In a previous article we discussed some of the most critical geopolitical consequences of the outcome of the 12 December British election. In this paper we will discuss the main factors which may impede the Labour Party from getting a majority and what historic experience indicates as the main keys for claiming hegemony. We will also examine the Brexit and EU question, under the light of the accumulated experience of a decade of unsuccessful efforts to oppose neoliberalism in Europe and the related strategies (or no strategies!) of the European Left. We are going also to discuss some very important aspects of the economic program of Labour, which represents the biggest hope of a break with catastrophic Neolibearlism in Europe, since 1981.
Two very conflicting visions of Britain and the world
On the one hand we have Boris Johnson, supported by a large part of the British, but also of the western establishment, in particular the neoconservatives, Israel and its lobbies, Trump and the Alt-Right movement. On the other hand, we have a very massive, for the standards of our times, social democratic reformist party, but which is led by a radical leadership and is presenting a very radical electoral platform.
Labour’s economic and social program is a clear break with the Neoliberal doctrine and the absolute, unhindered power of the Financial Capital which are dominating the West for some decades now, and which are directly responsible for the deep economic crisis begun in 2008, contributing also to the acceleration of the ecological crisis.
It represents the greatest hope for a reversal of the (proved) catastrophic neoliberal policies dominating for decades European and international economy, having emerged in a major European country, since the (finally non implemented) program of the French Union de la Gauche under Francois Mitterrand in 1981. And in some aspects is more radical than the 1981 program, trying to tackle in a different way the nationalisations question.
Johnson’s proposal is one of a renewed “ultra-neoliberalism”, “neo-Thatcherism” and a Brexit that may keep Britain under the yoke of important EU neoliberal institutions for years and will, most probably, transform it from a Brussels to a Washington satellite. Britain under Johnson will also contribute considerably to the continuation of the extremist, very dangerous imperialist policy already applied for almost two decades in the Middle East and internationally, with catastrophic consequences. It will also help the continuation of the attack of the large fossil fuel multinationals against the climate.
On the other hand, Labour’s economic, social and ecological program constitutes a blueprint for a radical paradigm change in the West. It is providing for more state regulation and a massive turn to a kind of “Green Keynsianism”, like the one professed by the left wing of the US Democratic Party. An open question remains of course how to apply Keynsianism without some form of protectionism, if you don’t want to see the demand leaving abroad and at what level you may apply such protectionism, national or regional, but we cannot discuss this question here. Another very serious question is the absence of international allies to help the Labour implement its ideas.
A very important aspect of Corbyn’s proposals is that it is taking into account the negative aspects of state economic management, proposing innovative forms of workers participation and social control, to address the long known problems of bureaucratization and of using the state enterprises on behalf of private interests.
With regard to Brexit, Labour remains rather unclear, or at least is perceived as such by a lot of people. It is proposing a second referendum between the agreement they will negotiate with the EU and the Remain option. Corbyn’s election also entails a radical shift in British international policy on issues such as the Middle East, nuclear weapons control and Western support for authoritarian regimes in Latin America. A Britain ruled by Labour will be most much more decisive in tackling climate change.
The Achilles’ heel of the Labour
If Corbyn’s Labour will eventually lose the elections, as the pollsters tell us, it won’t lose them because of its program, but because a part of the working class, for whom the Brexit and the respect of the verdict of the 2016 referendum is the symbol of their revolt and of the respect of popular sovereignty, feels “betrayed” by the position on Brexit. They are also probably suspecting that the “compromise” on Brexit may hide more general compromises to come.
Corbyn’s election as a leader of the Labour has been the result of a popular revolt. It is the same revolt which led to the victory of Brexit in the referendum, in alliance of course with a part of the British ruling class, dreaming of a Great Britain more strongly allied with the US and connected with the neocon faction of world establishment. Now, the social forces of revolt, which are the forces able to bring Corbyn to power if united, seem split. Only if Corbyn proves able to bridge at least partly this gap in the few remaining days, he can possibly win the elections. But the situation is objectively difficult, because this split is reflecting also deeper social divisions.
