The radical left: a richer mix

Issue: 121

Panos Garganas

Alex Callinicos takes the debate on the future of the radical left several steps forward with his article in the previous issue of International Socialism. This is very important. It is crucial to restate the need and the possibility of building a radical left that avoids the twin dangers of sectarianism and opportunism today. The difficulties arise as we try to deal with the problems that have cropped up after the crises in Rifondazione Comunista in Italy and Respect in Britain. Is it possible to deal with the tensions between right and left within such projects in an effective way? And how? No ready made recipe exists and therefore we need to address these questions urgently and clearly.

One way of facing this task is by taking a longer view. Today’s radical left has been a long time coming. It is the product of a wave of radicalisation that has its roots, at least in Europe, in the shift to the left in the middle of the 1990s when social democratic governments replaced the likes of Helmut Kohl and Silvio Berlusconi in most countries. At the time many people on the left argued that this was not a significant shift, that Tony Blair won by merely copying Margaret Thatcher. But some of us argued that there was a deeper left dynamic and that this would feed a more pronounced radicalisation as people went through the experience of centre-left governments. This long process was accentuated by the explosions in Seattle, Genoa, Florence and, of course, the anti-war mobilisations of 15 February 2003 across the world. These are elements that we have to keep in mind as we try to assess the dimensions and the characteristics of the radical left milieu as it has emerged today.

Alex may be too restrictive when he writes that people breaking from social liberalism to the left today are seeking “a more genuine version of the reformism that their traditional parties once promised them”. That may well be true of Oskar Lafontaine in Germany or George Galloway in Britain, but there is no need to generalise this across all countries and all currents that are feeding the radical left. In today’s circumstances there are whole sections of a new working class that have not even experienced the traditional reformism of the past. Young people may be more influenced by autonomist rather than “left Labour” ideas. On top of this, the latest manifestation of the crisis of capitalism affects the radicalisation of even those sectors that may, until now, have restricted themselves to seeking alternatives to neoliberalism rather than to capitalism. We have to see the unifying organisations of the radical left as hybrid formations that include reformist and revolutionary currents, but the mix may be richer than the formula implied in Alex’s article.

A more dynamic mixture does not exclude the existence of tensions between right and left elements. This is very clear now that we have the Italian experience to reflect on. The crisis in Rifondazione did not simply arise as an inadequate response to a retreat in the movement. The problems in the movement itself came about as a result of too reformist an attitude to the anti-war struggles and the strike movement in Italy. Rifondazione and the European Left Party actively sought to restrict the anti-war aspects of the European Social Forum and to slap down any anti-capitalist tendencies pushing beyond a strict anti-neoliberal agenda. They were not prepared for the successes of the movement, and they were too timid in developing the political logic of the dynamic of the movement. The demand that the radical left should be anti_capitalist is a conclusion that needs to be drawn out of this experience. In a radical left that is of necessity a mixture of reformist and revolutionary currents, we need revolutionaries exerting greater pressure.

So where exactly can we draw the balance? The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR) is right in raising the question of refusal to participate in centre-left governments. The Italian experience was a shock for the radical left throughout Europe. The LCR’s Olivier Besancenot is popular precisely because he is seen to offer the prospect that there will not be simply a repetition of the disasters of the coalition governments led by Lionel Jospin in France or Romano Prodi in Italy.

Alex is right when he writes that the distinction between anti_capitalism and anti-neoliberalism, and the condition of no participation in centre_left governments are not “magic bullets”. Even the “21 conditions”1 of the Comintern were no guarantee against opportunistic currents. But who would argue that the 21 conditions were not a step in the right direction? As revolutionaries we have to raise the demand that the radical left shifts to anti-capitalism and opposition to centre-left governments today.

The mistake that the LCR may make is if they liquidate their organisation once these conditions are met. Even within such a “sharper” radical left it is necessary to maintain revolutionary organisation as a source of education and political initiatives that pushes the rest of the left forward. Indeed a dissolution of the LCR would be a huge concession to the false pluralism that flattens all traditions within the radical left to the same level. The idea that the disputes between left reformists, anarchists, Trotskyists, Maoists or Stalinists all belong to the past and that the radical left can make a fresh start by wiping out these “ideological” differences and moving on with current political debates has more to do with liberalism than Marxism. The Italian left has paid a huge price because such ideas predominated in Rifondazione. We should urge the comrades of the LCR not to go for a repeat.

In Greece there is an acute awareness of all these problems on the left. Greece is a country where the downturn of the movement after the 1970s was particularly mild and a stronger left survived even in the most difficult years. In 1993 the combined vote of the Communist Party (CP) and Synaspismos2 was 7.5 percent. In 1996 as the Greek Blairites openly seized control of the social democratic party Pasok, a left breakaway, Dikki, took another 3 percent of the vote. The CP and Dikki formed alliances on a number of occasions, most successfully in 1999 during the anti-war movement that opposed the bombing of Belgrade and the intervention of Nato in Kosovo. The combined vote of the left in that year’s European election reached 20 percent. But Dikki was too restricted to electoral work and too dependent on its leader, Dimitri Tsovolas. When the electoral fortunes of Dikki took a turn for the worse, leaving it without parliamentary representation, Tsovolas decided to call it a day, while the CP took an increasingly sectarian attitude. Meanwhile, Synaspismos had difficulties disengaging from neoliberalism.

Throughout the 35 years since the collapse of the Greek Junta the left to the left of these parliamentary parties has existed as a milieu that was powerful enough to attract not one but two mass breakaways from the youth organisations of reformism: the Eurocommunist youth broke en masse to the left in 1979 and the CP youth did the same in 1989, forming the NAR. It is within this context that SEK, our revolutionary socialist organisation, has been trying to regroup the radical left in a way that avoids the twin dangers we are discussing.

In 2007 SEK joined the United Anti-capitalist Left (Enantia) along with four other organisations, including the Greek sister organisation of LCR. Now Enantia is in the process of discussions over a united intervention with the left alliance, Mera, which is led by NAR. The coming months may see a new anti-capitalist left emerge not only in France but in Greece too.


1: The “21 conditions” were the conditions drawn up by Lenin to prevent opportunist elements joining the Third International (the Comintern) established in the wake of the Russian Revolution.

2: A left reformist organisation in Greece.