In this two-part review essay, Alex Snowdon discusses Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy, on how the left, internationally, has responded to austerity and crisis

Socialist Register 2013: The Question of Strategy (Merlin 2012), 380pp.

What is to be done? The question posed by the title of Lenin’s short book over a century ago is always demanding an answer. For socialist activists, seeking not only to understand the world but to change it, this is a matter of the greatest importance. It is, as the title of this volume puts it, the question of strategy. Fundamentally this means considering: who has the capacity to change the world, and how can they do so?

At a time of deep crisis across a number of overlapping fields – economic, imperial and ecological – the question of strategy demands urgent and persuasive answers. Yet the crisis of the system has not automatically generated a convincing response from the left. Indeed it is often suggested that the crisis of the system is matched by a crisis of the left. The multiple crises of capitalism, matched by the difficulties faced by the contemporary left in responding to them, are the background to this new, wide-ranging volume of nineteen essays.

Socialist Register began in the early 1960s as part of the post-1956 New Left. Every year there is a fresh volume, always with a theme, drawing together diverse contributions from an international range of socialist writers and activists. This review is an essay divided into two parts over two weeks: the material in Socialist Register’s 2013 volume demands a serious and considered response. Rather than attempting to summarise every contribution, however, I pay fairly detailed attention to several very stimulating contributions in particular. These engage directly with the question of strategy for the radical left in the ‘old capitalist heartlands’ of Europe and North America.

Three aspects are in the foreground here: protest movements (specifically Occupy and anti-austerity), left-wing electoral parties, and the revolutionary left. The relationship between these different elements is of fundamental importance if we are both to develop a successful strategy for defeating austerity and to create a new left capable of leading a challenge to the entire system.

Crisis, austerity, alternatives

Greg Albo’s ‘The crisis and economic alternatives’ is the opening essay and provides a useful framework for the whole book. Albo’s starting point is the systemic crisis of capitalism that has wracked the core economies since 2008, and the far-reaching political and social implications of that crisis. He observes that in North America, Japan and Europe this crisis is comparable in scale and severity to three earlier periods of ‘major crisis’: the Long Depression of 1873-96, the Great Depression in the 1930s, and the period of successive recessions which began in 1973.

One political consequence has been a renewal of critiques of neoliberalism, opening up space for political opposition. Albo refers to three trends in particular. The first is an upsurge of protest identified with the likes of Occupy and UK Uncut, ‘demonstrating a tactical inventiveness that the left very much could use’ (p.2). The second is the development of radical-left parties in the electoral arena in Europe. He mentions five by name, ‘Syriza in Greece, the Left Bloc in Portugal, the Left Front in France, the Socialist Party in the Netherlands, the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark’. Most commentators would also regard Germany’s Die Linke (the subject of an essay in this volume) as deserving inclusion in the list.

The third trend is Albo’s main focus: renewed interest in alternatives to neoliberal economics and the strategic question of posing an alternative to dominant austerity. He is concerned that the formulation of such alternatives has so far been ‘sputtering’ and hopes that the growth of anti-austerity struggles will expand the space in which alternatives can be debated. Albo develops some detailed ideas along these lines, but the most pertinent part of his essay is when he considers how alternative economic strategies, which can easily seem utopian and distant, might be translated into demands guiding the anti-austerity movement.

Albo notes that we do not yet have ‘focused campaigning demands animating the movements,’ so he proposes what these demands might be. This is not meant as a coherent ‘transitional programme’, but rather as ‘a distinctive socialist contribution to struggles over an exit to the crisis’ (p.11). It consists of five elements: debt audits and defaults, bank nationalisation and democratic control, a radical programme of public works, a ‘green new deal’ which links climate justice and anti-austerity struggles, and a number of transnational measures grouped under the heading ‘confronting the world market’.

