“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” – book review

“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” – book review

Reviewed by David Purdy.

“Communism and Democracy: History, Debates, Potentials” by Mike Makin-Waite, published by Lawrence and Wishart, London, £18. Available here.

Mike Makin-Waite seconded the motion to dissolve the Communist Party of Great Britain as a delegate to its final Congress in 1991. He was then active in the CPGB’s successor organisation, Democratic Left, and remains involved in networks concerned with the history of the left. In this book, he offers a fresh and unflinching overview of the history of communism from its roots in the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the demise of the international communist movement and the emergence of a global capitalist system from which the “spectre” of communism has been banished. His central concern is the troubled relationship between communism and democracy.

Those of us who still aspire to replace neo-liberal capitalism by a fairer, greener, happier, more democratic and less divided world cannot avoid looking backward if we are to move forward. For one thing, whenever even modest proposals are mooted to re-regulate markets, increase spending on public services or make the tax system less regressive, our opponents are quick to invoke the ghosts of Marx, Lenin and Stalin. More importantly, as the author notes (p 4), the eclipse of communism has impoverished the Western imagination, undermining belief in the very “possibility of ever shaping the world in line with the democratically agreed outcomes of reasoned consideration, with the aim of meeting human needs.”

Now, almost thirty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is a good time to take stock of the strengths, achievements, illusions, follies and crimes of communism. The financial crash of 2007-8 triggered a deep slump and decade-long slowdown from which the world has barely recovered and which has shaken public confidence in global capitalism and neo-liberal policies. Yet the left has made scant progress in articulating and winning support for a credible alternative. On both sides of the Atlantic, populist leaders and movements have emerged to challenge political elites, but more from the illiberal, nationalist right than the liberal, cosmopolitan left, whose commitment to open borders holds little appeal for the victims of global economic restructuring. As yet, there is little sign of the intellectual renewal, political realignment and institutional reform that history suggests are the pre-requisites for resolving an organic crisis of capitalism.

Compare the past decade with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ten years after the Wall Street crash of 1929, the world was at war for the second time in a generation. But ideas and plans for a managed and socialised form of capitalism had gained traction among the intelligentsia and were about to be put to the test in running a war economy. Similarly, the formation of anti-fascist popular fronts in the late 1930s and of resistance movements during the war prefigured the national-popular governments that presided over progressive social settlements after the war.

The short communist century 1917-89

Given the appalling human rights record of the USSR and the quasi-military character of the Leninist vanguard party, one might suppose that a book about communism and democracy would be rather short. But democracy is a complex, shifting and contested concept. According to classical Marxism, liberal or “bourgeois” democracy is an instrument of class rule that serves to protect private property and to preserve the capitalist system. To create a social democracy, capitalists and landlords would have to be expropriated. In countries with parliamentary systems and universal suffrage, it might be possible to achieve this goal with a sufficiently emphatic electoral mandate, though even in this case force might be needed to quell a “slaveholders’ revolt”. Elsewhere, the first priority of socialists was to establish democratic institutions.

Under the impact of the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution, the international socialist movement split into two hostile camps, henceforth known as social democrats and communists, the former committed to electoral-legislative politics within the framework of liberal democracy, the latter dedicated to defending the Soviet Union and promoting world revolution. Yet while the two sides disagreed about the strategy for achieving socialism, both still aimed to break the power of the propertied classes by taking the principal means of production into public ownership. Once this was done and the government had decided on its policy priorities, a system of central planning would replace the “invisible” hand of the market as the primary mechanism of economic co-ordination, allocating resources among the various branches of production and distributing the social product among the members of society.

The advent of socialism, or “lower” stage of communism, would, it was believed, usher in a superior, more ample form of democracy, encompassing civil society as well as the state and putting the satisfaction of human needs above the pursuit of private profit. Major advances were confidently expected to ensue: inequalities of income, wealth and status would decline; the periodic crises to which capitalism was incorrigibly prone would disappear; and rapid progress would be made towards the material abundance required to sustain the “higher” stage of communism. En route, socialist citizens would acquire both the ability and the desire to participate in the management of productive units and community organisations, as well as enjoying social entitlements over and above the political rights and civil liberties that marked the limit of citizenship status in the “bourgeois” democracies, at any rate prior to the development of welfare states after 1945.

Makin-Waite describes this prospectus as “the promise of modernity”. In the first part of the book, he traces its genesis in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the second, he explains why the promise failed to materialise. At the heart of his account is the Soviet experience. Having seized power hoping to bring about a socialist revolution, the Bolsheviks found themselves driven, step-by-step, to launch an industrial revolution, with an authoritarian one-party state presiding over a bureaucratic command economy.

This is a familiar story. It is, nevertheless, worth retelling. The author’s decision to focus on the relationship between communism and democracy provides a strong narrative thread through the twists and turns of communist history, highlighting, in particular, the various periods and episodes when communists came to appreciate that liberal democracy is a historic achievement to be cherished, nurtured and defended: the pre-war popular fronts and wartime resistance movements; the Prague Spring of 1968 and the military coup against Chile’s Popular Unity government in 1973 – searing experiences both, which sparked the rise and shaped the politics of Eurocommunism in the 1970s; and Gorbachev’s efforts in the 1980s to bring the Cold War to an end while seeking to promote perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) in the USSR.

Gramsci’s concept of hegemony


Presiding over the argument is the stoical, yet resolute spirit of Antonio Gramsci, a founding member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), who briefly became its leader before being arrested and imprisoned by Mussolini. Gramsci was primarily a theorist of defeat. In his Prison Notebooks, he sought to explain why the Russian revolution had not, as the Bolsheviks confidently anticipated at the time, sparked off similar revolutions in the West. How had the ruling classes in the heartlands of capitalism managed to see off the communist threat? Why the contrast between the collapse of Tsarist autocracy and the resilience of “bourgeois” democracy?

In seeking answers to these questions, Gramsci was obliged to rethink Marxist theory and communist strategy. In particular, invoking the familiar distinction between the use of coercion and government by consent, he gave a whole new meaning to the concept of hegemony, the Greek word for leadership or supremacy. His argument, in a nutshell, was that while the state’s legal monopoly of the means of violence is always a factor in any situation, by far the most effective and least risky way for rulers to secure the allegiance, or least compliance, of their subordinates is not to beat or cow them into submission, but to win their hearts and minds. Thus, in the advanced capitalist democracies, winning and retaining power, whether to preserve the status quo or to pursue a radical alternative, depend primarily on providing the moral and intellectual leadership required to resolve, or at least cope with, society’s main problems.

Coping with a post-communist world

The third part of the book, “Routes for Radicals”, surveys the vestiges of the communist movement in China, North Korea, Cuba and South Africa, together with the various intellectual and political trends which have emerged since the 1990s and which retain some affinity, however loose, with the communist tradition. These include efforts to combine perspectives and themes from Marxist and ecological thought into a new red-green synthesis; the renewal of the left in Latin America (which now seems to have stalled); the anti-globalisation and anti-austerity movements in Europe and North America; the work of the so-called “New Communists” such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek; the formation of new parties of the left such as Die Linke in Germany, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain; and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and his followers in the British Labour Party.

The most intellectually innovative and impressive of these post-communist initiatives is the red-green dialogue, a serious attempt to rethink the relationship between capitalism, society and nature. It is, however, still a work in progress and has made little impact on organised politics. The other developments surveyed offer little more than old ideas in new guises. The “New Communists”, for example, reject democratic norms and see contemporary struggles for emancipation as struggles against (liberal) democracy. Thus, Zizek (quoted on p 258) declares that, “… what today prevents radical questioning of capitalism is precisely the belief in democratic forms of struggle against capitalism.” It is unclear whether Zizek really means this or is simply being provocative. He claims to be an unreconstructed Leninist, but this may be a pose. Either way, his apparent disdain for representative government is shared by those advocates of direct democracy who repudiate the state-centred politics of the traditional left in favour of direct action in “local spaces.” Of course, “propaganda of the deed” is an old anarchist enthusiasm and can be a potent form of protest as long as it remains non-violent. But action on the “horizontal” plane of politics can never change the world unless it links up with action on the “vertical” plane as part of a hegemonic project aimed at transforming the state.

Can the communist-shaped hole in our politics be filled by forming a new party or breathing fresh vigour and purpose into an old one? It depends what we hope and expect to achieve by such endeavours. There is no harm in dreaming of a post-capitalist world or in speculating about what it might look like. Dreaming revitalises the brain and utopian thought feeds into ongoing debate about what kind of life is best for humans and what kind of society would best sustain it. But we should bear in mind that the word “utopia”, coined in 1516 by Sir Thomas More, is a play on the Greek words eu (good or well), ou (no or not) and topos (place). Thus, utopia is a good, but non-existent place. It lies outside time and space: “somewhere over the rainbow”, in the words of the song. Political projects, on the other hand, are time-bound and operate in a resistant medium. Political actors must always reckon with natural limits, structural bias, institutional inertia, vested interests and the actions of their opponents, not to mention irreducible uncertainty about the future.

