Facing the crisis: the strategic perplexity of the left

Issue: 130

Stathis Kouvelakis

Everyone knows the joke that, of the last three crises, Marxists have predicted at least five. What the joke doesn’t say is that they failed to predicted a sixth, their own crisis, to which I will devote these remarks. To put it differently I will focus on the political aspect of the crisis, because, it seems to me, it is at this level that the contradictions of the economy are concentrated and that their ultimate resolution is decided. Actually my topic is much more restricted than this, since I will restrict myself to the European left and its strategic perplexity facing the current crisis. And given that the general title of this seminar is “Marxism and the alternatives”, I thought it would be useful to try to reflect on the reasons that have so far prevented such alternatives from emerging on the left, or indeed elsewhere. 1

Reinventing Marxism

My starting point is nevertheless more general. I think that moments of crisis such as the current one have an all-encompassing dimension: the crisis is, at its core, economic but we have reasons to think that it is not an ordinary one, the passage from one economic cycle of growth or capital accumulation to another, but a deeper, systemic crisis. This is why it becomes also a social, a political and an ideological crisis, never forgetting its environmental dimension. But this also means, or rather it means first and foremost, that the crisis creates a new situation, which provokes a crisis in the ways we interpret and understand reality, and that seems to be valid for Marxists as well. Of course, it’s legitimate to say that Marxism has the immense advantage over other theories of providing an understanding of the properly immanent character of the crisis, through which the system encounters its own limits but constantly displaces and transforms them, thereby reinventing itself at a certain cost, of course. However, I think a properly historical and materialist, that is to say a Marxist, understanding of Marxism itself shows that each major crisis of capitalism destabilises Marxism, both in its cognitive coordinates and in its practical, political dimension, forcing it to reinvent itself as it does with capitalism.

To give a concrete example, I don’t think that it makes much sense to understand the crisis of the 1930s as a confirmation of a kind of general prognosis Marxists had about capitalism. Quite the contrary Marxists were extremely disoriented by what was happening, and the first political effects of the crisis, starting with the destruction of the German workers’ movement, amounted to total disasters, defeats on an unprecedented scale. It’s hardly necessary to emphasise the enormous and almost desperate energy with which Trotsky or Gramsci tried in that situation to provide an analysis of the situation and a strategic reorientation for the workers’ movement. On the economic side of the analysis, things proved perhaps even more arduous since it’s only after the Second World War that we started having a specific analysis of the crisis of the 1930s, actually when Marxists started reading and reflecting on Keynes and the importance of Keynesianism.2

In other words, this process of reinventing Marxism is anything but a painless exercise. Furthermore not only is it a process that can take time, which is in itself problematic since it indicates a possible disconnection with the specific temporality of politics which is the “here and now”, but also a process that is quite open in its outcome, which means that it is a process without any guarantee of success, unless we hold to a religious and dogmatic conception of Marxism as a set of stable and secure truths, that is to a very un-Marxist conception of Marxism itself.

The social democratic left

I’ll move now to my point, which is the left, and more particularly the radical left, which is, I think, the reference point of most of us in this room and certainly the only one that may be connected, even loosely, with Marxism. What I will do here is to propose a kind of typology of its reaction to the crisis in order to understand better the reasons and of the characteristics of what I’ve referred to as its strategic perplexity.

I’ll start with some brief remarks concerning the systemic left, the social democratic left, which has actively participated in the recent period in the management of the system and the neoliberal turn. I’ll just say two things about what remains, it has to be said, the main force of the European left.