Albo makes the important point that ‘the position of financial capital within the neoliberal power bloc makes [bank] nationalization under political control a struggle of the first order’ (p.12). It is a struggle that pushes beyond the limits of neoliberal capitalism. Nationalisation of the banks is viewed here as integral to breaking the power of finance capital. The demands for mass public works and a ‘green new deal’ also cut against the core tenets of neoliberalism, seeking to stimulate the economy through public investment rather than adopting policies of cuts and privatisation.

All this leaves open the question of agency – of how such demands can be pursued – which is a more central focus in a number of the other essays. Albo, however, is aware of the difficulties here: he observes that both the crisis and the resistance to it have proceeded in profoundly uneven ways in different countries, so that inevitably in some countries there is greater scope (but also greater urgency) for raising these demands in practical ways, as a direct challenge to nation states and the international institutions backing them. The PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) are the countries where the crisis has been deepest and the challenge to austerity has been fiercest, therefore posing such questions most urgently.

Revolutionaries and new parties of the European left

This leads us on to the state of the anti-austerity left in Europe. A number of essays cover this territory. Charles Post’s ‘What is left of Leninism? New European left parties in historical perspective’ sounds audacious – and it is. One of the very strongest pieces in the whole volume, it goes back to the pre-1917 development of socialism to help understand current divisions and debates on the radical left. Post provides a sweeping historical survey of the twentieth-century revolutionary left. This includes the development of a number of mass Communist Parties in the early 1920s and, during the Stalinist era, their political degeneration. However, it is the analysis of the radical left since 1968 that I want to focus on here.

In 1968-75 there was substantial growth in Trotskyist and Maoist organisations. Shaped by the upsurge of student and worker militancy of those years, they offered an alternative to both social democracy and official Communism. There was a widespread view among revolutionaries that conditions were comparable to the post-1917 period and the growth of genuinely mass revolutionary parties was a viable prospect, just as happened in much of Europe (and to an extent beyond) during the years following the Russian Revolution.

These prospects were dashed as a period of working-class retreat began in the mid-1970s and the neoliberal offensive commenced. The European revolutionary left was thoroughly disoriented and suffered a series of splits. Some groups collapsed, others declined. The authentic non-Stalinist revolutionary left of the 1970s never grew to the scale seen in some countries during the Third International period of the early 1920s.

The downturn period saw a largely successful neoliberal assault on the working class, with a weakening of trade-union power, a shift in weight from the rank and file to the union bureaucracy and a decisive move rightwards in the Labour Party and its continental equivalents. This was complemented by the marginalisation of the radical left and its ideas (intellectually, Marxism came under sustained assault). Post observes that only two small but substantial revolutionary organisations survived the downturn period with membership largely intact and a credible base among militant workers: the British International Socialists (IS) and the French Revolutionary Communist League (LCR). Both of these were Trotskyist organisations; the Maoist left, meanwhile, had almost entirely collapsed by the end of the 1970s.

The IS, which became the Socialist Workers Party in 1977, adapted well to changing circumstances and took important initiatives like the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s, a united front that was successful in beating back the threat of the far right, while also sustaining a base in the trade unions despite vastly more difficult circumstances than during the early-1970s upturn in struggle. The SWP came through the 1980s and 1990s with a solid activist base intact, with roots in an admittedly weakened organised working class, so that in the early years of this century it could play an impressive role in anti-capitalist and anti-war movements (and for a time in new left-wing electoral formations). The LCR, similarly, maintained a credible layer of working-class activists throughout the 1970s and 1980s, so that it was able to intervene in fresh workers’ struggles from the mid-1990s onwards and, a little later, in the anti-capitalist movement.

Post argues that these organisations were about as successful as could reasonably be expected in harsh circumstances. The aspiration to develop new mass revolutionary parties that could challenge reformists (in parliament and the trade unions) for leadership of the working-class movement was, however, unfulfilled. The revolutionary left remained a small minority current, marginal to the broad labour movement.