On the one hand we have working-class people, who have very pressing living problems and their accumulated in decades rage and despair and which are culturally more “traditional”. On the other hand we have the lower strata of the “petty bourgeoisie”, or aspiring to be such, which have more illusions about the possibility of reforming capitalism, but also the ability and disposition to think of more general problems such as climate change or cultural questions. Psychologically, in the first camp despair seems stronger than hope, in the second hope seems stronger than despair.
Some Labour cadres argue that Brexit is not the most important issue. They may have a point. There is no doubt that the EU is rapidly evolving into an unacceptable totalitarian structure. But the question is not there, it is what European order will replace it and how we get to that. To give an example, the USSR was also an unacceptable structure on many respects. But the way it was dismantled and the direction towards which the soviet nations have moved has been a huge historical setback leading to the biggest economic and social disaster (and the biggest looting of state property) in the history of the whole industrial civilization, with the exception of the two world wars. If, for example, the EU just breaks in a chaotic way, leading to the creation of a multitude of small states, competing with each other by methods of social and ecological dumping for a share of a shrinking demand, being at the mercy of the big banks and the Americans, that will not represent any big advance. It is a fact that a country that attempts to implement an anti-neoliberal program will clash with the EU very quickly and may be forced to leave. In such conditions leave would be an option. But even in such a case, leaving the EU does not automatically guarantee by itself a greater degree of national sovereignty in an environment of globalized capitalism.
It would make much more sense if Brexit, or any other “exit”, would come as a possible result of the effort to impose an anti-neoliberal order in Europe and in the name of such a vision, integrated into a strategy for a different European order, not as a nationalist backlash, a return to an impossible healthy “national capitalism”.
Of course, what makes sense is seldom happening in History by itself. The role of radical political forces is to translate into viable political strategy their general understanding of the situation.
Even if we admit Labour cadres who say the Brexit question is not the most important have probably a point, this way of putting things betrays a certain embarrassment, if not arrogance. For a radical leftist party how people are thinking and what they are thinking is a politically dominant question. Many accuse Lenin nowadays of all possible sins, still no one seriously denies his political and strategic genius. He described once the Bolsheviks as the only tendency inside the workers movement “which penetrates to all social strata, it is influencing them and is influenced by them”. It is not effective just telling people what is important, you need to engage in dialogue with them.
The keys to hegemony in crises periods
The emergence of both Corbyn and Johnson reflects the depth of the systemic crisis facing Britain and the West as a whole. All the historical experience of such crises, in particular during the interwar period, teaches us that, at the end, it is the most decisive, the clearest, the most stable political force and leader who wins, those who are perceived as the most credible and determined to apply their ideas to the very end, those who are able to present a convincing proposal to their nation. This, of course, is the conclusion one may draw from the closer examination of the SYRIZA experience in Greece.
Psychology and personality of the leaders also play an important role. I remember, back in 2011, giving two advices to Tsipras, with whom we had very close relations at that time. I told him “you must behave like you were already the Prime Minister, to impose yourself as the leader of the country to the subconscious of the nation”. I also told him that the best performing actors were those who play themselves. He followed the first all the time and the second one only for one year. Since the summer of 2012, if not earlier, he begun adopting the choices which led him to the final capitulation. Now of course, in the light of what followed, I am not so sure it was a good idea to give him any kind of advise, but I could not know or imagined what would happen at that time. In 2011 I was thinking he is promising leader and anyway there was any other candidate available to lead the revolt
The word nation is symbolizing very different things in different European countries, from France, where people demonstrate now with their traditional national symbols and where the national anthem is the song of the 1789 revolution (later serving, amended, as the prototype of the International) , to Germany, where the mere mention of the word nation causes horror. This is why we want to make clear that we are using it here, for the purposes of this article, as a synonym for the people of a given state.
It is also true that the very concept of the nation itself is causing great difficulty and enormous confusion in much of the western left for various reasons that we are not going to discuss here. However, all Europeans think first and articulate their demands in national terms. In addition to that, people rally around their nation, state, family and institutions they know best, in times of insecurity and crisis. They can also rally in periods of crisis or upheaval around a project, perceived as authentically reformist or revolutionary. Trump and Bolsonaro for instance did win because they were understood as revolutionaries, not conservative leaders. Their demarche was an artificial attempt to replicate, with many differences of course, the “revolution” that Hitler promised the Germans a century ago. Of course, the National Socialists were a real grassroots movement and, as it turned out, it’s hard to repeat the experiment with casino owners and social media technologies. It is one thing the original and another thing the fake.