The neo-liberal revolution and the demise of communism have, between them, driven the possibility of a post-capitalist world over the edge of political space into the realms of utopian space. But while neo-liberal ideas and policies have reached every corner of the world, their impact has not been uniform and there are still different types of capitalism in different countries: China is governed by a strong authoritarian state; Sweden remains a high-tax, high public spending state; Germany retains its social market economy; Britain’s capital city still hosts the world’s largest financial and trading hub; and so on. Equally, just as globalisation has not eliminated institutional and cultural variety from the world, so there is no reason to suppose that the neo-liberal form of capitalism will be the last and every reason to do what we can to replace it by a better form, not just by working for regime change at the national level, but by heading off the current slide into international anarchy and rebuilding a rules-based global order.


Understanding Tom Nairn

Understanding Tom Nairn

by Davie Laing

Tom Nairn, thinker and writer on globalisation and nationalism, is the subject of a critical essay by journalist Neal Ascherson in a new pamphlet published by Democratic Left Scotland.

Ascherson regards Nairn as “by far Scotland’s pre-eminent political intellectual”, though he is at pains to stress that Nairn is as much a devoted European as a Scot.

It is appropriate to add (and Ascherson spends a weighty part of his essay discussing this) that Nairn is perhaps best known as the prophetic author of The Break-Up of Britain (1977).

The end result of Ascherson’s attention is a dazzling distillation of Nairn’s evolving thought; it may serve for years to come as an essential primer for those concerned with the related issues of globalisation and renascent nationalisms of Scotland and other small nations yearning to breathe free. (I should perhaps add that in a discomfiting number of cases the nationalism is more pathological than progressive.)

There is not the space here to rehearse in detail Ascherson’s masterly account of Nairn’s originally dissenting minority, but eventually influential, writings as to why globalisation has resulted less in a bland sameness of cultures and policies, as was predicted by the likes of Francis Fukuyama, but rather a spirit of popular resistance.

This resistance has the potential, in the case of “Anglo-Britain” (Ascherson’s words), to shake the foundations of “Ukania”, Nairn’s coinage for the UK’s Ruritanian constitutional arrangements, and to replace them with regimes animated by the letter and spirit of popular sovereignty as opposed to parliamentary absolutism.

Should such a happy outcome come to pass much credit will be due, Ascherson stresses, to the vigorous campaigning of the likes of Anthony Barnett and friends at Open Democracy. Scottish exemplars include CommonSpace and many others.

Though readers who visit the world of Ascherson and Nairn in pursuit of a direct route from the break-up of “Ukania” to a socialist future will meet with disappointment, they may well find more than ample consolation in Ascherson’s brief but succinct tour of the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, Italian communist militant and intellectual, best known for his development of the concept of hegemonic rule.

In this passage we learn of Nairn’s devotion to Gramsci and his strategy of the “long haul” on the road to socialist change. This will require the assembling in civil society of alternative hegemonic majorities and a new common sense that is translatable into popular power, in the process of which the Scottish nation and the national interest will be radically redefined. From such a perspective there remains much to be done.

But we have reasons to be cheerful, for it is arguable that the forces of hegemonic potential are already in the process of formation, firstly in the astonishing explosion of some 40 years of Scottish literary and artistic talent – though its political potential, in my view, remains under-analysed (Robert Crawford’s splendid Scotland’s Books (2007) being a partial exception).

Mention should also be made of the revisionist health of Scottish historiography with pioneering work on Scotland and empire and women’s studies. Secondly, no discussion of potential hegemonics would be adequate without mention of 2014, the annus mirabilis which Ascherson has written about with such passion and insight as a participant observer.

This phenomenon has altered the direction of Scottish history – I predict with some confidence, permanently.

The spirit and letters of Tom Nairn have animated the Yes movement, making the reading of this pamphlet essential. But no need to take the word of this interested party when Professor Paul James, a former colleague of Nairn’s in Australia, has written: “I expected a casual read only to find that I simply could not put it down. Neal gets Tom.”

This article first appeared in CommonSpace.

Tom Nairn: “Painting Nationalism Red”? by Neal Ascherson is a 32pp A5 pamphlet and illustrated by Alexander Moffat’s oil portrait of Nairn. It is priced at £4.00 with a discount of 10% for orders of 10 or more.

Copies can be obtained by contacting:
Democratic Left Scotland, 9 MacAulay Street, Dundee DD3 6JT
Telephone 07826 488492
Email stuartfairweather[at]ymail[dot]com

This article was corrected on 13.02.18 to place quotation marks around the title of the publication.

The October Revolution 100 Years on

The October Revolution 100 Years on

Stephen Whitefield in conversation with David Priestland

Stephen Whitefield: David, I really look forward to our conversation about October 1917 in Russia and its contemporary significance, which I am certain will be of great interest to all readers of Perspectives. You have written extensively about Soviet history and then, essentially, on modern world history. I remember long and fascinating discussions with you about all your work. Starting with your thesis and first book about Stalinism in the 1930s – Stalinism and the Politics of Mobilization: Ideas, Power, and Terror in Inter-War Russia (2007) – I was struck by how important it was to you to understand Stalinism by taking its often contradictory ideological claims and justifications seriously. You then moved on to write a comparative history of the communist movement – The Red Flag: A History of Communism (2009) – and from there to write another very broad comparative book – Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (2012) – about the ways in which these “castes”, as you call them, configure political alliances with each configuration containing contradictions which lead eventually to its collapse. You are now, I think, working on a book about the history of neo-liberalism. So, let me start by asking what, if anything, unites this body of work? Is it perhaps an underlying commitment to the importance of ideas and ideologies in shaping political arrangements? And do you face a lot of opposition to that perspective from other historians or from social scientists?

David Priestland: I too look forward to the conversation, and it’s good to have the opportunity to discuss the significance of 1917 in greater length than has been common in the media. Yes, as you say, how have ideological systems, very broadly defined, been understood by people who were not political theorists or even that interested in political ideas? When it comes to communism, polarised positions have often developed – communists have either been seen as cynics and pragmatists, or “true believers” whose dogmatic imposition of Marxist-Leninist ideas led to the Gulag. However, in my book on Stalinism in the 1930s, I tried to show how an apparently monolithic Marxism-Leninism included different views of how authority was to be exercised, and what sort of officials were to be in control, and especially one that emphasised mass mobilisation, and another that championed a more elitist, technocratic vision. I also argued that the Stalinist Terror of 1936–38 can be better understood in the context of conflicts between these two ideological positions.


This book was largely concerned with communist elites, but my next book, on global communism, tried to show how communist ideas affected a much broader range of people, and that forced me to examine how communism was related to other political ideas, such as nationalism and “neo-traditional” paternalistic views of politics. The project also encouraged me to think about how communist ideas were received among different social groups in very diverse societies across the world – from German intellectuals to Chinese peasants – and I became interested in combining the history of ideas with more sociological and ethnographic approaches. That was what led me to write an extended historical essay on social groups and “ethoses”, Merchant, Soldier, Sage – using the word “caste” in the way it was used by ancient thinkers to refer to social groups with their own moral systems and ways of life, or “dharmas” (as opposed to the way it is used in India today, to mean exclusive hereditary groups arranged hierarchically). So yes, I’d agree that all of the books are linked by an interest in the role of ideas in politics, and the need to examine the varieties and contradictions of ideological systems. But I have become more interested in how these ideas interact with other social and cultural forces in history, and today.

As to the reception of my work: I haven’t actually had much hostility from either academic or non-specialist critics. I had a couple of negative reviews of The Red Flag in the press from a Cold War liberal, anti-communist perspective when the book came out in 2009, but I think the ways I’ve tried to place communism in a historical context, hopefully avoiding Cold War polemics, have become more acceptable over time, and the book has been more widely read and translated than my other books. I was anxious about Merchant, Soldier, Sage, because it was much bolder in making generalisations than is the norm for a book of history, but the academics who reviewed it were generally positive. However, I suspect that the book’s interdisciplinary approach appeals to some more than others – I see myself as a historian of ideas, but I am not producing detailed analyses of political thinkers as many intellectual historians do; and I am more of a cultural historian than a social historian using social science methodologies, though I suspect many cultural historians would think I had an excessively social scientific liking for abstraction and generalisation.

