It’s always much easier to criticize other critics than to perform criticism oneself. Therefore, it is the duty of a cultural and political critic to resist this tendency and to analyse actual culture and politics. Especially in the political field, where there are so many factions and where there is no utter certainty of rectitude, while at the same time decisions have to be made which really matter. Brett Bailey is not going to bring about the Revolution, but what if Julius Malema is? What would that mean?
But this is not going to be about that latter question (good luck to Julius, is the Creator’s private opinion here made public). It is instead about the fact that when critics of political and social reality go off the rails, they actually deserve to be criticized far more than they usually are. The reason for this is simple: they normally go off the rails either because they are being influenced (consciously or not) by powerful figures who are using them to mislead the public, or because they have stumbled into a fantasy la-la land where their delusions appear more valid than any concrete evidence. And, of course, as time goes by their delusions come to coincide with the whims of the powerful, and then they are perfect tools.
This was what irritated the Creator on flipping through the 2013 Socialist Register. It had billed itself as an analysis of the Occupy movement, and while the Creator never had any faith in that movement, it did seem time for a productive postmortem. Therefore the book was duly bought (at horrendous cost) and the Creator settled down to read it instead of the latest Fred Vargas, which is much more worth reading and shows that she is still very much on top of things and is still providing intriguing glimpses of medieval history alongside modern bloodbaths — even if her vision of the most weirdly staffed police station in Paris is (talkin’ to you, Fred!) getting a bit repetitive, as perhaps she realizes.
Not really a big mistake. The Socialist Register is an annual production by the Monthly Review, which is the premier Trotskyite publication in the United States. It therefore probably represents what the official American left, insofar as such exists at all, is thinking, insofar as it can think at all. Which proviso is, sadly, rather important.
The first portion of the book deals with Occupy, and the second with Syriza. Both are movements which arose directly out of the financial crisis and concern ways of challenging the effects of that crisis. They should, therefore, be movement which could be profitably studied so as to understand what to do, and what not to do, when confronting the capitalist state.
In the first portion, the analysis of Occupy is not an analysis at all. Instead, it is a fantasia. If Occupy had been what these essays claim it had been, it would have accomplished a great deal and would have survived, instead of accomplishing nothing and dying. Hence the essays virtually ignore the objective development of Occupy apart from acknowledging that it began as an anarchist movement (or at least, to be precise, as a movement which enjoyed terming itself anarchist and which adopted some anarchist tropes and modes of behaviour). This naturally throws the Marxists of the Monthly Review into some disarray, so their further response is to explain that the Occupy movement was about to become something else (which, of course, it never did).
Having fraudulently staked their claim to Occupy they proceed to give it a significance which it did not possess, suggesting that it was a new rebirth of leftist radicalism, even if along lines which even they do not altogether appreciate (a decentered, non-dogmatic and effectively vapid and empty pseudo-socialism along the lines of that envisaged by the ersatz “post-Marxist” leftist Laclau). It would seem that American Trotskyites have moved so far away from all practical roots, and are so terrified of taking responsibility for anything, that they can be fooled by such conspicuous claptrap.
Some of the pieces on Occupy do point out (albeit never centrally) the core failures of the movement. Among these were: the lack of ideological grounding; the absence of any meaningful or attainable demand; the active rejection of any attempt at recruiting support or building an organizational base; the openness to agent provocateurs and corrupt entryists (such as the so-called Black Bloc). All these weaknesses were mere minor contributions, of course, to the core problem that Occupy’s entire tactic and hence reason for existence was direct confrontation of the capitalist state’s authority through violation of its laws. Hence Occupy could be destroyed at any time and its refusal to seek support was actually a desire to be destroyed – as usual, the irresponsible left wished to be stripped of access to responsibility.
Not unlike Trotskyite positions the world over, of course.
