Karl Marx once remarked that the generations of the dead weigh like a nightmare upon the brains of the living.
Never has this been truer than in the history of the Socialist Left. Our decades of grasping failure from the jaws of victory have left us, as a movement, in a weaker position than ever, despite the reality that at the dawn of the last century, and with the coming of the economic crisis in this one, many felt that the future was and is ours to inherit.
It has also exposed the fallacy that the election of people from nominally Socialist parties, firmly ensconced as they are within an ideological idea that would have been anathema even a couple of decades ago, signifies anything at all.
And yet, somehow, we repeat the errors of our forebears. Errors compounded by the fact that they have been repeated so often.
These errors stem from a basic misunderstanding by the Left of the traditional idea of what constitutes “victory” for both the Socialist Left and those that the Socialist Left claims to represent, the broad mass of humanity that can be shown to, to one degree of wealth or another, be outside of the structural power and social elite.
This mass is not simply the traditional industrial working class, but also must be said to include the hundreds of millions of the underprivileged in the Third World, the members of what Marx described, increasingly inaccurately, as the “Lumpenproletariat,” the wide strata of “white-collar” workers who often work longer hours for less reward than the few factory workers left that they sought not to be, and the permanent near underclass that we have created with our untenable civilization of tremendous productive capacity and wealth generation and a bizarre social unwillingness to include the vast bulk in this progress, rendering them open, at any moment, to impoverishment.
To those who would seek to solve the issues addressed herein through traditional democratic capitalist methods, I would suggest that you need read no further.
This is not an attempt to justify Democratic Socialism, it is, rather, a suggestion as to how to secure its future.
While, and I feel that this is tremendously important, it is absolutely necessary and reasonable to debate whether or not Democratic Socialism is the path to be pursued to resolve the social questions that confront us, this series of essays is not meant as a defence of Socialism per se.
Instead it is an attempt, in several parts, both tactically and morally, to suggest why Socialism, in both its revolutionary and parliamentary forms, has failed, as well as to suggest how we might, as a broad movement, go about attempting to reverse this history.
The fact is, like it or not, that the Socialist movement in either of its broad incarnations, while successfully forcing the creation of a more broadly inclusive civilization in the developed West, and to a degree elsewhere, has also either failed to have any lasting structural effect where democratically elected, or has, in every single case, become tyrannical and has debased its alleged lofty goals where “successful” through revolutionary methods elsewhere.
The moral imperative of Socialism is undeniable. It is born of inequity and inequality and its cauldron is the flame of injustice that our civilization brands so many of its citizens with.
The basic error that we have made as Socialists, that we have made as people who wish to see a successful transformative social movement actually succeed in attaining a lasting effect, is in our basic misunderstanding of what constitutes “winning.”
What unites the revolutionary and parliamentary Left, and what unites them with their opportunistic centrist opponents, though not their Rightist opponents, is the fixation on power as a constructive end. “Winning” is assumed to be the assumption of power by election in the case of Social Democrats, or by revolution in the case of the remaining revolutionary Left.
Yet the reality is that the Socialist movement should not directly, as an aim, attempt to take power at all.
In the case of revolutionary “victories,” the self-defeating problem is the overwhelming preoccupation with the maintenance of revolutionary power, which must be virtually the sole basic focus of a revolutionary government due to the fact that the government itself becomes an island under siege very quickly after assuming power. Violence as a structural arm of governance becomes a necessary component of revolutionary government directly due to the reality that a truly revolutionary government is not always a government that comes to power due to a “revolution.” Often it is by definition attempting to force consciousness forward. In this they cannot succeed.
I realize that this is a difficult thesis to accept, but only if the thesis is misunderstood, deliberately or otherwise.
The immediate charges will be those of “defeatism” or “utopianism.” Oddly, and this is worth noting, these exact same charges will be levelled from both the “hard” and “soft” Left. The reason is simple. They have the same overwhelming desire to be in power.
Broadly speaking, however, this is not so much an argument against the idea of forming a government as it is an argument against the immediate utility of such a goal.
In fact, I wholeheartedly support continued efforts to democratically attempt to attain and to hold power where possible. I simply feel that this parliamentary aspect of the struggle for a Democratic Socialist social transformation must be a secondary goal. I also feel, as I will expand upon later, that those who seek a rapid revolutionary or violent (and all rapid social transformations are of necessity violent) social transformation are doomed to failure even in the rare cases that they do take power, due to their subservience to a deeply reactionary and elitist idea that a government of revolutionary vanguardists can force the ideological and cultural victory of humanity over its “baser” instincts.
The primary battle, very simplistically put for now, must be a battle for people’s hearts and minds, for their consciousness, in a long-term sense, and not for their votes come election time or, more perversely, for their temporary participation in some “revolutionary moment.” The struggle is an ideological one, not a tactical one.
