Rebuilding the Left in a Time of Crisis (Part 2)

by Leo Panitch, Edward Lewis

Leo Panitch is a political economist and theorist based at York University, Toronto, and is co-editor of Socialist Register. His most recent book is In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives (with Greg Albo and Sam Gindin). Leo spoke to NLP’s Ed Lewis about the long crisis of the left and his ideas for a reinvigorated anti-capitalist strategy.

In this part the discussion focuses on Panitch’s proposal for a new kind of political party as well as some of the immediate questions faced by the left at the present juncture. Part 1 can be found here.

The other aspect of organisation that we were going onto discuss, aside from the unions, is political parties. You talk about the need for new political parties – what do you mean by this?

As I said before, I don’t think that the working class as we’ve known it historically, has been a political force except insofar as it was organised through those great social democratic and communist parties. To some extent, it was even what made workers citizens. Part of the appeal of German social democracy to workers was ‘we’ll get you the vote, we’ll make you full German citizens’. And to some extent that was how the Australian Labour Party, and to some extent the British Labour Party, gained support from women - by saying we’ll get you the vote. So the formation of the class itself was to some extent done through parties. And of course the great Swedish or German parties were engaged in creating people’s class identities: from workers education associations to the party conferences as the workers parliaments. (Although this was less developed in by the Labour Party, what there was of even the latter aspect of it was destroyed by Blair and to some extent even Kinnock before him – the Labour Party conference was sidelined because it was too radical in the 1980s).

So the very creation of the class to some extent was done by parties. Moreover , since class struggle is resolved at the level of the state, parties are essential for bringing together the disparate demands of working class people and other demands that arise in society, and carrying them in a coherent manner into the state. All too often that has not involved transforming the state. It’s just been at the level of policy – ‘we’ll introduce this policy or that policy’ – in the way that is very distant from the class, and doesn’t involve changing the deeply undemocratic nature of most state organisations. Nor does it involve dealing with the deep division of labour that exists within most state organisations.

So part of a new political party…

...would be to address that. I think it is crucial people here in Britain to reclaim what was the project of the 1970s, inside the Labour Party and to some extent outside the Labour Party. Now there was a lot of flakiness at that time there was a lot of political fixing, a lot of infighting inside the party, and there was Militant deploying archaic Bolshevik language and tactics. But although they had all kinds of limitations of their own, the Bennite movement, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the municipal socialism that (believe it or not) people like Blunkett were leading up in Yorkshire in the 1970s – these were about saying that the state and the party are not democratic and that the only way we are going to be able to hold on to the old reforms and go beyond them to put socialism back on the agenda must involve democratising the party in order to democratise the state. It isn’t just a matter of policy.  BI believe was correct and indeed John Holloway who today speaks of changing the world without taking power, was part of this thrust as a key figure of what was called the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group…

…They published In and Against the State.

Yes.  and it was extremely creative in terms of the idea of getting into the state, whether at the municipal level or at the national level, precisely in order to refashion the state in such a way that inside the state you continue to be a class organiser. You can use the resources of the state to organise the unorganised to give them capacity to struggle against you inside the state, to push you inside the state. This was a central theme in the 1980s of the Workers Party of Brazil, which put itself forward as a post-Leninist, post-social democratic party precisely in these terms, although it later turned into a typical social democratic party.

The defeat that the parliamentarians inflictedon the democratic, let’s call it Bennite, insurgency in the Labour Party, using the threat of Thatcherism, and the power of the media to designate the whole Bennite left as ‘the loony left’ has enormous impolications in terms of demobilizing the broader British left.  But what needs to be be revived, is just this sort of Bennite image of renewing class politics as transformative democratic politics. Now they wanted to begin democratising the Labour party, which I never thought you could, do.. I thought you could raise this type of political orienttaion in the Party but that the Party would inevitably split and that this would render it electorally unviable for a long period – and this would be used to close down the debate, which is indeed what occurred.

I’m now 65 and since the 1960s, my generation realized, when we got politicized, that the old social democratic parties and the old communist parties had run their course historically, that they were no longer capable of organising the class, developing the class, carrying through a socialist project. Some of us tried an independent socialist politics that involved building new independent socialist parties. We had successes in places, not in building parties, but building a new base for this.

What did those successes look like?

In Ottawa for instance I was part of the Ottawa Committee for Labour Action that built very strong links with newly organised public sector unions. We kept waiting for a new party formation to come along that we could attach our public sector base to: teachers, nurses, postal workers, public employees generally. It never came along so we tried to do it ourselves in the early 80s, bringing together the very broad left in Ontario to very succesful, non-sectarian conference to this end. , But some of the key people who came at that time were really burnt out. They had come out of – I’m about to give you another example of failure – they had come out of the new Trotskyist, Marxist-Leninist or Maoist organisations that had formed since the 1960s, searching for a better Leninism, which I never did – I was never a Leninist. But others did and I admire them, they were very committed people. And that too has failed. I mean they still hang on in the Socialist Workers Party. And they can have an impact to some extent. But that’s been a failure, building a new Leninist party’s been a failure as well, and the Trostkyist organisations have always been looking for a better form of Leninism.

