Anti-politics and the social illusion: A reply to Tietze and Humphrys

Issue: 145

Alex Callinicos

The debate about contemporary “anti-politics” raises important issues, although in my view to frame it in these, sometimes theoretically inflated, terms is misleading. So what is at stake? We are witnessing around the world very widespread disaffection with, not simply established parties, but also the political system that they help constitute. This disaffection embraces a variety of electoral rebellions, and it has also been one of the driving forces in some of the most significant mass movements of recent years.1 Plainly it is necessary for any serious revolutionary left to identify the causes of this phenomenon (which, for the sake of simplicity, henceforth I call “anti-politics”) and to assess the opportunities for political intervention that it offers.

Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphrys argue, in effect, that the dominant logic of “anti-politics” is anti-capitalist. This reflects the fact that the impulse behind the movements in question (they cite especially the 15 May movement in the Spanish state) is social, thereby breaking with the domain of the political, which they conceptualise following the young Marx as a form of alienation. It follows that the revolutionary left should embrace “anti-politics”, although Tad and Elizabeth are extremely vague about what this might mean.2

I’ll return to the political implications and how we should theorise the political. Let me start by disposing of some red herrings, which will take us towards the substance of the “anti-politics” phenomenon. Tad and Elizabeth were replying to an article of mine that included a critique of their views.3 But my subject was a much broader one, namely what seems to me to be something near an impasse facing the contemporary radical and revolutionary left. Tad and Elizabeth disagree with this, suggesting that I am “projecting the SWP’s experience onto quite different circumstances elsewhere”.4

The idea that the SWP’s problems are a localised phenomenon hardly bears serious examination. At the heart of the post-Seattle wave of anticapitalist radicalisation in Europe, as they had been of the upturn of the late 1960s and early 1970s, were two countries—France and Italy. France was the first site of the rebellion against neoliberalism with the public sector strikes of 1995 and the formation of the anti-globalisation coalition ATTAC, while Italy hosted the high points of the Genoa protests of July 2001 and the European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002. And who were the heroes of Florence? Fausto Bertinotti of Rifondazione Comunista and Olivier Besancenot of the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire.

Today Rifondazione no longer exists, and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) launched by Besancenot and the LCR is recovering from a damaging split. Even the Front de Gauche, which bested the NPA electorally, is struggling with serious internal divisions, while the Front National topped the poll in the European parliamentary elections in May 2014. At a Europe-wide level, these setbacks are much more significant than the SWP’s troubles with George Galloway or even our terrible internal crisis in 2013-14. It’s good that, as Tad and Elizabeth cite as a counter-example, Die Linke has held its own in successive Bundestag elections (though they omit to note that its share of the vote fell in 2013 from 11.9 percent in 2009 to 8.6 percent, almost the same as the combined figure in 2005 for the forces that later formed Die Linke). But it hasn’t done more than that—for a while it was outflanked by the Greens, while more recently it has been the rightist Allianz für Deutschland that has made the running in attacking the euro. This is an instance of a much larger phenomenon—the failure of the main radical left parties to give expression to popular anger at the European Union, which reflects their commitment, most importantly articulated by Alexis Tsipras of Syriza, to a reformed EU.

As this example illustrates, the political choices made by parties make a difference to their fate. So Tad and Elizabeth are mistaken when they tax me with “class struggle fatalism”.5 Of course, Bertinotti’s disastrous decision to join the centre-left government in 2006 played a crucial role in Rifondazione’s fate. Moreover, a kind of negative feedback loop can develop in which political setbacks intensify a party’s subjective weaknesses, leading to more setbacks, and so on: this, I think, was a factor in the prolonged crises suffered by both the NPA and the SWP.

But what are Tad and Elizabeth saying? That the relative absence of offensive workers’ struggles since the radicalisation started after Seattle has made no difference to the development of the radical and revolutionary left? They can’t be serious. Of course, had these struggles emerged, this would have presented us with a new set of problems—most obviously, how small left formations could relate to mass workers’ movements. But a revival of working class combativity would have increased the specific weight of more militant arguments, and thereby made it easier for those advancing them to press them against the more reformist and electoralist solutions that, in actuality, have held sway on the European radical left.

