Left Populism at the dead end: where to after Corbyn and Sanders?

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From Fightback‘s upcoming issue on Electoral Politics. To subscribe, please visit https://fightback.zoob.net/payment.html
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Introduction: the dream is over

On 8th April 2020, Keir Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn as the leader of the British Labour Party, following that party’s trouncing by Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the December 2019 election. On the same day, Senator Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for US president, soon after his disappointing results in the “Super Tuesday” Presidential primary elections which were dominated decisively by centrist former Vice-President Joe Biden.

To be dramatic, we could call this “the day the dream ended”. That dream was one shared by much of the Left over the last ten years: that nascent Left-wing “populist” electoral movements across the world, often arising from protest movements such as Occupy or the demonstrations against austerity in Greece, would arise to defeat both the neoliberal establishment and the rising tide of Right-wing populist, even fascist, movements. Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are the names most commonly associated with this movement in English speaking countries, but other movements such as PODEMOS in the Spanish state, or SYRIZA in Greece, have also caused much excitement on the broader Left. The former is currently the junior coalition government partner in Spain, and the latter led the government of Greece from 2015-2019.[1] Further back in history, the “pink tide” governments in Latin America, most famously that of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, can also be seen in this category.

So why has this “Left-populist” wave reached such a dead end? And was it a wrong direction to start with?

Bernie Sanders: where was the turnout?

The strongest argument for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was always that “Bernie” was unique in having a mass movement behind him dominated by youth, who were excited and motivated by his social-democratic, anti-establishment message. None of the other, centrist candidates, the argument went, could match the “enthusiasm” and “energy” of the Bernie wave – and if Bernie were to be nominated, this wave would then go on to completely swamp the Trump campaign. Excitable online leftists, such as Will Menaker from the podcast Chapo Trap House, enthused about how the centrist Democrat establishment would soon have to “bend the knee” before the Bernie movement[2], while journalist David Klion was even more optimistic about the future:

As it turned out, there was something of a landslide on “Super Tuesday”, 3rd March 2020, when 14 states held their primaries. Turnout for the Democratic primaries was much higher than in 2016; in states such as Virginia, it doubled.[3] African-Americans, Latin@s and others in working-class suburbs queued for up to 7 hours (due to deliberate underprovision of polling places by Republican state governments) to vote…[4] and the results were excellent for Joe Biden, and disappointing for Bernie Sanders, essentially ending the latter’s chances of winning the nomination.

The immediate counter-reaction from the Sanders camp was to point out that overwhelmingly older voters (tending to support Biden) had turned out, while younger, more Sanders-inclined voters didn’t. But that begs the question. Bernie’s fabled support had not appeared at the polls. Of course, polling times and polling places were inconvenient for young people – exactly as they will be in the November general election. No matter the quality of the Sanders programme, this was powerful negative evidence about his ability to defeat Donald Trump.

One explanation was this was a real-time demonstration of “Cuomo’s Law”. In 2019, the centrist governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo, was challenged from the Left by Cynthia Nixon, an actress best known for her role in the TV show Sex and the City. Her campaign was extremely popular on social media, but in the end Cuomo defeated her by 31 points.[5] The social media “buzz” behind Nixon ended up having little relevance to actual elections. Hence, one Twitter user suggested “Cuomo’s Law”: that online politics have nothing to do with real life.[6] That is, the argument was that the Sanders mass movement was only an Internet phenomenon, unable to be translated into ballots going into boxes.

Others have given more substantive political analyses for why the Sanders campaign stalled in the primaries. Journalist Zack Beauchamp argues:

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s theory of victory was simple: An unapologetically socialist politics centering Medicare-for-all and welfare state expansions would unite the working class and turn out young people at unprecedented rates, creating a multiracial, multigenerational coalition that could lead Sanders to the Democratic nomination and the White House… In a 2019 essay in the socialist magazine Jacobin, Princeton professor Matt Karp staked his case for Sanders on the candidate’s ability to win over economically precarious voters by appealing to their common interest.

In the end, this approach failed. It was former Vice President Joe Biden, not Bernie Sanders, who assembled a multiracial working-class coalition in key states like Michigan — where Biden won every single county, regardless of income levels or racial demographics.

Sanders had success in shifting the Democratic Party in his direction on policy. But the strategy for winning power embraced by his partisans depended on a mythologized and out-of-date theory of blue-collar political behavior, one that assumes that a portion of the electorate is crying out for socialism on the basis of their class interest. Identity, in all its complexities, appears to be far more powerful in shaping voters’ behaviors than the material interests given pride of place in Marxist theory.[7]

Those who really believed that the Sanders campaign was a “political revolution” that would destroy the centrist Clinton/Obama/Biden Democrats as well as the Trumpist Republicans must have been disoriented that Bernie Sanders has joined Joe Biden in rejecting the quite moderate slogan of “Defund the Police”[8]; or when Sanders argues that Biden might turn out to be “the most progressive President since Franklin Roosevelt”.[9] If we believe the analysis of David Atkins, this statement by Sanders (quite wild on the surface) might make some sense:

The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform. Every major candidate in the 2020 field ran either on some version of Medicare for All, or at least a public option and Medicare expansion as a pathway toward it.

Every major candidate proposed much bolder action on climate change than the Obama administration, and major policies to address student debt and college tuition. And on social policy from LGBT rights to criminal justice, the difference between the Democratic Party of today and that of 10 years ago could not be more stark. Most of those advances are due to the hard work of leftists whose tireless advocacy has successfully won the force of moral argument and persuaded mainstream Democratic base voters and independents.[10]

The Democratic Party has moved to at least rhetorically embrace some of the reforms demanded by the ongoing Black Lives Matter uprising.[11] While there is cause for scepticism that fine words in opposition will mean anything if and when Biden makes it into the White House, results from recent Democratic primaries suggest that a new crop of progressive legislators will be joining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others in the House of Representatives to push for these ideas.[12] The movement to elect candidates (almost inevitably from within the Democratic Party) who will promote economic justice, universal healthcare and other supportable reforms can and should continue, intersecting with Black Lives Matter and all the other mass movements for justice and dignity.

In contrast, the presidential election is now a simple referendum on the accelerating, murderous and increasingly authoritarian disaster of Trumpism. Biden’s lead in the polls corresponds with more than 160,000 dead in the COVID-19 pandemic due to federal non-response; plain-clothes federal agents snatching protestors off the streets of Portland; Trump’s blatant misuses of power to harass personal enemies, exonerate criminals who happen to be his allies, and attempt to depress voter turnout; levels of graft and self-dealing within the administration which are beginning to disgust many lifelong conservatives and corporate donors; and Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to racism, xenophobia and bloodlust.

Given all of this, Biden’s greyness, “easy-going” persona and appeal to nostalgia is proving extremely popular in the polls, to the point where he hardly seems to need to leave his house to campaign. While Sanders himself has embraced party discipline and swung his full support against Biden, an initial common reaction from his supporters to their defeat was dire prophecies that Biden would fail to motivate voters, and be utterly trounced in the general election by incumbent President Donald Trump. Some, such as the British-based magazine Salvage,[13] but many others online, even concluded that the Democratic Party leadership knows full well that Biden will not and even cannot win against Trump, and that they supported his doomed candidacy because Bernie was seen as a greater threat.

This analysis seems to embody “Cuomo’s Law”, in that it makes perfect sense for a certain online Left bubble, but does not take into account the disconnect between “very online leftists” and the actually-existing masses of working people, who took to the polls despite suppression to make Biden their standard-bearer against Trump.

We must of course fight any beliefs that Democrats in power will do anything better than restoring “capitalist normality”, except under the pressure of a mass movement backed by labour action. The Left has good reason to be repelled by Joe Biden’s moderate-at-best record as a legislator and as Vice President, his appeal to nostalgia for the good old days of bipartisanship, his stutter and verbal gaffes which are wrongly argued by some to be evidence of cognitive decline, and the believable claims of sexual assault against him by ex-staffer Tara Reade (all things that Salvage exaggerates for polemical effect). Similarly, it is important to critique the record of his running mate, Kamala Harris, as Attorney-General of California, who sued to deny trans prisoners health care and in many other ways upheld the very prison-industrial complex that the BLM/George Floyd protests are up against.[14]

It was completely correct for Sanders and Warren to mount a strenuous campaign against the “business as usual, back to normality” retro-neoliberalism presented by Biden and the other centrist candidates – and the activist Left must continue to hold Biden and Harris accountable for both their record and their proposals for office. But Biden showed support where it matters for electoral politics, at the ballot box in the primaries (by a significantly larger margin than Clinton in 2016) against all his Democratic challengers of both centrist and liberal varieties, who had none of the personal problems mentioned above. Moreover, according to the latest polling, Biden is currently also winning it handily against incumbent President Donald Trump – who has all of Biden’s problems, and more besides, in addition to his repulsive personality and increasingly fascistic politics.

This article is being written months before the November election, and it is of course still possible that Trump’s increasingly naked appeal to naked authoritarianism, racist violence and a “culture war” narrative might pull him over the line in the distorted Electoral College. Or, failing that, his attacks on postal voting and attempts to defund the Post Office might become part of a wider movement to discredit or even rig the election, after which he would simply dare Democrats to try to shift him out of the White House. However, the Black, migrant, queer, working-class and other oppressed communities of the United States are not going to be won to an insurrectionist perspective until they have exhausted the electoral route. It is one thing to counsel preparations for mass strikes and insurrection should Trump successfully rig the election; it is a bridge too far, here and now, to suggest giving up on the presidential election altogether. Even in Belarus, the masses waited until after Lukashenko’s rigged election to rise up.

In any case, the question of Trump rigging the election would be also faced by a Sanders-led ticket. Right now, Biden is ahead by an average of more than 7 points in opinion polls, a level Clinton in 2016 never reached.[15] Arguments that Bernie Sanders would be in a better position to lead opposition to Trump had he won the nomination are unfalsifiable and therefore useless. Leftists who have gone from cheerleading Sanders’ left-electoral programme to counselling electoral nihilism seem more interested in finding an excuse, any excuse, not to vote for Biden and Harris than in seriously building mass politics. A more useful reaction to the Sanders defeat is probably this:

Bernie collecting millions of campaign dollars from young, unemployed & marginalized people, just to bow out, endorse Biden & stand against defunding police—which is the start of abolition— is a good reminder that career politicians are not for you. Righteousness is w/ the people.[16]

Meanwhile, in Britain…

When Fightback wrote about Jeremy Corbyn’s movement in 2017, after British Labour’s much better than expected result in the parliamentary election of that year, we credited this success to the Corbyn leadership’s successful “fudge” on Brexit, refusing to take a clear Remain or Leave position.[17]

However, by December 2019, the benefits of ambiguity had dissolved. As the actual deadline for a final decision on Brexit drew nearer, it became clear that the Conservative government would take a “hard Brexit” (cutting all ties to the EU) as an excuse for a bonfire of laws on worker protection, human rights and even the National Health Service. This was surely the time to squarely stand for cancelling or at least delaying Brexit, rather than to continue to pretend that this issue was a distraction. Former Scottish Labour advisor Ayesha Hazarika argues:

The huge mistake that we made over Brexit was at the end, it didn’t matter what our position was, it was so confusing. We  tried to be all things to all people and we were like nothing to anybody, it was just the worst of all worlds.[18]

A commission of inquiry into Labour’s defeat discovered, according to a report in The Guardian, that:

Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share….

… Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.

The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”

Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.

When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.[19]

The response heard very often on the Left is that Jeremy Corbyn was defeated  by smears in the fanatically Right-wing British press, and sabotage by centrist and “Blairite” rebels in his own caucus. It’s undisputed that, like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn was running against much of his own party, never mind the Tories. But to accept this “stab-in-the-back legend” as the main explanation serves to deflect any criticism of Corbyn and his movement, thus making it impossible for the movement to learn from its mistakes and to self-correct.

To a large extent, the Corbyn takeover of the Labour Party was the victory of the “activist Left” in Britain. This may be hard to imagine from Australia or New Zealand, two countries in which there is no longer any significant class-struggle, strongly social-democratic tendency in our Labo(u)r Parties.[20] But the “hard Left” in the British Labour Party, which had been ruthlessly excluded from the leading bodies of the party and of the union movement for 30 years, jumped at the new rules for electing the leader which came into force in 2015, making it a simple “one member, one vote” decision by all party members[21], which enabled Corbyn to do an “end run” around his institutional opponents and pull off a shock victory.[22]

But this strength was also its weakness. Many commentators in America have noted the problems that the US radical Left, having been confined to a campus-based subculture for decades, have had with having to adapt their language to the mass politics needed to win elections. The “anti-Semitism scandal” which bedevilled Corbyn’s tenure as leader can be seen from one angle as an example of this.[23]

Jeremy Corbyn had long been one of the most prominent advocates of Palestinian liberation in the British Labour Party. It should be no surprise, then, that his leadership of the Labour Party brought certain very problematic aspects of the Western pro-Palestinian movement into mainstream politics. Whether Corbyn personally holds anti-Semitic beliefs, even unconsciously, is irrelevant to the issue of his defence of a notorious mural using anti-Semitic tropes,[24] or his laying of a wreath in front of the grave of a PLO leader who authorised the 1972 massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes[25], and the reactions which these provoked among British Jews, which were of course gleefully promoted by the Tory press. The Corbyn leadership’s reproduction of the activist Left’s usual rhetorical moves against accusations of anti-Semitism – denials, defensiveness, and accusations of bad faith – were ineffective and even counterproductive in the mainstream media arena.[26]

Editor of politics.co.uk Ian Dunt argues that anti-Semitism in British Labour

was allowed to take root and spread because people who were not anti-Semitic relegated it to secondary importance. Defending Corbyn was the chief moral requirement. Everything else could be sacrificed in order to secure that aim. It was, at its heart, a matter of priorities.[27]

It is probably best to see Corbyn’s tolerance for the expression of anti-Semitic tropes by his supporters within Labour in the context of his foreign policy, which was his major focus before he became Labour leader.[28] Corbyn’s foreign policy has always been, in common with most the British activist Left, a “campist” one – the benefit of the doubt has always been with those forces in geopolitical opposition to the Western states and to Israel.

Corbyn’s categorization of the armed opposition to the Assad dictatorship in Syria as “jihadis” and “Salafists”[29] could have come right out of a Russian Foreign Ministry press release. But for ordinary British voters, perhaps more shocking was his attempt to cast doubt upon the responsibility of Russian spooks for the nerve-gas poisoning of defector Sergei Skripal on British soil.[30] Before he became leader, Corbyn sponsored a Parliamentary motion which denied that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Kosovo[31], and claimed to recognize “the hand of Israel” in a jihadi attack against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula in 2012.[32]

As I explained in my 2015 article Against Campism[33], over much of the activist Left in Western countries, healthy suspicion of Western “humanitarian” motives for military interventions has collapsed into denial and conspiracy theory when it comes to crimes committed by non-Western states. The deep intertwining of the issues of Labour’s anti-Semitism problem with Corbyn’s campist foreign policy is particularly clear in the case of Corbyn’s defence of his staunch supporter, Chris Williamson MP. Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party for denying that there was any anti-Semitism problem; but he was also a promoter of pro-Assad conspiracy theories and chemical warfare denial.[34] Former Labour councillor Adam Langlaben argues that the Corbyn movement’s penchant for conspiracy theory (in foreign policy, in their dealings with the media, and in their reactions to intra-party opposition) inevitably led them to anti-Semitic tropes.[35]

It is also no coincidence that two of Corbyn’s closest allies, Seumas Milne[36] and Andrew Murray, were political veterans of the section of British Communism which has historically promoted Soviet and later Russian foreign policy aims. Murray in particular was associated closely with the Morning Star newspaper[37], which ran a front-page article cheering the murderous Assad regime’s recapture of free Aleppo as a “liberation”[38] and, more recently, dived into TERF politics.[39] Corbyn himself wrote a notable article in the Morning Star, before he became Leader, apologizing for Russia’s invasion and occupation of eastern Ukraine as being provoked by NATO.[40]

It may be shocking to a broad audience that many within the activist Left would argue that there was nothing wrong, and certainly nothing anti-Semitic, about most of the above positions. The stock line is that because George W. Bush and Tony Blair lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then any Western/Israeli reports of atrocities must be treated with the deepest suspicion.[41] But as I pointed out in my 2018 article The Red-Brown Zombie Plague[42], denial of inconvenient truths by yelling “hoax” or “fake news” is precisely what we ridicule Trump fans or other Right-wing partisans for doing.

We can briefly summarize that Jeremy Corbyn took the actually-existing British activist Left movements – with all their positive and negative features – right into the heart of mainstream politics. When these contradictions were inevitably exposed by the capitalist press, voters rejected Corbyn personally – despite his generally supportable social-democratic platform. Corbyn’s campist foreign policy (and his “whataboutery” about anti-Semitism on his own side) is pretty standard for much of the activist Left in Western countries; but when it “hit the big time” in Britain, it appeared grotesque to mainstream voters and discredited his positive and supportable anti-austerity politics. Former Labour MP Ann Turley claims that her canvassing led her to believe that only 20% of Labour voters switching to Conservative were motivated by Brexit; the remainder, by anti-Corbyn sentiment[43].

A few years ago, a New Zealand Twitter user suggested that there is a definite constituency in elections for “soft-left but sensible ideas, if not attached to someone with a rap sheet that makes [voters] hate them”.[44] British socialists who want to rebuild an electoral challenge must examine how Jeremy Corbyn accumulated precisely such a “rap sheet”.

The theory of populism: Laclau and Mouffe

Though this article treats both Corbyn’s and Sanders’ movements as varieties of “Left-populism”, we have to pause here to emphasise the differences between them. These movements were very different, they had very different politics and social compositions, and they came to a “dead end” for very different reasons. To use shorthand, the Sanders campaign discovered the limits of “class-first” social democracy in an era of extreme racial and ethnic polarization; whereas the Corbyn campaign discovered that campist foreign policy, currently the common sense of the activist Left, was an easy target when playing in the political “big leagues”, and that reacting with denial, bluster, whataboutery, and claims of conspiracy didn’t help.

The biggest academic names which have featured over the last 30 years or so in recommending a “Left-populist” form of organisation have been the partnership of Argentinian Ernesto Laclau and Belgian Chantal Mouffe. Describing themselves as “post-Marxists”, their starting point is that – in the era of neoliberal globalisation – the industrial working class around which Marxist hopes had been traditionally built can no longer be the basis for a revolutionary or even a reformist challenge to the status quo, at least in Western countries. The challenge, therefore, is to build a new kind of popular majority to challenge austerity, imperialism and oppression. Though Laclau is now deceased, Mouffe carries on their work.

Laclau and Mouffe’s theories – most famously expressed in their joint work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985) – make a lot of sense in an era where traditional working-class organisations and communities have collapsed, and in which “intersectional” politics of race, gender, sexuality and migration status have come to the fore. However, I intend to argue that the Corbyn and Sanders movements – and at a further remove, the more successful movements behind SYRIZA in Greece and the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – demonstrate serious flaws in Left-populist politics as practiced over the last 20 years, which I believe can be shown to be inherent in the populist method of organisation itself as described by Laclau and Mouffe.

The problems of populism 1: Potato sacks and dear leaders

Everyone interested in making sense of modern politics should read Karl Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.[45] In 1848, Louis Bonaparte (nephew of the French revolutionary general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte) became President of the French Republic because all the squabbling factions of the ruling class – monarchist, republican, conservative and liberal – saw him as a harmless clown who could be used and discarded. By 1852, after four years of constant fighting between these factions, President Bonaparte was able to ride a popular wave of resentment and exasperation, firstly, to carry out a coup to give himself dictatorial powers, then to make himself “Emperor Napoleon III”, in imitation of his uncle (which gave rise to Marx’s famous dictum about history repeating, first as tragedy then as farce).

Marx points out that Bonaparte’s social base was not the Parisian working class, but the French peasantry– an atomised social layer who could only be unified in the sense that potatoes are unified by putting them into a sack. This “sack” was the cult of the Bonaparte name and nostalgia for the First Empire (something we might today call “Make France Great Again”?) and a feeling of what we would now call “anti-politics” – the sentiment ¡Que se vayan todos! (They can all get out!) of the Argentinian uprising of 2002.[46] In another sense, Bonaparte and his successors repeated the successful formula of Julius Caesar, who was supported by ancient Rome’s poor and socially-excluded free citizens in overthrowing the traditional aristocracy and making himself Dictator for Life, allowing his successors to become Emperors.

Modern populist politics of both Left and Right varieties inherits this “potatoes in a sack” method of organisation, where horizontal solidarity between people and groups within the movement is less important than vertical loyalty to a unifying slogan, programme, or Leader. In his book On Populist Reason (Verso Books, 2004), Ernesto Laclau argues that an individual leader upon whom many different sectors of society can project their hopes and dreams is in fact a vital aspect of the populist style of organising:

An assemblage of heterogeneous elements kept equivalentially together only by a name is, however, necessarily a singularity. The less a society is kept together by immanent differential mechanisms, the more it depends, for its coherence, on this transcendent, singular moment. But the extreme form of singularity is an individuality. In this way, almost imperceptibly, the equivalential logic leads to singularity, and singularity to identification of the unity of the group with the name of the leader. (Kindle location 1728)

A less jargony way of phrasing this would be: an individual Leader becomes a logical necessity for holding together a broad movement composed of many different groups with their own demands.[47] But the problem here is that a political leader is not only a point of unity, and a symbol; he or she is a real person with real political authority, and the two aspects of this role contradict each other. Although Left populism assembles a different set of groups under a different programme and a different personality than Right-populism, a Leader who is a symbolic unifying figure is very hard to seriously challenge from within the movement – leading to an essentially authoritarian relationship between leader and led.

Laclau himself speaks later in this book about Juan Perón, the former Argentine president who became the leader of a vast and very diverse populist movement while he was exiled during the 1960s. At this time, Perón himself compared himself to the Pope – a symbol of unity and reverence. However, after Perón returned to Argentina in the 1970s – and especially after he was re-elected President – he became an actual political leader who had to make decisions which outraged either the left-wing or right-wing parts of his coalition, or both. His movement quickly dissolved, occasionally erupting into fatal violence between factions (Kindle location 3709).

Similarly, Left dissidents from the Greece Left-populist movement SYRIZA have claimed that as the organisation got closer to power, it was progressively

turn[ed…] into a leader-centred party… The aim was to move from a militant party of the left, with a strong culture of internal debate, heterogeneity, involvement in social movements and mobilizations, to a party with a passive membership which could be more easily manipulated by the centre, and keener to identify with the figure of the leader.[48]

Another SYRIZA dissident suggested that this was accomplished through mechanisms of “direct democracy” which had the appearance of giving power to the grassroots but in fact concentrated power at the top. It was suggested that the same thing was happening in Spain’s PODEMOS.[49] This has uncanny parallels to the way Louis Bonaparte, as President and later as Emperor, used periodic referendums to give legitimacy to his dictatorship.

Certainly the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns both contained a minority (with an outsized presence on social media) which took on a “personality cult” aspect, intolerant of any criticism of the Leader. But an outsized role for the personality of the Leader goes hand-in-hand with a political emptiness among the “potatoes” in the populist sack – the various factions end up with very little in common except for what “team” they’re on. In Adam Langlaben’s words:

There’s no such thing as Corbynism, because Corbyn never said anything of substance. He enabled whatever he says to be so vague, that it allows his supporters to decide whatever they want, and to give his supporters permission to say and do whatever they want, because there was [sic] no red lines, he wasn’t saying yes or no to anything.[50]

The fact that all these populist movements have ended up in failure – even the ones which have taken State power – show a problem with not only this inherent authoritarian dynamic, but also a problem with its horizon – that is, the greatest extent to which it can be successful. In practice, this horizon has turned out to be at best a militant form of social democracy – a strong welfare state which guarantees certain economic benefits and political rights to all citizens, standing against the powers of “the market” and of foreign imperialism, as at the high point of Hugo Chávez’s administration in Venezuela.

But, as explored by American revolutionary Hal Draper in The Two Souls of Socialism,[51]this model is counterposed to socialism as in workers’ power expressed through grassroots democracy, involving the abolition of capitalist social and economic relations altogether. Too many modern-day “revolutionaries” seem to have forgotten there’s a difference between these two meanings of “socialism”. Hence nonsense propaganda like Jeremy Corbyn’s face photoshopped into old Soviet or Maoist propaganda posters, or – my personal favourite – Bernie Sanders depicted as Che Guevara on T-shirts – while Corbyn was calling for more funding for police and border guards,[52] and Bernie Sanders hardly challenged the Democrat consensus on imperialist foreign policy.

In the days when Hugo Chávez was President of Venezuela, many on the Left argued that a Left-populist, anti-imperialist State leadership would open the door for revolution from below. Sadly, this didn’t happen; and now, Chávez’s successors have made sure that it never will, having moved to the model of an authoritarian clientelist state in which capitalists who become “friends of the regime” are protected.[53] A top-down movement based around a leader with an exceptional personality, which is what populist movements tend to become in practice, cannot bring about an end to exploitation and oppression. Mistaking authoritarian, though Left-leaning, populism for socialist democracy is a mistake that the organised Left has made over and over again throughout history.

Moreover, a movement based on the personality of the Leader will find it increasingly difficult to correct the Leader when he (and it is usually a “he”) makes a wrong turn – or even to accept criticism in good faith. Ian Dunt describes the reaction of the Corbyn camp to criticism:

Out they came, every time. The loyalist ranks, where Corbyn’s survival mattered more than anything, and all that challenged him was by definition a conspiracy. First the anonymous Twitter accounts, then the ones with large followings, then the big hitters, the Corbyn supporters who appear on TV debate programmes – the whole weird cottage industry of faith-based political defensiveness. All working to chisel away at the seriousness of what was happening, to make the people targeted feel that they were somehow in the wrong.[54]

One shorthand for this kind of knee-jerk “defence of the Leader” is “Stan culture”. “Stan” is a term for a deranged, obsessed fan (from an Eminem song), and the nastiest Corbyn and Sanders supporters on social media have sometimes acted like participants in one of the infamous feuds within popular entertainment fan cultures, rather than political activists.