SW: Well, can I ask how you might apply your arguments about the role of ideas and ideology to the October Revolution? There is an aspect of this question which perhaps you might clarify at the start. My understanding of your position is that we might be better off thinking about intellectual currents rather than individual commitments. What I mean by that is that “leading thinkers” of the Revolution have a variety of more or less coherent ways to explain why, for whom and how the Revolution was produced and would develop, all plausibly Marxist, but that they couldn’t coherently hold all positions at the same time. In that frame, we can perhaps make a bit more sense of how Lenin could be someone who thought the state could be abolished and administration taken in turn, and in short order someone who thought that experts and a long period of development were necessary. As I understand your position, you think that these apparently contradictory positions were evident for most of the Soviet period, regularly surfacing but never resolved. A bit like the seemingly endless reconfigurations of Merchant, Soldier and Sage. Some might think of these about-turns in Lenin’s stances – and many others – as appropriate expedience and flexibility over tactics to reach an agreed goal, others that it is evidence just of opportunism and that the ideology was actually of no meaning. How do you think about the role of Marxist ideology in the Revolution and indeed throughout the Soviet period given these apparent contradictions?

DP: The Russian Revolution, like all major social revolutions, involved a challenge to state and other forms of authority staged by a coalition of opponents, and following that a struggle between the revolutionariesto reconstitute a new state and social hierarchies. As much of the recent scholarship on 1917 shows, the “Russian Revolution” was made up of multiple revolutions across the Russian empire, including peasant revolts against landlords, often inspired by anarchistic ideas of local autonomy, and nationalist rebellions of ethnic minorities against imperial rule – as well as the urban revolution that comes to mind when we think of “1917”. And in the cities, too, we can see a whole range of revolutionary movements and ideas – from vanguardist Marxism to radical feminism, from cultural avant-gardism to worker council participatory democracy. Some of those different strains survived for a time within Bolshevism – one of the most radical Marxist groups – but over time, as the Bolsheviks fought the civil war and built their new state, Bolshevism narrowed and became more authoritarian, and radicals were marginalised. Even so, I have argued that we need to avoid common assumptions that Marxism-Leninism was monolithic, or that we can see it as either a programme of egalitarian modernisation as used to be popular, or as a utopian totalitarian project that would inevitably result in terror, as is more normal now. Rather there were always tensions within the ideology, and one of the main divisions was over the question – how can economic developmental goals be achieved, while at the same time fulfilling the socially egalitarian promises of the revolution?


As you say, Bolsheviks could find rather different answers to those questions within Marx’s very ambiguous ideological legacy – including a revolutionary challenge to social hierarchies and inequalities, as well as visions of a scientifically planned economy, which implied some form of technocratic hierarchy. And as I argue, it is possible to identify a very limited number of strategies, which were repeatedly tried in various forms in the history of communism. Among the most historically significant were: a technocratic one, with expert elites in control, which promised a solution to economic underdevelopment; one based on revolutionary mass mobilisation, which could be justified according to a more radical Marxist vision and which appealed to the “experts” in political mobilisation – the party officials and “activists”; and finally a “pragmatic” one, in which elements of the market were tolerated as a way of overcoming the problems of state centralisation and planning, and was popular among peasants and some technocratic interests. We can find all three strategies in Lenin’s own thinking in and after 1917, though broadly speaking we can say he moved from a more radical mobilising one, to a more technocratic, statist one during the civil war, towards a pragmatic one at the end of his life (seen in his New Economic Policy of 1921). And these strategies survived the Leninist period not only because they could be justified ideologically, but because each offered different, but incomplete and flawed, solutions to the problems facing Bolshevik regimes.

Each strategy was also advocated by particular interests, and as you say, in some ways this looks like the Merchant, Soldier, Sage model of history – that is a series of struggles between different ideological visions, each associated with particular social groups and their cultures or ethoses. Though I would argue that Soviet systems empower a limited set of groups and ethoses – and specifically two forms of “sage”, the expert technocrat, and the mobilising party official; each absorbed some elements of a “worker” collectivist culture, but probably rather more aspects of a “soldier” culture, including military-style mobilisation and more conventional military hierarchies. And of course, in some communist systems, including the USSR, militaries themselves had a great deal of political and economic, as well as cultural influence.

SW: I read your long and very positive review in the Financial Times recently of Yuri Slezkine’s book House of Government, in which he portrays the Bolsheviks as a kind of millenarian sect inspired by a belief that “full Communism” really would be the fruit of the Revolution – and that the viciousness of Communist rule was the result both of a sense of justification to take harsh action in pursuit of this goal, but also a kind of response to the difficulties in explaining to themselves why Communism was failing to materialise. It must be because of enemies within and without. The issue is important to my mind because if the Communist movement is just a sort of weird form of millenarianism, in which a country – Russia – is captured in a moment of state collapse and war by a gang of violent extremists who used force to hold power for generations, we can hardly find much in retrospect to inspire in it. The Communist movement rather seems like some odd late 19th Century cult. But you seem to take a much more multifaceted view of the Revolution and its aftermath. So, what would you say are the contemporary resonances of October 1917 that make thinking about it interesting today?

DP: Yes, the book, which is a study of a group of second-tier Bolshevik officials who lived in a large famous apartment block near the Kremlin, “The House of Government”, is the most persuasive defence I have read of the view that the Bolsheviks can be compared to a millenarian sect inspired by apocalyptic traditions in the Abrahamic religions – that is they believed that the communist utopia was about to arrive, and they were engaged in the violent, apocalyptic struggle with the forces of evil which would inevitably precede it. However, as I argued in the review, while I am happy to accept that there are important Christian millenarian aspects to the language and even thinking of some Bolsheviks in some periods – which Slezkine identifies very interestingly – I do not agree that we can see the Bolshevik party as essentially, or even primarily, a millenarian sect. There are many other elements to Bolshevism – I would stress the commitment to a rather technocratic vision of modernity, as well as to much more conventional socialist ideas of equality. And while periods like the Terror did see the use of millenarian language to justify the persecution of “enemies of the people”, these episodes, while destructive, were short-lived. Another issue that needs to explained by defenders of the “millenarian” thesis, is why we see a similar form of good versus evil “class struggle” in episodes such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which do not have obvious roots in Abrahamic religions. A convincing use of the model would need to explain these cases too.


The “millenarianism” or “political religion” argument was popular among some Cold War critics of communism to discredit the Bolsheviks as an irrational or fanatical movement (which, to be fair to him, Slezkine does not do); and this was used to counter the argument among some on the left that 1917 was an inspiring story of rational modernisation. My view is that neither position helps us understand the Bolsheviks: they were neither crazy fanatics, nor rational pragmatists, but were operating within a particular ideological context. But if we take this careful contextual view and avoid politicised judgements about the Bolsheviks’ “rationality” and “irrationality”, why, as you rightly ask, should we be interested in 1917 today at all? Is it just of interest to historians? I’d have a couple of responses to that. Firstly, it’s crucial to understand what 1917 was and how it was interpreted if we are to understand the history of the twentieth century. If we accept simple interpretations devoid of context – whether that Bolshevism was a fanatical movement which duped millions, or indeed a virtuous movement that was betrayed by a few leaders or destroyed by American imperialism – it is difficult to understand the many strands of the tradition of 1917, and why they appealed to so many different people and social groups. And secondly, thinking about 1917 can help us to understand the thinking of radicals, as well as the problems facing any social reformers, in the poorer parts of the world. It’s often difficult for us in the West to understand the appeal of 1917, because it had greatest resonance in agrarian societies that were not only economically unequal but highly stratified culturally. For many on the left in the 20th century, these systems, dominated by landowning or military elites, could only be changed through radical, even violent action. Today, some of the sharpest of those inequalities have gone – sometimes as a result of communist rule, as is the case with the expropriation of land and its distribution to peasants. But sharp and entrenched inequalities remain in much of the world, and that fuels anger and calls for radical change – even if that social discontent often provides more fuel for radical right than radical left movements, most notably in the Middle East.

SW: I wonder if that gets the whole picture. There are probably lots of reasons why there is interest in the UK in October 1917 and much of it is likely fatuous. Anything 100 years on seems to provoke a flurry of articles. Perhaps the Revolution has become so anodised by the collapse of the Soviet Union that it can now be dealt with as pure nostalgia. But could there be more to its contemporary resonances than that? I don’t mean that Marxism is resurgent – am I wrong? But rather that we see more in 1917 than an uprising in a pre-modern agrarian society. Other parallels may be more striking. I think about Theda Skocpol’s work on states and revolutions. In Russia, there was a state that was so captured by powerful interests that it had no capacity or autonomy to act even in the ruling class’s longer term interests. It arguably failed to deal with issues of social mobility leaving many of its most educated and capable citizens entirely alienated from government and authority, and angry. Persistent failures to reform interacted with other crises – especially war of course. For Skocpol, it wasn’t so much the agrarian character of Russian society that explained its revolution, as the failure of the state to deal with the tidal wave of demands – in particular the international challenges – that Russia faced. Is this perhaps not more why October 1917 is of contemporary interest? Not just nostalgia but a sense now not yet of revolutionary possibilities but of a weak and failing social and political order unable to deal with the most obvious social problems? Into which vacuum who knows who might walk, especially given the failure and collapse of neo-liberalism in the aftermath of the Crash?

