Chris Harman

Thinking it through

New generation of struggle

(May 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.208, May 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I suggested in last month’s Socialist Review that there is the beginning of a new political mood among a layer of young people and workers across Europe, in which two decades of increasing bitterness are giving rise to a new political generalisation.

It does not exist everywhere as yet. It is more marked in France, where the whole tenor of politics has changed over the last 18 months by a massive revival of class struggle and the sudden growth of resistance to Le Pen. By contrast, in countries like Britain and Spain the bitterness is there – and in Britain has swept the Tories from office – but is still accompanied by a defensiveness which nurtures demoralisation and defeatism among much of the left.

Yet it is France which points to the future. It shows how rapidly demoralisation among workers can turn into struggle. It also shows how this can produce a sudden new receptiveness to ideas which challenge the system. The birthplace of poststructuralism, postmodernism and post-Marxism is now once again a centre of interest in Marxism, as the rise of Le Pen on the one hand and the bitter struggles of workers on the other point to the harsh realities of a material world. Even the most unashamed postmodernists find difficulty claiming Le Pen’s increasingly open Nazism is as ‘valid’ a form of ‘discourse’ as any other.

None of this means we can expect there to be an automatic growth of genuine Marxist ideas. Often the sorts of ideas which flourish in the first stage of a new period of political generalisation are hybrids, which intermix elements of Marxism with the old anti-Marxist orthodoxies. And the political forces which seem to embody the spirit of a new mood of resistance are equally hybrid – often led by individuals or organisations with a long history of conciliating with existing society, but attracting with their fighting talk whole new layers of young people and workers who want a real struggle.

So, as Trotsky noted, a new wave of radicalisation in France and Spain during the mid-1930s led vast numbers of workers to turn to the Socialist and Communist parties, even though these had let workers down terribly in the past. This, he pointed out, was not a new phenomenon. In Russia the parties to grow most rapidly in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the tsar in February were the reformist socialists of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties, while in Germany 18 months later hundreds of thousands moved to the right wing Social Democratic Party of Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske, or the middle of the road Independent Social Democrat Party of Haase, Kautsky and Bernstein.

In each case, workers and young people who were, in a confused way, beginning to break from the established order turned to political parties and leaders whose ideological approach reflected this confusion.

It has not always been established formal political parties that have acted as a focus in this way. In Spain it was the anarcho-syndicalist union organisation, the CNT, an apparently declining force at the beginning of 1936, that hegemonised the workers’ movement in the most industrialised region, Catalonia, by the summer. In 1967-68 individuals like Rudi Dutschke in Germany and Danny Cohn Bendit in France came to encapsulate the mood of many thousands of people who were moving to the left for the first time. In the US in the same year, Students for a Democratic Society, an activist group whose previous politics were summed up under the slogan, ‘Half the way with LBJ,’ fulfilled much the same role.

Yet two things have always been true in such situations. First, there has been the sudden filling of what was previously a political vacuum on the left. Notions which shortly before could only be heard in the ranks of small, isolated revolutionary groups have suddenly become common currency among very wide milieux.

Paradoxically, this has, on occasions, had a negative effect on such groups. They have found that people who previously had listened to them, as the only left sounding voices in the wilderness, are suddenly gravitating to much larger forces with more confused ideas. And they have been tempted to react rather as a child does when someone else runs off with its ball. Instead of reaching out, to work alongside and argue fraternally with those who are just being radicalised, they turn inwards and put all their emphasis on how they disagree with them.

As Trotsky noted, writing about France in 1935, they can fall into a sectarianism which ‘does not understand the dialectic action and reaction between a finished programme and a living, that is to say, imperfect and unfinished, mass struggle.’ This in turn leads to ‘a state of complete stagnation’, with members ‘satisfied that the group’ is ‘vegetating passively’.

Yet, at the same time, the political forces whose confusions embody the new mass radicalisation never remain fixed and fast frozen. Within the spontaneous upsurge of activism and enthusiasm the ferment of ideas soon leads to quite divergent currents developing. Many of those who are new to politics can soon move to political positions far to the left of the figureheads of these movements, while others can fall back into a tame reformism.

Thus in Germany after the First World War, the Independent Social Democrats, after growing at an enormous pace for two years, split down the middle late in 1920, with half opting to join the Communists and the others drifting back to the right wing social democrats. In 1969 many of the ‘anti-authoritarians’ who had identified with Rudi Dutschke in 1967-68 had moved on to Maoism by 1970, while in France many of the followers of Cohn Bendit had gone on to join Trotskyist or Maoist organisations.

Today’s radicalisation in Europe will lead to a similar process of polarisation in the medium term. It can then lead genuinely revolutionary ideas to find their biggest audience since the mid-1970s – but only if revolutionaries learn very quickly how to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the new movements and their debates, rather than carping from the sidelines about their inadequacies.

Last updated on 21 December 2009