Chris Harman


Left behind?

(Autumn 2009)

From International Socialism, No. 124, Autumn 2009.
Copyright © 2009 International Socialism.
Downloaded with thanks from the International Socialism Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The derisory message of a four-page piece by journalist Andy Beckett in the Guardian’s G2 supplement in mid-August was that the far left had missed “the political opportunity presented by the financial crisis”. [1] And there are a good number on the far left who think the Guardian was right. Tariq Ali, for instance, concludes, in an informative interview in Socialist Review, that “the mood in Europe is very right wing. The fact that the bank bailouts in Britain have excited very little anger is a sign of the times”. [2]

Certainly anyone who expected instant revolution last autumn has been proved wrong. François Sabado of the New Anticapitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, NPA) in France has accurately summed up the balance sheet of the European elections in June:

Progress for the right flanked by the extreme right; a collapse of social democracy; a rise in the votes of the Green parties; the maintenance without any new advance of radical left, whether left reformist or anti-capitalist except in Portugal and Ireland. [3]

But such honest accounting does not justify anyone sliding back into the miserabilism which much of the Marxist left internationally has been prone to for at least two decades.

The social, political and ideological consequences of economic crisis rarely work themselves out immediately. Often there is a considerable lag. The devastating political impact of 1929, for instance, was not fully felt until 1933–6. Any great crisis has contradictory effects. On the one hand it shatters the ideological – and sometimes the political – unity of the ruling class. Each section blames other sections for the severity of its losses and, in doing so, throws into question many of the old methods by which they have collectively maintained their hegemony over the rest of the population. And it does so as the effects of the crisis cause rapidly growing, if uneven, levels of popular bitterness.

At the same time the crisis, by destroying jobs, closing down workplaces and creating widespread insecurity, removes immediate focuses for that bitterness by weakening the confidence of workers in their capacity to struggle collectively.

So sudden explosive and insurrectionary moods are by no means the automatic product of every crisis. This was something Leon Trotsky spelt out almost 90 years ago as a leader of the Communist International coming to terms with a failed uprising in central Germany [4]:

The political effects of a crisis (not only the extent of its influence but also its direction) are determined by the entire existing political situation and by those events which precede and accompany the crisis, especially the battles, successes or failures of the working class itself prior to the crisis. Under one set of conditions the crisis may give a mighty impulse to the revolutionary activity of the working masses; under a different set of circumstances it may completely paralyse the offensive of the proletariat and, should the crisis endure too long and the workers suffer too many losses, it might weaken extremely not only the offensive but also the defensive potential of the working class.

Under such circumstances groups which are severely hit can turn to the most radical ideas and methods, while the majority of workers put their faith in reformist leaders to ward off the worst effects of the crisis: “The longer the crisis lasts the more it threatens to nourish anarchist moods on the one wing and reformist moods on the other”. [5]

But the lack of an immediate class-wide response was not the end of the matter for Trotsky. The underlying bitterness created by the crisis would persist and so could provide the fuel for explosions of class struggle the moment it seemed that united action could succeed. [6]

That was how it was to be with the crisis of the 1930s. It was not until the fifth year of the crisis, 1934, that upsurges of resistance in France, Spain and the US opened a new cycle of left advance. This would suggest that while there are lessons to learn from developments over the past year, they provide only a limited insight into what is to come.

Different paths

The political impact of the crisis has varied immensely from country to country. In the US there was a swing by workers towards Barack Obama, in the Baltic states spontaneous riots, in Ireland huge protests over budget cuts, in France three big one-day strikes, in Greece the Athens riots and in Hungary the mass mobilisations of the far right against the Roma. Only in Iceland was the left actually able to channel the popular mood into bringing down the government.

These enormous differences in response had much to do with the varying impact of the crisis on people’s material conditions. While in Ireland, the Baltic states and Hungary there were enormous, immediate onslaughts on employed workers and people on benefits, in Germany, Britain and France government stimulus packages blunted the immediate material impact on important groups of workers, with small increases in benefit payments and reductions in mortgage interest payments in Britain, and subsidies for employers to keep workers in their jobs in Germany.

On top of this trade unions’ responses differed. In countries where they were tied, formally or informally, to ruling social democratic or Labour parties they did their utmost to blunt resistance – with the main British union leaders telling people when the crisis broke last year to put their faith in Gordon Brown and even left union leaders calling off action over pay. By contrast, where the centre-right has been in power the union leaders have called limited action, albeit half-heartedly, and provided some focus for class anger. Hence the one-day general strikes or days of action in France, Greece and Ireland.