I hope that your generation will be able to get past this. To be disheartened because we didn’t succeed is like saying Marx didn’t succeed with the First International. And I think conditions are increasingly there for you to succeed, partly because I its clear your generation will not set out to build a better type of Leninism.

I don’t think Leninism has much natural traction with people of my generation. On the other hand I’m not sure that the concept of political parties does either.

Yes. I don’t care if we call it ‘party’ or not but there has to be some form of getting beyond the disparate, ad hoc protest politics, the diversity of tactics – which is very unsolidaristic – and getting beyond the kind of network politics – the ‘movement of movements’ politics. We need to be actually developing the types of organisations which are permanent, in which people develop the capacities to be political actors in a more permanent way.

Membership organisations?

Membership organisations, dues paying organisations, educational organisations, and organisations that are prepared, not just to make proposals to the state, but to risk going into the state. Maybe at first at the municipal level. I’m not saying one should rush into electoral politics. Not at all. But we need to be prepared to say – ‘look, we will at some point be putting the question of state power on our strategic agenda.’

So this is a type of capacity-building politics you are concerned with at the party and at the union level. And you think that there are bases there in society which may feed into this, you are hopeful of that.

I have no doubt that we will see through the 21st Century repeated attempts in places across the world to do this. I have no doubt whatsoever. If you ask me whether I am confident that they will be more successful than they have been in the last 30-40 years I’m not so sure. But that the attempts will be made – I have no doubt. The important thing therefore is to try to put as much useful thought as we can into trying to make them successful.

Is there any more flesh you want to put on the bones of the outline you’ve given of how to move forward?

One of the crucial things has to do with the division of labour and the way that interacts with the new modes of communication. Young people today need to go back and read a very important book (and very few people took it seriously on the revolutionary left) written during World War One by Roberto Michels, who ended up being a fascist but who at that time was a social democrat. The book is called Political Parties: The Iron Law of Oligarchy. It argues that in mass socialist working class organisations a division of labour inevitably emerges between the leaders and the led and there’s both psychological and organisational reasons for that. There’s great insight in that book, but we need to figure out how to build the types of organisations that build in the institutional and psychological means of preventing those tendencies, or at least minimising those tendencies. One of the things we need to ask, without being technologically determinist, is whether the new modes of communication of the type that you are engaged in, provide a means of helping us overcome that old division of labour in working class organisations.

That sounds to me even more acute when you’re not just talking about, say, a workers cooperative, but you’re talking about something that’s prepared to go into the state – which inevitably will seek to and naturally will impose such divisions of labour.


Let’s end by talking about the lessons of this crisis that relate to the organisational questions we’ve been discussing.

One of the lessons I would want to draw is: be careful of what your demands are.  When I was your age, when capitalism was approaching full employment in the 1960s, we felt very confident about our ability to make any wage demand we wanted, because even if that bankrupted our employer we could pick up another job down the road. And if our bosses told us to work harder we were quite prepared to tell them to fuck off because we thought we could pick up a job very easily. And as students it made us very bolshy because we weren’t worried – ‘well ok if we don’t get a job until we’re 35 we’ll still be able to get a job’. And that produced a lot of the militancy and it produced a lot of the profit squeeze in the 1960s and 70s and it produced a lot of the fiscal crises in the state. So, in other words, it wasn’t just Thatcher’s ideas, or financial capitalist ideas that destroyed the Keynesian welfare state, it was its internal contradictions, which actually came out of the victory of the reforms.The Keynesian reforms which had earlier been won laid the grounds for workers to get greater access to markets and capitalism’s consumer goods and we were often the agents of actually using the reforms to get just that. So we need to think very carefully about what we want to win in the current context. If universities are going to be allowed to be more and more marketised, it’s not good enough for us to introduce a graduate tax, because we’re still going to have universities that are increasingly businesses.

And that relates not so much to the fees issue in any case, does it – it relates to the division of funds and the withdrawal of the teaching grant.

Exactly. So we need to think very carefully about what we’re being defensive about, and what we’re asking for in the context of this crisis. Similarly, when we look to the Chinese proletariat, and see the remarkable strikes that have occurred, let’s look soberly at this.  Globalisation has essentially been about the creation of new working classes. People say class is an old concept and fewer and fewer people are workers in the old sense – on the contrary. There have been never so many workers on the face of the planet as there are today, even in the old sense of industrial workers or workers in factories! Because what has happened is that capitalism has been able to jump on the backs of new proletariats that have been created around the world. That’s what globalisation to a significant extent has been about.