Apart from the issue with the possibility of democratically holding the Leader to account, in a populist movement, real power is wielded by who can get closest to the Leader to influence him in the “right” direction. Thus, we saw a rush by socialists in the UK and the US to get onto the front seats of the Corbyn and Sanders bandwagons; even worse, in the UK, to create the repulsive illusion of a “left-wing Brexit”. It should not be surprising, however, to watch “leaders” of the revolutionary Left set aside their principles to go in this direction. This is in practice how this author has watched the revolutionary movements in Aotearoa/New Zealand work over the last 15 years – tailing popular demands or leaders and giving up political clarity in favour of “influence” over the leaders of centrist or even conservative forces.

The evidence of all the Left-populist movements that gave us so much hope over the last 25 years repeat this sorry story. To an extent, it doesn’t matter whether Hugo Chávez really supported Russian and Chinese imperialism and dictators like Mugabe or Lukashenko; whether Jeremy Corbyn really thought Russia were on the right side in Syria, or whether anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was no big deal; or whether Bernie Sanders agreed with a “class reductionist” approach that ignored Black Lives Matter and similar movements in favour of cultivating white populist reactionaries like Joe Rogan. But a decisive number of important people around them certainly did, and were able to act in the name of The Leader – names like Milne or Murray in Britain, David Sirota or Briahna Joy Gray in the US, or Diosdado Cabello in Venezuela. Philadelphia antifascist Gwen Snyder argues, with respect to Sanders and the “dirtbag left”:

his campaign staff urged him to lean into it. It wasn’t his base, he had much broader appeal. He just had exactly the wrong people whispering in his ear and encouraging him to play to exactly the wrong audience, an audience that reviled the rest of his coalition.[55]

The problems of populism 2: Red-Brown confusion

Although far from a communist horizon, strong-state social democracy might still sound like an improvement for most people compared to corporate-led global neoliberalism, let alone authoritarian Right-wing populism. But the more serious problem is that Left-populism – with its majoritarian, “we are the 99%” rhetoric, based on a division between the people and the Establishment/the elites – has in practice reproduced the one-sided opposition to liberals/neoliberals/centrism which I discussed in my 2016 article Against Conservative Leftism.[56] This has opened the door to de facto or even explicit alliances with Right-populists or even fascists against neoliberal globalism.

One particular subset of the Left-populist movements – commonly known as the “Dirtbag Left” in the United States, to use the self-description of the podcast Chapo Trap House – argue that the Trump electorate can be won to social democracy by class reductionism – restricting the movement to solely “bread-and-butter” economic demands for higher wages and social welfare, completely rejecting questions of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and immigration as “divisive” or even “neoliberal”.

The argument seems to be that Donald Trump’s mass support is open to being converted to a social-democratic or even socialist platform, as long as it does not evoke the dreaded “Identity Politics”. Racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia do not need to be confronted separately, in this light – in fact, they should not be, as doing so would alienate “the white working class” (read: white men with a “blue-collar” cultural identity) from socialist politics. Bernie Sanders, according to this analysis, gave too much away to “IdPol”. Ironically, this runs directly against Laclau and Mouffe’s proposals for Left-populism; this does not involve unifying disparate groups and integrating their demands under the common banner of “the People”, but one (privileged) part of “the People” imposing dominance over the rest. As one Twitter user put it, “they would sell out every POC and every LGBT+ person to not pay college loans”.[57]

This is often accompanied by an assertion that Trump ran to the “left” of Clinton in 2016, in particular that he promised to end foreign wars. If this were true, then a Trump pivot to anti-imperialism and social-democratic economics would make as much sense as anything. But in fact, Trump did precisely the opposite, demanding that the US commit even more vicious war crimes, such as murdering the families of “terrorists”.[58] A similar assertion is that many people who voted for Trump over Clinton in 2016 did so for the same reasons that Leftists opposed Clinton: her responsibility for neoliberalism, austerity and imperialist wars. This is often combined with an assertion that Trump’s support base are “white working class” – precisely the kind of constituency that a Left-populist movement would dream of mobilizing.

One example of “Trump is the lesser evil” rhetoric. Whether sincerely held or a Trumpist making mischief, this kind of talk is dangerous.

In reality, even if Donald Trump is not a literal fascist, he is at the very least “fash-curious”. He has built a movement (almost a cult) out of open expression of white privilege and resentment. His target audience is not the working classes or the oppressed, but the downwardly mobile, formerly privileged (overwhelmingly white and male) middle-classes and skilled workers. These are the layers who have been atomised and dispersed by neoliberal capitalism, and have lost some of their relative privilege over various layers whom they see as “beneath them” (blacks, Muslims, migrants, uppity women, queer and trans people). They direct their resentment towards the latter, while continuing their hero-worship of the billionaire class who have grown fat off their suffering.[59]

All the evidence points to Trump’s voters being much more motivated by racism, misogyny, and 25 years of Right-led conspiracy theory which has sought to convict Hillary Clinton of corruption, murder, and literally sacrificing children to the Devil. All analyses of Trump’s support show that it skews very heavily towards wealthier white (male) voters; though 52% of white women voters plumped for Trump in 2016, recent evidence suggests that this has plummeted, rendering the misogyny of the Trump movement even more stark.[60] Even worse, the same is true of the Bernie Sanders vote from 2016: as left-wing pollster Sean McElwee put it, “the white working-class voters that Sanders won were mostly anti-Clinton voters”.[61] As David Atkins puts it, the evidence of the Sanders campaign shows that “unlike leftist policy more broadly, this theory of the electorate has utterly failed.”[62]

Similar confusion was apparent among Left-populists who wishfully declared that the 2016 vote for Brexit was “a multi-ethnic working class uprising against the elites”. In fact – as for a Trump vote – the best predictor of a Brexit vote was being white.[63] This shows an incapacity of the existing Left-populist movement to tell the difference between radical and reactionary opposition to the status quo. If the Revolution only means “the masses in motion”, then any mass movement with a popular leadership which threatens the neoliberal establishment (from Left or Right) is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Rather than building a different power bloc among the excluded masses with its own programme, as Laclau and Mouffe suggest, this kind of “populism” skips over class analysis (which would involve an up-to-date analysis of how the contemporary globalised neoliberal economy works, where value is being produced, etc), in favour of drawing a dividing line between “the elite and the masses” based on cultural features. “The people”, in this kind of “Left Populism”, are all those who do not share the cultural signifiers of the upwardly-mobile middle class; or alternatively, display the cultural features of the manual working class which existed before the neoliberal era began. This is a conservative, even traditionalist, understanding of politics, which benefits from the prevailing drift to the radical Right, rather than opposing it.

