Three faultlines

Issue: 108

Chris Harman

This summer saw the clear emergence of another faultline in the world system, alongside those caused by the Bush government’s inability to crush the resistance in Iraq, and the rising wave of revolt in Latin America. The new faultline is in Western Europe. It is the subject of the opening section of this journal.

A decade ago a general swing to the left voted out conservative governments in Italy, France, Britain and Germany, but brought to power Third Way social democrats committed to a neo-liberalism that soon disillusioned many of their most active supporters. Now there are signs of new, widespread political dissent as the pressure on European capitalism from competition in global markets is pushing governments towards even harder versions of the neo-liberal agenda, with attacks on pensions and unemployment benefits and demands for longer working hours.

The ‘No’ vote in the French referendum and the election results in Germany have thrown their political establishments into turmoil. In France the conservative right is split down the middle, as former interior minister Sarkozy challenges Chirac, warning that ‘I’m not going to quietly mend locks at Versailles while a revolt is brewing in France.’ The Socialist Party is as badly split, caught between a majority leadership which wants to continue with the policies of the past, and dissidents who know that 70 percent of the party’s supporters voted no in the referendum. This, argues Stathis Kouvélakis in our first article, constitutes a qualitative change in the situation and an unparalleled opportunity for the revolutionary left, not only in France but across the continent as a whole.

Germany is still the economic powerhouse of the continent-and was a source of political stability at the time of eruption in France, Italy, Portugal and Spain in the late 1960s and 1970s. Stefan Bornost shows, in an article written on the eve of the 18 September elections, how that stability has been undermined, with revolt from within the ranks of social democracy giving birth to an electoral intervention from a new left.

The faultline extends beyond France and Germany. Pepijn Brandon points to similarities between the mood in the Dutch referendum and that in France. Jane Hardy and Andy Zebrowski show that some of the same feeling exists now even in Poland, the biggest of the ‘new Europe’ states aligned internationally with Bush and Blair. And we recall the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity revolt, which dealt the first stunning blow to the old Stalinist order throughout Eastern Europe. Ian Taylor hears from activists in the working heartland of London’s East End how the new Respect coalition was able to give political expression to the bitterness against Tony Blair.

The Latin American faultline first came to light with the uprising which drove out the Ecuadorian president in January 2001. Since then further risings have removed presidents in Argentina, Ecuador (for a second time) and Bolivia (twice), as well as thwarting the April 2002 coup against Chávez in Venezuela. The recent uprising in Bolivia was in some ways the most far-reaching yet. Mike Gonzalez provides an exhaustive analysis of the forces involved in the revolt, showing how at the key moment it raised the whole question of which class ruled the country-a question which was not finally resolved in June and which will return again in the months ahead.

Brazil, the biggest South American country, with half the population and the most powerful economy, has so far avoided the upsurge of militancy seen elsewhere. Until recently it seemed stabilised as the Lula government, elected with working class votes three years ago, followed ultraorthodox Third Way policies. Over the summer that government has been much weakened, not by mass struggle, but by a series of revelations about corruption going right to the heart of the Workers’ Party. Three revolutionary activists from Sao Paulo analyse the political crisis and suggest the way forward for the new left grouped in the PSOL party.

Finally, the Iraq faultline continues to threaten instability at the very heart of the system. The Bush administration’s attempt to reinforce US hegemony for the rest of the ‘new century’ is threatening to undermine that hegemony with consequences neither it nor we can foresee. What is clear is that the war will produce political explosions, often when they are least expected-as with the impact of the suicide bombings in London, Bush’s new threats against Iran, the revival of the US anti-war movement, and the way the resources poured into the war deepened the anger over the New Orleans floods. The way the war feeds into other issues is shown by the perplexity of the Bush administration faced with the revolts in US imperialism’s traditional bloody playground in Latin America, and the way the German Social Democrats were able to use the war as a weapon in an effort to regain ground in the elections.

Theory, clarity and practice

Three faultlines do not make a revolutionary situation. For that many other factors are necessary. One is clarity on the left about its analyses of the world. On the left internationally there is considerable confusion when it comes to analysing the motives that drove the Bush administration to launch its ‘war on terror’. Alex Callinicos follows up the arguments in his book, The New Mandarins of American Power, with a critical discussion on some of the other interpretations of imperialism today.

Among sections of the anti-imperialist movement there is still a degree of suspicion of Marxism, fed by the postmodernist, post-colonial academic currents of the 1980s and 1990s. One source of the suspicion is the misreading of Marx by Edward Said in his influential book Orientalism. The noted Indian historian Irfan Habib challenges Said’s approach.

Another question about which clarity is all-important is that of what socialism means in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism. The Argentinian economist Claudio Katz (whose analysis of Latin America’s centre-left governments was in our last issue) has recently produced a book, El Porvenir del Socialismo (‘The Future of Socialism’) on this. Chris Harman takes a friendly but critical look at it.

Finally, a central issue for all of us is how consciousness changes in such a way that the mass of people who have gone along with the system can turn against it. Pete Glatter looks at one of the most important historical experiences, the transformation of working class ideas during the Russian Revolution of 1905, while Neil Davidson takes up some of the same issues in a long review of the important work on the German Revolution of 1918-1923 by the French historian Pierre Broué, who died this summer (and whose obituary is written by Ian Birchall).