The wide range of essays in Socialist Register 2020 provide important reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of recent left movements, finds Sean Ledwith

Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living: Socialist Register 2020, eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (Merlin Press 2019), xii, 294pp.

The 56th edition of Socialist Register has taken on an unintended resonance in light of the global catastrophe that has unfolded since the collection was published earlier this year. The subtitle is an apt encapsulation of our current conjuncture in the midst of the devastating coronavirus outbreak. Hardly any part of the planet has been left untouched: nearly half a million human lives have been extinguished, the global economy is on the precipice of an economic collapse on a scale not witnessed since the 1930s, and there are ominous indications of renewed military tension between China and the US. Rosa Luxemburg’s exhortation of ‘socialism or barbarism’ has never seemed more relevant. 

Despite the protestations of neoliberal die-hards such as Trump and Johnson, it is apparent to many that the original biological threat of the virus has been exacerbated by decades of fragmentation, marketisation and underfunding of public-sector institutions such as the NHS and the social care sector. It can hardly be a coincidence that states such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan with more robust levels of state investment in public healthcare have weathered the onslaught better than countries such Britain, the US and Brazil, where the forces of neoliberalism have political hegemony.

Socialist Register 2020 is inevitably unable to address the direct impact of the pandemic but it does provide useful clues as to how this disaster became a possibility and, even more usefully, how we could transform society to ensure something like it never happens again. The editors describe the serendipitous purpose of the work as ‘locating utopic visions and struggles for alternate ways of living in the dystopic present’ (p.x).

Reflections on the left resurgence

Unfortunately, the opening essay by Stephen Maher, Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch has also been overtaken by events since it was written, before the British general election last December. The writers express optimism about developments in both the UK and US over recent years that have seen a revival of left reformist politics in the iconic forms of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Both men managed to revitalise left-of-centre political vehicles that had hitherto been regarded as moribund by many radical socialists. Corbyn and Sanders presided over a renaissance of policy initiatives and strategic debate on the left that was manifested as Labour’s hugely popular 2017 election manifesto and the Green New Deal that emerged from the left flank of the Democrat Party.

The writers make an interesting observation that the grassroots insurgencies that propelled the two men to prominence were particularly remarkable and refreshing as these two countries were the primary laboratories for the neoliberal counter-revolution that swept the capitalist world from the 1980s. This clearly indicates, contrary to a habitual pessimism that affects some parts of the left, that the ideological grip of Reaganism and Thatcherism was never complete and that a stubborn allegiance to the collective and other-centred values of earlier decades remains intact among large sections of society. Another source of solace in these dark times, the authors note, should be the spectacular abilities of Corbyn and Sanders to cut through hostile media environments and appeal to millions of young people in particular:

‘Nothing like this has happened in at least three generations. It has much to do with the frustrations of two decades of episodic mass protests and the marginality of those socialist parties which provided little strategic perspective beyond direct action, in both cases leaving to the side the matter of how to enter the state to change what it does, let alone to change what it is’ (p.1).

Since the article was written, of course, we have seen the regrettable eclipse of both Corbyn and Sanders as viable challengers for power. The former was sabotaged by the Blairite faction fostering an unworkable Brexit policy on the party, while the Democrat hierarchy more predictably outmanoeuvred the latter during the primaries. These outcomes would not have surprised the writers as their encouragement at the remarkable rise of the two men is tempered by an awareness of ‘the manifest limitations of the US Democratic Party and even the British Labour Party in sustaining, rather than undermining the new socialist forces that have entered these parties’ (p.26).

Curiously, one of the conclusions that Maher, Gindin and Panitch draw from the apparent failure of left reformism in the UK and US is that the Leninist model of organisation is now obsolete. They claim:

‘It does indeed appear that socialism in the twenty-first century has finally broken free of the legacy of the Russian revolution which so defined…the political discourse of the left through the twentieth century, often weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ (p.2).

Defenders of the Leninist paradigm might alternatively suggest that the sabotaging of the Corbyn and Sanders projects by forces loyal to the ruling class, both inside and outside their respective political parties, actually underlines the necessity for a confrontation with the capitalist state that is not compromised by electoral calibrations or the need to maintain a ‘broad church’. This does not mean that the case for revolutionary organisations in the Bolshevik mould is now unanswerable, but it is a strange judgement that the demise of Corbynism and the Sandernistas is a bigger problem for the far left than the centre-left.

The case of Syriza

A similar issue arises from another essay in the collection that discusses the Syriza government in Greece that was voted out of office last year. Alongside Corbyn and Sanders, the left-wing coalition was one of the most inspiring manifestations of the left populism which sprang into existence around the Western world in the wake of the 2008 crash. Syriza surged into power five years ago on a tidal wave of optimism that electrified the whole European left, which had not seen a sympathetic government take power since the 1930s. Amy Bartholomew and Hilary Wainwright recount the story of the Syriza government in a critical manner which, again, generates more problems for those on the left who seek to reform capitalist states than for those who strive to overthrow them. They analyse in particular how Syriza mismanaged the refugee crisis that developed in the country as hundreds of thousands of people fled the warzones of the Middle East.