This was not simply, argues Post, because there was a period of defeats for the working class or a crude result of economic and social changes. It was largely due to circumstances beyond revolutionaries’ control, but these were as much to do with the nature of the working-class movement as anything, i.e. the political and organisational domination of the working class by reformism, manifested in the weight of the trade-union bureaucracy, the strength of long-established social-democratic parties (like the British Labour Party) and the role of Communist Parties which had long since accommodated to the system. The revolutionary left repeatedly found itself confronting these obstacles within the broader movement. When a new wave of anti-capitalist mobilising developed at the start of this century, radical consciousness tended not to translate into specifically Marxist ideas and allegiance to the revolutionary left.

This brings us to the development of new parties of the European left over the last decade or so. The space for such parties was created primarily by the capitulation of social democracy to neoliberalism and, to a lesser but still important degree, the collapse of the Communist parties after 1989 and the fact that revolutionary organisations were too small to fill the gap. The character of these parties was also influenced by the development of generally street-based protest movements. In the early 2000s, with the rapid growth of anti-capitalist and anti-war movements, Italy’s Party of Communist Refoundation (PRC) held out great promise. However, the PRC made enormous concessions to parties to its right, which effectively finished it as a credible left-wing force.

Since that time a number of new left-wing parties have emerged, some of which have since collapsed or fragmented, while a few have been sustained fairly successfully. Germany’s Die Linke, formed in 2007, resulted principally from a fusion of an old Communist left (based mainly in the East) with the left-wing of social democracy disenchanted with the neoliberal trajectory of that political tradition (based mainly in the West). Die Linke has had some difficulties recently and it is currently unclear how it will develop.

Some parties, like the earlier (2004-07) version of Respect in England and Wales and the Scottish Socialist Party, have been quite different in character: the revolutionary left has been the principal driving force, lending them considerable radicalism, but without the benefits brought by large-scale cracks in the mainstream parties of social democracy or in the union movement. Reformism has remained a more powerful block than many revolutionary activists anticipated, despite a deepening loss of faith in mainstream politics among millions of people and the poor record of social democracy in office.

Newer parties of the left are sometimes held up as shining lights for us to follow, but Post argues that they have in fact suffered from a whole series of problems and, furthermore, they are incapable of successfully moving beyond the old divide in the socialist movement between reformism and revolutionary politics. Most of them have had an important degree of success, some continue to be successful, and they have generally been worthy of support and participation. Yet they have had difficulty grappling with such questions as how to connect parliamentary and electoral activity to extra-parliamentary activity, how to overcome the weaknesses of the trade unions, and how to prevent sliding to the right and into compromises with neo-liberal politics.

Crucially, Post argues, it is simply impossible to be successfully both post-social-democratic and post-Leninist. Ultimately, it is still necessary for the most advanced, revolutionary elements of the working class to organise independently in their own organisations, separate from reformist parties. This is one of the central lessons of 1917 and the period which followed the Russian Revolution. The new parties of the left have not ‘transcended the pre-1914 social-democratic “twin pillars” organisational norm where the party focused on electoral politics, while the union officialdom directed day-to-day class struggle in the workplace and beyond’ (p.191). These new parties have reproduced the old challenges of social democracy, dating back to before 1914: ‘the contradictions of entering capitalist governments, the relationship of electoral and routine trade union activity and mass, extra-parliamentary struggles, and the issues of war and peace’ (p.191).

None of this remotely means that the new left parties are unimportant and should be disregarded. It does, however, strongly suggest that independent revolutionary organisation and the united front method, whereby revolutionaries work with those who have reformist consciousness in extra-parliamentary struggles over shared demands, are as necessary as ever. Post looks to ‘the revival of the rational core of Leninism – the transcendence of the division of labour between party and unions and movements through the organisation of radical and revolutionary activists who attempt to contest the forces of official reformism over the conduct of mass struggle’ (p.192).