The tendency to rally around the nation and the state is further enhanced in the era of “globalization”, that is, of the generalization of capitalist relations of production and distribution and the accompanying civilization, of the rise of a global, totalitarian Empire of Finance, which is destroying states, institutions, ideologies and identities, including the national identity or at least removes any element of independence, democratic and social function from the states. Globalization attacks national identities, not because it wants to replace them with a progressive “European” or “international” identity, but because such identities are potential elements of resistance to world totalitarianism and the emergence of a universal Homo Economicus. Still the states give pensions, build hospitals and schools and only in the state context people have the right to vote, even if that does not mean much in many cases. So it is only natural in such a situation, much more as the vision of world socialism has faded long ago, for people, and especially the popular classes, to come together around the notion of their state, but also around the notion of the nation, which is legitimizing the state.
We understand that for many leftists and Marxists what we say here is somewhat incomprehensible, that they consider the leftist and the national (not the nationalistic) ideas to be completely opposed, they think that the fight against any “nationalism”, and even finally against the very idea of nation, is a matter of honor for the left. We will not discuss here the enormous and difficult issue of the left relationship with the notion of Nation. But we cannot resist the temptation to cite just one historical event. Lenin, arguably the most internationalist of the socialist leaders of the 20th century, wrote in March 1918 an article in Izvestia. He wanted to encourage people, on the day the Soviet government moved from Petersburg to Moscow, fearing a German outbreak. ‘This article began with Nekrasov’s poem “Mother Russia ‘. We imagine that the other very known for his internationalism among the Bolsheviks, Leon Trotsky, did offer a prospect for his country, Russia, otherwise it would be rather difficult to recruit 10,000 Tsarist officers to the Red Army.
All that does not mean, of course, that the left has to become nationalistic. But it does mean that if it wants to claim hegemony in a given national context, it must be able to formulate its program in the language of its nation, in the terms its own people use to articulate their thoughts. Only a solid national, collective plan can unite behind it a critical number of different social strata, which do not always have a unified consciousness of their interests. A century ago, this is how the Bolsheviks and the Nazis gained power. But even in our most peaceful days (in Western Europe), this is what permitted to Tsipras to gain power in Greece. He lost power when he proved he was unable and unwilling to play such a role. The culmination of that came when he signed an agreement on Macedonia that one might find good or bad, but the Greek people found it contrary to their national interest and dictated by the US and NATO. This agreement transformed his defeat into a near collapse in the last European elections and precipitated his fall from power.
Many people in the supposed or real western left nowadays tell us also how important is to fight against the Far Right. But it is not possible to give such a fight by lecturing moralizing lessons to people or expressing contempt for their anxieties. The way to fight against the far right is by proving the left is a more effective force both for defending the social interests of the people and providing a nation with a solid path for the future.
It is of course quite difficult to present an attractive progressive proposal, written in the “language” of a nation which remains quite a privileged one in the world hierarchy of nations, and with enormous imperialist traditions, like Britain. It is much easier to do it in a country like Greece. Still there is no other way for a leftist political force, if it wants to claim hegemony in any given national context.
The Greek example
Even today the Greek experience of SYRIZA remains very poorly understood and very misunderstood. The stormy rise of this small party, between 2011 and 2015 has been the result of Tsipras emerging as a candidate to express the entire nation that was subjected to a ruthless neo-colonial attack by international Finance, Germany, EU institutions and the IMF.
Tsipras managed to do so, not because of the “anti-nationalist” ideology that was often prevalent in his party, but despite this ideology. He did so instinctively and without even realizing its deeper significance, by copying ideas and slogans of critical intellectuals, elaborations of the Spitha movement, created by Mikis Theodorakis and of other movements. You cannot find even the slightest hint of the ideas and slogans Tsipras used in his ascension to power in the documents of SYRIZA or the articles of its main economists!
By copying such ideas (without assimilating their significance and consequences) and the political slogans that followed with, Tsipras also acquired the political justification for his alliance with the nationalists of Panos Kammenos, which would be completely incomprehensible otherwise.
On the symbolic, semantic level this alliance expressed the convergence of the force of the national and of the social, popular identities. This “fusion” was, in the Greek context, that propelled him from mastering an influence of 3% of the electorate into the government, led him to acquire a popularity of up to 80% in the spring of 2015, when Greeks thought he was negotiating hard with the troika, but also led him to win 63%, well above the percentage he won in the 2015 referendum.
To return to SYRIZA, Tsipras emerged as a potential leader of the nation and as such won the 2015 election. He passed the electoral “exams” successfully, by copying but not learning the right answers, and the result was to fail miserably when he faced the reality test.
He was, moreover, bound by the illusion that he could easily implement at least part of his program and that, disposing the favor of the US, he could get at least a presentable compromise. He promised the ‘Greeks that there was no way Merkel would refuse to comply with his demands (‘ not one probability in a million ‘, he said characteristically on Greek television before the elections). He had no idea (and he did not want to have) of the determination of the forces he would face, nor of the fact that modern capitalism does not make the slightest retreat, does not “reform” at all easily, and would only do so if it were faced with very powerful forces and threats. He was unaware of the fundamental truth that, in order to be able to negotiate, especially in such conditions, you must have prepared your people in advance, you need a very strong and organized mass movement, a very serious technical preparation, a mobilized society and international alliances, and, most importantly, you must persuade your opponent that you are determined to go till the end and that you will do it if they don’t give you a choice. SYRIZA did nothing to satisfy such conditions and no one of them was in place when he won the elections.
Of course all this experience cannot be applied directly to Britain, which is a much stronger country than Greece and is not facing such a deep and acute crisis threatening its very existence, like it happened and still happens with Greece. But to some extent, all that is also true of Britain. It would be a huge delusion for the Labour for instance to believe that they will make just a nice walk after rising in power. It will face a merciless war. It is already facing such a war, which will only escalate in case of winning power. But I believe the Labour leadership is conscious of all that and I hope is more prepared than Tsipras to face it.
They have already had the experience. They tried to give a conciliatory, not polemic, civilized answer to the incredible accusation of Antisemitism by a Lobby which seems to be extremely powerful inside Great Britain but also inside the Labour itself. The only result of such a conciliatory attitude was the intensification of attacks against them.
There is no the slightest doubt that Jeremy Corbyn is an infinitely more serious politician than Mr Tsipras, and Britain a much stronger state than Greece. But he cannot also be sure about the kind of agreement he will be able to get from the EU tomorrow. On the contrary.
National and international responses to the crisis
Here, of course, Mr Corbyn and the Labour is paying a heavy price for what the European radical Left has done or has omitted to do from 2010 to 2015, when it could have the initiative and it was propelled to the position of the main force attacking the offensive of financial totalitarianism in Europe, first of all in Greece.
I remember a discussion we had with Alexis Tsipras and Mikis Theodorakis back in 2011. We agreed that the Greek question can be satisfactorily tackled only in the context of a pan-European fight against neoliberal EU policies and institutions. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a single country to face such an offensive by the most powerful international forces, operating with regional and international strategy in a coordinated way, only by its national forces. Besides, all EU countries and, in particular, Eurozone countries are living a contradiction. We think we are still living in different nation states, we are formulating our policies in national terms, but those states seem, more and more, the unequal provinces of a sui generis super state structure, which Baroso himself called once “the Empire”.
The un-equality is entrenched in the functioning of the Union and especially of the Eurozone for a quite simple reason. If the nations of the Union were equal they would be able to constitute a strong international force and, at some point, they could oppose the rule of international Finance and of the USA. Inequality is a way to divide the continent guaranteeing it will remain a tool of the above mentioned forces.
To an international challenge the answer must be national, to the degree a specific nation is targeted, but it must be also international. The resistance to Neoliberalism and Financial Totalitarianism must also be at least at the level of the challenge they are putting to European nations, to have a hope to win.
We agreed with Tsipras and Theodorakis and they entrusted this writer with writing a draft of an international appeal to all the forces opposed to Europe’s subordination to the Finance. Among other things this appeal was underlining that “there is an urgent need for an immediate, cross-border coordination of action by intellectuals, people of the arts and literature, spontaneous movements, social forces and personalities who comprehend the importance of the stakes; we need to create a powerful front of resistance against the advancing “totalitarian empire of globalization”, before it is too late. Europe can survive only if we promote a united response against the markets, a challenge bigger than theirs, a new European «New Deal»”, by stopping the economic attack on Greece and EU periphery, austerity policies and privatizations, restructuring public debt across the Eurozone, in particular at the expense of the private banking giants, putting the financing of European economy under national and European social control, banning the uncontrolled financial derivatives, creating real economic development instead of speculative profits, radically changing the Maastricht and subsequent Treaties, submitting the ECB to the political control of the European peoples, instituting a minimum of social, fiscal, environmental standards in Europe, return to the stimulation of growth through the stimulation of demand, via new European investment programs, a new regulation, taxation and control of international capital and commodities flows; a new form of smart and reasonable protectionism in an independent Europe, which will be the protagonist in the fight for a multipolar, democratic, ecological, social planet.
This text concluded by appealing “to the forces and individuals who share these ideas, to converge into a broad, European front of action as soon as possible; to produce a European transitional program, to coordinate our international action, so as to mobilize the forces of the popular movement, to reverse the current balance of power and overthrow the current historically irresponsible leaderships of our countries, in order to save our peoples and our societies before it is too late for Europe”.
What we needed (and we always need) was (and is) a federation of radical forces that will have one foot in the national realities of their respective countries and another one in the problems of the European community as a whole and who will be able to act as a political force at the European level.
This dramatic, so ambitious call was signed by most of the leaders of the European radical Left and some other personalities and widely publicized. What the signatories did after signing it? Near to nothing! Tsipras used it for building his own international profile. The only one who did really something was Tony Benn, not among the signatories, who, upon reading it decided to organize a solidarity campaign for Greek hospitals.
The result? Without any serious preparation, at both national and European level, SYRIZA came to power and it was just crashed. Perry Anderson named its humiliating defeat (which was also, very much, a defeat of the European radical Left as a whole) the “4th of August” of the European radical left, comparing it to the voting of the military credits by Social Democrats in the beginning of WWI.
As a result of all that, we are witnessing, after 2015, the rise of the far right in Europe, Brexit, the generalization of various slogans for “exits”, but without “entrances” to something better, decomposition tendencies of the type “Germany for Germans”, “France for French”, “Catalonia for Catalans” which, in their totality weaken gravely any possibility of any united front of European peoples against the Markets’ dictatorship.
Such a situation constitutes an enormous strategic advantage the present international (not exclusively European) financial elites that rule, in alliance with Berlin, the EU. Also the create a situation where the only alternative to the present EU will be the project of the more radical “neoconservative” forces of the world establishment, who want the EU to be dismantled, for reasons which are the opposite of the reasons peoples and anti-neoliberal intellectuals are opposing EU.
Instead of the Greek rebellion being directed at catalyzing a pan-European struggle for a different European order of things that the European people desperately need, its crushing and the way it happened eventually helped the European crisis degenerate into a search for national outlets, which at least in the long run cannot exist.
The only very promising development after 2015 in Europe, was Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour and the emergence of the deep, very important anti-neoliberal movement of the Yellow Vests in France, which combines also the forces of the national and the social, popular identities, but which is lacking also any political expression, as people are extremely reluctant to trust whoever, in particular after the tragic Greek fiasco.
The Labour is now hoping for a Sanders victory in the US. But it will certainly need more international allies. This is true if it wins, but also if it loses the election.
The British and the European crises will continue and deepen in both scenarios. It must be considered unlikely that Britain’s popular strata facing the worst social crisis after 1945 and its youth, so militarily militant in the case of Ecology, will sit with their arms crossed after a Corbyn’s defeat. If they lose, at least temporarily, the hope of resolving their problems through elections, that will probably push them, sooner or later, to the path already taken by the Yellow vests.
Even if he is defeated in the election, it is important for Corbyn to remain at the wheel, if accepted by his party members, so that there will be a political expression of the big social movement that will probably trig a Johnson’s victory.