centre-left or centre-right political currents. The left-right continuum is not a straight, horizontal line, but rather a horseshoe shape where the ends almost meet at the bottom. These ends are the extremists: contemptuous of democracy, unrealistic and forceful, irrespective of whether they are on the left or right edgeÂ of the horseshoe.
The ideal world of horseshoe-theorists is one where radical actors are marginalized and politics is carried by hard-headed centrist politicians. These centrists are everything the extremists are not: democratic, pragmatic and open to compromise. Countries prosper when led by such actors. Extremists do at times manage to destabilize this consensus, but their alternatives do not offer realistic solutions. Centrist unity and pragmatic dealing can, in the long run, much better ensure stability and prosperity. Or so the argument goes.
I wish to propose a second conception of extremism in this article. My contention is that centrists, just as the radical-left and right, are perfectly capable of acting in extremist ways. And more broadly that extremism, a redefined extremism, is a universal characteristic of politics, left, right and centre. Furthermore it is inherently political to use the notion of extremism to solely denote political opinions at the edges of the left-right divide, and serves to exclude the voices at these ends. Rather we should come to a more nuanced understanding of extremism, an understanding in line with the almost inherently negative conception this term occupies. An understanding that does not privilege centrist actors as being more sensible than radical political voices.
So what does a re-purposed definition of extremism look like? That the term has a negative connotation makes using in a precise, analytic way more difficult. Nevertheless the term extremist still has a use in political discourse. Not to define the ideological position of a group, but to analyse the actual policies this group enacts or strives towards. I propose to define extremism in the sense of arguing in favour of taking extreme actions towards fellow humans, arguing in favour of placing certain population groups outside of the edges of normal politics, arguing in favour of actively denying groups basic rights, and often following this type of exclusion up with actual violence.
This definition goes to the heart of the inside-outside division that characterises modern society. Rights are to be granted to one group, but denied to another. The inauguration of a modern, liberal society in the 18th and 19th centuries, where feudalÂ particularism was replaced with liberal universalism, did not mean the end of a society based on inclusion and exclusion. Where previously members of religious, professional and blood-basedÂ groups had separate rights and duties, in the liberal order everyone holdsÂ equal fundamental rights and duties. Except a âuniversalâ characteristic of the new order has been the exclusion ofÂ entire populations from basic rights supposedly granted to all. While some sections of the population are granted basic rights, another group can be placed outside of this protection. This form of universalist exclusion is a general characteristic of modern political ideologies, left, right and center.
Centrist and extremist
A prime example of centrist extremism is the American 19th century. The US at this time was a country widely praised for its liberal democratic character, not only by figures such as de Tocqueville, but by an entire generation of European republicans struggling for democratic rights on their continent. And in many ways this was actually the case. Property qualifications for voting, for example, were generally removed much earlier in the United States compared to Europe. The US was also a country with very little feudal history, unlike Europe an universal order existed almost by default.
What also characterized this incipient democracy was violent exclusion of groups of others, from Native Americans to Blacks. Democracy and basic rights for white males was not contradictory with violent extremism being committed to groups external to this norm. In an odd juxtaposition, the history of the US until this day has been a combination of advanced progressivism and ugly backwardness. Furthermore, throughout US history perfectly centrist political actors supported, enacted and legitimated forms of violent exclusion. It was simply part of the centrist common sense of the day. Just because violent exclusion is common sense, however, does not make it any less extreme. Centrist extremists just as well dehumanize and brutalize excluded others.
In Europe this centrist brutality mainly manifested itself through colonialism. A history which European countries refuse to face to this day, for example in the form of the French laws that forceÂ schools to teach the positive aspects of French colonialism, the ex-Belgian foreign minister and MEP Louis Michel who called Leopold II a âhero and a visionaryâ, or the still very common glorification of the Empire in the United Kingdom. Both the past colonial atrocities and their current glorification were and are designed by centrists. As such it was perfectly possible for a regime from the far-right of the political spectrum, such as Nazi-Germany, to find inspiration for its racial policies and atrocities with the colonial regimes that were established, and are still glorified, by centrist politicians.
This simple observation, that centrists can just as well be extremist, is, however, often obscured in contemporary political discourse. The task of the radical left should be to re-define the term, and drag it away from centrist consensus.
This re-definition of the term extremist is of course no acquittal of the radical-left. We are just as capable of arguing in favour of excluding entire swathes of the population from basic rights, arguing for their violent exclusion from politics and public life. A true left-wing politics should argue for the stability of basic rights, and should be consequently anti-extremist. That the far-left generally is far removed from power does not exclude us from taking measures to limit the opportunity of an extremist attitude arising. Our position at the edges of the political debate easily causes an alienated political culture that sometimes descends into cultism, or blindness to our own extremism. An open political culture, wary of us-versus-them mentalities, and that respects basic rights for all, needs to be the core of any left practice.
