In government or in opposition, the ‘Left’ against the working class
It only needs a brief glance to show that while the political crisis of the bourgeoisie really is developing, the left’s coming to power hasn’t been verified, or rather, over the last year the left has been systematically pushed away from power in most European countries. We only have to look at the examples of Portugal, Italy, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, France, Belgium, Holland, Britain and Israel. There are practically only two countries in Europe where the left is still in power: Germany and Austria.
This immediately poses the question: was the ICC wrong for all those years in our analysis of the international situation and perspectives, notably the thesis of the left coming to power? We can reply categorically: no. As far as the general analysis is concerned, the present situation, as can be seen in all the reports, amply confirms our analysis. Regarding the question of the left in power, the answer is more complex, but it’s still no.
With the appearance of the crisis and the first signs of the workers’ struggle, the ‘left in power’ was capitalism’s most adequate response in those initial years. The left in government, and the left posing its candidature to govern, effectively fulfilled the task of containing, demobilizing and paralyzing the proletariat with all its mystifications about ‘change’ and about electoralism.
The left had to remain, and did remain, in this position, as long as it enabled it to fulfill its function. Thus, we weren’t committing any error in the past. Something different and more substantial has taken place: a change in the alignment of the political forces of the bourgeoisie. We would be committing a serious error if we didn’t recognize this change in time and continued to repeat ourselves emptily about the danger of ‘the left in power’.
Before continuing the examination of why this change has taken place and what it means, we must particularly insist on the fact that we’re not talking about a circumstantial phenomenon, limited to this or that country, but a general phenomenon, valid in the short and possibly the middle-term for all the countries of the western world. This initial recognition is necessary if we are to examine and understand the change that has taken place and the implications it has, notably concerning the necessary rectification of our political aim in the near future.
Having effectively carried out its task of immobilizing the working class during these initial years, the left, whether in power or moving towards power, can no longer perform this task except by putting itself in the opposition. There are many reasons for this change, to do with the specific conditions of various countries, but these are secondary reasons. The main reasons are the wearing-out of the mystifications of the left, of the left in power, and the slow disillusionment of the working masses which follows from this. The recent revival and radicalization of workers’ struggles bears witness to this.
Let’s remind ourselves of the three criteria for the left coming to power which are outlined in our previous analyses and discussions:
1. Necessity to strengthen state capitalist measures.
2. Closer integration into the western imperialist bloc under the domination of US capital.
3. Effective containment of the working class and immobilization of its struggles.
The left fulfils these three conditions most effectively, and the USA, leader of the bloc, clearly supported its coming to power, although it has reservations about the CPs. These reservations gave rise to the policy of ‘Eurocommunism’ by the CPs of Spain, Italy and France, attempting to give guarantees of their loyalty to the western bloc. But while the USA remained suspicious about the CPs, it gave total support for the maintenance or arrival of the socialists in power, wherever that was possible.
It would be wrong to think that the reason for pushing the left away from power is based on this distrust for the CPs, even if this reason had some importance in certain countries like France and Italy. The fact that the socialists have also been pushed out of government -- as in Portugal, Israel, Britain and elsewhere -- shows that this is a phenomenon which goes beyond the simple distrust towards the CPs. The reasons for it must be sought elsewhere.
Let’s return to our criteria for the left being in power. When we examine them more closely, we can see that while the left fulfils them best, they aren’t all the exclusive patrimony of the left. The first two, state capitalist measures and integration into the bloc, can easily be accomplished, if the situation demands it, by other political forces of the bourgeoisie parties of the centre or even outright right-wing ones. Recent history is full of examples of this and we don’t have to elaborate on it. On the other hand, the third criterion, the containment of the working class, is the exclusive property of the left. It is it’s specific function, its raison d’être.
The left doesn’t accomplish this function only, or even generally, when it’s in power. Most of the time it accomplishes it when it’s in the opposition because it’s generally easier to do it when in the opposition than when in power. As a general rule, the left’s participation in power is only absolutely necessary in two precise situations: in a Union Sacree to dragoon the workers into national defense in direct preparation for war and in a revolutionary situation to counteract the movement towards revolution1.