Even worse, this envy of the success of Right-wing populism creates an irresistible temptation to “join them if you can’t beat them”. As opposed to a “horizontal” form of building a mass movement, which would ally all the oppressed and exploited on the basis of solidarity, it seems that Left-wing populism seeks to combat its Right-wing equivalent by appealing to the same base – downwardly mobile formerly privileged layers (particularly white, blue-collar men) who have lost out in the era of globalised neoliberalism.

This confusion of Left-wing and Right-wing oppositions to globalised neoliberalism opens the door to the embrace by a Left-populist movement of socially conservative and “campist” politics, even fascist-infected Red-Brown politics. Alongside this often comes a defence of authoritarian nationalist regimes which are (supposedly) opposed to US imperialism, such as Russia, China and Syria. A tell-tale sign of this kind of Red-Brown populism in the US is adamant insistence that the investigation into Russian state collusion with the 2016 Trump campaign is some kind of hoax. Well-known promoters of this kind of politics include American-Brazilian journalist Glenn Greenwald and Irish writer Angela Nagle, who have actually appeared on the show of extreme-Right FOX News host Tucker Carlson to agree with him about the horrors of neoliberalism and identity politics.

Lebanese activist and journalist Joey Ayoub puts it colourfully and succinctly:

if the ‘populist left’ has common grounds with fascism the ‘populist left’ can fuck right off and there’s absolutely no reason to waste any time listening to three white people debating whether common ground can be found with those who want to erase our existence.[64]

The problems of populism 3: Trump Envy

The role of a kind of resentment, or even sadism, in populist politics of both Left and Right is vital here. It’s no coincidence that many people who promote these kinds of politics have previously expressed the wish for a “tough guy socialism”, which, to misuse an old expression of Trotsky, “really wants to tear the bourgeoisie’s head off”. The British socialist writer Richard Seymour, now an editor of Salvage magazine, used to talk on his blog Lenin’s Tomb about how Corbyn was too “nice” and he needed supporters who would leverage “hate” and even “sadism” against the conservative Right and neoliberal centre.[65]

It might even be said that modern Left populism suffers from “Trump Envy”. Quite apart from the need pointed out by Laclau to have a leader-figure as a binding force for a populist coalition, many Left-wing activists have the desire for someone in this role who will be just as rude, aggressive, abusive and transgressive as Donald Trump but for “good purposes”, “from the Left”. If a mass movement against the neoliberal establishment is what is required – never mind its politics or its class composition – it’s easy to imagine that supporters of the Trump movement (or the Brexit movement, or similar manifestations in other countries) could be turned “to our side”, if they were offered the same aggressive macho leadership but with a different programme.

Left-populism shares with its Right-wing sibling a certain joy in transgression, in (at least verbal) violence – which tracks with what Laclau says in On Populist Reason about the vital role played by emotions, rather than strictly rational analysis, in cohering a populist bloc (Kindle location 1925). The Black Lives Matter uprisings show that retaliatory aggression and violence against the oppressor class are a part of any vital mass movement. However, the real problem comes when this aggression is directed horizontally – or even “downward”, towards a social layer which the movement considers “beneath” it. This goes beyond intemperate attacks on centrist Democrats and the neoliberal establishment, and even the usual excesses of intra-movement conflict, to become a kind of half-spoken political strategy, of abuse as a feature of the movement, a “perk” of belonging.

As explored above, factions of the Corbyn and Sanders movements in the US and the UK went down the path of Conservative Leftism in rejecting “intersectionality” as a neoliberal piety – and this has combined with the pleasure in transgression or sadism mentioned above, to emerge as racist, misogynistic, homophobic or transphobic abuse, justified as being “from the Left” when delivered against acceptable targets. For example, Gwen Snyder, a strong supporter of the Sanders campaign, became the target of sustained harassment (escalating to death threats) for pointing out issues of misogynist behaviour within Bernie fandom, and the Red-Brown drift among fans of “Dirtbag Left” podcasts.[66] The Bernie Sanders campaign itself (not Sanders himself) proudly touted an endorsement from Joe Rogan, a pop-culture podcaster who is flamboyantly transphobic and otherwise bigoted.[67]

Another curious phenomenon is people who hold much better Left politics than the “Dirtbags”, even though they quite rightly despise Trump and almost everything he stands for, defending Trump, or at least seeing him as a lesser evil, against “the Establishment/elites”. For example, they agree with Trump that he is being unfairly attacked by a “Deep State”; law enforcement, military and intelligence personnel and other people within the US state who are opposed, not so much to Trump’s politics, but to his disregard for the norms and conventions of the US bourgeois state, or even its laws and Constitution – something that many Left-populists regard as a positive feature, if only he would use it “for good”.

This is amplified by the way in which, as mentioned above, the US activist Left has concentrated over the years on attacking liberals, neoliberals, and “the Dems” as its first priority. And who is better at really “triggering the libs” than Trump? Disturbingly, and as in 2016, many Left-wing figures attack the Democrats in terms which are so similar to those coming from the Trump campaign that it is often impossible to tell the difference; this is the same process that Gwen Snyder identifies whereby the “Dirtbag Left” serves to “launder” fascist memes for a Left-wing audience.[68]

This phenomenon of Left-populism taking a “lesser evil” approach to Right-populism against the neoliberal establishment has become a meme to the point where it now has a name. In the same way that anything that comes after “I’m not racist, but…” is going to be racist, a Leftist who says “Mr Trump, who I do not support…” is about to support Trump against the Deep State or the neoliberal Democratic Party.

These Left populists oppose this putative sabotage, not because they like Trump’s politics, far from it… but because they imagine the State apparatus doing the same thing to a putative President Sanders (or on the model of what the Chilean state actually did to Salvador Allende in the 1970s). Similarly, many supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have attempted to discredit the mainstream media as irredeemably biased against their candidate, in very similar terms to Trump and his “fake news” slogan – with the same purpose, to discredit any criticism of Dear Leader, whether valid or not. This is a logical consequence of a horizon of victory which envisions a popular Leader taking control of the State machinery “for good purposes”, rather than a popular movement dismantling it.

This sneaking sympathy by Leftists for Trump against “neoliberal elites” leads to what can only be described as wish fulfilment fantasies, that Trump may one day “pivot” to the Left, if he sees it in his electoral interests to do so. The Twitter account “Shitty Outflanking Takes” collects arguments from Leftists that Trump will, someday soon, start promoting social-democratic causes such as Medicare for All, forgiving student debt, criminal justice reform, or even ending American overseas military adventures, to “outflank” the neoliberal Democrats and win a working-class base.[69] If Trump is politically empty – if he just wants power and will say or do anything to get re-elected – and, as much of the US asserts, the “Dems” and the “GOP” are no different – why should Trump not adopt the Bernie Sanders programme in total? An interesting reply would be: if that were true, why did Sanders not run as a Republican?


