The move by many of the Left’s intellectuals towards party building, or party cooption, makes perfect sense in this light. The wall that activist movements have continually hit upon is the fact that no matter how good their tactics, no matter how perfect their organizational chart is, no matter how immaculate their strategies, they are pushing for a change in government policy which relies on actions within the government. It is a natural progression to move from focusing on influencing the state to focusing on participating in the state. And, in an environment so dominated by the petty discourses of intellectuals and the ephemerality of activist groups, party-builders see themselves as the harbingers of a return to a period when the Left was taken seriously.
In doings so the party builders have attempted to create centralized edifices in order to better adopt the tactics the leadership views as necessary. These moves have been, or at least were, supported within some sections of the Leftist press:
“For many of its critical voices the possibility of shaping a party in the image of the 15-M, and of its radically democratic spirit, were sacrificed at the altar of Errejón’s vaunted “electoral war machine.” For sympathizers of the leadership line, and indeed the members who overwhelmingly supported Iglesias’s quasi-Leninist plea for centralism and efficacy, the sacrifice was worth it.”1
The issue with this model is not the Laclauan style ‘populist’ terms it justifies itself on–after all, these new theoretical groundings are necessary in a world where the Marxist ‘brand’ is seen as a limitation to succeeding in politics. But these justifications are secondary to practices; a party can use the most revolutionary and innovative rhetoric out and still be a run of the mill social democratic party. This is the case with the new wave of leftist parties, who are not organizationally or strategically revolutionary, but who hide their status as normalized political parties behind a veneer of leftist rhetoric.
Yes, the new leftist parties have large voting rolls, and sometimes win elections. But it takes more than a large membership base to be a mass party. The Communist parties of the mid 20th century were not radical purely due to their contributions to magazines and journals, were not mass parties purely due to their size. The new Leftist parties are not social spaces and are not centers for activist or intellectual activity: they are places where social activity is consumed under the altar of electoralism. Looking at their actions rather than their words shows parties which attempt to gobble up the activist groups they came from, which sideline organizational democracy in order to better commit to realpolitik, which have ignored the day to day organizing of their members in favor of a year to year organizing of their constituents. To be a member of Podemos, Syriza, the Fronte de Gauche, means little more than an expression of political opinions, means little more than pulling a lever every couple of years. Organizing should mean more than this.
The rise of these new Leftist currents has not been limited to continental Europe. The Anglosphere, long dominated by ‘soft’ left parties, have seen a wave of excitement about attempts to ‘take the Labour/Democratic Party back’. The problem is not merely that there has never really been a ‘radical’ Labour/Democratic party to take back. The problem is that such a large segment of the organized Left has been engaged in these efforts. 2016 has not only brought out a new passion for social democracy à la mode, it has brought a moderation of dozens of major Leftist organizations across Great Britain and the United States in an attempt to capture the wave of left populism.
This is not some mass failure of ideology, not some collective inability to read the right quotations of Lenin. It is the temptation of achieving some semblance of state power balanced against nothing. In a Leftist ecology dominated by parties, activist groups, and intellectuals, the balancing system which existed in the late 19th-early 20th century is trampled under a gallop towards the state. The logic of most activist groups naturally inclines them to promote ‘one of their own’ towards the seat of power in order to better influence policy and public opinion, and intellectual journals, under the pressure to get yet more clicks, have shown a flexibility which would make the greatest gymnast blush at the self contorting justifications we are confronted with daily.
To criticize these tendencies on the level of intellectual debate is to miss the point, because these issues do not arise from personal failings but from the tendencies imbued in their practices. So long as activism is viewed as a petition to the government there will be a push towards reformism, and so long as the movements are unable to solve the problems they present activism will be viewed as a petition to the government. This is not an issue of understanding, and correct theory cannot prevent this tendency towards reformism no more than a poem can stop a fire. So long as taking government power is seen as the real objective of radical politics, all the journal entries and articles in the world will not be able to stop the march towards the Democratic party and the project for a new labor/social democratic party. The creation of mutual aid societies, not aimed at supplying the events of the milieu but at providing the social services which people need in their daily lives, is a way not only of creating a solid alternative to the push towards collaboration, but is desperately necessary in these dark times.
- Jacobin Magazine, “Portrait of a Leader as a Young Theorist”