Dilemmas Of The Radical Left In A Dying Capitalist System

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Above Photo: Protesters march at the G20 Summit in London, 2009.

In what I call the pan-European world (North America; western, northern, and southern Europe; and Australasia), the basic electoral choice for the last century or so has been between two centrist parties, center-right versus center-left. There have been other parties further left and further right but they were essentially marginal.

In the last decade however, these so-called extreme parties have been gaining in strength. Both the radical left and the radical right have emerged as a strong force in a large number of countries. They have needed either to replace the centrist party or to take it over.

The first spectacular achievement of the radical left was the ability of the Greek radical left, Syriza, to replace the center-left party, Pasok, which actually disappeared entirely. Syriza came to power in Greece. Commentators talk these days of “pasoksation” to describe this.

Syriza came to power but was incapable of carrying out its promised program. For many, Syriza was therefore a great disappointment. The most unhappy faction argued that the error had been to seek electoral power. They said that power had to be achieved in the streets and then it would be meaningful.

We have since had other cases of an emergent radical left. In Great Britain, the leader of the radical left, Jeremy Corbyn, became the leader of the British Labour Party by obtaining the support of new members who entered the party to vote in the primary. In the United States, Bernie Sanders challenged the Establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, and had a surprisingly strong degree of support. In France, the party of the radical left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, also did surprisingly well and obtained more votes than the mainstream left party, the Socialists.

Today, in all of these countries there is an internal debate among radical left militants about future tactics. Should they seek electoral power or should they seek to control the streets? The dilemma is that neither works well. If they come to state power, they find that they have to make innumerable “compromises” of their program in order to remain in power. If they seek power only in the streets, they find they cannot make the changes they want without power in the state, and are able to be held in check by state agencies using state force.

Is it therefore hopeless to pursue a radical left program today? Not at all! We are living amidst the transition from a dying capitalist system and a new system yet to be chosen. The efforts of the radical left today affect the choice of the replacement system in the middle run. The tactical debate is essentially a debate about the short run. What we do in the short run affects the middle run even if it realizes little in the short run.

What probably makes most sense as tactics in the short run is to use both tactics, the electoral route and the street route, even if neither pays off in the short run. Think of the short run as a training ground for the middle run. This would work if we understood the time distinction and therefore were encouraged rather than discouraged by what we achieve in the short run. Can we do this? Yes we can. But will we? We shall see.

  • Aquifer

    As i have long said – movements without politics and politics without movements are like a one legged man – he can hop around a lot, but he won’t get too far …

    That being said, there are some problems with this article …

    !) What constitutes the “radical left”? Who has decided what “radical’ means? The inclusion of Sanders in the description is rather funny, IMO …

    2) the problem with Syriza, IMO, was not that it was a “failure of electoral politics” but that it was the betrayal of it, the failure of Syriza leaders to pursue the policies they had a “mandate” for when they were elected – were they “incapable” of it, or did they simply refuse, in which case the need was not to abandon an electoral strategy, but to elect folks who were “capable”

    The problems, IMO, with electoral politics, at least in this country, are twofold:

    1) failing to take politics seriously as a legitimate, nay necessary,
    avenue for non-violent change – dismissing them as “impossible” avenues
    for such …. and in such dismissal, not paying sufficient attention as
    to whom we put in office, either by voting or by not voting – listening
    to too many “prog” gurus who tell us to not waste any more time on the
    process than the “5 minutes” it takes to vote ….

    2) and, if we do vote, refusing to allow ourselves to go outside of the two party paradigm, restricting our choices to candidates from two parties who have, indeed, shown themselves “incapable” of helping us get where we need to go, and being our own worst enemies in advancing arguments, such as “TINA to the D/Rs” and “3rd parties can’t win” to justify that refusal, passing those arguments off as “rational” or “reasonable” or “logical” (the left really does like to pride itself in being such) when they are quite clearly nonsense

    The Left has dismissed electoral politics for too long – the Right has focused on them – and here we are …

  • AlanMacDonald

    There is no future based on ‘tactics’, but only on ‘strategic-thinking’ and more importantly focusing on a unbeatable ‘strategic narrative’!

    Today, we aren’t “antifa”, we, like 99% of all Americans, are Anti-EMPIRE — just as our founders were 242 years ago.

    Let’s be deadly accurate in the correct ‘strategic narrative’ of the vast majority of informed, progressive, anti-racist, empathetic, moral, egalitarian, and anti-war younger left of Americans — those who tried to correct American excesses of imperialist wars, racism, vast inequality, global warming, Wall Street looting, et al. in the “Occupy” movement.

    Allowing the ‘strategic narrative’ to be reduced to such stupidity as “alt-right vs. antifa”, rather than far more accurately as “Pro-EMPIRE vs. Anti-EMPIRE”, will not be a mistake that this expanded and more aware “Occupy 2.0 Anti-Empire” movement will make this time, nor allowing the ruling-elite Empire of the 1% to deceitfully practice in the background by orchestrating of this “divide by violence and conquer” scam again!

