by Steve Warne of 3RRR and Peter Beilharz, on April 2nd,
1983 in Melbourne)
We’ve just had the election of a Labor Government in
Australia, a landslide victory the likes of which hasn’t
occurred for three or four decades.
We’ve also seen the election of socialist governments
in France, Spain and Greece and the corresponding decline of the
Communist Parties in these countries. Simultaneously the British Labour Party seems to be tearing
itself apart over the very question as to whether it can or
should present a ‘revolutionary’ alternative.
What do these developments mean for socialist politics
and revolutionary tradition?
Do these trends support an optimistic view, as the broad
consensus moves leftward, or do these developments present an
obstacle for socialist politics?
The least one can say is that these trends are
would leave the question of optimism and pessimism aside.
What is the meaning of these votes?
They are the first form of class reaction against the
austerity offensive of the employers, of the bourgeois state and
of the previous conservative governments.
This is nothing surprising.
If you systematically take money out of the pockets of
the poor to put it in the portfolios of the rich, and you keep
universal suffrage, one day or the other people will present you
with the bill. This
seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe that the shrewdest
bourgeois politicians didn’t foresee it.
We have had one election, a world record: in Mauritius
where, under a conservative government and with a complete
conservative control of the mass media, you had a general
election last year in which 100% of the MPs were Left, not a
single rightwing MP was elected.
Of course it is a poor country: the decline in real wages
means a decline towards hunger in the literal sense of the word.
If you keep parliamentary democracy under these
circumstances, the reaction is unavoidable.
What is the
contradiction is that the people voted against austerity or, let
me even say, for less
austerity, but they are not going to get it from these social
democratic governments. The
social democratic governments are going to apply austerity
policies. I don’t
want to make any predictions for Australia; I don’t want to
involve myself in Australian politics, but in France it is
obvious, in Spain it is obvious, in Mauritius it’s obvious.
These governments, inasmuch as they are not ready to
break with the logic of capitalist economy, especially with
their integration into the international capitalist economy, are
absolutely going to repeat the austerity policies of the right.
So there is the contradiction. If
you pose the question of revolution from an ideological point of
view, you pose it in a way which is insolvable.
Revolutions which occur in real life do not come out of
the realm of ideology, they come out of the field of sharpened,
exacerbated social tensions, social conflicts.
Revolutionaries play, then, a leading role if they are
intelligent enough and don’t make too many mistakes, and if
the relationship of forces is not too unfavourable for them, but
that has nothing to do with the origin of the revolution.
This question put that way cannot be solved, because
nobody is a prophet and can say how far will the masses go in
their explosive reaction in the next ten years against these
austerity policies, but what one can predict with absolute
certainty is that you cannot do away with austerity policies
without trying to break with capitalism.
Whether it is done in a revolutionary way or
non-revolutionary way is another story.
Any economic policy today which genuinely wants to defend
standard of living, real wages, full employment, social security
advantages which the working class has won during the previous
twenty years has to break with the logic of profit and has to
break with the logic of the international capitalist economy.
If you stay within that logic you are going to apply
austerity policies. You
cannot defend full employment, real wages and social security
advantages of the working class by accepting the logic of
capitalist profit. It
is impossible. To put it in an even more nasty way, I would say that
consensus politics, Butskellism as it was called in England
during the period of prosperity, is continuing under the period
of recession but with, of course, a completely different
content. Under the
period of prosperity, it meant that the conservatives were ready
to grant some reforms to the workers in order to keep the system
recession, crisis, it means that the social democrats are
accepting cuts in the standards of living of the workers under
the pretext of not breaking with the international economy as
they call it – what they really mean is the capitalist economy
on an international scale.
But there is one serious limitation to this thesis.