What of the right?
And what then with the far-right? Does this redefinition of extremism not give this group a free pass? Should their politics then only be described by radical- or far-? In a sense they should, far-right is a much more precise term to describe this group on the political spectrum. Although it could be debated how radical they really are, as their politics generally revolve around a rollback of rights rather than their expansion.
And precisely this last argument is what makes the far-right almost inherently extreme. Because they mostlyÂ argue for the exclusion of certain population groups from basic rights, the far-right is almost by definition extremist. The far-right’sÂ political programme directly legitimates extremist action, whereas in the case of centre and radical-left politics this tendency is only present indirectly.
The far-right argues almost by definition for the exclusion of population groups from basic rights. It is a key prerequisite for bringing their ideas of mono-ethnic and mono-cultural nations into practice. Centrist and far-leftists on the other hand generally only come to extremism indirectly. Through a (perceived) crisis of stability of their regime, through colonialism, through the realities of their class interests, or through underlying biases they have towards certain population groups. The far-right is inherently extremist, centrists and far-leftists are only pragmatically extremist.
Centrist and far-left political actors can suppress their tendency towards extremism. Centrists can be pressured to limit racism and other forms of exclusion. If not, attempts to reform the status-quoÂ would be pointless. Combating extremism within the far-right, however, is to touch on the fundamental aspects of their political thinking. While it was possible for centrist regimes to forego their colonies and take action to limit racism in their societies. It would have been virtually impossible to make Nazi-Germany do these things. Although different from interwar fascism, it is equally doubtful the current far-right can be pushed to respect the fundamental rights of all population groups once in power. Their politics are based on exclusion, forcing them to abandon exclusion forces them to abandon their politics. If they cease to be extremist they cease to be far-right.
Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Thu May 12, 2016 23:41
The uncomfortable questions of formerly existing something-or-other On the left, there can be no subject more divisive than the question of unity. There are approximately three times as many opinions on the question as there are socialists. I probably hold … Continue reading →
The uncomfortable questions of formerly existing something-or-other
Hammer and Sickle, 1976 – Andy Warhol
On the left, there can be no subject more divisive than the question of unity. There are approximately three times as many opinions on the question as there are socialists. I probably hold at least four of those opinions myself.
One of the fissures rent by the âunity questionâ is provided by the debate on âformerly-existing socialismâ – which is in quotes, of course, because somebody wants to emphasise that they donât think it was socialism. This major dividing line has allowed the various Trotskyists to define themselves in relation to each other, and in relation to their âStalinistâ enemies who are naive enough to think these states represent something historically positive, but also between these and the Social Democrats, who think it proves that socialism doesnât work.
Iâve had a number of chats, often in pubs, often with too many pints consumed, in which someone invariably stated: âWho gives a fuck whether it was a deformed or degenerated workersâ state, whether it was state-capitalism, bureaucratic despotism or characteristic of the asiatic mode of production?â (In pursuance of full-disclosure, an interrogation of this question constitutes the majority of my OK Cupid profile).
Of course this sentiment seems wise, and indeed I would often in the past have found an internal voice responding along the lines of, âYeah! What the hell does some backward feudal kingdom on the fringes of Europe in the early 20th century have to do with us?â
And maybe that could be the end of it, and weâd all get along, unity would be restored, and socialist activists would put their petty squabbles behind them and find themselves again as the vanguard of a mass working-class movement marching neatly into the world in our hearts.
That sounds great, except for the fact that the route of escape from the question is not so simple. The problem, as I see it, is not only our cantankerous and cranky disposition. Itâs not (just) that lefties are entirely up their own holes and content with debating the number of angels which fit on the head of a pin (though Iâve a number of running wagers on the question). No, unfortunately there is a genuine question here; a question which doesnât come from the socialist camp.
Perhaps youâve eavesdropped on a dialogue of the following form, initiated by a an enthusiastic proselytic missionary:
Me: âWe want a more free and equal society in which the power of production itself is held democratically by all and democracy is not limited to mere formal political power.â
Maybe you nod sagely, and return to daydreams of introducing a Tobin tax, or maybe you sardonically muse on the need for a gulag construction programme. In any event, the point is clear, there can be no escape from the orbit of the theoretical black-hole of the USSR.
