The quarter-million-strong Unteilbar demonstration in Berlin in October 2018
The German socialist economist Wolfgang Streeck tries to account for the poor results of almost all the radical left at the European elections last Sunday.
He makes a couple of good observations. Above all, that the political and ideological profile of most of the radical left forces in this election, from Podemos in the Spanish state to Die Linke’s national campaign in Germany, was barely distinguishable from the centre left and Greens.
There was much talk of a “social Europe” or a “more social Europe” or “another Europe” and not of a revolt against the elites on an anti-capitalist basis. That would mean confrontation with both national and European capitalist and establishment interests. It would mean insurgency not conventionalism.
One big exception was the Workers Party in Belgium. There, national parliamentary elections meant a very high turnout and the radical left positioning itself as both a representative of fundamental change and as an activist instrument that can strengthen the social movements, ranging from housing to the environment to throwing back the far right. All this was a conceivable proposition for many working people within a country where nearly 90 percent voted against a background of years of political fragmentation and chaos.
But Streeck’s overall analysis – and still more prescription – is woefully lacking.
His central argument is that the problem is the left’s adoption of “Europeanism”. By this he means the conventional, liberal (leftish) ideology that the EU has been brilliantly adept at veling itself in. That is despite the reality of Fortress Europe, hardwired neoliberalism and the nexus of giant corporate interests that ensnares the EU institutions.
Streeck says, echoing the 19th century Marxist Antonio Labriola, that ideas do not fall from the sky.
So where does this “Europeanism” come from? For Streeck it is not explained beyond a complaint that the left has given up on a radical politics of trying to use the levers of the nation state, and marshalling a popular bloc of forces within it, to effect change in a way that is not possible through the more remote, technocratic and far less democratic EU bureaucracies.
That’s not a sufficient analysis or historical account. In fact, left “Europeanism” – or more accurately euro-reformism – grew out of national reformism. It did so either directly from social democracy – France, Britain and Germany – or via a social democratic evolution from euro-communism: Italy and Synaspismos/Syriza in Greece most outstandingly. And that was from the abject failure of national-reformist governments in the early 1980s in France and in Greece.
The reason for this ubiquitous “Europeanism” today is that in every single one of the 28 EU countries the state and the national capitalist classes, in their great majority, are wholly committed to the EU project. While deep splits over that settled position may occur in places in another round of manifold crises, they haven’t done so yet. That is true even of Brexit Britain, where the bitter divisions are less within capital and the state, but more within its primary political instrument: the Tory party.
Those searching for a “patriotically minded” bourgeoisie of some significance have a wait ahead of them.
The adoption of an illusory euro-reformism flows from the prior adaptation of national reformism to its own nation state and capitalist class. For that is what reformism as an organised political force does. It does it to the extent of not only spurning and opposing a strategy of anti-capitalist rupture, but of abandoning even modest reform when it threatens to burst the envelope of what capital will allow. And capital is committed to its impeccably capitalist European arrangements, whatever the national spats within a bureaucratic hierarchy.
Streeck uses the word “anti-capitalism”. But his proposals are modest reformism. He’s then exasperated that reformist forces follow the logic of reformism – to reach what he calls Europeanism – rather than an anti-capitalist path, against which they defined themselves in the first place. Before Alexis Tsipras capitulated to Brussels, and before being elected, he already reassured Greek capital, the central bank, the army and the state bureaucracy that he was not going to take unilateral and adverse measures against them.
The chimera of national-sovereigntism
Further, Streeck’s antithesis of Europeanism is a highly idealised notion of national-sovereigntism. It has two huge problems.
First, while rightly highlighting the absence of democracy in the European Union, it flatters the extent of democracy in national parliamentary systems.
There is little here about the fight for meaningful democracy at a national level, a political revolution. And despite castigating the radical left for subordinating to middle class and capitalist interests and to their ideologies, there’s not much about fleshing out a popular democratic impulse with explicitly working class and anti-capitalist content.
Second, it is a notion of national-sovereignty where lack of class content after the hyphen is accompanied by huge concessions to nationalism, nativism and the right before it.
Streeck is, of course, opposed to the far right and to racism, as he makes clear in this piece. But he dangerously underplays the threat from far right and fascist forces. And he misconstrues how to meet it. He writes:
“Exaggerating the threat from the new right was certain to drive voters into the arms of liberal establishment parties who promised ‘stability’ in hard times. If fascism was something to be defeated by voting for ‘more Europe’, there was no need to go as far as vote for the radical left; voting for the new darlings of the middle class would suffice…
“One should have thought that a left worth its name and ambition should know that democracy may be under threat even if there are no ‘fascists’ around at all, alleged or real.
“This is because the centre parties — on whose side the European left has fought its electoral phony war against rising fascism in Europe — are themselves doing quite enough to undermine democracy. They do precisely that as they submit their countries to a neoliberal political-economic order…”
This woefully underestimates the actual threat and conflates a mistaken response to it with making any specific anti-fascist political effort at all. Leave aside the exact classification of different radical right wing forces in Europe. Golden Dawn is a neonazi party. And in the eyes of it and of its state and business supporters it simply isn’t true that there has been “quite enough to undermine democracy” under conventional, neoliberal and increasingly authoritarian rule. When Greek shipyard bosses backed Golden Dawn and its attempted assassination of a communist trade union leader, they did not think that existing legal restrictions on working class organisation were “quite enough”.
The sharp rise of Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy is not an irrelevance. Nor can it be categorised as just another form of undemocratic neoliberalism. In fact, such a political approach will fall completely flat if the dispute between Brussels and Rome about Italy’s proposed modestly expansionist budget escalates into a major confrontation and crisis at the heart of the eurozone.