Bartholomew and Wainwright recount how the leftist aspirations of Syriza were essentially hamstrung from the get-go by the financial straightjacket imposed on the government by the EU. Before the 2015 election that brought it to power, Syriza was committed to shutting down the country’s inhumane detention centres and facilitating citizenship for second-generation immigrants. Once in power, however, its immigration policy became an over-familiar story of reformist backsliding and mealy-mouthed retreats. In Syriza’s five years of power, the number of detention camps actually increased, and living conditions, according to the writers, deteriorated. Bartholomew and Wainwright are in no doubt who was ultimately responsible for this betrayal of both those in the camps and those who voted for Syriza:

‘With respect to the border crisis, the EU threatened Syriza with removal from the Schengen zone if it did not take a leading role in the deterrence objective to save the rest of Europe from the burden of the refugees. Just as on the economic front it was threatened with removal from the Eurozone, this additional threat was issued precisely because Greece has been deemed incapable of fulfilling its role as premier watchdog at the EU’s border with Turkey’ (p.57).

The Brexit debate has obviously subsided in the UK, but the nature of the EU will not go away as a strategic question for the wider European left. The illusory notion that the EU can be reformed into something more altruistic than its current neoliberal incarnation remains the dominant view among European socialists. An examination of the institution’s role in Greece should dispel such misconceptions.

The realities of the EU and Nato

Bartholomew and Wainwright provide graphic descriptions of the misery that now prevails in the sprawling network of detention camps, mostly on the Greeks islands, which the EU insisted be established by Syriza as the price for not being booted out of Schengen and the eurozone. Both Amnesty and Medicine Sans Frontieres condemned Syriza for presiding over the humanitarian nightmare that left a million people to languish in misery, be victimised by right-wing vigilantes or simply drown in the sea. The authors describe their harrowing visit to one camp:

‘Widespread sexual assault is so threatening that women only go to the restrooms at night in groups out of fear or have adult diapers, so they need not make the dangerous journey. Sewage spills into the flimsy tents of the overcrowded camps, which are also subject to extreme heat, cold and flooding…the grinding purposelessness that comes with the long-term waiting and worrying, with little information forthcoming about what they are waiting for, what their future might entail’ (p.60).

This is the cold reality of the EU behind the front of suave and coiffured politicians such as Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen. Similarly, Nato is another institution that many on the left, and most on the right of the Labour Party, regard with deluded affection. Bartholomew and Wainwright note the Western military alliance also played a nefarious role in the migrant tragedy. It was Nato’s desire not to alienate Turkey, its key member state in south east Europe, that led to pressure on Syriza to expand, rather than shut down, the camps in the Aegean. The writers describe how the two organisations are symbiotic enforcers of the neoliberal agenda in Europe and as such, will ultimately need to be confronted by the radical left. They rightly argue that socialists who try to operate within the limits prescribed by the status quo, through entities such as the EU and Nato, will always fall short of their aspirations:

‘No political organisation of a genuinely different kind, one able to resist the destructive, self-serving capacities of power as domination can be built exclusively within the political sphere itself. It has to have its live roots nourished and stabilised by a strong infrastructure of power as transformative capacity’ (p.74).

If Corbyn, Sanders and Syriza represent varying types of failed left projects, the question that arises inevitably is what is the vehicle that will spark a durable resurgence of radical socialism in the twenty-first century? We can safely say it will not be anything associated with either Keir Starmer or Joe Biden who have acceded to the leadership of the two main centre-left parties on either side of the Atlantic. Neither even pretends to inspire the hopes of millions in the same way as Corbyn and Sanders.

The climate movement

Barbara Harriss-White, in her contribution, makes the case for the Extinction Rebellion movement that dramatically sprang into existence following a lone protest outside the Swedish Parliament by teenager Greta Thunberg in 2018. The following year, 1.4 million children in over one hundred countries joined the School Strikes for Climate Change, which became a regular feature of life-until being left in suspended animation, like everything else, by the pandemic.

Harriss-White rightly gives Thunberg credit for energising the climate-change movement with her uncompromising rhetoric and principled refusal to dilute her message for the sake of the powerful. She notes how the teenager called out the hypocrisy of the plutocratic elite that gathered at Davos last year: ‘I want you to panic…I want you to act as if the house was on fire’ (p.33). The weakness of XR the writer perceptively notes, however, is a tendency to blame the older generation for supposedly wrecking the life chances of Thunberg and her contemporaries. The environmental degradation that now jeopardises all life-systems on the planet is not rooted in the attitudes of any generation but in the logic of capital accumulation itself, Harriss-White suggests:

‘But climate change is not the work of a generation, but the manifestation of a metabolic rift caused by global capital, energised by fossil fuel, devouring material resources, unfolding in historical time and victimising those least responsible…’ (p.43).

In terms of long-term strategy for the left, Harriss-White argues for a synergy of the youthful energy associated with Extinction Rebellion and the established forces of the labour movement. This offers the most viable means to change the narrative that makes some regard total planetary immiseration as just a matter of time. Such an alliance she contends ‘would be an achievement unique in world history’ (p.44).

The consequences of failure to construct a credible alternative to the death-spiral of capitalism does not need to be spelled out. The coronavirus catastrophe has provided a grim illustration of the horrors that the world’s ruling classes are willing to inflict on the rest of humanity to preserve their domination. One of the refugees encountered by Barthomelew and Wainwright on a Greek island writes a powerful poem that captures the anxiety that now grips most human beings on the planet:

‘We refugees are no longer treated as human, we are just numbers,
Politicos are playing with us like pieces on a chessboard.
We are living a life as one who doesn’t have a life.
You politicos do not ever have the right to rob us of our life.
Return to us what we have lost, our lost life here waiting on beaches’ (p.62).

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters