Anticapitalism in the 21st century
Can Up the Anti help foster a new kind of anticapitalism, asks Luke Cooper
A political event like Up the Anti ultimately has to be judged by the cruel criteria of achievement.
Just as elections can expose the lack of an organic relationship between a political party, particularly it has to be said those of the radical left, to the wider populace, so too an event of this nature on the activist left has to be judged by its political outcomes.
Most events on the left resoundingly fail in this regard – they produce little change, they bring together no new constellations of social forces, and simply offer more of the same speeches, the same old fronts, or the same old appeals to ‘join the party’.
Up the Anti avoided these familiar pitfalls and in doing so it is not surprising that it achieved two complimentary but different results.
It brought together layers of activists, many of whom have been working on divergent projects within the anticapitalist movement (broadly defined) since the early 2000s, but now see the need for more embracing forms of political collaboration. But in bringing these networks together, it also succeeded in drawing a whole layer of younger faces – the critical outreach test for any healthy event on the contemporary radical left. I didn’t recognise the great majority of the faces in attendance, which is great, because the left needs the injection of energy new layers of people provide.
It was in the nature of the project that its outcomes were never going to be as clearly defined in the form of resolutions and policy-making. There is a place for that kind of thing, and I don’t at all mean to knock it in all times and places, but we also have to be aware that passing a resolution or statement doesn’t necessarily produce meaningful forms of unity, or help to develop the political coherence of an anticapitalist politics.
The political outcomes of Up the Anti might be harder to comprehend in a written down and worked out form, but they might prove to be more important in laying the basis for an anticapitalism that is able to draw upon a plurality of radical political traditions and activist experiences.
There was a time in the anticapitalist movement when debates between Trotskyists and Autonomists would all too quickly go from words to, if not blows, certainly a series of ever-more offensive utterances. Or, on the other hand, they might have a fraternal, but purely doctrinal character: a simple statement of two mutually opposed worldviews unable to take on board the utility of the other side’s arguments and simply talking past one another.
What struck me about Up the Anti – and more generally in terms of the experience of mobilisation and political interchange we have been through since 2010 – is the willingness of growing layers of activists who fall traditionally into one or other of these categories, to be prepared to discuss in a way that holds out the possibility that they might be wrong. This might appear obvious, and perhaps I should have realised this myself long ago, but in a political conversation we can both hold out the possibility of our own falsity, as well as uphold the core principle of rational debate; namely, that you ‘believe you are right’, otherwise there would be no point in arguing.
From a Trotskyist perspective – and I still consider myself politically rooted within this traditional of anti-Stalinist Marxism – this is particularly important for two related reasons, both of which were raised in the session Simon and I did on our new book.
Firstly, the Trotskyist movement to varying degrees – involving numerous debates and arguments – rejected the one-party authoritarian political regimes that marked the last century, and Trotsky himself in The Revolution Betrayed outlined a programme of revolutionary workplace democratisation. But the Trotskyists were less good at confidently addressing the question of how the bureaucratic degeneration of a post-revolutionary state into totalitarianism could be avoided in the future. Secondly, the political practice of Trotskyist parties undermined their ability to sincerely address the democracy question, because they have tended to mimic the top-down, bureaucratic organisational party model of Stalinism.
In this context, it is important for us to engage with the debates of Italian post-war communism that gave rise to the Autonomist movement and, in a more reformist-liberal direction, spawned Eurocommunism. A critique of Stalinism, and an account of how to avoid a totalitarian outcome to a future revolution, must surely involve a positive conception of individual and collective autonomy over our social reproduction, as the Autonomist movement has emphasised. This also opens up a recognition that neoliberalism tapped into a desire for autonomy amongst the working class. One of the problems consequently seen on the left is the failure to advance an alternative conception of autonomy to the consumerism and social mobility politics of neoliberalism. The latter appeared attractive against the highly gendered, racist and bureaucratic division of labour of post-war Keynesianism.
This approach is not alien to the classical Marxist tradition. Rather, it comes back to Marx’s observation that human beings will always desire freedom, and will consequently look and search for it in the course of social reproduction. For Marx the fact that no political force ever promotes ‘anti-freedom’ confirmed this. Even the most totalitarian states promote the freedom of some, e.g. party members in the Soviet Union, against others:
Freedom is so much the essence of man that even its opponents realize it…. No man fights freedom; he fights at most the freedom of others. Every kind of freedom has therefore always existed, only at one time as a special privilege, another time as a universal right.