DP: Yes, I would agree that 1917 has become much more of an inspiration for the radical left in the West than it has been for some time – arguably since the 1970s. A good example is the writer China Mieville’s sympathetic account of the revolution which has had a good reception from many critics and is selling well, something I doubt would have happened ten years ago. And a rather more politically neutral, contextualised account of the legacy of 1917 I wrote for the New York Times this year did not get the Cold War anti-communist response The Red Flag got from some quarters – except from the popular right-wing shock-jock conspiracy-theorist Alex Jones.


But I think we need to ask what this interest in 1917 means – what is it about 1917 that is valued? And do the understandings of “1917” that inspired the left in much of the twentieth century explain the interest today? Anger at the domination of the state and the economy by elites who seem to be wedded to a failed, selfish neo-liberalism is a crucial element, and as you say there are certainly resonances today, especially in the United States, where so many aspects of political life, including the electoral process, have been corrupted by corporate money. But looking back at the history of communism, I’m sceptical that this is enough for a revival of 1917-style leftist politics. I mentioned agrarian societies not because I think peasants are essential participants in revolutions, but because these societies had an important precondition of radical left-wing politics – the convergence of cultural alienation between elites and the mass of the population, and socio-economic conflict. Pre-industrial, agrarian societies, often run by landed aristocracies, were not only unequal in socio-economic terms, but had very sharp cultural divisions between elites and ordinary people – they lived in very different ways, and even sometimes spoke different languages. So when Russian revolutionaries tried to mobilise ordinary people against the “bourgeois” (“burzhui”), they could combine socio-economic resentment with a sense of cultural alienation. So the common distinction made in the contemporary debate between something called “identity politics” and some “purer” form of Marxist socio-economic left-wing politics, is unhelpful. The revolutionaries of 1917 benefited from the merging of the “socio-economic” with the cultural, and this also helps to explain the power of “1917” in the colonial and post-colonial global South after World War II, where they could exploit a huge cultural distance between ordinary people and foreign or collaborating elites.

If we contrast these situations with the West today, it is much more difficult for a radical left to link socio-economic with cultural divisions in society, because other forms of identity compete with class identity. The Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011–12 did try to do that, by mobilising a “99%” against a plutocratic “1%”, but cultural divisions often cut across socio-economic conflicts, because of the importance of educational, ethnic, generational and other differences. So debt-laden university-educated groups may feel culturally alienated from the blingy plutocratic elite embodied by Trump and Putin, but do they believe that the T-shirt-wearing Mark Zuckerberg – in many ways a more powerful plutocrat – is equally worthy of their hostility? And poorly paid blue-collar British workers may not have much in common socio-economically with the tweed-wearing stockbroker Nigel Farage, but they can unite along culturally nationalist lines against an educated cosmopolitan elite.

I am not saying that it’s impossible to create alliances of groups disadvantaged by ethnicity, gender and socio-economic issues, mobilising them against economic elites behind a programme of equality, and that is something the left clearly has to do if it is going to succeed politically. Nor am I saying that they cannot use some elements of the very diverse legacy of 1917 to do so. Indeed, the meaning of “1917” has changed over time and can do so again – for instance the shift from the industrial proletarian revolution of Petrograd during World War I to the peasant guerrilla war in China or Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s was a major transformation in the image of communism and the legacy of 1917. But in my view it would take an even greater polarisation of western politics on economic issues than has occurred so far for that to happen. It’s telling, I think, that the most important politically significant movement that still takes the revolutionary legacy of 1917 seriously (as opposed to the legacy of the vanguard party as in China), is the Maoist Naxalite guerrilla insurgency in central India, which is focused around the issue of land rights and the rigid caste divisions that exist in India.

SW: I think I agree with you about how fractures over culture between left and right and their social bases make building political majorities very difficult. But let me ask one final question. Revolutions, and whatever we will call fascist seizures of power, happen in times of crisis and there is perhaps an ever more palpable sense that conventional politics is unable to resolve the most pressing problems facing the world. Another crash and who knows what kinds of alliances will emerge. Now, we clearly see some countries in which an alliance of conservative, xenophobic and illiberal forces that present some elements of pro-working class welfarism – often emphasising traditional family gender roles to be sure – against the failures of cosmopolitan neo-liberalism have won power and even absolute majorities. I think about Hungary and to a lesser degree Poland. Bannon-style Trumpism is a similar project perhaps. Even Theresa May gestured at that agenda in her Downing Street and other speeches, though has done nothing beyond her inconsistent rhetoric. Yet, there are significant political opportunities in that political space that I fear. On the left, to state the obvious, we have Corbyn and Sanders, in many countries Green parties, parties of the left in Southern Europe – and in Scotland of course, the Democratic Left. These attempt to build majorities for left, liberal, generally internationalist (even if anti-EU and against aspects of globalisation), and environmentalist policies. One difference between 1917 and now is that, to my mind, the left has almost everywhere fully embraced democracy and liberalism. The old mainstream of centre-left and centre-right is in retreat in many places, though I would not say it is yet finished. But politics may be simplifying and polarising. It is often more angry. So in the likely battles to come, when the current order actually has to change – as I suppose I think it does – which way will the world turn? Or I am just revealing my own millenarian tendencies?

DP: I agree that the period we live in is deeply worrying, and it is difficult to imagine a good way out of this, because we are not only living through an economic crisis, the loss of faith in a dominant ideology – market liberalism – we are also without any coherent and practical alternatives to the current unstable system. For any attempt to resolve the environmental problems that plague us, or to achieve a degree of national and international equality requires international co-ordination and social compromises that are very difficult to achieve, especially at a time of low growth. And that ideological vacuum brings a crisis of confidence among politicians, experts and elites more generally, which in turn fuels mistrust of governments, and leads to simple solutions which claim to protect people against further declines In their economic or status position, from nostalgic nationalism to the magical neo-liberalism of some of the Brexiters or American Republicans (more deregulation will make people work harder and revive the country).


Of course, these ideological and economic crises happen regularly in history – the last was in the 1970s – and many at the time were deeply pessimistic. But this seems to me to be a worse situation than that – at least there were neo-liberal alternatives, for good or ill. The 1930s parallel is closer – then again an international system founded on global finance and liberal ideology collapsed, and the result was sharp political polarisation between left and right. And then, as now, the right was better able to forge alliances than was the left. But it was possible to see a Keynesian alternative, albeit underdeveloped and imperfect. The 1917 example in Europe is less encouraging: the collapse of the old aristocratic and imperial world after World War I led to violent conflict between left and right, which resolved itself in a highly unstable liberal order, and laid the foundations for the crises of the 1930s.

But ultimately compromises of some sort did emerge – even if that happened after destructive conflict – so a historical perspective should not encourage pessimism. I do not think fascism is round the corner, and awareness of the past does change behaviour in a way designed to learn from the past. As you say, the left is much more committed to liberal ideas of democracy than it was in 1917. But one lesson we seem stubbornly unwilling to learn is more relevant to the 1920s and 1930s than to Russia in 1917: that unfettered markets are highly dangerous for economic and political stability, let alone environmental sustainability.

David Priestland is Professor of Modern History and a Fellow of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  His book, The Red Flag. Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Allen Lane, Penguin Press) combined a comparative approach with a broadly narrative structure, and was shortlisted for the Longman/History Today Prize for the best history book of 2010.  He has subsequently published Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, Penguin) in 2012 and is now working on a book on the history of neo-liberalism.
Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics and a Fellow of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. His first book, Industrial Power and the Soviet State (Oxford University Press, 1993) won the Ed. A Hewitt prize for the best book on the political economy of Communist and post-Communist systems.  He has more recently published (with Robert Rohrschneider) The Strain of Representation: How Parties Represent Diverse Voters in Western and Eastern Europe (OUP 2012) and is now working on a study of the impact of globalisation in the stances of parties and voters on the left and the right. 

Getting on with the day job – DLS AGM 2017

Getting on with the day job – DLS AGM 2017

This is the contribution by Maggie Chapman to the DLS AGM on the 14th October, in Portobello. Maggie is a member of Democratic Left’s National Council, and Co-Convener of the Scottish Green Party.

“We chose the title for this AGM discussion as a provocation: “get on with the day job” has been the rhetorical battering ram used by Ruth Davidson (and others) to hit the SNP for talking about independence. Her intent is quite clear: she wants the threat of the break up of the British Imperial State removed so that the exploitation of Scotland’s natural and human resources can continue unabated, Scotland’s people can continue to be subjected to the brutal discipline of austerity and the removal of social security.