Everything you have asked and everything I have said up
to now applies to the official leadership of these parties and
these unions. What
is going to happen inside
these parties and inside these unions is an entirely different
the recession and austerity offensive of the employers and of
the state is having the effect of a process of differentiation,
clarification, and we say there is a whole restructuration
which has started inside the organized labor movement in Western
Europe. It is going out of the bounds of Western Europe now; it is
coming to North America. It
will probably happen in Japan and Australia, too; in all the
imperialist countries and even in the most industrialized
dependent countries like Brazil where it also started;
Argentina, Mexico and others.
Parts of the organized working class movement will not
accept austerity policies.
Of that I am sure.
I am not so
sure that in Britain it will experience the biggest extension,
because in the last analysis, this process of polarization is
not, I repeat, an ideological process, it is a social
process, so it will be the strongest in the countries where the
greatest number of workers is involved in real struggles.
Unfortunately, in Britain we have had a period of decline
of labor struggles and defeats of labor struggles, and it is not
by accident that the right wing of the Labour Party has opened
its offensive against the left in such a period, because that is
the only period when they have a chance of success. I would rather look to countries like France, my own country:
Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the countries with the militant
traditions of struggle by the workers in the next years, and we
might even have some surprises in Canada and the United States.
What is the relation between social movements and
socialist politics today? How
do you see the social movements which now seem to dominate
western radical politics?
The social movements are in general progressive as single
issue movements, in the sense that they raise genuine issues of
emancipation for the working class and for mankind in general,
humankind. They objectively challenge basic tenets and basic pillars of
bourgeois society. There
are single issue movements because of the default of the
traditional labor movement.
In a normal social framework, let us say in the situation
as we had it before the First World War in Europe, in the
twenties in some European countries like Germany, in the early
twenties in Italy and later Spain, it would have been the
organized labor movement which would have taken up these issues,
which would have mobilized massively for women’s liberation,
against the war drive, and so on. It is the default of the labor movement which has left the
void which was then filled by these social movements. The weakness of the social movements is not is not in their
single-issue dynamic -- that is positive -- their weakness is in
their incapacity to integrate the concrete progressive goals
they generally fight for into an overall social solution.
You can fight against the war drive but you cannot close
your eyes to the general rightwing offensive against democratic
freedoms. You can fight for the right to free abortion paid by social
security, but you cannot close your eyes to the expanding police
state. When parts
of the women’s liberation movement raise, for instance, the
question of increased penalties against rapists, increased
penalties by the bourgeois state, and turn to the bourgeois
courts, we tell them, “You are wrong, your cause is just, we
understand your problem, but you must understand that the more
power you give to the judiciary and to the police at this moment
in this society, the more you will be yourselves oppressed –
not to speak about other sectors of society.”
We are in the beginning of a drive towards a strong
state, an authoritarian state, and if you strengthen police and
judiciary you are going in the opposite direction to that which
you need. You have
to fight against the judiciary; you have to fight against the police; you have to fight against the strengthening of the bourgeois state and not try
to strengthen it. That
is the weakness of these social movements: they do not have an
overall view of the social crisis, and they do not give an
overall solution, and this is extremely dangerous for them
because this gives them an ambiguous position in society, where
they combine leftwing and rightwing motivations amongst the
people who join them. In
some countries, of course, this is not accidental, but in some
countries – France, Germany and Austria – you have genuine
rightwing people in these movements.
In Germany it was just discovered that one of the MPs
elected by the Green Party, who was to give the inaugural speech
at the opening of parliament, is an ex-Nazi, an ex-SA leader.
That is not to say the Green Party is influenced by
fascism. That is stupid, of course. The Greens behaved correctly; they immediately removed him
when they discovered that.
They have a very good rule, which is a rule of Marxist,
of Leninist origin: that the elected can be recalled at any
moment. That is
very positive, but the fact that he could pass through screening
and still rise to that position would have been unthinkable in
any leftwing party. This
shows that the screening was not done on a very profound way,
and that they were not particularly pre-occupied by the question
How would you explain the phenomenon and success of the
Greens: do they represent a more effective agency for radical
politics than the traditional parties?