Instead, we are left with a spread of trajectories in which we find the germ of phenotypic variation of virtually all orientations on the left. Whether fish or fowl, eukaryote or prokaryote, we can construct virtually the whole taxonomy of socialists fauna from the reply to the nature of the USSR
I hope you enjoyed the socialist ideology choose-your-own-adventure game, and if you play it long enough you can probably list off by-heart which tendency you end up with.
In most of these narratives the USSR is a crazy aunt. Some want to lock her up in the attic, some want to pretend she isnât crazy, and others have been poisoning her meals and intend to bury her in the back garden.
Itâs time we stopped worrying so much about what the neighbours think. I mean, weâre talking about a crazy aunt who was also a third-degree black belt and taught rocket science even though she grew up on the farm.
Every narrative which hopes to escape questions of the USSR by throwing out the entire project as nothing to do with us, either because it was state capitalist, statist, or totalitarian, has to, as a consequence, supply the reason for it becoming this way.
The original sin must be found – and absolution invariably requires talismans and taboos. Hence the SWPâs obsession with âsocialism from belowâ (whatever that means) together with its state capitalist theory, and the anarchistâs prohibition on anything that might be a state (a slippery subject with anarchists to be sure). Acceding to these has huge tactical and strategic consequences. As such, accepting their veracity is only worth doing if they are in fact true, and not as a mere PR exercise. When subjected to scrutiny, these stories are not much more than convenient myths.
In 1917, anarchists were more numerous in Petrograd, yet incapable of organising as effectively as the Bolsheviks. This doesnât bode well for future attempts at anarchism. If you canât out-organise the competition, you fail – itâs an objective law, and there is no point getting stroppy about it.
As for state capitalist theory, making out the USSR to be state capitalist involves such tremendous contortionism that only circus artists need apply. Failing to find any capitalists who had the capacity to invest and thereby accumulate further capital, we have to somehow make the entirety of the USSR into a sort of monolithic firm with a collective capitalist running the show. This difference in quantity is so great it becomes a difference in kind – itâs like a football game with one player. This narrative is even more damaging than the anarchist one as it prohibits any productive method from obtaining surpluses – something necessary if we are to reduce human toil.
To make matters worse, these convenient stories arenât even believed by many of their adherents. I once confronted someone embellishing on the state capitalism theory to me in Lithuania. When I pointed out the absurdity of the theory from a technical viewpoint, she replied âyeah, I agree with you technically, but this is much simpler to describeâ.
Socialists tried to make socialism in imperfect conditions, made imperfect choices and things were imperfect and sometimes disastrously imperfect. The (perhaps unfortunately complex) materialist analysis which looks at conditions in which decisions were made, what material forces were at hand and what balance of class forces existed within a given international context is the only one which is justified. Anything less leads to strategic confusion.
Which brings us to the final argument – that socialism (where it means the control of production itself) is the problem. This is the tack that the right-wing tend to take. Social democrats, for the most part, also believe that planning leads to totalitarianism and markets are therefore necessary, and we should focus on sanding down the sharp edges of capitalism.
There are two major plot holes in this story.
The first is that planning is widespread within capitalism itself. In fact, there seems to be increasing use of planning as planning scales become larger because of the increased capacities of computers. This can be witnessed in transport and logistics, in production planning, and in airline companies among others. If capitalism uses so much planning, avoiding planning canât be the very reason why we need to retain capitalism.
Markets predate capitalism by millennia, and may postdate it depending on how things unfold. Markets are imperfect and unstable but effective means of settling on prices with very little infrastructure in a way which can help consumers to choose from limited resources.
The removal of markets as such is not really the question, and never was. People in the USSR, Yugoslavia and GDR went to markets to purchase from their incomes amongst a variety of goods. In many cases, the prices were allowed to be set in the market.
Socialists are primarily concerned with the way in which production takes place and how the socially produced value is distributed. How much is considered to be surplus, where this surplus is diverted into new production, and how people should be given access to the remainder.
The claim being made by social democrats is not really about markets or planning. Itâs that democracy cannot be extended to the sphere of production because democracy, when applied to the economy, becomes bad. As such they are essentially Hayekians with a social conscience.
How and in what way we utilise markets versus planning is a technical question. For socialists, the political-economic question is how to put all production and investment under democratic control. The alternative is, by definition, undemocratic.
When we evaluate the history of democracy, the deficiencies of Western democratic states, or the deficiencies in any given democracy, we are not making an argument against democracy as such. Athens held slaves and suffrage did not include women. This is surely an inadequacy of Athens. Similarly the US, UK or really any other of the imperialist Western states has enough skeletons in the closet to fill several graveyards. Yet we can talk about progressive aspects such as the New Deal or National Health Service without having to hedge every statement.