In other words, what actually happens is the outcome of the interplay between objective structures and processes and the subjective choices of individual and collective actors. One of the things that characterises Marxism is its realistic understanding of this interplay, as opposed to either fatalism or taking our wishes for reality. We have to deal with this world, rather than the possible one that would have emerged had a real upturn in workers’ struggles developed. The phenomena covered by the term “anti-politics” are an important feature of this world.

Tad and Elizabeth attribute to me the “desire to paint the rise of anti-politics as a negative development”.6 This accusation is false. Because of International Socialism’s print schedule, I had to complete the bulk of my article before the European parliamentary elections in May 2014, so I wasn’t able properly to take into account the very significant success enjoyed by Podemos in the Spanish state. But I did register the divergence between the picture in northern Europe, where the racist and populist right enjoyed very significant advances, above all in Britain and France, and that across the Mediterranean, where in Italy the centre-left Democratic Party came top, in the Spanish state, not just Podemos but the United Left won a significant share of the vote, and in Greece, Syriza staked its claim to be the next government. What I can legitimately be criticised for is the omission of Ireland, where both Sinn Féin and the radical left (People before Profit and the Socialist Party) advanced at the expense of the established parties.

“Anti-politics” is not a negative, but it is an ambiguous phenomenon. The rebellion against the political elites can find a variety of expressions, progressive and reactionary. If in the current conjuncture in Europe the radical right has benefited more than the radical left, this is a consequence of the factors mentioned above—the relatively low level of struggle and the subjective weaknesses of the radical and revolutionary left. What this has meant is that the response of the dominant European capitalisms to the crisis—recharged neoliberalism in the shape of austerity—has increased popular alienation with the political system and that this opening has been seized largely by populist racist parties that are trying to remake this system on their terms. This is very clearly the project being pursued by Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. Maybe we should set aside our point-scoring and reflect a moment about that: in two key European countries the radical right believe they are in a position to make hegemonic interventions. This is a situation that demands, not despair, but sober thinking and targeted action.

But things don’t have to take this form. In Greece the long-term level of social struggles and the inherited strength of the radical left, and in the Spanish state the sustained scale of the mass movements since the early 2000s have realised other possibilities. Southern Ireland hasn’t seen anything so spectacular, but a recent history of powerful local campaigns around social issues (now metamorphosing into the national movement against water charges) has allowed the radical left to build up significant electoral bases.

Even more striking is the Scottish case. The pain of austerity and the hatred of politicians are the same both sides of the border. But south of the Tweed the beneficiaries have been the little England bigots of UKIP. The Scottish referendum campaign, however, was dominated by the progressive case for independence. And this wasn’t just a matter of Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party’s skilful appropriation of the mantle of social democracy from Labour. As Keir McKechnie showed in our last issue, the running in the Yes campaign was made by forces on the left putting an anti-neoliberal and anti-imperialist case for independence. The Union came closest to disaster when Salmond dropped his efforts to stress the continuities between a present and a future Scotland and reframed independence as the way to save the welfare state. Though a ruling class on panic stations managed to scare enough voters into the No camp to defeat independence, Scotland continues to vibrate politically to the rhythms of the Yes campaign. One form this takes, fascinatingly and bucking the “anti-politics” trend, is a huge influx of new members into the pro-independence parties.

The Scottish referendum is particularly interesting because the level of class struggle is, if anything, lower north of the border than it is in England. It was the particular configuration of the political field—not just the SNP’s rebranding as a social-democratic party but also the ability of forces further to the left to influence mainstream debate—that made the difference. The sentiments elsewhere associated with “anti-politics” found expression within the political system. There is nothing more part of bourgeois constitutional politics than a referendum about whether an existing capitalist state should split into two separate ones. Yet what could have been an empty ritual (think of the 1979 devolution referendum whose result was nullified because of the low level of participation) became a lightning conductor of much larger social tensions that could lead to the renewal of the radical left in Scotland.