To summarize, we have sketched out three categories of problems with Left-populism in practice. Firstly, there are problems inherent in the populist political method as sketched out by Laclau and Mouffe. Chief among this is the contradiction between a populist leader’s symbolic unifying role and their actual role in strategy and tactics; the fact that the urge to “defend the Leader” might make self-correction in the movement impossible; and the way in which those around the Leader can use their role as his “biggest supporters” to justify atrocious politics[70]. Both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns developed a “Stan culture”, targeting centrists or even insufficiently enthusiastic supporters of The Leader as the main enemy.

Secondly: there is also the problem that problem that Left Populism and Right populism are – as Laclau says – the same method used for different ends, and we have seen a steady stream in practice of Leftists who enthusiastically back the former often end up backing the latter because they have lost the ability to tell the difference, or remember why it’s a vital one.. There is even the phenomenon of “Dirtbag Leftism”  which seeks to throw out the inheritance of 50 years of intersectional struggle in favour of trying to restore a white, male, traditionalist audience for social democracy – which is contrary to what Laclau and Mouffe would see as populism altogether, and forgets that 1960s social democracy wasn’t so great either, which is why it was rejected by the Beatnik, Hippie and Punk movements.

Thirdly: there is a real problem of Trump Envy, the belief that what the movement needs is a “left-wing version” of the Trump phenomenon, or even a hope of Trump “outflanking” the Democrats to the left on economic populism. This includes a distressing number of “Lefties” who delight in the same kind of mob cruelty and aggressive disregard for inconvenient realities which characterise Trump’s and other Right-populist movements.

Laclau’s argument is that a Leader figure who can unify atomised and conflicting social layers in an anti-establishment movement is an essential element in populism. The worst possible form such a movement can take on, of course, is fascism. At best, it can take power in the capitalist state – but historical evidence suggests that, from there, it can only retain power through conciliation with global capitalism and turning on its own supporters. Populist movements have successfully changed the balance of power within class society – but never abolished it. For “post-Marxists” like Laclau and Mouffe, the latter might not even be possible.

Direct action gets the goods

One way out of this problem might be, not to reject the Left populist strategy, but firstly, to recognize it as necessary but insufficient to provoke a fundamental change in society; and secondly, to reject primarily electoral populism of the Corbyn/Sanders/SYRIZA variety.

Electoral politics usually come after a downturn in the direct-action movements, and vice versa. The failure of Occupy and the Arab Spring gave rise to SYRIZA, PODEMOS, the Corbyn and Sanders movements; the failure or dead-end of these electoral movements has erupted in the current global wave of “Black Lives Matter”/anti-police uprisings. This is similar to how the defeat of the movements of the 1970s, and the election of Right-populists Reagan and Thatcher in the US and UK, was followed by insurgent broad-Left electoral campaigns by Tony Benn, Jesse Jackson and their like.

British left academic Harry Pitts argues that the Corbyn movement in the Labour Party was in fact

the legacy of the anti-austerity social movements after the crisis. Their ultimate failure, I guess, you know, and their fragmentation, the turn of a lot of the people involved in that towards a more electoralist parliamentary route.[71]

In majoritarian (first-past-the-post) systems like the United States or the United Kingdom, Left-wing electoral populism can only act as a “spoiler”, attempting to take away enough votes from the more liberal of the major parties to be able to dictate terms upon it; unless, of course, it succeeds in taking over the liberal/centre-Left major party from within. The former is grossly irresponsible when the Right no longer wants a nastier version of capitalist normality, but the mass repeal of democratic rights and the welfare state in a fascist or Pinochet-style programme. As Fightback has argued repeatedly, this is the same fatal mistake made by the Stalinised Communists of the 1930s who saw no difference between Hitler and capitalist normality.

“Third Period” politics being reborn in real time on social media

The latter runs up against the logical problem of how to successfully dominate a party mostly composed of people you despise. The Chapo “bend the knee” slogan would never have worked in practice for Bernie Sanders inside the US Democrats, just as the Labour Party caucus and apparatus never “bent the knee” to Jeremy Corbyn – which is of course exactly what Corbyn’s die-hard supporters complain about. The alternative – to purge the liberals and moderates from the party – does not seem a plausible step forward to winning electoral contests. The failure mode of both these approaches is the electoral nihilism condemned above; of asserting that neoliberal capitalist normality is no different than fascism, that it won’t be allowed to win anyway, that electoral politics are a waste of time if “Our Guy” isn’t on the ballot.

The lessons of Chávez in Venezuela and SYRIZA in Greece show that when a Left-populist movement seizes state power and confronts international capitalism, there is a period of stalemate followed by slow but inevitable capitulation. Come to think of it, this is also the legacy of Stalinism. My personal suggestion would be to concentrate on building a real Left-populist movement for protagonistic, intersectional democracy – while fully embracing a vote for “our preferred enemy” in elections. The question is whether we would prefer to be on the streets in 2021 demanding social reforms and police abolition from President Biden, or defending the remnants of freedom of speech and assembly from an emboldened President Trump and fascist mobs.

This is of course the dreaded “lesser (or least) evil” strategy, as criticised (though not rejected) by Hal Draper.[72] But anyone who argues that it is possible for a party or candidate to actually win a bourgeois election contest while not becoming some form of evil – that is, without making compromises with capital and social layers which support it – can be charitably advised to “get real”. Encouraging people to believe that voting for a Left-wing social democratic politician is actually “The Revolution” – the “Bernie in a Ché hat” phenomenon – while demonizing other centrist or reformist candidates and tendencies, means – once the compromises begin – setting up the movement for massive disappointment, abstention from the fight against fascist, or even drifting in a Trumpist or fascist direction, fuelled by hatred of “liberals/moderates” above all else.

In any case, as we’ve seen above, voting is secondary in terms of social transformation, or even a “consolation prize” once mass direct-action or protest movements fail. It seems strange that Corbyn or Sanders supporters should depict their leaders in the same terms as Communist revolutionaries, breathing fire on the hated “liberals” all the time, while at the same time placing their hopes for social change on winning elections in the bourgeois state. In fact, Gwen Snyder argues that an approach that prioritises direct action might have spin-off benefits for electoral work:

centering direct action organizing is more productive than centering electoral work when it comes to focusing our energies. Direct action changes minds and wins hearts and makes people realize their power. When people’s hearts & minds are changed, when folks realize that their action makes a difference and that they hold real power when organized, they’re much more likely to be open to coalition-building around a candidate with bolder positions when it comes time to talk elections.[73]

We might counterpose to electoral populism the concept of protagonistic democracy – a situation where working people take matters into their own hands to create a better world. Such a form of direct-action populism would necessarily require its unifying slogans and its (symbolic and practical) leadership to reflect intersectional politics – identifying and building commonalities between different axes of oppression, rather than privileging one part of the coalition above others. The “conservative Left” strategies discussed above, which centre the “traditional” (white, cishet, male) working class as the face of struggle, offer no path forward but the netherworld of Red-Brown reaction.