The pieces on Syriza were less jabberingly nonsensical, although they were absurdly over-optimistic. (It has to be emphasized that Syriza lost the general election, even if it did grow to become the second-largest left party in post-war Greek history, and comprehensively failed in its mission of obstructing plutocratic imperial control of Greece.) Here, interestingly, the fantasy became stronger the further away from the action people were (whereas in the Occupy articles people engaged in Occupy were almost as deluded as those watching it from a distance). The core fantasy was, of course, that Syriza could somehow take power without a real struggle against the repressive forces of capital.
Meanwhile, all that Syriza actually was, was a union of left forces – including some dissidents from former established left parties like PASOK, the socialist party turned Graeco-Blairite, which were now (as of 2012) utterly bankrupt. This union happened to win so much political support that it gained almost as many votes as PASOK once had. Of course, as even PASOK’s leaders pointed out, this was not a stable situation. Although none of the writers focus on this, it is clear that the struggle was not so much for socialism, as against the surrender of Greek sovereignty demanded by the EU – and hence, that Syriza’s capacity to unite the left depended on an extraordinary situation.
It is true that in other areas such situations also existed, and were not taken advantage of – for instance, in Germany, where Die Linke sputtered and failed, or in Italy. There are pieces on both countries, but neither of them seriously explains why right-wing pro-plutocratic and anti-democratic parties were so much more successful than left parties. There are vague suggestions around what had gone wrong with the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s and 1980s, but nothing more specific about the more recent failures of the Italian Left – possibly because these failures are unambiguously products of the failure of a political movement dominated either by Trotskyism or by the “social movement” pseudo-radicalism of the 1980s.
Apart from these, there are some rather vague notes on feminism – usually acknowledging that socialist feminism has been virtually destroyed, but yet again without saying what tactical, strategic or ideological failures have led to this destruction. There are also two pieces attempting to give historical surveys of the American and European Lefts, both of which leave out far more than they include and also appear to make highly problematic analyses of what they do include. Perhaps most bathetic of all, John S Saul recycles his usual anti-ANC propaganda, heavily dependent on right-wing and neoliberal posturing and containing virtually nothing addressing any event since 2000, ostensibly to show how revolutions can be co-opted. (Since Saul actually provides no evidence that there was a South African revolution in the first place – he denies any revolutionary status to the ANC and pretends, without any excuse, that the UDF was separate from the ANC — and his analysis lacks any substance or coherence, one must assume that this chapter was included in deference to Saul’s immense and wholly unjustified status within the diminishing band of North American Trotskyites.)
It is worth acknowledging that there are a couple of good pieces amid the bad. Significantly, these pieces are not written by North Americans, nor precisely by Trotskyites. One is written by an Italian unionist who argues against the position which the book largely defends – the position he calls “altermondialism”, under which it is not necessary to build a revolution through a revolutionary party, because capitalism’s contradictions will do all that for us and it is only necessary to await and then exploit the collapse – or even wait for capitalism to morph into socialism. (Implicitly, this is the position of the Occupy movement – though definitely not that of Syriza.) His position is that if you want to redistribute wealth and build socialism you have to acknowledge the existence of classes, and hence you will have a fight on your hands against the ruling class. Almost nothing among the North American or British analysts acknowledges this obvious point.
Another is written by an Argentinean educationalist who simply points out that it is not enough to posture and gesture; if you want to change society you have to take power, and to do this you need a party and a revolutionary movement. Without strategy and tactics (in the Occupy fashion again) you are unable to do anything efficacious. This contradicts most of what had been said elsewhere in the book – or, more precisely, it represents taking a stand on the subject based on a realistic analysis of the facts on the ground, whereas most of the commentators in the book refuse to take a stand but instead present a fantasized representation of carefully-selected facts, opinions and falsehoods in order to support a preconception.
Perhaps one reason for this problem is the prevalence of academics in the book. Of course there is no reason for an academic not to study politics. However, it is not enough to understand the world; it is also important to want to change it. It may be this very lack of desire for real change, coupled with an eagerness to posture and to construct pretentious edifices of unfounded rhetoric, which separates these academics from the world and enables them to live in a Trotskyite fantasy of self-fulfilling defeat.
Remember, these are the best and brightest of the Monthly Review’s Trotskyites. In the name of Lev Bronstein, what can the worst be like?