This example suggests that the opposition Tad and Elizabeth establish between “struggles where ordinary people take action to change society in their own interests—including in relation to the state” (= social and therefore good) and “political activities that merely seek a change in the policies, personnel or form of the state” (= political and therefore bad) is false. The Scottish referendum was about a mere “change in the…form of the state” and therefore on the wrong side of this line. But what does this mean? That the revolutionary left should have abstained from it? Tad and Elizabeth are too dedicated followers of fashion on the radical left (witness their shy-making invocation of Bob Dylan to expose me as insufficiently down with the kids) to propose anything so unpopular. But if they accept some version of the analysis of the referendum campaign offered above then their counterposition of the social and the political collapses.

This brings me to Tad’s and Elizabeth’s theoretical argument: “Under capitalism all politics is necessarily ‘capitalist politics’ precisely because ‘the political’ only exists as a separate—and alienated—sphere in modern, bourgeois society”.7 They claim authority for this from the writings of the young Marx in 1843 and 1844 where he criticises the state not as the resolution of the antagonisms of civil society (as Hegel believed), but as a specific form of the alienation of civil society. The significance of these texts—for example, the “Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State” and “On the Jewish Question”—have been widely appreciated by Marxists, starting with Galvano Della Volpe and his pupil Lucio Colletti. They represent a very important step in Marx’s development towards communism in which he comes to realise that the kind of democratic transformation he wants to see in Germany requires more than a new edition of the French Revolution: the roots of alienation lie, not in religion (as the Young Hegelians thought) or even in political absolutism, but in civil society, and overcoming its antagonisms requires transcending the distinction between civil society and the state, which represents a merely imaginary resolution of these antagonisms.8

So it is already in the mid-1840s that Marx sets as his objective the abolition of the state. But he does so prior to his first formulations of historical materialism and of his critique of political economy and to his identification of the proletariat as the agent of what at this stage he calls “human” (as opposed to merely “political”) emancipation. It is a symptom of the limitations of Marx’s analysis in the “Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State” that he seems to identify the dissolution of both civil society and the state with the introduction of universal male suffrage. This does not mean that in his “mature” writings Marx simply abandons his critique of the state as a form of alienation. Tad and Elizabeth partially quote his description of the Paris Commune of 1871 as “a Revolution against the State itself, this supernaturalist abortion of society, a resumption by the people for the people, of its own social life”.9 This critique of the state can be integrated into his theory of fetishism in Capital. In other words, the apparent autonomy of the state in capitalist society can be seen as one specific form of the fragmentation of social relations that results from the dominance of commodity exchange. There is no contradiction between subsuming the state under fetishism and understanding it as a form of class domination since the latter perspective is needed in order to identify the mechanisms that ensure that the state operates in the interests of capital.10

In any case, Marx’s critique of the state does not license the kind of counterposition of the political and the social advocated by Tad and Elizabeth. While reaffirming his critique of the state in the wake of the Paris Commune he was engaged in a bitter factional struggle with Mikhail Bakunin and his followers in the First International. At stake here was whether the workers’ movement should undertake political action. Marx and Engels, even though, like Bakunin, they sought the abolition of the state, thought that it should, while Bakunin opposed it. It was in the course of this struggle that Marx explained to Friedrich Bolte that:

every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to coerce them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular trade, to force a shorter working day out of the individual capitalists by strikes, etc, is a purely economic movement. The movement to force through an eight-hour law, etc, however, is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing general, socially binding force… Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, ie, the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against, and a hostile attitude towards the policies of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands.11

So Marx believes that, short of the conquest of political power, workers can strengthen their organisations and increase their self-consciousness by putting demands on the state, “this supernaturalist abortion of society”. Was he confused? I don’t think so. The state as a specific fetishised form of capitalist social relations creates a certain field of struggle (the political) in which different classes seek to secure for themselves measures that possess “general, socially binding force”. This is part of what Marx is getting at when he calls the state the concentration of the antagonisms of capitalist society. It is inevitable that working class movements will engage in political struggles and this can serve to strengthen and develop them, though Marx stresses that there are dangers involved.

