Donny Gluckstein asks what the relationship is between “politics”, the state and radical social change, looking at reformist and revolutionary strategies as well as the rejection of it all in the form of anti-politics.
The foundations of mainstream politics are crumbling and the results are both exhilarating and troubling. Alongside the recent election victory of Syriza, and with Podemos topping Spanish polls, there is the frightening growth of the far-right in many European countries.
Since the Seattle protest against the WTO in 1999 there have also been huge movements that have seen themselves as outside of politics, from Occupy to the Spanish indignados. So alongside a turbulent political scene turnouts at elections have been tumbling, mistrust of politicians has soared, and when Russell Brand calls on people not to vote it stimulates widespread interest.
The nature of the situation was summed up by a steward at my work who regularly buys Socialist Worker. Together we have attended numerous demonstrations, yet she recently asked, “Have you ever thought about going into politics?”
So what exactly is politics? One dictionary definition is “activities associated with the governance of a country or area”. In other words, politics concerns the state. For Marxists the state is, in Lenin’s words, “an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order’, which legalises and perpetuates this oppression.”
So politics operates between two opposite poles. For the right it means actively participating in “the oppression of one class by another” through the state. At the other extreme politics takes the form of reacting against this body and the oppressive class system it defends. The form of the state can vary, of course, from royal autocracy to military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. But the role of the state itself does not vary.
Where parliamentary democracy prevails, the state relies on ordinary people buying into the fiction that it acts in the interests of everyone, rather than the capitalists. In much of Europe the true character of the state was masked by the social democratic compromise reached after the Second World War. However, since the shift to neoliberalism the truth of the situation has been increasingly exposed. Where the state used to provide welfare and services these are sold off so that private businesses can make profits. When the bankers got into difficulties the state bailed them out. Multimillionaires evade billions of pounds in taxation while the poor are pursued for every penny. Not surprisingly, mainstream politics is discredited and in crisis.
One result has been the rise of populist right wing parties. They claim to be “outside the political system” because they are not (yet) part of it. These parties’ ideas are a grotesque caricature of the very system they claim to be against — its racism, its phony unity of rich and poor in “the nation”, its sexism, homophobia, and so on. They encourage poisonous divisions which divide the population, and divert the anger of supporters away from the real cause of suffering in society.
But there is another very different kind of reaction to the bosses’ state that comes from those outside the ruling class. Starting from the viewpoint of the oppressed, one approach is to reject politics altogether. This “anti-politics” can take many forms ranging from straightforward apathy to intense engagement in demonstrations and mass activities outside the state, and against it.
However, as we saw with movements such as Occupy, ignoring the state and repudiating any consideration of “governance” (because experience suggests that is always associated with exploitation and oppression) lumps all political parties together, whether right or left. Rejecting parties also leads to rejecting forms of organisation associated with parties.
But ignoring the state only works if the state is prepared to ignore you, and, alas, it is not. Furthermore, if mass movements lack organisation and the tools to sustain themselves, they may lurch from intense activity back into apathy.
There is a way out of this cycle — to move from rejecting politics altogether to adopting a position on “governance” which neither absents itself, nor involves itself in running the state, but which organises politically to oppose its defence of the system. In other words, the answer is to adopt left politics. That this route can be found is proved by Podemos. Even though it formally rejects right/left labels it has been able to win over many from the mass anti-political movement of the squares towards a left political project.
Marx described an earlier example, writing in 1864 that winning a limitation of the working day through the Ten Hours’ Act was “the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class”.
Left politics can take many forms ranging from a focus on using the state, to emphasising struggles that challenge its capitalist goals. Reformists hope to employ the existing state for the interests of the mass of people. Unfortunately, history suggests this route tends to end in failure. Rather than capturing power, reformist leaders become prisoners of the state structure themselves, and end up administering the system rather than abolishing it.
The revolutionary approach acknowledges the capitalist character of the state and engages in struggles to build the strength of the working class so as to eventually overthrow it, replacing it with a workers’ state based on direct democracy. That occurred, for example, in the 1871 Paris Commune and in the soviets of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
So, in conclusion, we should all “go into politics”, but make sure it is the kind that will end racism, sexism, hunger, poverty, exploitation and oppression once and for all.