Outside of these two extreme situations, when the left can’t avoid openly exposing itself as an unconditional defender of the bourgeois regime by directly, violently confronting the working class, it must always try to avoid betraying its real identity, its capitalist function, and to maintain the mystification that its policies are aimed at the defense of working class interests.
Every bourgeois party is motivated by its own interests, its own clique-demands and electoral clientele, competing with other parties to get into power. But no party can escape from the imperatives of its class function, which must predominate over its immediate clique interests if that party is to stay alive. This is equally true for the parties of the left who must above all carry out the imperatives of their function. Thus, even if the left like any other bourgeois party aspires ‘legitimately’ to government office, we must note an important difference between these parties and other bourgeois parties concerning their participation in power. That is that these parties claim to be ‘workers’ parties’ and as such are forced to present themselves with ‘anti-capitalist’ masks and phrases, as wolves in sheep’s clothing. Being in power puts them in an ambivalent situation, more difficult than for more frankly bourgeois parties. An openly bourgeois party carries out in power what it says it’s going to do: the defense of capital and it in no way gets discredited by carrying out anti-working class policies. It’s exactly the same in opposition as it is in government. It’s quite the opposite with the ‘workers’ parties’. They must have a working class phraseology and a capitalist practice, one language in opposition and an absolutely opposed practice when in government. All the overtly bourgeois parties shamelessly deceive the popular masses. The working masses are not, however, their clientele. The workers know who they are and don’t have many illusions in them. But the working masses are the main clientele of the left parties whose main function is to mystify, deceive, and derail the workers. In opposition the left parties say what they don’t do and will never do. Once in government they are forced to do what they have never said, have never dared to admit.
They can fulfill their bourgeois functions in contradictory conditions. In the ‘normal’ situations of capitalism, their presence in government makes them more vulnerable; being in power wears out their credibility more quickly. In a situation of instability this tendency is even more accelerated. Then, their loss of credibility makes them less able to carry out their task of immobilizing the working class and this also makes their presence in government superfluous.
Their incommodious position can be summed up as follows: being in power while pretending not to be effected by being in power. That’s why their stays in office can’t last long. Like certain marine species who have to come constantly up to the surface in order to breathe, the left has an imperious need to go through constant rest cures in opposition. This has nothing to do with a Machiavellian plot on the part of the bourgeoisie.
It’s a necessity imposed on it as an exploiting class; this division of labor and function is indispensable to ensuring its rule over society. As an exploiting, ruling class, the bourgeoisie must occupy every inch of social space; it can’t allow any element in society, above all the working class, to escape its control. If a ‘workers’ party’ for one reason or another slips up in its task of derailing working class struggle, the bourgeoisie has to quickly put forward a new party more capable of carrying out this job. In general, like a spider’s web which has several alternative strands, the bourgeoisie engenders several parties, each more to the left than the other (SPs, left socialists, CPs, leftists etc). This function is so important that it can’t allow any break in this chain. Thus, the advantage that the left parties have in being just as effective in government as the right-wing parties in certain extreme situations, can become their Achilles heel in ‘normal’ situations. They then have to resume their place in the opposition, where they are infinitely more effective than the right wing parties.
Today we are in such a situation. After an explosion of social discontent and convulsions which caught the bourgeoisie by surprise, and which were only neutralized by bringing the left to power, the crisis deepened, illusions in the left began to weaken, the class struggle began to revive. It then became necessary for the left to be in opposition and to radicalize its phraseology, so as to be able to control the re-emerging struggle. Obviously this couldn’t be an absolute, but it is today and for the near future a general rule.