But, the way in which she puts the proposition, by necessity, is depoliticising. She is happy to talk about how the Scottish Government has problems in education, but her solutions remain unspoken. And of course, the record of her own party in England, investing in vanity projects like free schools, rather than any real attempts to transform the prospects of school students, suggests she has nothing to contribute in this area. She is quick to criticise in broad terms but does not present solutions. Rather, she is appealing to a constituency who are clearly threatened by the energetic and exciting politics ushered in by the referendum.

The brilliance of the Ruth Davidson approach is that it draws on one of the core tactics of neoliberalism: it forecloses political possibility. As Thatcher famously said, “There is no alternative!”. The aim is very definitely to put politics back in its box. For Conservatives, and for those terrified by this prospect, putting politics back into its box is vital and we need to recognise that those people who voted Tory were strongly guided by this motivation.

What arose in the 2014 referendum in Scotland was a belief that it didn’t have to be like this: that another Scotland was, indeed possible. And all of us here today are determined to see this a reality. But we have perhaps lost a bit of the momentum since 2014. And we’ve not always been helped by the Scottish Government.

The Scottish National Party’s instinct is to conform to the dominant politics of the day, so our job is to create the dominant politics that we want. We can see them on either side of this: before July, they wanted to cut Air Passenger Duty and hurt puppies – remember the tail docking vote – these are the kinds of things that Tories love doing, perhaps especially if they are Dalmatians.

However, since the summer, and us choosing to do an event with this title, the SNP have made a clear jump to the left, as we can see with the programme of government – even if some of this is still only at the level of consultation. It includes a Scottish Investment Bank which is a long-term green policy, nationalising Scotrail, creating a State-owned energy company and a wide range of other proposals that Greens and others in the radical Yes movement have been calling for.

This is a good thing, and is clearly a political response to the depoliticising intent of ‘getting on with the day job’.

And I think we can identify three agents that have enabled, and perhaps catalyse this shift; three agents that have functioned together and separately to create a dynamic that has moved Scottish politics into a much more positive space than it was in before the summer.

Firstly, we have Political parties, perhaps especially the Greens – the existence of Greens as a parliamentary force has been essential in pulling both Labour and the SNP to the left. The election of Caroline Lucas in 2010 brought a fresh perspective to radical politics where the left in the Labour party had been associated with older figures like Tony Benn. The experience of Labour activists and candidates in England being outflanked on the left consistently by Greens played a very significant role in popularising the sort of politics articulated by Jeremy Corbyn. Greens in the Scottish parliament have played a different role, but the electoral system here makes the threat to the SNP much more substantial. And the parliamentary arithmetic means that the SNP often rely on Greens, particularly since the polarisation around independence meant that the Tories couldn’t do deals with them so easily any more.

Secondly, there is Corbyn. Having popularised a form of progressive politics, Greens have seen it taken up by the new leadership of the Labour party whose ability to appeal to the Scottish electorate was reinvigorated between 2015 and 2017. The Labour manifesto with its full blooded call for removal of the market from areas such as transport and energy had an appeal in a way that a centrist SNP manifesto did not. The SNP has responded to this with a move into this territory.

Thirdly, the yes movement itself. The yes movement, having thrown off the shackles imposed by the official Yes Campaign (that it be a marketing and voter contact operation) became a lively and energetic manifestation of new politics. Where the Yes Scotland proposition that things would just be better if Scotland ran its own affairs was overshadowed and eclipsed by the more ideological character of the RIC. I want to draw an analogy here from a military context – I don’t mean this to imply that an armed struggle is appropriate in this context, however. In the Zimbabwean liberation struggle – the Chimurenga – there were two principle liberation forces – the Chinese backed ZANLA and the Soviet-backed ZIPRA. Where ZANLA understood that the conflict was asymmetrical, ZIPRA sought to match the Rhodesian armed forces for firepower. Whereas ZANLA used the advantages offered by their integration with local populations to much more effectively bleed the Rhodesian forces dry.

Over the past 30 years, the left has sought to engage its ideological opponents on territory that favoured the right. The Independence Movement is the first time in a long time that we’ve engaged them on territory that favours us. This, of course, created a set of lessons that have been learnt by the SNP, by the Corbyn campaign, and even in the US by the Sanders campaign, all to much greater effect than would previously have been possible.

There’s been a deep trauma for political parties as we re-enter an age of political ideology – the world really is struggling to be born. So, the question now for us is – how can we be handmaidens of that new world. It didn’t look like we were being very successful in this before the summer. But things change!

So far we’ve mobilised a movement around the proposition that “Another Scotland is Possible”. That movement has been energised by policy positions, but there’s a fundamental question about the changes that will be required to the structure of society and the economy.

We have to ask ourselves what the prefigurative steps are that we need to take to get to that ‘another world’. Things like the Tredegar Medical Aid Society – prefigure the NHS. How do we prefigure the changes we need in housing, governance, in our communities? How do we build the movements to make those real?

There’s a question about where we take these techniques next. We need to understand how we respond to the political realities of the day, how we respond to the crisis within in the British state that is being accelerated by Brexit

Given that we’ve been very successful in achieving our policy objectives up to now, we need to identify how we relate the prefigurative demands are, and how we get those adopted.

We need to have a plan for what happens if the deep crisis of capitalism plunges not into another spate of difficulties but goes into a terminal decline. Especially if that terminal decline is very rapid, as it may well be.

That’s the day job we need to be getting on with. And we will set about it with relish.”

AGM Discussion: Getting on with the day job – an agenda for radical Scotland

Join Democratic Left Scotland for our AGM discussion on Saturday the 14th October in Portobello Library.

Speakers include Justin Kenrick, from Acton Porty on the opportunities and limits to community action, Jonathon Shafi from Conter, on policies for a radical Scotland and Scottish Green Party co-convener Maggie Chapman on how we can build movements for change.

Eventbrite - Getting on with the day job - an agenda for radical Scotland




Long read: Looking for answers – economics, Trump and the US left

Long read: Looking for answers – economics, Trump and the US left

Stephen Whitefield talks to American Marxist economist David Ruccio.

Stephen Whitefield is Professor of Politics, Rhodes Pelczynski Tutorial Fellow in Politics, Pembroke College, University of Oxford. David Ruccio’s website and blog can be found at https://anticap.wordpress.com/

Stephen Whitefield: David, it is a great pleasure to start this conversation with you. We met first in Louisville Kentucky in 2000 and we’ve been friends since then. You were the founder and editor of the journal Rethinking Marxism and you are a professor of economics at the University of Notre Dame. So, I have three questions at the start that I think will be of great interest to our readers. First, and a personal question, how did you develop an interest in Marx and Marxism? Second, what would you say is distinctive about the journal you edited for so many years? And third, how does a Marxist economist fit with both broader orthodox economics, which in my experience is pretty right wing, and in a Catholic university like Notre Dame?


David Ruccio: The pleasure is all mine, Stephen. I’ve always enjoyed our conversations, which over the years have covered a wide variety of topics – from the perilous state of the left to the thrills and spills of world football. I am curious to see where this conversation will go. Let me take your opening questions in turn. As one of my professors used to say, “We choose theories, and theories choose us.” So it was with my interest in Marxism. Such ideas were “in the air” when I became politically active in the 1960s. I bought my first book by Herbert Marcuse at the age of 16 at a bookshop in Grand Central Station in New York City, and I encountered my first Marxian idea – imperialism – during the anti-Vietnam War movement. Things got a bit more formalized in college when, given my interest in Latin America, I discovered the Marxian critique of dependency theory. And then I went to graduate school in the Department of Economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study the Marxian critique of political economy only later discovering that, with a PhD, I might actually get a job in higher education. Now, looking back, I can’t imagine ever not seeing the world through a Marxian lens.



But, of course, there are different Marxisms out there. Some of us at the University of Massachusetts weren’t particularly satisfied with traditional Marxism, especially the more scientistic, “laws of motion” versions that were the received legacy in the United States. At the same time, we weren’t ready to simply abandon Marxism. Influenced by post-structuralism and the critique of all forms of determinism, we wanted to open up the Marxian tradition to a new engagement with itself and to contemporary work (what came to be called postmodernism) in philosophy and social theory. But the existing radical and Marxist journals weren’t interested in publishing that kind of work. So, we started our own journal, Rethinking Marxism, where we looked to publish new Marxian ideas in relation to the natural and social sciences and the arts. Although we published the first issue of the journal at what many considered the worst possible time, just before the Fall of the [Berlin] Wall, I’m proud to say the journal is now in its twenty-ninth year of publication.