    WakeTF-up people and THINK about it.

  • mwildfire

    Yeah, the Right is ascendant because it focused on electoral politics while the Left didn’t. Then there was that minor, teeny little fact that the billionaires fund the right, and that the “mainstream” (corporate) media support the centrist perspective and demonize everything left of that. So the entire framework has moved so far to the right that this article can refer to Sanders and Corbyn as radical left. What Sanders proposes is entirely typical mainstream Democrat policies–or was until the Nineties.
    So when you suggest that we could win if we only tried hard enough, I bristle. I think of Lucy telling Charlie Brown to kick the football one more time–THIS time she won’t yank it way. I think of a card game you’ve been losing money on steadily, and you’re at a disadvantage because the other player has set up the game and its rules such that HE gets to always shuffle and deal and cut the cards–and to do it behind a screen. He also gets to declare aces high or low, and to change trump at any point. But gee, maybe you’ll get lucky, maybe you’ll end up with such a fabulous hand that you’ll manage, through your marvelous skill, to win. Wow! Four aces! Oh, but your opponent declares aces low this time. I guess you just DIDN’T TRY HARD ENOUGH!
    I mean, damn it, that winning a national US election is a matter of getting well enough known, which takes money–and then overcoming your opponent’s smear ads, which takes more money every election cycle, and any attempt to change this is blocked by SCOTUS, and has been since 1976 (it was Buckley vs Valeo that opened the floodgates to corporate cash–all Citizens United did was rip the gateposts out of the ground). Then there’s the fact that rural voters, who tend to be conservative, are entitled to much more representation in the electoral college system. There is the first-past-the-post system in which minorities, even large minorities, get zero representation. There’s gerrymandering, so parties in power can arrange to keep power forever. Then there are the super delegates to “fix” matters if the voters go for a non-approved candidate. Then there are the computerized voting machines to fix matters if the voters as a whole go for the wrong candidate in the general election. There’s the fact that five corporations own most of the media in this country, including TV which is still critical to public opinion. Yes, the right can get past all this, because they have considerable support from the billionaires–perhaps not because the right wants to see fascism but because it wants to keep us fighting among ourselves so we don’t unite and challenge them.

  • Aquifer

    Bingo! So we don’t unite and challenge them – which we haven’t done at the polls – And all you excuses are used to discourage us from doing so ….

  • DHFabian

    Our words related to politics have lost their meaning, so communicating ideas is very difficult. This isn’t criticism of the writer, Immanuel Wallerstein, but just an observation about our lost ability to communicate ideas. When I see Jeremy Corbyn described here as “radical left,” it brings the point of the article into question, since I have never seen Corbyn as radical. He is outspoken, but does his message only come down to a call to protect the gainfully employed within the capitalist system? So, I question what Wallerstein means by “radical” and by “left.”

    Is there a radical left in Europe, or only a push-back against the extremes of the corporate right wing that has brought hardships throughout the western world? Is it a movement, or are there only protests of the working class related to specific losses of groups of workers? If there were a legitimate left, they would have been shining a spotlight on our poverty crisis as PROOF of the failures of deregulated (out of control) capitalism. That hasn’t happened.

    The working class only wants changes to policies within the capitalist system to protect or enhance what this portion of the population has. Clearly, the consequences of capitalism — our poverty crisis — are considered acceptable. That’s centrist, not leftist.

  • DHFabian

    If you understood the deep splits (conflicts) within our population between poor and middle class, workers and the jobless, you would understand why any reference to “the 99%” aren’t rooted in reality. The only “inequality” media have addressed over the past quarter-century is the gap between the working class and owner class (the corporate powers). By the time that media successfully redefined Occupy itself as a “movement of middle class workers,” we knew it was over. Media simply choose not to cover this.

  • DHFabian

    Agree with much here, but not when it comes to voting. 2016 was a perfect example of the problem. The two parties have a stranglehold on our political system. In 2016, the D and the R had strikingly similar ideologies — pro-war, anti-poor, pro-corporate empowerment, etc. Roughly half of all US voters rejected BOTH, and either voted third party or withheld their votes. In the end, Clinton got the most votes, Trump got the most electoral votes, which shows us… what? It’s our political system that is broken, and that no longer represents the masses.

    The point is that it is us — the proverbial masses — who are deeply divided, pitted against each other. Liberals disregard the masses who are poor, so they can’t understand our situation overall, 20-some years into our war on the poor. The US lost over 5 million jobs since 2000 alone, the overall life expectancy of the US poor already fell below that of every developed nation, and liberals brush this aside as inconsequential. The deep split within the “masses” is key to understanding our current situation and any chance we might have of pushing back against the extremes of the “corporate state.”

  • DHFabian

    “It’s the policies, stupid.” People won’t knowingly vote for candidates/a party that only worsens conditions for them. Most voting choices come down to economic issues, and Democrats have waged one hell of a war on the poor.