We have examined the apparently dismal situation that prevailed in Britain through last winter and the early spring in previous issues of this journal. [7] But even in countries where the trade union leaderships did provide focuses for struggles, these had their limitations. As two activists in the NPA in France write:

There was the possibility of a general struggle with millions of strikers and demonstrators out on the days of action of 29 January, 19 March and 1 May, as well a tough strike against redundancy plans in the private sector just as the public sector was in struggle (higher education, hospitals, the power industry).

Yet the union leaders still succeeded in paralysing the development of the struggles so that there was no follow through after the demonstrations of 1 May. Each sector was left to fight in isolation from the others. The elections were now disconnected from the perspective of struggle, and the crisis of social democracy was confirmed without translating itself into a significant advance for the NPA. [8]

Similar things could be said about developments in Ireland or Greece. But nowhere is this the end of the matter. In Britain, as Michael Bradley and Charlie Kimber explain in this journal, there are very important signs of a new mood of militant resistance among some groups of workers which may spread in a way which we have not seen for many years. It is not pre-ordained that this will happen. The outcomes of particular battles can be crucial – and the role socialists play in trying to generalise the new and militant methods of struggle can be a decisive factor. In France:

Our side is putting up resistance and doing so quite well. The generalisation of the struggles has been paralysed but the movement has not suffered a frontal defeat. The example of the Continental tyre firm shows that the most determined struggles get the best results. July, a month not very favourable for mobilisations, saw a multiplication of struggles with a hard character in Michelin, Nortel, SKF, JLG, New Frais and Simmons. [9]

The combination of weakened hegemony and popular bitterness means that ruling classes are still wary about going fully on the offensive. Martin Wolf expresses some of their fears in an article on “the resurgence of finance”:

Financiers are back to their high-earning ways, while tens of millions of people have lost their jobs, economies are far below potential and public sector debt is exploding upwards. It is little wonder that bonus-bashing is on the menu. [10]

This underlay fears of the possible resurgence of support for the Left party (Die Linke) in Germany in federal elections set to take place while this journal was at the printers.

Other factors that are not immediately economic add to their worries. Afghanistan is rapidly rising up the political agenda. What was presented only a year ago as the “good war” has very rapidly morphed into “the war which could be lost”. There are already warnings that this could damage the Obama presidency as he wrestles to get Congressional support for his health policy:

Having on the campaign trail championed the war as worth fighting the president now has to decide how committed he really is to the conflict. His choice boils down to sending more troops or scaling back on US goals. It comes at a time when he is being assailed for alleged weakness over domestic policy and when his own popularity and that of the war is on the slide. [11]

Zbigniew Brzezinski, one of the architects of US foreign policy from the 1970s to the 1990s, warns, “Washington is in danger of becoming bogged down in an escalating war”. [12] US worries are not helped by the reaction of its European Nato allies, who formally endorse the war but – with the exception of Britain – are not keen for their own troops to be in the firing line. There were even worries as we went to press that the issue would play a role in the German general election. All these factors add to the tensions within and between the governments that are supposed to be working out an “exit” strategy for the economic crisis.

No one can foresee in detail how these different factors are going to interact. But some things are certain. There is not going to be a smooth and easy re-establishment of global economic stability. That means political and social volatility, with sudden governmental crises, attacks on workers’ conditions, eruptions of resistance and, from the other side, repeated attempts to divert bitterness into racial and religious scapegoating – attempts that may in time provoke new forms of resistance.

We have seen small but significant examples of how this could happen in Britain. It was glimpsed in the militant demonstrations and student occupations over Gaza in January and again in the protests against attempts to build on the electoral gains of the Nazi British National Party in the European election. Both of these movements have drawn thousands of mainly young people onto the streets.

The task of the left in this situation is not to bemoan its record over the past year. It is to try to draw together networks of those workers who want to fight back, creating the sinews of solidarity and linking the political, economic and social issues. The outcome of the struggles ahead will shape the political landscape for a long time to come.


1. Guardian, 17 August 2009. See also the reply by Alex Callinicos, Guardian, 21 August 2009. The article was written after a brief visit to the Socialist Workers Party’s summer Marxism festival.

2. Tariq Ali interviewed by Judith Orr, Socialist Review, September 2009.

3. François Sabado, Après les Résultats des Elections Européennes, Imprecor 551–552.

4. The “March Action” of 1921.

5. Leon Trotsky, Flood Tide.

6. See, for instance, Leon Trotsky, Report on the World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International.

7. See, in particular, Charlie Kimber, In the Balance: The Class Struggle in Britain, International Socialism 122.

8. Leila Soula and Rodolphe Juge, Que Faire, August–October 2009. Que Faire is published by a network of NPA activists who share many of our analyses.

9. Leila Soula and Rodolphe Juge, Que Faire, August–October 2009.

10. Financial Times, 8 September 2009.

11. Financial Times, 8 September 2009.

12. Financial Times, 8 September 2009.

Last updated on 3.12.2011