So, there I was, a professor of economics – writing on various aspects of Marxian theory, editing a Marxist journal – in a discipline that has never been particularly open to Marxian ideas. And it’s only gotten worse in recent decades, as my colleagues in economics have gone from disdain to ignorance. At one time, economists in the United States might have been critical of Capital but at least they knew something about it. Now, given the increasing narrowness of the discipline – courses in economic history and history of economic thought are no longer even offered in most doctoral programs in economics – they’ve never been exposed to even the rudiments of theories other than neoclassical and Keynesian economics. Much the same has happened at the University of Notre Dame, the premier Catholic university in the United States. I was initially hired in a department that prided itself on being eclectic, with professors from a wide variety of theoretical traditions who worked in areas closely associated with Catholic notions of economic and social justice: Third World development, labor, and public policy. Unfortunately, the university administration later decided they wanted a purely neoclassical economic program and they took the unusual step of closing us down. Now, in the aftermath of the greatest economic crisis since the first Great Depression, when mainstream economics has been called into question around the world, they’re saddled with a department confined to the set of ideas that brought about the crash in the first place. It’s a sad state of affairs for economics – and, even more, for the masses of people who have been victims of the ideas and policies advocated by mainstream economists.


SW: Look, I want to get us on to discussing contemporary politics in the United States, as well as how this connects with developments in many other parts of the world. But let me first push you to clarify how the form of Marxism that you advocated in your journal engaged politically. Of course, Marxism was always highly intellectualised. To my mind, however, it is reasonable to demand of it the provision of practical solutions to the contradictions of capitalist production, effective political organisation, and a focus on winning power. How did you bridge that divide? It also seems to me that there is a Marxism that tries to say things that are true about the world – such as the tendency (not law) for the organic composition of capital to rise, which strikes me as quite helpful for understanding inequality and the contemporary labour market – and there is another which views its task as critique of the “common sense” of capitalist social relations that mistakes itself as social science – critique of neoclassical economics being the prime example. Now, I am sure that clever people can explain how this is a false dichotomy. But in terms of practical politics by abandoning claims to be scientific, isn’t Marxism even within the university more easily marginalised from fighting to make its claims dominant in the discipline of economics? So you end up looking to find academic positions in cultural studies, which is no place at all to build a counter-hegemony.



DR: Presenting Marxism as a science rather than as a critique isn’t going to make it dominant in the discipline of economics. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. Mimicking the “science” of neoclassical economics merely serves to undermine the originality of the Marxian critique of political economy. Contesting the mainstream idea of science – with all the baggage modernist science carries within economics, not to mention the dangers neoclassical economic science has wrought on the world – is to my mind a better way of disrupting the discipline of economics and creating a space for critical stances, including Marxism. Then, you get different sciences, in the plural, different discourses or stories about capitalism in the world today. So, Marxism is both a critique – a twofold critique of mainstream economic theory and of capitalism – and a science – of how capitalism works. And often, as in recent years, doesn’t work. Thus, for example, Marxism gives us the tools to criticize neoclassical conceptions of income inequality, in terms of individual choices and given endowments, and to provide an alternative explanation, beginning with capitalist exploitation and the way the surplus is distributed by capitalists to others at the top of the distribution of income.


But that combination of critique and alternative science doesn’t give you a practical politics – even though the point of it all is to both interpret and change the world. There’s a reason why you don’t find, in all of Marx’s oeuvre, a blueprint for what an alternative to capitalism might look like, much less how to get there. As I explain to my students, Marxism expresses both an arrogance and a humility: an arrogance to denaturalize capitalism and to proclaim an alternative way of organizing economic and social life is possible but also a humility in not thinking that comes from the pen of one or another thinker, no matter how revolutionary. That’s what political movements and parties do – they organize the masses to make changes in existing programs and institutions without any predetermined trajectory or endpoint. It’s what I refer to not as the progress of history but rather progress within history – connecting struggles on different issues into something larger, more far-reaching, and thus making things better for the majority of people by demanding and making changes in the world as it is.



SW: Let’s talk then about parties and movements and practical politics. I think I get your call for humility and for pluralistic open-mindedness. These are certainly antidotes to the dominant culture of Marxism in most places in the 20th century – sectarian, dogmatic, aggressive. Would you say that through the journal you have shifted the terms of discussion in the US among Marxists and re-integrated Marxism within the broader left? What is the influence of a Marxist critical approach in current US politics?


There is another side to this too – the side of those on the right for whom exactly the Leninist approach to party discipline and a focus on state power seems a perfect description. Can these highly organised and ruthless forces possibly be fought on anything other their own terms? I remember the day after Labour won the 1997 attending a talk in Oxford by Peter Mandelson, who I think had been a Communist as a student and who had lost none of his Leninist fascination with power. I asked him if he thought that Labour in power could do anything to change the discourse towards more open enquiry, dissent and discussion – of the sort that I think Corbyn may favour. No, said Mandelson: echoing Stalin on the class struggle, Labour in office would require ever more strict centralisation of power to fight its organised right-wing opposition. I can’t say I liked it, but that Labour leadership finally got rid of the Tories after 18 years and won three elections. So, what is the appropriate form for organising the left and progressives in the United States if winning power is a central goal?


DR: As Marxists, politics is of course never far from what we think and do. But, in the journal itself, we actually shied away from explicitly political discussions – as a self-conscious decision to avoid the kinds of divisive, sectarian debates and taking-of-sides that have rent asunder so many organizations on the left. Still, the rethinking of Marxism has had implications for left-wing politics: a discursive focus on class (without attributing to class any kind of causal priority), looking for forms of collectivity subjectivity or ways of being-in-common (instead of presuming a common being), identifying and creating instances of non-capitalism (such as gift-exchange and worker co-operatives) instead of enduring the long wait for “the revolution” to happen, and so on.



As I see it, while Marxism continues to play but a very minor role in US politics, at least directly, the kinds of issues Marxists tend to think about and organize around – class identities and struggles, criticizing and disrupting the existing common sense, expanding the realm of freedom, and so on – are certainly present in contemporary political discourse, especially in the wake of the crash of 2007–08 and during the uneven recovery from the Second Great Depression. The spectacular but unexpected success of the Bernie Sanders campaign is a testament to the resonance of those issues, especially among young people. In fact, although I hesitate to comment on events on your side of the pond, to judge by recent polls, something similar appears to be happening right now with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.


The problem in the United States is the left has little if any role in national politics – although, I want to add, there are millions of people who would be open to an explicitly left-wing political organization or party. The last time the left had a real chance of leaving its mark was in the mid-1980s, with the National Rainbow Coalition. It was a wide coalition, with an explicitly class message; with a national leader, Jesse Jackson; which also left considerable autonomy to local organizations, which is especially important in such a big, diverse country. Right now – and I readily admit my view is quite controversial on the left – the only alternative is within the Democratic Party. The mainstream of the party is in disarray after the 2016 debacle against Donald Trump, and the other existing and potential activists in the party are ripe for new ideas and new ways of articulating a 50-state strategy of changing political discourse and ultimately winning power. This is a time, at least in the United States, not for enforcing ideological discipline, but for creating a broad tent and giving people – especially young people – a chance to learn what real political debate and organizing are all about.


SW: Can you give me some examples of successes that people on the left might look to in the United States? We both know Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who runs a progressive Democratic city in the heart of the Trump-loving state of Indiana. He ran recently for Chair of the Democratic National Committee and while he didn’t win, he made an impression. What does he stand for and is it scalable? Are there other examples that might be worth considering too?


DR: Mayor Pete, as he is known, was the youngest mayor of a US city with at least 100,000 residents when he was first elected in 2011. Then, in 2015, he won re-election with over 80% of the vote – after announcing he is gay. This in a deindustrialized city in Indiana, a state that gave Donald Trump a 19-percent-point victory over Hillary Clinton. What Buttigieg represents, as a mayor and a candidate for Chair of the Democratic National Committee, is a direct counter both to Barak Obama’s Democratic Party – which, while successful at a national level, oversaw tremendous erosion in terms of state-level governorships and legislatures – and to Clinton’s – which failed at the national level and continued the slide at the state level. This is significant because a great deal of recent legislation overturning social rights and tearing apart the social safety net has been passed, by Republicans, at the state level.


The other problem with the Democratic Party, going back to Bill Clinton (and perhaps even further), has been a commitment to policies, from budget deficits to international trade, that can best be described as neoliberal – celebrating individual decisions in markets and a general aversion to commonweal projects, which had long been the pride of American progressivism. Hillary’s loss in November, especially among working-class voters, called both aspects of the existing Democratic strategy into question.



What we don’t know yet is who will fill the void. Clearly, the enthusiasm with which the Sanders campaign was greeted has made everyone sit up and take notice. New social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, the demonstrations across the country during and after Trump’s inauguration, and survey results, according to which millennials are no longer afraid of socialism, indicate a potential base of support for a different kind of Democratic Party – one that is able to challenge Trump’s political populism, which focuses on the failures of politicians and entrenched interests within government, with an economic populism, which for Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and others clearly distinguishes the interests of working people from those of economic elites.