It is of course true that the “anti-fascism” or anti-populism of the liberal centre in Europe is essentially to wave the far right as a scarecrow. The extreme centre produces the far and fascist right. As it weakens and fractures it then points to the ugly result to say: the centre is collapsing, all back to the centre.
But it is one thing to insist that the radical left should not be subsumed under this liberal capitalist front. Quite another to suggest that combating the far right is a “phony-war” that can result only in subordination to a cycle of centrist assaults on working people fuelling further far right advance.
Streeck doesn’t mention, and has shown little time for, the efforts by parts of the radical left to construct mass, militant movements against the fascist right. Ones not only capable of in practice throwing it back (as a national-sovereigntist policy in the east of Germany has spectacularly failed to do), but also independent of the liberal centre and, thus, able to open a space on the left, and to hit the centrist parties from the flank.
The necessity of anti-capitalism
If the radical left does not provide its own mass movement answer to the far right, then Streeck and others can complain as much as they wish about the likes of Emmanuel Macron using Marine Le Pen as a scarecrow, which he did by choosing to debate her in 2017. It is futile. Because if the left isn’t on the field, the only players are the liberals and far right, both of whom want to use the game – though in different ways – to crush independent working class politics.
And sat on the bench, the left then faces all sorts of adaptations out of self-imposed passivity. Streeck sees keenly adaptation in one direction: to liberal Europeanism. He is blind in one eye to adaptation in the other. Indeed, his prescriptions advocate it. Thus he says the left must be more “critical” of migration and immigration. He complains:
“In particular, any critical discussion of the EU’s central social policy — the free movement of labour between the now economically extremely different member countries — is strictly avoided, combined with hints of sympathy for open borders generally, including those with the outside world.”
Put to one side the not insubstantial and principled questions of defence of migrants and opposition to the anti-immigration brigade. One practical point is that this accommodation has already happened – by the centre left. That is what the SPD in Germany has done. It is continuing to reap its reward through its collapse.
Further, former SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel – who embodies the capitalist centrism Streeck opposes – beat him to it. In Tagesspiegel on Monday he proposed exactly a remedy for the left’s electoral travails of moving in a “critical” direction over migration coupled with a limited return to postwar welfarism. Nowhere has this combination saved the centre left. Look at the presidency of Francois Hollande in France.
On the environmental crises, Streeck suggests that the left should counterpose a radical economic transformation to calls for individual action and a moral imperative that supposedly transcends class and capitalist reality:
“Rather than chiming in when the Greens and their bourgeois elders sing their siren songs, what should matter from the left’s point of view is that voluntary changes in lifestyles are vastly inadequate to stopping global warming or the long ongoing decline of biodiversity.”
That is true. But… dynamic parts of the radical left are in fact doing this: from Ireland to Germany. Additionally, they are doing so in good faith and urgency, under the impetus of the physical reality that climate catastrophe imposes a political horizon of fundamental anti-capitalist transformation, or civilisational collapse. But Streeck says:
“A left that limits itself to reciting the Greens’ scare stories about an impending end to life on the planet drives many of its potential voters into denial, and from there into the arms of the New Right. To leave behind the white lies of green environmentalism, the left needs a realistic program…”
So the avoidance of a debilitating catastrophism – one with little regard for class realities (or, we may add, life and death in the Global South) – in Streeck’s prescription becomes a call for “realistic policies”. It is not for an anti-capitalist insurgency around necessary policies. It is little wonder that “reformism” is a missing category in his analysis.
In a column for the Morning Star newspaper in Britain on Wednesday I offered my own brief overview of the European elections and of the dilemmas and challenges facing the radical left. It outlined three wrong answers to those:
1) adaptation to nativist welfarism, on an “old social democratic” basis
2) adaptation to left-liberalism, on a US culture war basis
3) adaptation to an unmoored national-populism
In rejecting 2), Streeck approximates 1) and 3). His complaint about the fate of Sahra Wagenknecht’s and Oskar Lafontaine’s national-sovereigntist project in Germany – that “the Die Linke majority forced Aufstehen leader Sahra Wagenknecht to resign from her post as parliamentary speaker” – will not do.
She in fact resigned before from the board of Aufstehen itself. That is before saying she would not restand as co-chair of Die Linke in parliament. The reason? Because Aufstehen failed, not least because a combination of forces in Die Linke, including its internationalist, anti-capitalist left, refused the strategy that it and Streeck advocate.
He might also look to the fate of the Five Star Movement in Italy. In some respects it approximates the national-sovereigntist approach he offers. It has fallen back not only behind the fascist-incubating Lega but also short of the discredited centre-left Democratic Party.
There is a major debate growing on the European radical and anti-capitalist left – spreading also to North America. It is inevitable following the disaster of Syriza in government, which all too few reference. While I believe it wrong, Streek represents a significant and legitimate pole in that debate.
I think, though, that it is best informed by looking in fine-grained detail at the variegated experiences of the left and social movements. That includes differentiation within countries: the stark regional variation of Die Linke in Streeck’s native Germany is a case in point.
The issue is not that rupturing with the EU is too radical. It’s that without a fundamental anti-capitalist strategy it is not radical enough, and thus sinks back.
Streeck mentions that “democracy begins at the bottom”. Fully appreciating that means a systematic viewpoint of anti-capitalism from below, based on the actually existing working class and social struggles, and on the left’s engagement in them.
After all, as Labriola put it arguing against mistaken, and rather national, interpretations of Marx in France: “Nothing comes to us in a dream.” Certainly not a national one.