The first is that, being deeply embedded in the management of the system and having actively promoted the neoliberal policies that are at the root of the current crisis, this left simply cannot understand, even on a purely intellectual level, the reasons for and the mechanisms of the crisis. This is why it puts forward superficial explanations usually structured around the idea that there have been some unfortunate excesses of something that is basically sound—excesses of deregulated markets, of financial speculation, etc—and therefore that some corrections are necessary. It has to be said that even right wing politicians expressed similar views in the first period after the start of the crisis, for instance the French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

Actually, and this is the second point, even this kind of minimal critical distance can be considered now as outdated, following the displacement of the centre of gravity of the crisis from the financial sphere to the level of public debt and expenditure. From that moment on, we can say that in every country where it is in government (Greece, Portugal, Britain up to May 2010), social democracy has embraced the austerity politics put forward to satisfy the immediate demands of the dominant classes, and more particularly of banking and financial capital. And it has done so overall with remarkably little internal differentiation and dissent, at least so far. Even in the countries where it is no longer in power, there are virtually no indications of social democracy distancing itself from the dominant agenda. The most telling example is probably that of France, where the Socialist Party has been in opposition for nearly a decade now. But the candidate who seems the most likely to win the primaries as candidate for next year’s presidential elections is the current managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, appointed to that position with Sarkozy’s support.

There are a few counter-tendencies to this predominant trend, such as the recent defeat of the Blairite candidate in the race for the Labour Party leadership and the subsequent at least symbolic break with the Blair legacy, but this change is too recent and too fragile to alter the overall image, which is one of social democracy entering an even more advanced stage of its neoliberal mutation, which also means of its crisis and possible future disintegration.

The left of the social democratic left

Let’s turn now to the forces to the left of social democracy, which constitute the bulk of this space I’ve called the “radical”, or to phrase it in a more neutral and topological way, the “left of the social democratic left”. This field is quite diverse, and not necessarily very radical, but it offers at least some line of demarcation with neoliberalism and a level of active involvement in the social resistance against it.

I will start by examining those forces of the anti-neoliberal left that are represented in national parliaments, essentially constituted by former Communist parties, or forces coming from splits on the left of social democracy or even from a process of convergence of far-left forces like the Portuguese Left Bloc. It is also in that part of the left that we still find some traces at least of references to Marxism, and in some cases some more substantial forms of relating to the Marxist analysis. Of course, things are more interesting here, since there is at least some level of understanding of and of debate on the deeper causes of the crisis and an awareness of the necessity to present some kind of alternative proposals to the forces fighting against the consequences of the austerity politics. However, we have to say that so far these forces have delivered remarkably little, both in terms of analysis and in terms of alternative proposals with any kind of substance and credibility. A quick look at the document approved by the most recent conference in Paris in December 2010 of the Party of the European Left is eloquent in this respect.3

This remarkably poor performance is probably not unrelated to the fact that, without being worse than previously, the electoral results of these forces since the start of the crisis are tending rather towards stagnation. As such these parties do not seem to be in a particularly favourable position to benefit from the crisis of social democracy. Indeed, the absence of a clearly discernable turn to the left is a remarkable pattern of the current crisis so far, with the partial exception of Greece, about which I’ll say more in a moment.

The interesting question is actually why this is so. As a hypothesis, rather than a full answer, I’ll suggest the following: the first is that in terms of understanding, the analysis of the crisis remains quite general, denouncing the most obvious aspects of neoliberal policies such as financial speculation, fiscal exemptions benefiting capital, austerity as a cause for deepening the recession, etc. What are missing from the picture are two things. The first is the understanding of the geopolitics of crisis, the specific way the crisis unfolds within the European Union and more particularly within the eurozone. What is missing more precisely is the understanding of the fact that the way these political configurations operate create or accentuate all kinds of polarisations, which give to the dominant classes of the core European countries the possibility of transferring at least part of the costs to the countries of the periphery.

But, in order to grasp this, these left forces should understand the extent to which neoliberal policies and a core/periphery division are embedded within the structure of the EU and the mechanism of “European integration”. They should display a will to break with the existing framework of the EU and its institutional pillars, including the eurozone. But this is precisely what these parties refuse to do, putting forward instead illusory proposals to reform the core European institutions (see the programme of the European Left) that seem now even less credible than ever before. This is especially true in countries experiencing the extreme brutality of the so-called “rescue mechanism”, such as Greece and Ireland.