“Victory,” in any meaningful sense of the term can only come after this laborious battle for the consciousness of people and not before. Winning power in elections or in a grasp at power during some revolutionary moment when the system is in a temporary state of objective collapse or weakness will not accomplish this end. While the democratic triumph of socialist governments can help in the process, they can only help. The true battle remains outside of the structure of government.
And, as a result, it is winning itself that is often the first defeat.
2. On the framework
Hierarchy, as much as class and and other systemic forms of oppression, is the enemy, and the Left has had a hard time accepting this. It is its dilemma. It has opposed a system while accepting much of its structures and its methodology in its own practice.
The Left has, historically, opposed bourgeois structuralism while implementing an identical version of it within its own parties, with leaders, sycophants, employees, “whips” and all of the detritus and ass-licking that makes bourgeois society function.
It should be obvious to note that one will not defeat a system by adopting all of its basic power and hierarchical tenants, but it seems a lesson lost on the vast bulk of left parties. There is no basic difference in the way that most “left” parties govern themselves and structure themselves and the way that “right” parties do. This alone should be an alarm.
It is one thing to accept the reality that we live within this context and that we, to a certain extent, must function within it. It is another thing to accept the context and its legacies within our own movements and organizations.
The hierarchical, personality and elite leader-driven culture of Left parties is identical to that of Right parties. There is no difference whatsoever other than in the apparent aims and the alleged goals. Left parties have become institutionalized in bourgeois democratic culture. They are both its false “nemesis” and its pressure valve outlet when the broad section of the populace become angry.
Having basically accepted not only the ideological underpinnings of capitalism, but its very structures, these parties are a false threat. They, when elected, serve only to humanize the inevitable shift that they no longer ideologically oppose. There is not a single socialist or social democratic party in the developed West, outside of Scandinavia (arguably), that has governed as an anti-capitalist party once elected in the last 25 years.
Why is this broadly the case?
In large part it is that these parties do not seek to alter the framework of capitalist discourse, but they rather seek to “win” within it. They feel that by attaining government they can effect some kind of “change” and that they can represent certain interests ahead of others.
And this is, no doubt, true. There is little question that a “Social Democratic” government, for example, would govern more “fairly” that a Tory government.
The question that emerges is fairly in what context? And, to what end?
For all of the endless defences that one hears from Liberals, Democrats, or Social Democrats, the irrefutable fact remains that, whether these parties were in or out of power, the social discourse and the policies of governments of all stripes have gone fundamentally to the right in the West over the last 30 years. And “left” parties have often been in “power” while this occurred.
We live in a context where the election platforms of North American conservatives with regards to economic policy in 1970 are more interventionist and “radical” than those of “left” parties today. There has been a tendency, of late, to base this shift on quasi-conspiratorial ideas that “Wall Street” or the “1 per cent” has somehow imposed this agenda on the people of the First World.
But this is wishful thinking at best and it undermines any real Left attempt to turn the tide.
The Right has won the broader ideological battle by relentlessly sticking to ideological points that were very unfashionable and unelectable 30 years ago and making them “mainstream.” Ideas like tax relief, deficit fighting, privatization and others. They have conjoined this with a religious opposition to the sole accomplishments of the “Left” over the past period of capitalist retrenchment, which are the gains of women, the LGBT community and “minorities.”
This is a very clever combination in that it claims to empower many of those that the rest of their agenda dis-empowers in every meaningful social sense. Even if they have lost their jobs and social security, they can still proudly state that they have “defended” their family “against” people like Gays or Islamic citizens who have now become the social “others” along with the poor and the no longer acknowledged working-class.
There is no possible way to confront this new “political correctness” and ideological hegemony other than by attempting to do what the Right has accomplished… actually altering the the framework of the discourse. Only when this is done can we “win.” Otherwise our victories are not victories at all, they are simply delaying tactics to prepare citizens for the worse that is to come.
The left, economically, has not won one single, lasting and transformative battle of any kind for nearly 30 years. Conditions for workers, the poor, unions, and much of the White Collar working class have only gotten more and more tenuous regardless of who was in power. That by accepting the basic precepts of right-wing thinking parties like the Democrats, Liberals or NDP are a basic part of creating this new hegemony is increasingly clear.
These parties did this to “win.” They shifted as they felt the shift would help them to elect parliamentarians. That it also reinforced the basic ideas and tenants of the system did not factor into the thinking.
By placing the notion of political or electoral victory ahead of the idea of changing social and political discourse to reflect socialist ideas, as opposed to those of the prevalent ideas of Neo-Liberalism and corporate State Capitalism, we lose in advance.