Despite some really terrible tragedies such as the Soviet famine of 1932-33, it is quite possible to argue that the USSR has less blood on its hands than the US or UK when the total body count of industrialisation is considered from start to finish. The transition from agrarian to industrial society has nowhere been anything but brutal, but the socialist transitions were generally less so. As the liberal economist Amartya Sen once noted:
“India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.”
Making such a claim is not an apology for bad things. Yet should we refrain from mentioning that the USSR almost single-handedly stopped the Nazis at a cost of some 29 million Soviet citizens, lest we become contaminated by its other faults, real or imagined? Perhaps defence of the NHS should be interpreted as support for starving Bengal? Yeah, I donât think so either.
It has to be possible to talk about the progressive aspects of attempts at socialism without continually cowing to the demands for disavowal. Are we not embarrassed by this demeaning sycophantic compliance with the agenda of the right?
As horrifying as it might sound to liberal ears, there are positive lessons to be learned from the USSR, Yugoslavia, the GDR and Cuba. Universal healthcare, universal housing, zero unemployment, universal education, very small material inequalities, very fast increase in productive capacities. These should interest us given how utopian they sound, especially in this era of neo-liberalism.
The first attempts at republicanism in Europe didnât end up with liberal democracies worthy of a travel brochure. And yet somehow Napoleon doesnât haunt our nightmares when we talk about the need to extend democracy.
If weâre really concerned with forging ahead fighting for a better world against all of the forces of the powerful arrayed in opposition, to overturn a social order designed to make the super-rich super richer, a system utterly unconcerned with the vast majority of humanity, I think itâs fair to say weâre going to have to do it with a bit more of a backbone.
Gavin Mendel-Gleason - Mon May 09, 2016 00:07
My 11 year old son asked me what I thought of Captain America: Civil War, upon leaving the cinema. What follows is approximately what I told him (and consequently, perhaps such questions are a mistake he will not make again). … Continue reading →
My 11 year old son asked me what I thought of Captain America: Civil War, upon leaving the cinema. What follows is approximately what I told him (and consequently, perhaps such questions are a mistake he will not make again). SPOILER ALERT
Near the opening of Captain America: Civil War we are transported to a TED talk given by Tony Stark, the genius playboy billionaire technologist that doubles as Iron Man. The talk could be fairly referred to as an expression of the âThe Silicon Valley Ideologyâ. His audience is the alumni of MIT – the perfect representatives of our film’s notion of who represents the people of importance – tech savvy innovators. Tonyâs personalised narratives of hardship emotionally manipulate the audience as he alludes to the promise of triumph over adversity through technology. It is just as it should be in any TED talk worth its salt.
Tony Stark muses that, if immediate returns on investment were his only concern, he would never have invested in his unique device – a personal psychoanalytic technological aid. We are shown that the value of the billionaire investor transcends the mechanical realisation of profits. His role as a mere emissary of capitalist accumulation is overcome through individual philanthropic enterprise. In his conclusion, he magnanimously acts as angel investor to the entire audience, allowing them emancipation through the realisation of their own innovations.
Afterword, when a woman confronts him about the death of her son, to which the actions of the Avengers were certainly contributory, he finds himself face to face with the central problematic of our narrative. Stark is clearly moved by her pain.
In a similar vein a long litany of questionable activities and reckless damage which the Avengers could potentially be held responsible for is presented to them by the US Secretary of State. This vigilante group, whose actions are not accountable to any state or super-state whatsoever, and who are entirely unregulated, are asked to submit themselves to some restrictions. The adventurous (ahem) might suggest a metaphor with international capital and its attempts to supersede all borders and the current confusion within liberalism of whether to attempt to regulate it or not.
The âcivil warâ of the film title refers to the split which develops among the Avengers because of their differing opinions on political accountability. The feelings of guilt which Tony Stark experiences are the driving motivation behind his decision to submit, and he leads the pack of those who decide to sign an international accord of accountability. Captain America leads the dissenters and he becomes the avatar of a very Randian ultra-individualism.
Predictably, this submission to political accountability turns out to be grossly misguided. Captain America sees through the red-tape and concludes that only the individuals should be able to make decisions about how to exercise power. Our Randian Avatar is the true bearer of truth and justice, unbound by the distortions of politics and guided only by his own moral compass and super-human physical prowess. He is truly the ĂŒbermensch in this epic.
Later in the film, Captain America teams up with the Winter Soldier. A former soviet soldier who did terrible evils under the regime because he was, literally, brainwashed. Here we see the ideology of communism was not a mere confusion, but a totalitarian manipulation of consciousness itself. There is also a hint of a close relationship between the fascist Hydra organisation and the functioning of the USSR itself, a staple of the narrative used by the right-wing in Europe.
