Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation

The Left today must tackle two fundamental problems in the struggle against neoliberal capitalism: how to gain political power and what to do after coming to power. In our previous conversations on Perry Anderson’s “Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” we discussed political strategies in Western and non-Western states, especially the distinction between the “war of position” and “war of maneuver” in the Left’s quest to capture power and transform the state.

In their essay, “Class, Party and the Challenge of State Transformation,” Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin focus on the second part of the equation, what to do if the Left comes to power. They discuss the possibility of a pragmatic approach to achieve democratic socialism, referring to several recent examples such as Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the US and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labor Party in Great Britain.

Panitch and Gindin argue that the Left’s resistance to global capitalism has fundamentally shifted from “protest” to “politics”; away from the street protests of the alter-globalization movement and Occupy, to more concerted attempts to incorporate political strategy. They argue that this reflects the new conjuncture in the anti-capitalist political tradition. Panitch and Gindin take note of the new “Left populism,” although they are aware of the limitations of this kind of politics which, as Andrew Murray insists, is more “class-focused” than “class-rooted.”

The implication is that class-focused politics which discusses issues such as student and homeowner debt doesn’t emerge organically from the struggles of the working class, the “class-in-itself,” and doesn’t advance the socialist perspective of transforming the working class into a class-for-itself (p. 37). Although the leaders of the previously mentioned Left-wing political movements have stressed the need to go beyond neoliberal capitalism, their parties/movements have been limited because they are not class-rooted. Thus, they have not been able to transform the capitalist state.

Historically, the Left has followed the Leninist model of a “vanguard party” in a revolutionary process to capture state power. Panitch and Gindin stress that it is necessary to radically break away from the Leninist approach, in order to achieve “Socialism in the 21st Century.” To support their argument, they draw our attention to the famous debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg regarding Bolshevik rule after the Russian revolution. Luxemburg argued that without freedom of expression and assembly, especially general elections to increase the scope of public participation, politics will narrow to a “clique affair” (p. 39) Panitch and Gindin argue that Luxemburg’s critique helps us understand the emergence of dictatorial regimes in socialist countries, which attempted to impose plans regardless of the will of working class.

It is also important to recall Poulantzas’ criticism of the Leninist “dual-power” strategy to create working class organizations while transforming the State. Unfortunately, neglecting the former led to increased reliance on a single party to transform the state, which further entrenched bureaucratic authoritarianism. Panitch and Gindin quote Poulantzas, who argues that the “techno-bureaucratic statism of the experts was the outcome not only of the instrumentalist strategic conception of social democratic parliamentarianism, but also of the Leninist dual-power type of strategy which envisages straightforward replacement of the state apparatuses…” (p. 51). In this regard, parliamentary reformism and Leninist vanguard parties are two sides of the same coin, insofar as they neglect the fundamental question of how to organize the working class.

In the current context, Panitch and Gindin argue that neoliberalism is not just an extended version of capitalism, but also a serious attack on working-class identity, trade unionism and the welfare state. They criticize the post-World War II “settlement” between labor and capital that resulted in the interpellation of workers as “tax-payers,” categorizing them into different strata. This process made it difficult to unite workers and develop new forms of working-class organization. The eventual neoliberal assault and roll-back of labor’s compromises with capital means that although there are a multitude of workers’ struggles that continue to take place in all corners of the world, they still have not been successful in promoting unified resistance to capitalism.

Sanders, Syriza and Political Revolution Today

Over the past several years, however, the Left has begun to respond. There are different opinions about the nature of Sanders’s recent primary election campaign in the US and its implications for socialist struggle. Sanders’s campaign was a populist, social democratic intervention, which based itself in slogans such as public healthcare for all, free college, and infrastructure renewal through direct public employment. Panitch and Gindin note that these slogans were tied to a direct critique of the concentration of economic and financial power, challenging ruling class affiliations with corporate and financial powers (p. 43). Sanders’s use of the term “democratic socialism” was ambiguous given the Scandinavian model that he aspired to. Still, Panitch and Gindin are interested in whether Sanders’s campaign has laid a path to a future socialist movement.

On the other hand, the failures of the democratically-elected Syriza government raises many concerns about socialist political strategy after coming to power within the capitalist global order. After winning the popular referendum in July of 2015, the government agreed outright to the brutal austerity terms of its European creditors. The common criticism against the Tsipras-led Syriza government was that it did not have a “Plan B” to leave the European Union and for Greece to adopt its own currency if creditors refused to negotiate.

Referring to Syriza’s fate, Costas Douzinas outlines three different temporalities that the radical Left must simultaneously operate in once it gains state power. First, there is the “time of the present,” in which the elected government, in this case Syriza, has to go through a tense and difficult time as it deals with the external political and economic pressures imposed by global capitalist powers. During this period, there are severe existential crises and difficulties in managing the demands of popular masses as the government seeks to promote anti-capitalist reforms within the capitalist order.

The second temporality might be three to five years that advance policies with a clear Left direction in conjunction with social movements. The third and final temporality is the longest temporality, the “time of the radical Left vision.” During this period, “the full program of the Left of the 21st century” will emerge (p. 48-49).

Douzinas’ point is that governing entails its own contradictions and compromises, but whichever Left party comes to power must not abandon the fundamental commitment to change. It must continue to build on extra-parliamentary movements that can eventually help transcend the state and capitalism. It may not be able to achieve all its demands at once, however, given the balance of internal and external forces in the conjuncture.

Socialist Strategy in Sri Lanka

How can we apply these points to the Sri Lankan Left? Currently, Sri Lanka has been going through a major political adjustment since the January 8th, 2015 Presidential Election. For the first time in post-independence political history, the two main political parties, the UNP and SLFP (a fraction of SLFP oppose the government), have come together to form the current “yahapalana government.” This was a direct consequence of the victory of common candidate in the last presidential election who was also supported by center-Left and progressive civil society forces to defeat the authoritarian Rajapaksa regime.

Ultra-Left parties abstained or advanced their own candidate. The intention of some Leftists to support the common candidate, however, helped open the political space, which is still relatively democratic compared to the previous regime. The hope again is that this would enable alternative forces to organize unions and oppressed people.

In contrast to Syriza, Podemos, Sanders, or Corbyn, however, the Left was not at the forefront of this movement. Some argue that it is being subordinated to the fundamental neoliberal economic policy goals of the current government. The question remains, how should the Left coordinate to win specific demands that can further support future efforts to organize?

Given the opening in democratic space since 2015, in addition to student and labor organizing, the Left in Sri Lanka should analyze the governmental setup and its relationship to extra-parliamentary movements. As the first step to democratic socialism, Panitich and Gindin suggest beginning with election to local or regional levels of the state. They argue that this could allow the Left to develop its capacities of state transformation before coming to national power (p. 55).

What should the Left do now? Is there a space for the Sri Lankan Left to come together again to field candidates at the local or municipal level? We must keep in mind that movements can only succeed to the extent to which they are accompanied by parties that can transform the state to further enlarge the space for mobilization. This link creates the possibility for a dialectic of freedom.

20th January 2017