By Greg Godels

February 20, 2024

 

…the Left narrative, no matter how accurate and intellectually powerful it may be, cannot expect to catch the imagination of the citizenry without including a vision for a real alternative future. Moreover, working-class institutions need to be reinstituted for the enhancement of class consciousness and authentic socialist parties need to be rediscovered for the Left narrative to become politically effective. Social movements are important, but their actions rarely have lasting effects. Only political parties can succeed in forging the Left narrative into the policy agenda and turn it into a programmatic plan for social change. Understandably enough, this is quite a tall order, but the Left needs to win once again the hearts and minds of the laboring classes. But it needs the necessary political agencies and cultural instruments to do so. It cannot accomplish it on intellectual grounds alone, especially with the politics of identity acting as a spearhead for social transformation… The Communist Manifesto would have remained just a mere political document if it wasn’t for the existence of radical political parties across the globe to embrace it as their guide and vision for the emancipation of the working class from the yoke of capital.The Left has a Great Story to Share About Alternatives to Capitalism– But Sucks at Telling It,”C.J. Polychroniou (Common Dreams)

 

Shorn of the academic jargon, Polychroniou’s conclusion to his Common Dreams article gets a lot right about the failings of the US and European left and the road back to relevance.

It is true that today the left’s unstated action model is a plethora of focused, but single-issue social movements. However, that model has enjoyed, at best, limited success in the US since single-issue activism won big gains in the anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 1970s. One of the movements effectively complemented a bloody defeat of US Cold War aggression and the other completed the formal constitutional promise of full-citizenship rights for Blacks, women, and other minorities. But substantial, larger, associated issues remain unresolved. US imperialism continues unabated with ever-more casualties and injustices; the inequalities suffered by oppressed groups remain intact, with a token stratum of those groups allowed through the door of privilege, even to elite status, but with most lagging far behind.

Social movements have focused on specific policies (NAFTA, tax structure, minimum wage, healthcare, immigration reform), emerging trends (globalization, “neoliberalism”), gross inequality (Occupy), changes in governance (Arab Spring, police reform), environmental degradation (fracking), or US foreign intervention among many other identifiable wrongs, all of which burn brightly in the beginning, then unfortunately just as quickly fade, as protest confronts the glacial, fractured electoral system.

It is also true that most of the left operates and acts without any overarching program of reform or revolution. The majority of US leftists, for example, enthusiastically, reluctantly, or by default rely upon the Democratic Party and electoral politics to drive broad, systemic change. They may hope that their issues will be embraced by the party’s policy makers, they may struggle with the party’s entrenched leaders for a suitable program, or they may simply defer to the Democrats out of desperation. DSA, a self-described ‘democratic’ socialist party, is very far from cutting the umbilical cord with the Democrats. While the Green Party expends impressive effort to achieve ballot status, it brings a hodge-podge of candidates to the ballot, seldom aligned with any kind of common program or larger goal. And the small Marxist parties have failed to impact the labor movement or pressure reform movements from the left, as last did the US Communist Party of Gus Hall’s era when anti-Communist repression was far more intense than today and the word “socialism” was then a term of abuse.

But it is not just a program that is missing, but a vision as well.Anti-capitalism’ is not a vision, but a defiance; it expresses hostility and resistance, but not rejection. It gives us no alternative to capitalism. Most of the US left counts itself as anti-capitalist, but one can only guess at what that might mean.

Some are more specific: they are anti-neoliberal capitalism, anti-disaster capitalism, anti-racial capitalism, or perhaps anti-monopoly capitalism. But, by implication, are they for some other kind of capitalism? Do they pine for the era before neoliberalism? Do they imagine capitalism without racism? Do they wish to turn the clock back to the stage before monopoly capitalism? An imagined time when capitalism did not spawn disasters?

These are not political visions, they’re mere fantasies!