Finally, Post points out that the political development of left-wing parties is shaped by two especially important factors: the outcome of extra-parliamentary struggles against austerity, and the relative strength within these parties of radical anti-capitalists, who can counter the pressures which are liable to pull such parties in a more moderate direction. Revolutionaries, if they can organise effectively, can influence the direction of credible left-wing parties where they exist. In all countries, whether there is such a party or not, revolutionaries have the challenge of shaping anti-austerity struggle beyond the realm of electoral politics and strengthening the radical anti-capitalist pole within those movements.

Occupy and the new anti-capitalist left

Two essays engage with issues arising from the Occupy movement, which emerged from September 2011 onwards, first in New York and rapidly spreading nationwide (and to an extent beyond the US). These two particular contributions look especially at the experiences of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland, placing them in context, and sketching conclusions that might be more generally applicable.

Occupy Wall Street signposted a resurgence of radical protest in the US and generated political debate about social and economic inequality. The Occupy movement can be seen as opening up new possibilities for the American left. After the initial Occupy moment – galvanising, exciting, hopeful – different directions were (and are) possible. There are naturally different ideas about what the movement is for, what it can become, and how it should organise. Jodi Dean’s ‘Occupy Wall Street: after the anarchist moment’, highlights the strengths of Occupy, but also notes that initially attractive qualities – inclusive, leaderless, participatory, and consensus-seeking – brought serious problems too. The focus on ‘consensus’ masked political and tactical differences, so there was a tendency to fudge issues that actually needed thrashing out and resolving in order for action to be taken.

The need for democratic structures which can guide effective action was too often evaded. If there are not accountable leaders or leadership bodies then unaccountable leaders emerge. The rhetoric of being ‘leaderless’, however well-intentioned and genuine, is soon complemented by unaccountable leadership and weak democracy. This reduces the capacity for collective action around coherent demands.

In New York the biggest Occupy-related protests resulted from trade-union participation. However, without coherent strategy there was a failure to build fully on the successes. Instead the tendency was for fragmentation into disparate campaigns and projects. Without a clear, agreed strategy for reaching out to broader layers of support, sustaining the occupation was increasingly seen as an end in itself. The movement was liable to turn in on itself; ‘obsessively reflecting on its failures adequately to include’ (p.54). Questions of process became more important than questions of action.

Dean observes that Occupy ‘mobilised not a proletariat bound to the factory but the proletarianised, extended throughout uneven, unequal cities’ (p.55). This is a valuable insight: in a period of low levels of industrial struggle, protests and occupations are the primary expression of resistance. But that does not mean abandoning any notion of working-class struggle or politics: it is a question of forms of resistance, shaped by the realities of today’s working class and the legacy of defeats for the organised working class during the long neoliberal offensive.

Dean suggests, provocatively and, in my view, correctly, that the occupiers effectively formed a ‘self-selected vanguard’ in a broader struggle, taking on the kind of responsibilities Lenin attributed to professional revolutionaries or Bolshevik cadre. She writes that they were ‘establishing and maintaining a continuity, a persistence, that enables broader numbers of people to join in the work of the movement. This continuity combats the fragmentation, localism and transitoriness of much of contemporary left politics’ (p.56).

In the Leninist tradition the two crucial points about any vanguard are that they are organised in a coherent and collective body, and that they are in constant interaction with wider layers of the class. This is the basis for needing two interconnected things: revolutionary organisation and the united front. Occupy was, by its very nature, a politically-disparate phenomenon. It was not as (relatively) politically and ideologically homogenous as a revolutionary organisation. It also struggled to establish forms of long-term organisation, limited instead by the transient character of a specific tactic: the occupation of public space.

Occupy activists’ relationship with wider layers of support was complex. Some elements were outward-looking and determined to build wider (and long-term) alliances, especially with working-class organisations. However, there was also a strong pull, due to both material and political pressures, to be inward-looking and overly focused on simply maintaining the occupation itself (and on its own internal dynamics).

Part two of this review will continue the discussion of the problem of tactics and strategy in relation to Occupy, trade-union activism, radical-left electoral politics, and the possibilities for a united resistance to austerity.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).