Chris Harman


Surging out of control

(Spring 2007)

From International Socialism, No. 114, Spring 2007.
Copyright © 2007 International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Three themes have run through recent issues of this journal: the difficulties that confront US imperialism as it attempts to assert its global hegemony through the ‘war on terror’; the chronic problems facing European capitalism, leading to attacks on workers’ conditions and welfare benefits in the face of heightened economic competition from the US, Japan and China; and the resurgence of popular movements in Latin America over the past seven years.

We do not apologise for returning to all three questions here.

Our last issue returned from the printers just as George Bush announced a ‘surge’ of additional troops into Iraq. This was his response to the enormous disquiet within the US ruling class about the way the occupation was going – expressed in the report of the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker – and disquiet among the mass of the population, as shown in November’s congressional elections (even if the victorious Democrats still refuse to call for the withdrawal of US troops).

Many commentators have rightly stressed that the ‘surge’ is a huge gamble which is likely to go wrong. It also represents a shift in US tactics. Three years ago, faced with simultaneous uprisings in the mainly Sunni city of Fallujah and from the Shia movement of Muqtada al-Sadr in Baghdad and southern Iraq, the US turned to divide and rule – pouring all its fire on Fallujah while leaving Sadr alone. Now, however, its avowed aim is to destroy Sadr’s movement. It wants to reduce pressure on the Iraqi government (which depends on Sadrist votes), but it is trying to justify its actions with talk of ‘restoring order’ and ‘stopping the drift towards civil war’. The tit for tat bombings and assassinations are a horrific reality – and one that did not exist before the invasion four years ago. But how deep are the communal divisions in reality? Some on the left such as Patrick Cockburn think they are now overwhelming. Sami Ramadani, interviewed in this journal, disagrees with that assessment.

But no one would dispute that the core of the US administration, bewildered by its dream of instant victory turning to ash, is hitting out in all directions – without any clear idea where it is going. Hence its backing for the Ethiopian invasion of Somalia. Hence its moves towards ‘hot pursuit’ into Pakistan from Afghanistan, just as Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf faces his biggest challenge since seizing power in 1999, following his decision to sack the chief justice in March. Hence too the contradictory messages from different voices within the US administration over plans to bomb Iran. The overall effect is to further destabilise the whole region. This has the potential to upset pro-American governments like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, which is beset not only by protests over election rigging but now also by a wave of strikes by industrial workers.

Political ‘blow back’ is not confined to the Middle East. It finds expression in the US’s closest ally, Britain, where traditional Labour voters are increasingly disenchanted not just with Tony Blair but also with his proclaimed successor, Gordon Brown. Hence the large number of normally ‘loyal’ Labour MPs who voted in the House of Commons against the Blair-Brown scheme to replace the Trident nuclear submarine system, and the unease among union leaders who only 18 months ago were lauding Brown.

Back in the USA

The instability is also feeding back into domestic politics in the US as important sections of the ruling class question the gamble that Bush has pushed them into taking. Activists on the ground in the US can easily forget this. It is very easy for them to fall into a deep pessimism, expressed, for instance, in an interesting article by Robert Brenner in the January–February issue of New Left Review. Brenner details the enormous setbacks for the US left in the past three decades – the trade union movement has suffered a long string of defeats, interspersed with very few clear victories; the anti-capitalist movement born at the 1999 Seattle protest has suffered setbacks in its homeland since 11 September 2001, while going from strength to strength internationally; the promise shown by Ralph Nader’s attempt to break the two-party pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist consensus of the political system has been stymied by unstinting Democratic Party abuse since the 2000 election; and the anti-war movement has only just shown signs of recovery from the diversion of much activist effort into electoral support for the Democrats, despite the party’s refusal to oppose the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is missing from analyses such as Brenner’s is the impact of a ruling class taking an enormous risk, and losing. Its members can end up turning their vitriol against each other – and in the process providing openings through which years of accumulated, previously apolitical, bitterness can find sudden expression. Radical forces with the potential to take advantage of that still exist. The people who voted for Nader in 2000 have not gone away – and in numerical terms are comparable to those who vote for far left parties in much of Europe. Reports tell of numerous local activities against the war, involving thousands of people. The networks binding activists together, especially through the internet, are still much stronger and have much greater impact than before Seattle. And the whole history of radical movements in the US is of sudden upsurges that bring disconnected activists together with a momentum that takes everyone by surprise. That was the experience of both the mid-1930s and the late 1960s. It can be the experience again if disillusion with Bush’s ‘war without end’ connects with bitterness within a working class whose living standards and working conditions are worse than 30 years ago.

All quiet on the European front?

Europe seemed superficially calm in the final months of 2006 and the first months of this year. The presidential election campaign in France was dominated by candidates committed to neoliberal ‘reforms’ as we went to press, despite the shockwaves caused by the No vote in referendum on the EU constitution two years ago, the wave of riots in the popular suburbs six months later and then, a few weeks after, the student movement that brought millions onto the streets and forced the government to abandon its CPE legislation attacking the workplace rights of young people.

In Italy the presence of Rifondazione Comunista in a government pushing through neoliberal reforms and stationing troops in Lebanon and Afghanistan has confused and virtually paralysed what was the biggest anti-neoliberal and anti-war movement in Europe five years ago (even if the demonstration against the expansion of the US base at Vicenza has given hope for the future). The leaders of Rifondazione met some opposition when they expelled Franco Turigliatto for voting against the presence of Italian troops in Afghanistan. According to Il Corriere della Sera a 400-strong meeting in solidarity with Turigliatto in Turin showed that ‘it is not only the radical movements that no longer recognise themselves in the line of Bertinotti and Rifondazione’ but also ‘many of his old friends’. However, Romano Prodi’s centre-left government eventually carried a vote in the chamber of deputies in favour of its Afghan policy by 524 to three.

Yet before anyone declares that the ‘cycle of struggle’ is over, they should look at what has been happening in Greece, virtually unnoticed in the international media. The student movement that started a year ago (see the article by Panos Garganas in International Socialism 112) against university ‘reform’ culminated in nationwide occupations in January with the support of the lecturers’ union. The student occupations have created a sense of national crisis, forcing the opposition social democrat Pasok party to abandon its support for the ‘reform’ and leading to the defeat of the government’s attempts to amend the country’s constitution to allow private universities. For three months the movement was on the front pages of national newspapers in Greece, and the government was only able to survive because the trade union bureaucracy refused to spread the movement among workers. As it was, the government had to postpone other counter-reforms, such as the privatisation of the docks, while it tried to cope with the student protests.

The wave of struggles that characterises Europe is not going to go away. These struggles are systemic in the sense that they flow from resistance to the pressure on European capitalism to take away from the mass of people concessions made in the past, but they are not constant. The pressure European capitalism faces is long-term; its difficulties chronic rather than acute. That means the ruling class can retreat when it faces sudden strong resistance (as with the EU constitution or the CPE law), only to resume the offensive later or on different fronts. This is connected to something we have long argued in this journal – capitalism internationally is in a prolonged period of recurrent crises, very different to its ‘golden age’ in the first three decades after the Second World War, but also much more drawn out than the crisis of the inter-war years. The political tempo is correspondingly slower, even if many of the same features are present.

Left turns and U-turns

Another factor has been very important in the cases of France, Italy and Spain. As people see the need to go beyond individual movements to deal with society-wide problems politics begins to play a key role. But if the far left is too weak or does not know how to react, the ‘turn to politics’ can be of the wrong sort and have a detrimental effect. It is open to politicians who made a name for themselves by taking anti-neoliberal and anti-war positions as the movement first grew (for instance Rifondazione’s Fausto Bertinotti, or, on another continent, Brazil’s President Lula, and even, in relation to the anti-war movement, Spain’s José Zapatero) to use their popularity to advance their own careers and anaesthetise the movement. Closer to home, the behaviour of the leaders of the Republican movement in Ireland has followed a similar trajectory, as Kieran Allen and Goretti Horgan show in their articles in this journal.

Revolutionary socialists cannot prevent such things happening simply by standing on the sidelines issuing vitriolic denunciations of leaders who may make false moves at a later stage. Movements draw their lifeblood from the influx of new activists with no prior political experience. Such people are likely, initially, to put their faith in such political leaders, and revolutionaries cannot counter that by standing aside from the movements. Immobilism cannot win over people who are desperate for change. But neither can revolutionaries simply hide their own views, remaining silent on issues over which they disagree with others. They have to be able to put across their own arguments in a fraternal, non-hysterical, but firm manner and to respond to new developments by presenting an orientation to which they try to win others.

In Italy it was the weakness of groups of revolutionaries that allowed Bertinotti and other Rifondazione leaders to get away so easily with transforming the turn to politics into a U-turn away from principles. There was no pole of attraction in the wider movement that tried to provide clarity over questions such as the role of the United Nations, the question of violence and non-violence, the weakness of autonomist ideas, the disastrous history of Communists supporting bourgeois governments and the old argument over reform and revolution, or even tried to build a continuing broad anti-war movement. When Bertinotti and Rifondazione turned from studied ambiguity on all these questions to join the centre-left government and embrace ‘peacekeeping’ imperialism, those with principles found themselves marginalised.

In France the problem has been the mirror image of this. Important sections of the left opted for immobilism out of fear of political absorption by other forces. Two years ago about 150,000 people were active in one way or another in the No campaign against the EU constitution. Out of this a network emerged involving some 20,000 or 30,000 activists who wanted to put forward a united anti-neoliberal left candidate in the presidential elections, in opposition to the main parties (and to the fascist Le Pen). The issue was whether the organised revolutionary left would be able to relate to and influence this network. As was to be expected, Lutte Ouvrière kept to its old sectarian tradition by standing completely apart from the movement. The majority of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) did make gestures towards it, only to withdraw from the movement early last year. It was justifiably suspicious of the Communist Party leadership, with its record of subordinating movements to its own parliamentary games with the Socialist Party (the Communist leader, Marie-George Buffet, was a minister in the social-liberal ‘plural left’ government of 1997–2002, and thousands of Communist councillors owe their positions to deals with the Socialists). But the LCR failed to seize the possibility of forming an independent pole within the movement and helping to build the movement’s momentum in such a way as to isolate those who wanted to use it as a pawn in their parliamentary games. This made it easier for the Communist Party to try to manipulate the movement before returning to such games a few months later (the Communists packed a meeting to claim Buffet as the ‘unity’ candidate of the movement). It also had the effect of allowing many independent activists (and even some in the LCR minority) to fall into the autonomist trap of equating the manipulatory politics of the Communists and the revolutionary politics of the LCR.

Exploiting such confusion, José Bové added to the dispersal of the far left by throwing his hat into the electoral ring as a yet another ‘unity candidate’, denouncing the LCR candidate Olivier Besancenot as much as he denounced Buffet, and putting forward a programme of his own which said very little about the problems facing the country’s 15 million manual and routine white collar workers. Most readers will know the outcome of the first round of the elections by the time this journal reaches you. But we cannot help feeling an important opportunity has been lost.

The issues raised by recent political developments in Italy and France are not new ones. It has often seemed to activists that the only choice is between dissolving themselves into movement on the one hand and immobilism on the other. One such occasion was Italy in the years between the end of the First World War and the consolidation of fascist rule, as Megan Trudell and Chris Bambery show in their articles in our collection celebrating the revolutionary ideas of Antonio Gramsci on the seventieth anniversary of his death.

Last updated on 28.11.2011