The dominant alternative vision to capitalism until the collapse of real-existing-socialism in the late-twentieth century was Marxist socialism. From the rise of mass socialist parties in the final decades of the nineteenth century, the vision sketched by Marx and his followers dominated the hopes of ‘anti-capitalist’ working people. Whatever else the early Marxist militants meant by socialism, they agreed that socialism should end the exploitation of workers by capitalists; they envisioned ending capitalism once and for all and not merely managing it or buffering its worse aspects.

With the birth of real-existing-socialism, creating, shaping, and developing the vision proved to be a lengthy, often messy process, as though serious onlookers would expect it to be otherwise. Previously rare or unheard-of levels of economic, cultural, and human growth were achieved. Enormous sacrifices were made. And internal and external enemies were met.

Some leaders rose to meet challenges, some failed to do so. Mistakes were plentiful, as were acts of unparalleled heroism. The costs of change and of development were enormous, as any thoughtful observer would expect. Ultimately, those living in the lands where socialism was won, no matter how briefly or for how long, must weigh the sacrifices against the gains made, and discount the judgment of smug, well-situated foreign critics.

Ironically, Polychroniou, who correctly steers the left away from aimlessly drifting in the political maelstrom of left-wing faddism and unmoored posturing, paints a picture of real-existing-socialism so without merit or achievement as to turn anyone away from the socialist alternative. Polychroniou, like his sometime collaborator, Noam Chomsky, often shows an impressive critical eye toward the failings of the capitalist system and of imperialism, but follows unfailingly the conventional, stereotypic Cold War demonization of real-existing-socialism; he cannot even credit twentieth-century socialism with being ‘real,’ calling it “actually-existing-socialism.” Like Chomsky, Polychroniou mistrusts the mainstream media at every turn, recognizing its obedience to the ruling class, but accepts everything it sells about the ruling class’s arch-enemy: the real-existing-socialism of the last century.

As a result, Polychroniou’s often perceptive comments are diminished, lost before disdain for a project that he believes has proven, in reality, to be an unmitigated disaster. According to Polychroniou, “actually existing socialism” was “undemocratic,” undermining its “social, cultural, and economic achievements…” “Workers had no say in economic decisions… [T]he rulers possessed no wealth and had no private property of their own but made all of the decisions for the rest of society. The USSR was at best a ‘deformed workers’ state’.” [my emphasis]

Polychroniou sees this ‘deformation’ as a huge impediment to the achievement of socialism. Consequently, he is surprised that its disappearance did not bring on a flowering– a revival– of interest and commitment to socialism. “Instead of feeling liberated by the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’ the western Left felt a loss of identity and entered a long period of intellectual confusion and political paralysis.” In other words, the Western Left suffered malaise, lost its bearings, and floundered at a time when Polychroniou thought his “real” socialism was within reach.

Surely this bizarre psychologistic explanation of the failure of a Left unburdened by the legacy of Communism is as unsatisfying as Polychroniou’s comic strip characterization of over 70 years of real-existing-socialism. As he concedes, the so-called Western Left found its opportunity to fulfill its promise of a different alternative. But the promise collapsed before it got started, degenerating into scholastic quarrels over truth, identity, and forms of governance.

Still Polychroniou recognizes the urgent need for a Left political party — a united organization of those committed to a common road to social change– to serve as the vehicle for a program and a vision. In his words, “[The] Left needs to win once again the hearts and minds of the laboring classes.” In his judgment, systemic change must be realized through the political party. However, he surely knows that the idea that radical political ideas can be realized through centrist parties has long been discredited, though far too many radical organizers continue to pursue that dead end in the US and Europe.

It must be acknowledged that the popular idea that a Left political party can be constituted by addition, simply bringing all the various social movements together, is equally flawed, relying on the magical thinking that ideological proximity or contiguity is the same thing as the organic unity necessary for party-building.

Similarly, the seductive idea that a political party can be constructed around the mere fact that it is new and different from the failed, bankrupt center-left parties of Europe and the US has been proven wrong by the corruption or decline of Europe’s new wave. From the German Greens to Spain’s Podemos, Italy’s Five Star, or Greece’s SYRIZA, the promise of a shiny new toy filling the political vacuum left by a dying center-left is broken. Without a distinctive vision, without a concrete program, with only a pledge for more “democracy,” all of the new wave disappointed its idealistic followers, leaving many disgusted and disenchanted with political action.