I would turn the question the other way around.
I would say that the electoral successes and the
successes in mass mobilization in certain countries is the
reflection of the more general trend of forces independent from
the traditional working class parties, gaining qualitatively
more weight in political life in these countries than before.
In France, in Italy and in Portugal, I would claim that
the organized revolutionary left has practically the same
electoral weight or a very similar electoral weight as the
Greens have in Germany and some other countries.
And I would say the participation of parts of the left
wing of the trade union movement of the revolutionists in the
anti-war mobilizations in Britain, in Italy, is at least as big,
if not bigger, than that of the Greens in Germany.
In the movements for the 35 hour week against the
austerity drive, the left wing of the labor movement has a
qualitatively bigger weight than that of the Greens, so it’s a
more complex picture. I
would say that if there is an element of political savvy, of
correct political tactics today in practically every single
European country, it is with the left wing forces (not
necessarily revolutionary, you could call them centrists or
left-reformists) who represent potentially
more than 5% of the popular vote and in certain countries 10%. In Denmark, for instance, a little known and rather moderate
country not at the forefront of revolutionary struggle, at the
last general elections the two left socialist parties who stand
far to the left of the Communist Party, not to speak about the
Social Democratic Party, got 10% of the popular vote.
That is the potential today in most of the European
countries. The fact
that it is not realized in every single one of them has
something to do with mistakes in tactics or just lack of
political intelligence of some of the currents who play a
leading role in the left, but the potential is there.
The German Greens are just one expression of that
potential which is much larger.
It has nothing to do with Greens as such; they just
occupy a void, because in Germany for historical reasons the
revolutionary left organizations were much weaker than in
France, Britain, Scandinavia or in Italy.
Ok – they occupy that void.
In other countries other forces occupy that same space.
What effects do these developments in radical politics
have on the status of Marxist theory?
How does Marxism need to be developed and/or complemented
by radical theories which focus on non-class forms of
To give you a full answer would take much more time than
is left here. Just
to make an historical point: nearly one hundred years ago it was
self-evident for the then leading Marxists, the left Marxists of
the German Social Democratic Party, Lenin in the Russian Social
Democracy, that you cannot have a fight for a classless society
– that is what socialism is about, and what Marxism is about;
it is not a theory about class, it’s a struggle for a
classless society – you cannot have a struggle for a classless
society without a struggle against any form of exploitation and
stressed that question twenty times in his basic writings,
especially in What is to be Done? Kautsky,
Bebel, Engels, stressed that question twenty times (not to speak
about Rosa Luxemburg) in their writings of the 1890s and the
beginning of the twentieth century.
What we have here is not a default of Marxism, neither
Marxism as a theoretical system nor Marxism as a guide to
practice. What we
have is a default of bureaucratised labor organizations, or the
bureaucratic leadership of these labor organizations, which have
thrown overboard elementary elements of Marxist theory and
practice for basic reasons of class collaboration.
Just to give you one example:
the example of chauvinism, of nationalism in the
imperialist epoch. The
traditional Marxist movement stood on the slogan, and it was not
just a slogan but one of its basic programmatic positions, Workers of all countries, unite!
Then came August 4th, 1914, and as Rosa
Luxemburg said, this programmatic position was replaced by
another one: Workers of all countries unite in time of peace and cut each others’
throats in time of war.
When that happens, of course, an independent pacifist
movement will arise. The
issue of war and peace is so important for so many people in the
world that when the workers movement does not play its role as
it should have done
and as it did for
decades, other forces will then come to the forefront which will
eventually be re-integrated in more or less radical forms of the
labour movement (that depends on circumstances and relationship
of forces). The
same thing which happened on this question has happened in many
other areas. This
is not a default of Marxism; it is not a lack of the theory; it
is a default of concrete organizations which have at least
partially changed their class functions.