Chris Bambery examines the challenges and opportunities facing the Left in Europe's crisis
No sober-minded person would claim that ‘a spectre is haunting Europe’, but we can speak of the evident unease in ruling circles over what is happening in Southern Europe and particularly the explosion of social unrest in Spain’s ‘hot autumn’.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the vitality of the resistance to austerity in Spain, Portugal and Greece contrasts with the general state of the European Left. There are of course some exceptions – the Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) in Portugal, the Mouvement de Gauche (Left Front) in France, Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left) in Greece and, despite its recent difficulties, Die Linke (The Left) in Germany. These are broad formations, involving both those who look to revolution and those who don’t.
However, looking at the state of the explicitly revolutionary left in Europe today we have to be honest and admit that we are behind where we were in the 1970s, and maybe even behind where we were a decade ago. This is certainly the case across Britain.
We probably won’t see a repeat of the early 1970s, when a spate of revolutionary groups grew up almost overnight, most spectacularly in Italy. They agreed on the need for revolution, the template of which was still the 1917 October Revolution, and there was a general acceptance of some form of Leninism. That’s certainly not the case today.
Nor are we likely to see an immediate repeat of the coming together of the left, social movements and radical trade unions that happened a decade ago. We are approaching the 10th anniversary of the first European Social Forum (ESP) held in Florence in November 2002, which round the themes of “Against war, racism and neo-liberalism” drew thousands of people from across Europe and its appeal for a global protest against the impending invasion of Iraq led to the biggest day of protest in the history of humanity, 15 February 2003.
The Italian anti-capitalist movement was a growing challenge to the right wing government of Silvio Berlusconi. A year before tens of thousands had defied the attempts by the Berlusconi regime to smash (I use the word advisedly) the protests against the Genoa G8 summit off the street. They spread across the country following the police killing of Carlo Giuliani, their raid on the protester’s media centre and the subsequent torture of those rounded up there.
We left the Florence ESP with the conviction that not only a new, mass anti-capitalist movement was opening up all sorts of possibilities but that a new left was emerging within it too. Crucial to that was Rifondazione Comunista which had some 80,000 members and was an integral part of the Italian movement but it also involved revolutionary organisations like the SWP in Britain and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) in France.
Tragically Rifondazione shifted rightwards when it sniffed the possibility of government and when that turned out disastrously it effectively fell apart. The attempts in Britain and France to build broad radical left organisations floundered.
Much of the left has retreated into a safety zone of making abstract propaganda for socialism and dull economism. Sectarianism is all too often present, as demonstrated by the negative reaction of many to the rise of Syriza which, with whatever reservations you wanted to highlight, should have been welcomed with enthusiasm.
There is nothing like the ESF today; nor is there anything of the sort in the pipeline.
Because we are starting further back in the field we are going to require matching our anti-capitalist impatience with a degree of revolutionary patience (Gramsci like quoting Roman Rolland: “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”). That’s true on the ideological front where there is no point in simply shouting out the centrality of revolution and the working class and proclaiming the need for a revolutionary party. Those arguments need to be won which requires entering into a dialogue, listening to objections and, hopefully, answering them. It also requires recognizing three decades of neo-liberalism have effected changes on the working class which create new challenges.
The strength of Lenin and Antonio Gramsci was looking at the state and society which was the battleground on which the movement had to fight, analyzing it, and in particular identifying the force for change.
It is going to require building coalitions against austerity and war, but also, in Scotland a radical coalition for independence. Our allies are not going to be defined for us by their ideological label but through what they want to achieve and the way they approach it. Lots of outfits have the right description on their dog collar but are incapable of doing anything because they’re mired in sectarianism and treat the world and the working class as if it was still the 1970s.
The strength of Lenin was his constant stress on the strategic goal, revolution, and his enormous flexibility in the tactics deployed to achieve that. If a priest was leading the march on the Tsar’s palace then let’s work with the priest, engage with the wider movement and play an active role in shaping it.
In Scotland, England and Wales we’ve been through a flat period since the calling off of the pensions strikes last November. In any such period there’s a danger of turning in on ourselves. That’s accentuated by the pressure of life, study and work in UK PLC 2012. Hopefully, the TUC and STUC demos on 20 October and the Radical Independence Conference on 24 November will kick start things.
As we build these initiatives we need to be looking out for friends and allies from across Europe and from further a field. The international element of the Radical Independence Conference is essential. We need to make friends, friends in action, and not indulge in finger waving and petty squabbling which will drive newcomers away.
In Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting, “Il quarto stato,” (“The Fourth Estate”) the workers are marching out of the dark (work), into the sun. We need to march out from the small ranks of the left and engage. That’s the first vital step towards becoming relevant.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
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- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review
- The Irish election: the centre has not held and the left can win