SW: Well, I have been wondering who would be the first in this conversation to use the T word. You put the case that there is a choice to be made by some voters between forms of populism. Let me say a little bit about my own research with my colleague Robert Rohrschneider on European parties. Yes, the anti-globalisation left and the nationalist right do share hostility to national democratic institutions in practice, though on the left I think this is an example of “critical democrats” while on the right much of it is anti-democratic, which makes these two currents incompatible. Beyond critiques of national democracy, however, the anti-globalisation left and nationalist right have very little in common. Ideologically, this part of the left is socially liberal and pro-migrant as well as being much more economically left than the “Third Way” of old. The nationalist right by contrast is extremely illiberal and anti-migrant, as we know, but also just is not as some people claim, economically left at all. Socially and ideologically, these political currents are fishing in very different pools and there is not a lot of cross-over. That is why fewer Sanders supporters went to Trump – about 8% or so – than Clinton supporters went to McCain. That’s why I believe the path to a left anti-globalisation victory has to go a different route, not of course ignoring Trump supporters but not relying on them. Tell me I am wrong.


But regarding Trump, millions of words have already been written about his base of support. Clearly, he is not even trying to deliver on whatever phony economic populist claims he made as candidate. But what is the best way for a principled left in the US to fight him? I have in mind a narrative frame that will unite people who already dislike him, with those who can be persuaded, in a way that will maximize the space later for progressive politics to emerge. I doubt you think that labelling him a Russian stooge is the frame to choose. But what is?


DR: You’re right. Many words have already been written, most of them at best wasted (and many of them analytically suspect and politically dangerous), about Trump’s bases of support. Your research on European parties, on the other hand, gives a clear picture of the different ways international/globalization issues have cut across and been integrated into traditional party families and their positions on domestic matters. In the United States, what this has meant is a meeting-of-the-minds on globalization between mainstream Republicans and Democrats – basically, promote free trade and adopt government policies to win the competitive race – notwithstanding their differences on a whole host of other issues. This creates an alternative space with respect to international issues on the right, for Trump, and on the left, for Sanders.



I agree, there’s little overlap between Trump and Sanders supporters, at least in the short term. That stems, at least in part, from their different approaches to populism. Trump/Tea Party populism tends to blame everything on the bureaucrats in Washington, while Sanders/Occupy populism sees the enemy as Wall Street and large corporations. And those differences stem from or at least coincide with, to borrow a concept from Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, the “deep stories” – about who they are, what their values are – people feel to be true.


In the longer term, there’s more fluidity – in part because of growing disenchantment with the actual policies pursued by Trump and the rest of the Republican administration in Washington (not to mention in states like Kansas), but also because the younger generation is not bound by the same stories as their parents and older generations. And we shouldn’t forget that Sanders did have notable primary victories in states like Michigan and West Virginia, which in the general election went for Trump.


That’s one reason a left that is both critical of capitalist globalization and defends immigrant rights and other socially liberal causes can’t simply bypass the concerns of at least some of the voters who, last year, voted for Trump. We also need to be clear that it wasn’t the white working class, however defined, that was the key to Trump’s victory. His margin over Clinton was in fact much higher among wealthy white voters.



That leaves a large space that can be occupied by the “principled left”: a coalition of working-class voters, which is not just blue-collar – but instead includes many others, including white-collar workers, technicians, and professionals, in the 99% – and not just ethnic and racial minorities – since the largest group within the US working-class is, and will remain for some time, white. But what’s the narrative frame that can push the Democratic Party to the left and win elections? I agree, it’s not casting Trump as a Russian stooge, which most people are simply not concerned about. It does, however, include calling out Trump and his family members and administration as the contemporary equivalent of the corrupt, self-serving, conspicuously consuming landed aristocracy. And it means creating a discourse that “we” – or at least most of us – are in this together. So, not just jobs (and certainly not jobs in old industries, which will never be recovered) but high-quality, decent-paying jobs in both left-behind towns and growing cities, and of course a significant increase in the minimum wage. Not uncontrolled immigration but certainly a path to citizenship for undocumented workers and their families. And a sense of community, of a generous being-in-common. That needs to occur both nationally, improving and expanding – not cutting – Social Security, public higher education, and healthcare, and internationally, concerned with human rights and the victims of famine, wars, and natural disasters, and not just corporate issues.


My sense is the space for that reframing of both Trump and the larger issues at stake is large and growing in the United States. How does it look from where you stand, especially in light of the results of the recent snap election?


SW: In too many ways I am informed by the political experience of the failure of the left in the 1970s and 1980s, the brutal victory of Thatcher – which even Reagan failed to achieve in such measure in the US – a brief period of hope for socialism with a human face under Gorbachev that culminated in the absolute victory of neoliberalism on the right and the left, Blairism and war, to which the Crash provided the coda. I suspect I may be part of the most pessimistic generation of people on the left ever, who have tasted almost nothing but defeat and betrayal. So, to be honest, I was deeply and pleasantly surprised by Corbyn’s ability to make progress against a Tory machine that used all its tricks to monster him and by the apparent surge in turnout and support among young people who weren’t frightened. Now, of course the fact that Labour didn’t actually win triggers all my worries, and the philistine “common sense” of capitalism plus vicious nationalism will no doubt be mobilised when the next election happens. But I am willing to be tentatively hopeful that progressive change can happen here, of the sort that was won in 1945. But uncertainty abounds, about Brexit and the United Kingdom. I don’t know exactly how it will end.


So, let me put a final speculative question to you. How does Trump and Trumpism end? With a bang or a whimper or with outright victory for an anti-democratic brutal right?


DR: I’m just a bit older than you and remain scarred by many of the same events – from Reaganism and its right-wing successors to Clinton and the increasing failures of mainstream liberalism, from unending war to the most severe economic collapse since the first Great Depression. For me, the most disappointing thing is that it seems to have fallen to the left to defend bourgeois democratic processes and institutions. When I was young, I figured we could leave that to the mainstream parties and our job was to challenge them and, with promises of “real” freedom, to move far beyond that. Alas, we’re now forced to lower ourselves and vote for Clinton and Macron, in an attempt to stop Trump and Le Pen. And, yes, as I remind my left-wing friends, while Sanders gives us some hope, he never had to face the Wall Street/Red Scare machine that would have been unleashed on him had he actually made it to the general election. Corbyn did better than anyone, including many Labour parliamentarians and pollsters, expected – except, of course, he didn’t win.



But, borrowing from Gramsci, we have to join our “pessimism of the intellect” with an “optimism of the will.” In fact, it is quite possible that Trumpism signals just how bankrupt the mainstream thinking of both major political parties is in the United States – the Democrats who managed to snatch defeat from victory and the Republicans for providing cover for Trump in order to get what they most want: an even more desperate working class, the elimination of business regulations, and tax cuts for their already-obscenely wealthy friends.


That provides a real opportunity for the left, which needs to go beyond mere “resistance” to Trump. I think we can agree this isn’t fascism we’re talking about, either now or in the foreseeable future. It is nasty and brutish, but also bumbling and incompetent. Basically, we’re talking about a band of right-wing opportunists who will say and do anything to attempt to stay in power as they attempt to build a bridge to the nineteenth century. So, at least in the United States, we need both to defend the gains that have recently been made – for example, in health insurance and with respect to climate change – and challenge the existing model of “exclusion” and grotesque levels of inequality, which is endorsed by the mainstream of both parties.


Personally, I don’t see it in terms of stages or models – either of how Trumpism ends or of how the left moves forward. There’s too much uncertainty, which can actually be turned to our advantage. People are still looking for answers. It’s more a matter, to borrow from Gramsci once more, of continuing to do the patient, careful intellectual and political work of challenging the existing common sense and of creating new discursive spaces and strategic alliances. In the United States, I think that means working both inside the Democratic Party and labor unions and outside those institutions, in local communities, to show how unreasonable the existing reason is and to pose very concrete demands for the majority of Americans: decent, well-paying jobs; affordable, high-quality healthcare; access to well-financed public colleges and universities; and so on.


Neither Trump and the Republicans nor most of their Democratic opponents have any interest in satisfying those demands. Not in this lifetime at least. The left now has to show that it can.


Stephen, I know what we’ve discussed doesn’t rise to the level of a complete analysis of the mess we’re in or of a specific program for getting out of it. That’s frustrating. But I really appreciate the opportunity to discuss these issues with you, especially since we share the belief that only the democratic left presents a way forward.


The 2017 General Election: what is to be done?

The 2017 General Election: what is to be done?

by Peter McColl, 22nd May 2017


The UK General Election on June 8th confirms folk understandings of Freud’s concept of projection. Theresa May’s constant refrain that she will create a ‘strong and stable’ government reflect her underlying inability to do so. We will find out on June 8th just how much of this weakness has been understood by the electorate, but at the time of writing, it appears that she has lost some of the lustre granted to her by the British media’s infatuation with ‘New Thatcher’.