This lack of workable intermediate objectives, even of a reformist but at least concrete and credible kind, also explains the weakness of the rest of the proposals, which are intended to respond to immediate social demands, and which I would characterise as of a syndicalist or trade unionist type. In principle, there is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Every concrete struggle starts with these types of demands. But, deprived of a political perspective, they lack credibility, especially in a situation of crisis. Because such a situation, even in less dramatic cases than Greece or Ireland, means entering a non-standard period, a period during which what could be considered as legitimate at a previous moment now becomes a luxury we can’t afford any more due to the urgency, the extraordinary character, of the situation.

To put it more simply, the problem with the slogan “We won’t pay for their crisis” is that its performative dimension (“We won’t pay”) presupposes that our objective has already been achieved, which means that a sufficient number of people are convinced that there are other ways to deal with the crisis than those currently on offer, and that they are convinced about this alternative possibility in a situation where action is needed immediately, otherwise it wouldn’t be a situation of crisis.

We need to think seriously about the insufficiency of this approach in the light of the recent cycle of social mobilisations in Europe, starting with last spring’s strikes in Greece, continuing in autumn 2010 with the impressive and protracted French movement against the pension reforms and now with the mobilisations in universities in Italy and in the UK. It is now clear that a new cycle of struggles is emerging and certainly more is to come. But we also have to say that all these recent mobilisations, if we put aside the still ongoing ones in the universities, have failed. Resistances and movements are indispensable, without them nothing will be achieved, but they are not as such the solution. Daniel Bensaïd warned us repeatedly about the consequences of the “social illusion”, of the widespread belief among various currents of the anti- or alter-globalisation constellation that, in order to deliver (but what exactly?), social movements should remain disconnected from politics.4 So we are back to the question of the alternative, or rather of its absence.

Thinking the alternative

My conclusion will therefore take the form of a question: is there an alternative on the left to this lack of alternative of the main forces of the anti-neoliberal left? I’ll leave this question open, not however before confessing a certain feeling of pessimism when looking at the current picture. Alex Callinicos’s remarkable article “Austerity Politics”, and its effort to grasp the mechanisms of the crisis and the necessity to elaborate transitional demands, seems to me an exception rather than the rule.5 The same thing could be said about the Greek far-left regroupment Antarsya, which defended a platform including defaulting on the debt, exiting from the eurozone and nationalising the banks, and was rewarded with a significant electoral success in the last local and regional elections.

Despite signs of hope, the dominant tendencies within the far left are a kind of radicalised version of what I said before about the broad anti-neoliberal, or left of the social democratic left—that is to say a combination of general denunciations of the system, in this case named “capitalism” rather than simply “neoliberalism”, with a lack of understanding of the mediations through which the dominant classes are responding to the crisis and, finally, an absolutisation of struggles and movements as delivering a solution to our problems—to put it briefly, a combination of propagandistic attitudes and syndicalist agitation. It is exactly with this that we must break if we are to think seriously about alternatives and a new political perspective for the anticapitalist forces.

And we need to start doing that immediately.


1: Paper given at the “Marxism and the Alternatives to the Crisis” seminar organised by International Socialism on 7 December 2010 at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Many thanks to Sebastian Budgen for his help.

2: We can here mention, in a purely indicative way, among the pioneering works, those of Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Paul Mattick, or, in the 1970s, the French “regulation school”.

3: The document can be downloaded at www.european-left.org/english/3rd_el_congress/3rd_el_congress/

4: For example, Bensaïd, 2007.

5: Callinicos, 2010.


Bensaïd, Daniel, 2007, “The Return of Strategy”, International Socialism 113 (winter), www.isj.org.uk/?id=287

Callinicos, Alex, 2010, “Austerity Politics”, International Socialism 128 (autumn), www.isj.org.uk/?id=678