  • Aquifer

    Too few voted 3rd party – too many stayed home …

  • Aquifer

    That’s your problem – you have been only listening to the voices of the “liberals” you critique – but those aren’t the voices of many who post on sites like this – you don’t seem to listen to any of those …

  • mwildfire

    So there are only two choices–accept a thoroughly rigged election system and try desperately to somehow get a whole bunch of ethical people elected despite it–or give up. No other options, no other avenues to pursue change other than the ballot box?

  • Aquifer

    And what do you suggest?

  • mwildfire

    I don’t have a short answer to that. On the level of attempting to influence policy, I think we have to acknowledge that no strategy will work as long as we don’t have the majority with us, which we don’t because we have neglected outreach and education; we’ve spent too much time preaching to the choir. Of course, much of the time our task is the equivalent of a man standing on a table in an auditorium crowded with people, shouting, while his opponent speaks over the PA system. Only the people nearby even know he’s there, and even they can barely hear him over the blare of the speakers. In the electoral arena this is doubly true. But the left has not put enough energy into trying to reach people not already committed.
    But mostly–what I believe is that the deathgrip of the rich sociopaths on power can only broken with a massive crash, and such a crash is pretty much inevitable due to the massive denial of the onrushing crises we face: climate change, other environmental crises, inequality, a potential global police state enhanced with technologies that would make Hitler and Stalin cry with jealous rage. The possibility of the latter makes me hope the crash comes before it can take form. I expect such a crash to involve massive human suffering, likely billions of premature deaths unless it’s gradual; and yet, if it’s inevitable it’s still better that it happen sooner. In the face of this, what i see as good strategy for individuals is to try to situate themselves for sustainable survival, try to build local networks to bring themselves, their families, their communities, through the coming hurricane with least loss of life, least conflict, and an attempt to preserve something–species, ecosystems, cultural artifacts or memes…this civilization has been a destructive horror but it does have its glories, worth preserving for hoped-for posterity. In brief my prescriptions is
    1. Get rid of your TV; become the media
    2.Don’t work for a corporation or national government
    3. Most important: don’t buy from corporations. Do it/make it yourself, trade, or buy from a local mom & pop.

  • Steven Berge

    Much communication has been coopted by the corporate narrative that predominates the media most americans view.
    It’s not funny how the Siryza movement utterly abandoned it’s stated goals, and there was no explanation from anywhere. It was like there was a coup.
    It’s weird too that a republican president (Eisenhower) would probably be considered a radical by todays standards since he brought a modern transportation system into existence in one term and also warned about the military/industrial complex (He should have known since he was a top general).
    Politics sure are frustrating when only big money has a voice.
    The revolution to end all revolutions will be when we force big money out of politics.
    There are many groups working towards these ends.

  • Aquifer

    Personally i would prefer to avoid a disaster with much loss of life – the life lost may be your own or those you love …

    Become the media – yeah, and how do you propose we do that?

    When you have to put food on the table for your family, you may not have much choice as to for whom you work ….

    Sure, buy locally except all the small stores are being driven out of business

  • mwildfire

    I’ll take your points by paragraph.
    Theoretically, we’d all rather avoid massive loss of human life. But to avert this would require two extremely unlikely things: that the 1% lose control, or yield control so that resources can be used for a transition to a sustainable global economy (or economies, as sustainability requires decentralization, as does justice). This would include an end to the tremendous waste of resources that is the US military, and to a much lesser extent other militaries. And second, a relinquishment by the privileged billion in the world of their “right” to as many kids as they want and to continue to live at a level of consumption and waste that can’;t be sustained, especially if all seven billion, not-a-mind the “expected” nine or ten billion, lived that way; and a relinquishment, on the part of the rest, of their “right” to as many kids as they want and to have their turn at living like Americans. Do you think maybe we’ll all cooperate to escape the population collapse that is a law of ecology when a species gets out of its bounds, to reduce our numbers and our per capita impact, including the necessity of no longer wasting our collective resources on fighting over them (military spending)? I think people subconsciously choose collapse instead, perhaps not realizing that as you point out, they and theirs may be among the casualties.
    Become the media means using all means available to you to spread information, and making use of more reliable sources of information (like Popular Resistance’s daily digest); and sending critical comments to “mainstream” (corporate) media when you see its disinformation.
    I agree it ain’t easy, or nearly as easy as it was when I was young, to be discriminating in employment. But it can be done and a critical piece of the independence I advocate is in finding a collection of income streams, for your household not necessarily yourself, that allow you to sustain yourselves–more than one even if each is by itself inadequate can give you greater security, and it need not be cash necessarily–things you can do or grow or repair for yourself can substitute for current expenses.
    The small stores are being driven out of business because people are too lazy to buy locally. But not all of them. I live in small town WV, hardly a bastion of progressive thinking, and the Super WalMart hasn’t managed to close all the hardware stores or other grocery stores–there is still a sense of loyalty to them.

  • AlanMacDonald

    DHF, I do understand the deep splits and conflicts borne at psychic identity levels by the divisions of many Americans who feel adrift and powerless.

    Yes the genuinely ‘poor’ (black, white, latino, et al.) are most justifiably in this unjustifiable state of mind and body.