Background to the Crisis


“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Antonio Gramsci


It is clear that the old world is dying. It is also clear that the new world cannot be born. The very rapid technological developments in fields like automation, energy and data go barely understood in the public debate. Meanwhile, old arguments around immigration, welfare and the replacement of mid-20th century industrial jobs persist. It cannot be a coincidence that the debate around immigration in the UK has ramped up just at the time at which job destruction and automation begins to accelerate. Indeed, the fact that concern about immigration is highest in areas with lowest immigration suggests to us that, for all the over-analysis of the issue, this is obviously a placeholder for other concerns.


We cannot understand the Brexit vote and the election of Trump without understanding the broader socio-political and socio-technological contexts. We see in the Trump and Brexit victories a deep longing for a return to the social-democratic consensus of the mid-20th century, but in conditions that can never allow that.


The contours of Brexit


It is clear that the Brexit vote had no single cause, but there are a couple of important dynamics within this debate. The places that voted for Brexit tend to fall into one of two categories: ‘left behind’ areas of post-industrial England and Wales; and the wealthy home counties. It seems obvious that there are two processes at work here – both are nostalgic: in the home counties, for the days of Empire; in ‘left behind’ areas, for the social democratic consensus when jobs in heavy industry were available to all, were well paid, and carried with them a sense of dignity.


This coalition was vital to delivering the Brexit vote, but the outcomes these groups seek from Brexit are radically different and often diametrically opposed. In this context, it is interesting to note just how the Conservatives under Theresa May have attempted to provide attractive policies for both constituencies: lots of talk about Britain becoming an offshore tax haven to pacify the Empire chauvinists, with a nod towards industrial democracy through measures such as workers on boards for the ‘left behinds’.


There are problems with each of these positions that I will come on to later. One unifying factor amongst those who voted for Brexit was age, with leaving the EU being an enthusiasm largely of the old.


The forward march of Labour reversed


Quite by accident and in circumstances very much not of their own making, the Conservatives have stumbled across a fatal flaw in the composition of the coalition of voters that the Labour Party relied upon to govern. In the run up to the Scottish Referendum in 2014, it became clear that constitutional politics was an enormous stumbling block for the Labour Party in Scotland. A party used to what we might describe as elective Bolshevism (you get a plurality in the election and use that to exercise a monopoly on power was simply incapable of discussing issues of power with the electorate.


For the Yes campaign, the more they asked questions and suggested solutions based on distributing economic and political power, the more successful they became, in no small part because the answer from Labour to proposals as diverse as reinvigorating local democracy and creating a Universal Basic Income was a one-dimensional refrain of “If you want that, vote Labour”. When combined with a public imagination that could still very much remember Labour under Blair, this simply did not wash. A government that allowed inequality to run away while prioritising an unpopular and illegal war in Iraq damaged the popular credibility of the Labour movement in Scotland. The more Labour found themselves in discussions about the constitution, and, more importantly, about giving power away, the less popular Labour became.


When the Conservatives won an accidental majority in the 2015 General Election, and were obliged to deliver on a manifesto pledge to have a referendum on membership of the European Union, another opportunity to put Labour in a very awkward position around constitutional politics arose, this time, affecting not just Scotland, but the whole of Labour’s British electorate.


Labour chose to sit out the EU Referendum, recognising that their voters were profoundly split on the issue. Had the vote been for Remain, this would have been a tactically wise decision. But, the distance between Labour representatives and their constituents on this issue meant they failed to understand just how likely a leave vote was. With the Leave vote, Labour was again asked to talk about constitutional politics when it is emotionally incapable of doing so.


When added to internal dissent caused by the election of a left-wing leader in a centrist parliamentary group, Labour MPs seized an opportunity to try and overthrow their party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The cynical opportunism of pro-European MPs trying to oust a leader who was ambivalent about the EU on the grounds that he was unable to understand the concerns of the electorate became clear: he was much more in tune with the electorate than his critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Tony Blair said he would rather that Labour lost than that they win with Jeremy Corbyn as Leader. The actions of the Parliamentary Labour Party indicated that they agreed. They looked as if they had fatally holed Corbyn’s leadership even though he had won his second leadership election.


Strong and stable?


The Tory Party had chaos of its own, with David Cameron stepping down to be replaced as leader by Theresa May in a leadership election where the significant figures of the Leave campaign failed to make it through to the final round of the ballot, which Andrea Leadsom then failed to contest, having made some crass remarks around motherhood and Theresa May.


A rapid infatuation by the right wing media with May followed. Her Daily Mail politics and the folk memory of the last woman to be a Conservative Prime Minister, aided by the adoption wholesale of UKIP policies, translated itself into a collapse in the UKIP vote, and a corresponding substantial increase in the Tory poll lead.


May strategically blundered by promising no early general election, triggering Article 50, then calling a General Election. This may become seen as the moment she punctured her reputation for playing straight. Further, an election was always likely to expose some of May’s fundamental weaknesses: while claiming to be strong and stable, she is clearly brittle, hiding not just from Leaders’ Debates, but the media and even the public. An election campaign in which the Prime Minister hides is always going to be a difficult one for her Party.


As the campaign has gone on, these weaknesses have become more obvious, but another weakness has emerged: while the decision to call the election was based on flimsy reasoning (that there was parliamentary opposition to her proposals for a Hard Brexit) the manifesto and platform are substantially less cynical than those put together by George Osborne for the 2015 election. Gone are the commitments to the Conservative’s core constituency, like the triple-lock on pensions and the commitment to protect the ability to pass on wealth by state payment for social care. The surprise Tory victory in 2015 was built on a series of well-segmented promises to different groups of the electorate. The 2017 manifesto looks like it cannot achieve this segmentation. The logic, of course, is that the Conservatives have a poll lead sufficient to allow them to alienate these segments of the electorate.


The terrain of the election


In previous general elections, Labour has ‘played the game’ with a media-friendly leader and focus group policies intended to triangulate their way to victory. The outcome has been that after Blair, these leaders have been pummelled by the media, attacked for the way in which they eat bacon sandwiches, and portrayed by Conservatives as being in the pockets of unpatriotic interests, with Miliband being, quite literally, portrayed inside Alec Salmond’s pocket ahead of the 2015 General Election. Whoever had been chosen as Labour leader after the 2015 election would have been subjected to withering attacks across the media and it is hard to see how Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, or any of the other possible candidates (David Miliband?) could have withstood this attack. Labour have needed, for some time, to abandon this tactic, and build an alternative approach.


It is hard to see how Labour could be more effective in 2015 at bringing Tory voters across to them, but it is clear to see that many of the non-voters from 2005 onwards can be encouraged to vote Labour. The Labour manifesto has some of the elements that will begin to rebuild a winning coalition for Labour. At the time of writing, it does not look like that will be enough, but it points the way to a different approach.


It remains likely that the Conservatives will win the election, though much less likely than many commentators predicted at the start of the campaign. But the complexity of delivering Brexit may well be beyond this next Tory government. Theresa May’s communications indicate that she believes successful negotiation is negotiation conducted from a position of strength, and very often that is the case. But it is entirely unclear how she intends to turn her negotiating position with the European Commission from one of weakness into one of strength. It seems much more likely that she will attempt to negotiate from strength, even though her position is weak. This is likely to result in a range of dire consequences.


It remains possible that Boris Johnson’s flounce out of the Tory leadership race was tactically astute, allowing Theresa May to be ‘the fall guy’ for a bad Brexit deal or a failure to complete Brexit, allowing Johnson to take over and attempt to bluster his way out of this failure.


What is to be done?


The tensions ignited by the Conservatives playing a game of chicken around constitutional politics may be hard to contain. Sinn Fein’s masterful strategy to accelerate a united Ireland may bring the Republic of Ireland’s veto into play in the European Council over any Brexit deal. It seems that Brexit has put the wind back in the sails of the Scottish Independence movement. For those who voted for Brexit as a way to reclaim Britain’s Imperial honour, the loss of Britain’s last holdings in Ireland and of Scotland may be traumatic.


Now, more than ever, a coherent political alternative is needed: one that can address the issues of disempowerment and lack of dignity that drove the Brexit vote for ‘left behinds’, one that brings together the need to create a fair economy for all in the face of automation and job destruction with the need to save the planet from climate change, and one that recognises the real social inequalities across race, gender, sexuality, ability and so on. The Green Parties of these islands have advocated this approach and have been successful in influencing other political parties to take this agenda more seriously.


The right wing media used UKIP to introduce racism and Empire nostalgia that drove us to Brexit. We need to get our radical ideas into the public debate by supporting and growing social movements, and then ensure our politics takes up these ideas: electoral reform is the best way to achieve that. Only then can we begin to create the next economy that will work for people and planet.