The example that Tad and Elizabeth give of Podemos illustrates the point. They rightly (though quite uncontroversially) stress the significance of the 15 May movement and of Podemos as its political expression. But they go on to accuse a Podemos leader, Íñigo Errejón, of “subordinating social interests to the primacy of politics”.12 But it is very welcome for a mass movement such as 15-M to invade and seek to reshape the political field. This is an advance compared to the previously predominant position of rejecting any form of representative politics. Potentially the rebels of 15 May are starting to grapple with how to reshape society, which requires addressing the question of political power. The problem lies with the specific political project of the leadership of Podemos, a combination of radical reformist economic policies with forms of decision-making (eg online voting) that are apparently ultra-democratic but in fact vest the power of initiative in the hands of a narrow group in Madrid. But counterposing the social and political in the way Tad and Elizabeth do is of little use in contesting this project. The problem is not that politics is sullying the purity of the social movement—politics is always implicit in social struggles—but what kind of politics comes to predominate.

In some ways Tad’s and Elizabeth’s position is a flashback to the early phases of anti-capitalist radicalisation—a fetishism of the social implied by what Daniel Bensaïd rather nicely called “a ‘social illusion’, by analogy with the ‘political illusion’ of those criticised by the young Marx for thinking ‘political’ emancipation through the achievement of civil rights was the last word in ‘human emancipation’”.13 The rational kernel in their argument is that many translations from the social to the political do founder in some version of reformism. But, as the Scottish case illustrates, the solution lies, not in abstention from the political, but in developing forms of political intervention that, as Marx suggests, undermine the hegemony of the ruling class and increase the self-consciousness and self-organisation of the exploited and oppressed. Tad and Elizabeth insist that they renounce neither intervention nor strategy, but their argument is conducted at so high a level of generality as to be of little use. This is a pity because the revolutionary left has to think and work hard to influence what are very powerful developments in the political field, and we can do with all the help we can get.


1: It is arguable whether “anti-politics” was a significant element in the Arab revolutions. Certainly its rhetoric motivated (and disoriented) some of the initiating circles of activists in Egypt, but the main thrust here and elsewhere in the Arab world was that of democratic risings against dictatorships. Thanks to Paul Blackledge, Joseph Choonara and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

2: See Barker, 2014, for a careful dissection of the original formulation of their argument, Humphrys and Tietze, 2013.

3: Callinicos, 2014.

4: Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, p193.

5: Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, p194.

6: Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, p192. Tad and Elizabeth also seek to refute my remark that “capital is economically weak, but much stronger politically” (Callinicos, 2014, p111), declaring: “The social and economic dominance of capital over labour is much greater than 30 or 40 years ago”-Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, pp192-193. But the capital relation is not reducible to the direct power of capital over wage labour. My point was that, despite the shift in the balance of class forces, capitalism remains, as a result of the 2007-8 crash and the contradictions underlying it, caught in a long-term economic stagnation. You don’t have to believe me about this: just read bourgeois ideologues such as Larry Summers and Martin Wolf. This contrasts with the relative weakness of powerful political alternatives to capitalism. The problem with Tad’s and Elizabeth’s theorisation of “anti-politics” is that by interpreting the phenomena covered by the term as implicitly anti-capitalist they understate this weakness.

7: Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, p189.

8: Useful discussions include Colletti, 1975, Kouvelakis, 2003, and Leopold, 2007.

9: Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 22, p486.

10: See Callinicos, 2009, chapter 2. The most influential contemporary attempt to treat the state as a form of fetishism is probably Holloway, 2002.

11: Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 44, pp258-259.

12: Tietze and Humphrys, 2014, p191.

13: Bensaïd, 2007.


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Bensaïd, Daniel, 2007, “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism 113 (winter),

Callinicos, Alex, 2009, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Polity).

Callinicos, Alex, 2014, “Thunder on the Left”, International Socialism 143 (summer),

Colletti, Lucio, 1975, “Introduction”, in Karl Marx, Early Writings (Harmondsworth).

Holloway, John, 2002, Change the World without Taking Power (Pluto).

Humphrys, Elizabeth, and Tad Tietze, 2013, “Anti-Politics: Elephant in the Room”
(31 October),

Kouvelakis, Stathis, 2003, Philosophy and Revolution: from Kant to Marx (Verso).

Leopold, David, 2007, The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing (Oxford University Press).

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels, 1975-2005, Collected Works (Lawrence & Wishart).

Tietze, Tad, and Elizabeth Humphrys, 2014, “’Anti-Politics’ and the Return of the Social: A Reply to Alex Callinicos”, International Socialism 144 (autumn),