Whether Marx is right to posit a human ‘essence’ rooted in a desire for freedom we might well choose to question and debate. But the idea that all modern political forces have to promise a form of freedom, whether universal or a set of special privileges, poses challenge for a socialist left that rarely discusses such issues.
There is also little discussion on the “old left” of how these insights should reappraise our existing conceptions of Leninist party organisation. In Beyond Capitalism? we tentatively suggest a reappraisal of attempts to build broad Marxist parties in the late 19th and early 20th century is necessary. We need to put Lenin and the Bolsheviks in the context of this orientation to building broad Marxist parties and rediscover the reality that even the Bolsheviks in periods of legality had a highly pluralistic practice, with substantial autonomy granted to lower organs of the party. This can open up a criticism of the top-down bureaucratic model that came to dominate the communist movement in the course of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Needless to say, that in emphasising the need for broad parties of the left, we do not want to reproduce the reformist politics of social democracy any more than we want to resurrect a totalitarian communism. All attempts, however, to build new political parties today need to find a principled path between these pitfalls. Democratic and participatory forms of organisation built ‘from below’ will be crucial in this regard.
Greece changes everything
The need to incorporate aspects of these radical intellectual traditions into a socialist politics for the 21st century seems to me to be a pressing one. But it is noticeable also that discussions of political party organisation are not as anathema to sections of the autonomist movement as they once were.
The Trotskyist and Leninist traditions have important contributions to make on these levels, if we disentangle these bodies of ideas from the totalitarian Stalinist regimes that blighted the last century. We must not, I strongly believe, give up on the question of political power: that the goal of anticapitalist mobilisation should be to construct a democratic and emancipatory form of state rooted in working class communities, which is able to develop a transition to a new mode of production. In Britain, this sounds all too abstract, but if we are to challenge capitalist realism – the widespread belief there is no alternative to capitalism – it is important not to avoid the big strategic question of a communist alternative.
The centre of our political attention should remain in this sense transfixed on the Syriza experience, which has succeeded in creating a plural organisation, uniting disparate sections of the left, including Autonomists, Maoists, Trotskyists, and, in its core leadership, Eurocommunists, to develop a credible challenge to neoliberalism.
We discussed Greece at Up the Anti but it probably wasn’t given the attention that it surely deserves, for here we have a radical new party that remains on the cusp of power. At the meeting of Syriza in London I was lucky enough to go to a couple of days ago, the major questions of strategy and tactics, usually simply the stuff of left literary and propagandistic discussion, had taken on a real, living meaning in the Greek crisis.
It was particularly positive to hear how radicals in the Autonomist tradition had come into Syriza in the course of its engagement with the Syntagma Square movement. The emphasis these speakers gave to the ‘cross-contamination’ of different radical traditions (the better English translation might be ‘cross-fertilisation’ of radical traditions), the crucial role of social mobilisation to develop and articulate a revolutionary answer to the crisis marks a refreshing departure for the European left. I would be surprised if these types of radical anticapitalists joined the Left Party in Germany, for example.
Indeed, there are several features of Syriza’s politics that mark it out as distinctive against new left parties in the rest of Europe. It has a radical pluralism, drawing together an array of traditions and groupings on the left, has played an important role in developing social mobilisation from below, and even its more moderate leadership has been pushed leftwards under the extraordinary pressure of the Greek crisis. It was also helped by the split of its right-wing in 2010 (the Democratic Left, now in power), which saw those who wanted to conciliate to austerity leave, leaving Syriza free to push for a radical agenda. They also simultaneously emphasised left unity and an anti-austerity government, exposing the sectarian position of the Greek Communist Party who refused to unite against austerity. There are naturally dangers in the current situation. Not least the complacency of its top leadership over how the Greek ruling class will respond to its rise to power, and the likely temptation of accept an austerity-lite pact once they assume power. But, nonetheless, these are ‘problems’ that the radical left in Europe wants to have, insofar as we want the big questions of reform and revolution, of what kind of radical state power is needed, and so on, to be operative concrete issues of living political struggle.
A new left
Ultimately, none of us can start from our own traditions, codify them into a perfect organisational form and hope to recruit a few converts. This method has failed. Instead we have to develop plural parties of the radical left. The new calls for left unity coming out of the British left are therefore hugely important. We have to work to ensure any new project for a united left in Britain is participatory, democratic and built from the bottom up.
Up the Anti brought together one part of the anticapitalist movement, which, if they were won to participating in a Syriza-like organisation here, would play a crucial role in ensuring it held to a radical, communistic and participatory conception of revolutionary politics in the 21st century.