Now we see even capitalists, saying we need a wage-led growth in China. Because if we’re no longer, with this crisis, going to be able to have workers in Britain, the US and Canada buying all this stuff on credit, then the Chinese workers are going to have to buy it themselves. Well, yes it’s possible that the Chinese working class will be able win wage increases. It’ll involve overcoming or transforming the unions there (which are really control agents for the Party and for managers), but if the Chinese proletariat succeeds only in the way in which Western unions ended up succeeding in the 20th century – that is, succeeding in terms of making their members individual consumers – then we’re not any further along. In fact, given the ecological crisis, we’re in a sense much worse off.

So the type of unionization we need is one which focuses much more on changing conceptions of standards of living in a way much more oriented to collective services – the provision of free transport, rather than individual cars, just to take that one example. So there too I think we need to be very careful about what we hope for – not just hope that the Chinese proletariat can organise, as an independent class, but what kind of a class it will be as it organises independently. And that speaks to what we would need to do with the new trade unionism that might happen here.

So relating that to the kinds of demands that you see being made here, what’s the connection?

Right, the type of immediate demands we need to make here, in our societies (and we won’t succeed unless we can make immediate demands, not just long term ones) need to be the ones that reduce competition among the working class. The strugglefor pensions needs to be put in terms of the re-creation of a universal pension system, rather than employer-based benefits, which divides the working class. We need to go back to the demand for a universal pension. That builds into the long-term strategy as well, because those pension demands need to be built into the long-term infrastructure, not to be invested in bond markets and stock markets and derivatives. Those pension funds should be available to the state for long-term infrastructure development.

That should go hand-in-hand with a long-term demand for nationalizing the banks and transforming them, or taking those that were nationalized because they were bankrupt in this crisis, and not running them in the same way as they were run before which is what’s been done in Britain. They should be turned into public utilities, oriented to allowing us to undertake democratic economic planning. And that’s about the decisions about what’s invested, how it’s invested, where it’s invested etc. This needs to be the essence of a democratic economy.

The type of short term demands we make, need to be built with that in mind.

It’s difficult, though, isn’t it, because what is simple as a rallying point is basically just to say ‘no’ to what the government is now doing. ‘Don’t get rid of this’. And when you start saying something which to some ears is a bit more esoteric, you may fail to get the level of unity around that – some people think you’re longer term project is a good idea but others aren’t so sure, it’s harder to conceptualise than simple resistance, and so on.

That’s absolutely right. It’s dangerous. And people sometimes therefore give up on winning or even demanding the type of reforms that would provide an opening to the more structural reforms we need. But if we don’t risk that, we will be in a cycle of defensive struggle and losing defensive struggle increasingly. So the type of organisers we need to develop, the type of cadre we need to build, the type of people who can go to a student meeting and motivate the struggle, need to be those who have developed the skills and capacities and depth that allow them to be good at taking a defensive struggle and saying ‘we can both fight it, and maybe fight it more effectively, if we can link it to a set of demands that are forward looking. They need to be visionary in terms of a socialist strategy. That doesn’t mean socialism tomorrow. But it means building out of this defensive struggle socialist capacities.

It’s been done historically, there’s no reason it can’t be done now. But I agree it’s a risk.

But also do you think it is present in the left as it currently is constituted here?

It’s present. It’s not present in great enough numbers; it’s hardly at all present in the current organisations. That said, I’ve said some very critical things of the Leninist formations, or at least the Trotskyist ones who wanted to build a better Leninism., But they were good at developing people who could engage in immediate struggles but at the same time encourage people to read and think and argue about how to move them towards socialist goals. One could build on the tendencies within these formations, but only by taking them in a direction that’s less bothered by whether Lenin was right in 1911 or not.

imgPrintable version


imgContact us

Article tools:

printable version share contact NLP jump to comments

First published: 31 March, 2011

Category: Activism, Politics, Vision/Strategy

Latest articles...

  1. The Kerry Initiative: The Next Round: by Norman Finkelstein, Jamie Stern-Weiner
  2. Beyond the War and Ndombolo: by Christina Fonthes
  3. The UKIP Puzzle and the Media Establishmentarianisation Hypothesis: by A. L. Shaw
  4. Four Pictures of Migration: by Carl Rowlands
  5. A People’s History: by Steve Warby
  6. Demanding the Impossible? An Experiment in Engaging Urban Working Class Youth with Radical Politics: by Ed Lewis, Jacob Mukherjee


Twitter latest...

0 Comments on "Rebuilding the Left in a Time of Crisis (Part 2)"

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.


Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?