The Winter Soldier, is liberated (at least temporarily) from his conditioning in order that he can team up with Captain America to make things right again, after defeating the misguided Tony Stark. The humorous parallel between the Winter Soldier and Russia is striking. Briefly a great ally to Captain America, at the end of the film it is agreed that the Winter Soldier needs to be âput on iceâ because he canât even trust himself not to revert to his former evil ways.
In the final scene of the movie, Tony Stark finds redemption as he finally sees the error of his way. He realises that he too, as a billionaire genius innovator, should never be answerable to mere politics. It is hard not to see these heroes as psychic projections of the âentrepreneurâ and silicon valley innovators. This narrative fits their understanding of the role of the state: as an inconvenient fact at best, and something to be eluded whenever possible in order to get on with the business of doing the right thing (or at least not being evil).
Captain America: Civil War is certainly not a work of art, and neither is it meant to be. If you like action films, epic fight scenes, reasonably coherent plots and passable dialogue then you could certainly do worse. The point of such super-hero films is to present action packed entertainment with the subject matter of the fight of good against evil – they are modern epic myths. These avatars of humanity represent our impulses to fairness, ethics and righteousness. In doing so, super-hero films are often excellent mirrors in which to see clearly the dominant ideological currents within society which define our sense of what is right.
The expression of ideology in the arts holds a certain fascination for me. If I were employed to construct propaganda for advanced capitalism, I could hardly do better than the narratives which we find here. And yet it seems likely that much of the narrative is produced unconsciously by the authors. A regurgitation of what is imbibed; the meat of what is floating about in the hegemonic ideological soup of advanced capitalism.
My son’s response was: “So does that mean you thought it was good, or bad?”
James O'Brien - Sat Feb 13, 2016 01:13
In yesterday’sÂ Irish Independent and on Facebook, Julien Mercille asks why The Workersâ Party, Socialist Workers Party, and the Socialist Party do not form one party. The first answer a lot of people will reach for is simple inertia. Organisations have … Continue reading →
In yesterday’sÂ Irish Independent and on Facebook, Julien Mercille asks why The Workersâ Party, Socialist Workers Party, and the Socialist Party do not form one party.
The first answer a lot of people will reach for is simple inertia. Organisations have a momentum and direction that isnât always easy to change, especially as the leading forces within the parties have got there because of that veryÂ approach.
But that isnât the whole story.
The parties have historically had different political approaches, reflected in our different ideologies. Certainly the Socialist Workers Party & the Socialist Party are significantly less Trotskyist than they used to be, at least in their People Before Profit and Anti Austerity Alliance manifestations, while the WP is far from the force it was. In that respect all three lie closer to each other than at any other time in the past.
But the underlying political differences remain; they are not illusionary. The WP, for instance, does not share the SWPâs orientation towards assemblies; we are much more âpartyistâ in our conception of how working class power can be built. This has a cascade of knock on effects in how we see struggle developing, with the SWP being significantly more spontaenist in how they see an anti-capitalist movement gaining traction, although their experience with PBP may be gradually altering that.
There isn’t, of course, any difficultyÂ with discussing unity with any of them but that unity will only occur on the basis of ideological agreement, such as having historical materialism as the theoretical framework, the role of the party, the relative importance of control of production, being explicitly socialist etc. If it turns out that we are much closer on such theoretical issues than we had previously thought, the we can expectÂ the parties to merge in a fairly rapid fashion. I would also expect it to be a durable outcome.
But simply tying the knot without sorting out fundamental ideology would lead in short order to an acrimonious split. At best youâd get a faction ridden organisation that fractures at the first point of stress. The difficulties are only multiplied if the net is cast wider, to include the Social Democrats and Sinn FĂ©in even if that only comprised a loose alliance.
The mistake Julien,Â Rory Hearne, and initiatives like Right2ChangeÂ make is to posit left unity as a matter of agreeing policy and some organisational structure, probably aÂ loose one. Itâs not. Policy is secondary; it comes *after* ideological unity and flows from it, as does the organisational form.
Finally, it is deeply unimpressive to be regularly lectured on the virtues of left unity by individuals who canât even bring themselves to join *any* party. If one has such vehement views about the multiplicity of parties, pick the oneÂ that is closest to you and argue for left unity inside it. If the truth is so obvious, then it should be fairly straightforward work.
Setting oneself up at the leftâs leadership in exile has approximately zero effect on members of these organisations, particularly when there is a total absence of understanding why the parties exist, how they conceptualise themselves, and the function of ideology in social organisations.