It’s characteristic that the countries where the left is still in power, like Germany and Austria, are precisely those countries where the class struggle has been weakest. Not only is the left moving away from power, it must also give the impression of becoming more radical. This is obvious with the CPs -- for example in Italy where they are breaking with the ‘historic compromise’ and in France where the CP provoked the break-up of the Union of the Left and the Programme Commun on the eve of the elections, and is now talking about a union at the base. It’s put away the slogan of the union of the French people and now prefers to talk about defending the workers and being the party of class struggle. At its Twenty-third Congress the French CP drew a “generally positive balance-sheet” of socialism in the east, after its Twenty-second Congress had abandoned the dictatorship of the proletariat and made a violent critique of the lack of democracy in the ‘socialist’ countries, rejecting the Russian model2.
This hardening of the CPs is also forcing the SPs -- in countries with a strong CP in direct competition with the SP -- to radicalize its phraseology so that it doesn’t lose its grip on the workers. This is the case for example in France where at the last Congress the Mitterand leadership broke with the Rocard current and moved towards the left-wing CERES group. We even saw the SP associating itself with the 23 March demo, in opposition to the CFDT. But the same thing is also happening in countries where there is no competition from a strong CP. It’s the case in Britain where the Labor Party has put an end to the Social Contract by calling the election; in Portugal where Soares has got rid of a tendency that was too right wing; or in Spain where the SP Congress got rid of the Gonzales leadership by a large majority, reproaching his ‘consensus’ politics and arguing for a party based on ‘Marxism’. Once we’ve noted the end of the phase of the left in power, we can ask what impact will its return to opposition have. The political and trade union left is going to try to restore its image and make us forget what it did yesterday; instead of its former policy of opposition to all struggles, it’s going to ‘radicalize’ struggles, multiplying them while at the same time dispersing them, in order to sabotage them from within: making itself seem more ‘left’ in order to keep things under control. In sum, instead of driving the train into a siding by being in the drivers’ seat, it’s going to try to derail it in a more pernicious way. The left will be even more dangerous as the ‘defenders’ of the class than when it was its accuser. This is the danger the working class will have to confront, and one that it’s going to be difficult to fight against. In this situation, the leftists will run the risk of losing their distinct identity as an extreme left. After being the champions of the CP/SP in power, they will now put more emphasis on the united front, on committees at the base initiated by the reunified left parties and unions.
We must have no illusions. The left and the leftists have an enormous capacity for recuperation and manipulation. We’ll have to fight them in new conditions. Yesterday when they were in government leading the workers’ train onto capitalist lines we could only be on the side of the tracks, calling on workers to leave the train. Today, when the workers’ train is slowly moving along class lines we have to be in the train, participating actively in the struggle, strengthening the way forward and warning against acts of sabotage by all capitalist agents. It’s inside the struggle, during the course of its development, that we must concretely denounce what the left is doing, tearing off its ‘radical’ mask. It’s a task which is all the more difficult because we have no experience of such a situation. It’s not a question of submitting to an excess of radicalism, but of knowing practically, concretely, on every occasion, what lies behind the ‘radicalism’ of the left. This vision fits perfectly into our general analysis of the international situation and of the resurgence of class struggle. It’s a piece that was missing from the overall picture, especially with regard to the historic course. A course towards war doesn’t make it necessary for the left to radicalize itself in opposition. On the contrary, an atomized, apathetic working class gives the left a free hand and makes it both possible and necessary for it to associate itself with the government.
We must be able to adapt our intervention and activity to this new situation -- a situation full of pitfalls, but also full of promise.
1 Here we still have to note a difference in the behavior of the ‘workers’ parties’ in these two situations. In times of war they integrate themselves or support a government of national unity under the leadership of the official representatives of the bourgeoisie, whereas in a revolutionary period the big bourgeoisie generally takes cover behind a ‘left’ or ‘workers’ government. It’s the left which has the honor assassinating the proletarian revolution in the name of ‘democracy’, ‘socialism’ and the ‘defense of the revolution’, as can be seen with the Mensheviks in Russia and Social Democracy in Germany.
2 So ends the famous ‘Eurocommunism’ which caused so much concern to groups like Bataglia Comunista who saw it as some sort of fundamental, definitive change in the CPs and their Stalinist nature. What was no more than appearance, a tactical turn, became for these groups the ‘social democratization’ of the CPs. As we can now see, this wasn’t at all the case.