To his credit Polychroniou is critical of this trend. In a September, 2023 article (Endgame for Syriza, The Unbearable Lightness of the Greek Left) in Common Dreams, he chronicles the rise and fall of Greece’s SYRIZA party, a new-wave, self-styled radical party that actually grasped the brass ring of political power in 2015, but soon capitulated to capital without a fight. Since SYRIZA’s fall from its former heights, Polychroniou ponders its future.

“The answer to that mystery,” he says, “was revealed during the leadership election that was held just this past Sunday [September 24, 2023] when party members elected a gay, liberal, former Goldman Sachs trader, shipping investor, and political neophyte Stefanos Kasselakis to head the once radical left-wing Syriza party.” The once “radical” SYRIZA has devolved into a nondescript liberal party of the center/center right (as has the German Greens).

But he concludes his insightful essay on SYRIZA’s rapid decline with this bizarre note: “Under Kasselakis, Syriza will cease having affinity to leftist politics in any form or shape, which means that Greece will now be left with a Leninist-Stalinist Communist Party as the only large-scale organized political force fighting for the interest of the working class.” [my emphasis]

Is the idea of the KKE– the Greek Marxist-Leninist party to which he dismissively refers– “fighting for the interest of the working class” so distasteful to Polychroniou as to rule it out-of-hand? Would Greek working people be better off if the KKE were not fighting for their interests? Is the fourth largest political party in Greece declared “untouchable” by Polychroniou? Is he apologizing because Greece has a committed fighter for the interests of its working class?

Polychroniou’s dismissal comes with no logic and no evidence. It is simply the deeply entrenched, unexamined anti-Communism that he shares with so many middle-strata, academic and intellectual leftists of his and past generations. Despite KKE’s long history of contesting capitalism and imperialism, its unwavering, heroic resistance to fascism, and its persistent promotion of a Greek society free of exploitation, Polychroniou and others of his ilk can find no circumstances in which they could even conditionally support “the only large-scale organized political force fighting for the interest of the working class” in Greece.

Surely, this is the epitome of blind, foolish, and counterproductive anti-Communism.

It is ironic that the KKE pointed out– long before 2015 and Polychroniou– that SYRIZA would not and could not answer the challenges facing Greece in the throes of crisis. At the time, intellectuals like Polychroniou, dismissed KKE’s assessment and charged it with sectarianism for refusing to join in coalition with the now admittedly discredited SYRIZA.

*****

It is a good thing that Polychroniou and others are reexamining the tactics and strategies of the European and US Left in the twenty-first century. It is hard to reconcile the occurrence of economic catastrophes unseen since the Great Depression, numerous tragic and bloody wars of aggression and domination, and social and political crises with the lack of significant social change or revolution over the last quarter-century. The title of Vincent Bevins’s recent book, If We Burn: The Mass Protest Decade and the Missing Revolution, captures the dilemma well. Arguably more people have been motivated to protest existing conditions than ever before, but no revolutionary change has ensued. Why?

The question, or one very much like it, is taken up by Anton Jäger and Arthur Borriello in their recent book, The Populist Moment: The Left After the Great Recession. Both books are the subject of a critical review in the 8 February 2024 issue of The London Review of Books (A Circular Motion, James Butler).

Certainly, the failure of the Left and the current numerous fractures on the Left deserve serious retrospection and assessment. The way forward could well come from such study. But it will falter if poisoned from the onset with thoughtless anti-Communism. It will be prone to the same limiting calls to individualism, to identity, and the vacuous, vague, but always heralded cry for more “democracy.” A challenge to capitalism will require more than virtue-signaling.

Surely, the lessons of a century of social upheaval, confrontation, and revolution animated by working-class organizations cannot be cavalierly dismissed. The role of Communists and Communist Parties was decisive in colossal social change in the twentieth century. Could they be decisive again?

 

https://zzs-blg.blogspot.com/2024/02/is-there-future-for-left.html