The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring, not to mention the current “Black Lives Matter” uprisings in the United States[74], give us recent examples of direct-action populist movements. Syria’s democratic movement gives examples of the kind of unifying slogans which make connections rather than fudge differences – ‘Syria is one’ sought to counter sectarianism by assembling a people under the signifier of free Syria, combined with the transnational slogan ‘the people demand the fall of the regime’ (which has re-emerged in BLM protests). In contrast, while the Arab Spring was drowned in blood, Occupy reached its own dead end due to a confused political project whose slogan (“We are the 99%”) and practice did not draw sharp lines against conspiracy theories, misogyny and even fascism. The latter is, as we’ve seen above, a danger inherent in the populist method which must be strongly guarded against; which suggests a vital role for anti-capitalist political centres within such movements.

As this article is written, the BLM movement has quickly overtaken the Bernie Sanders phenomenon politically and is enacting a form of protagonistic democracy on the streets, under the violent repression of Trump’s fash-curious USA. It has gone far beyond the original coalition between Black communities acting in self-defence and white radicals; the white “moms and dads” who stood against Trump’s snatch squads in Portland in late July are a sign of a populist movement which is really taking off. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders himself is united with his apparent polar opposites, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, in making verbal gestures of support for the movement, while refusing the demand to “Defund the Police” (let alone abolish it). Some of the dead-end “anti-liberal” Left have been reduced to repeating lukewarm versions of Trump’s slurs against Joe Biden, or fantasies about Trump “outflanking” the Democrats. American journalist Josh Messite comments on this inability to realise when they’ve lost:

if Bernie and Corbyn both achieved massive electoral wins and enacted sweeping reforms, I would have had to shift my thinking on organizing priorities and the path to power. instead Bernie and Corbyn both lost, and yet the people who pushed for that strategy haven’t changed a bit.[75]

Just recently, a major left-wing blog in Ireland ran an appeal for a new electoral coalition between the various socialist factions.[76] Left-populism has its dangers and has not yet fulfilled its promise, though I am not willing to agree that it was a mistake altogether. My argument, though, is that a primarily electoral Left-populism has proved itself to be a comprehensive dead-end.


[1]              Fightback previously published an analysis of SYRIZA’s own dead end – https://fightback.org.nz/2015/08/21/greek-crisis-syrizas-dead-end/

[2]              https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jul/22/chapo-trap-house-podcast-dirtbag-left-takes-aim-at-clinton-supporters

[3]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/3/4/21164518/super-tuesday-results-voter-turnout

[4]              https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/super-tuesday-results-2020-primary-texas-voter-suppression-lines-long-wait-queues-a9373886.html

[5]              https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/13/nyregion/andrew-cuomo-cynthia-nixon-wins-governors-race.html

[6]              https://twitter.com/marcushjohnson/status/1240117667287228416

[7]              https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[8]              https://www.foxnews.com/politics/sanders-says-i-dont-agree-with-to-abolish-police-departments

[9]              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieFL8StRyJo&feature=youtu.be

[10]             https://www.inquirer.com/columnists/attytood/trump-presidential-election-joe-biden-democrat-hillary-clinton-misogyny-20200702.html

[11]             https://www.vox.com/21299730/george-floyd-democratic-party-joe-biden-black-lives-matter-protests-2020-identity-politics; https://www.wonkette.com/joe-biden-wants-to-be-your-fdr

[12]             https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/24/progressives-primary-justice-democrats-338488

[13]             https://salvage.zone/articles/salvage-perspectives-8-comrades-this-is-madness

[14]             https://www.out.com/news-opinion/2019/1/22/kamala-harris-takes-responsibility-opposing-trans-surgeries

[15]             See https://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2020/president/us/general_election_trump_vs_biden-6247.html for up-to-date figures.

[16]             https://twitter.com/yohannabeee/status/1271155114569424896

[17]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/

[18]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/31/episode-3-transcription/

[19]             https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/18/dysfunctional-toxic-culture-led-to-labour-defeat-major-report-finds

[20]             If an equivalent of the Corbyn or Sanders movements exist in mainstream politics in Australasia, it’s in the Green parties.

[21]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2015_Labour_Party_leadership_election_(UK)

[22]             This appeal of a leader-figure over the heads of representative or intermediary bodies to an atomised mass of individuals is an essential feature of populist politics, as we will explore further below.

[23]             In what follows, I will attempt to analyse, not Jeremy Corbyn as a person, but the movement which he led and to some extent embodied.

[24]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/08/01/10842/

[25]             https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corbyn_wreath-laying_controversy

[26]             https://theconversation.com/labour-and-anti-semitism-these-are-the-roots-of-the-problem-on-the-left-94923

[27]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[28]             Journalist Jonathan Freedland suggests that Corbyn enjoyed the reputation of “being the foreign minister of the Left” (https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/)

[29]             https://jeremycorbyn.org.uk/articles/jeremy-corbyns-speech-against-military-intervention-in-syria/

[30]             https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-russia-spy-nerve-agent-iraq-war-wmd-labour-theresa-may-a8256021.html

[31]             https://balkaninsight.com/2015/08/17/uk-labour-frontrunner-queried-on-kosovo-motion-08-17-2015/

[32]             https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/uk-labour-leader-corbyn-voices-conspiracy-theory-against-israel-in-2012-563714

[33]             https://fightback.org.nz/2015/11/05/against-campism-what-makes-some-leftists-support-putin/

[34]             https://www.newstatesman.com/world/middle-east/2018/08/labour-can-be-jo-cox-s-party-or-chris-williamson-s-it-cannot-be-both

[35]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[36]             https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/media/2015/10/i-wanted-believe-jeremy-corbyn-i-cant-believe-seumas-milne

[37]             Short, shameful confession: the author of this article wrote a piece on New Zealand politics for the Morning Star in 2014. I don’t remember their politics being so bad at that point.

[38]             https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/morning-star-labour-mps-aleppo_uk_584f2931e4b0b7ff851db424

[39]             https://metro.co.uk/2020/02/23/newspaper-apologises-transphobic-cartoon-sparks-outrage-12287799/

[40]             https://web.archive.org/web/20150923060138/http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-972b-Nato-belligerence-endangers-us-all

[41]             As recently replicated by the extremely pro-China Socialist Action group within British Labour: http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/08/12/the-left-should-not-be-taken-in-by-us-wmd-lies-this-time-about-uyghers/

[42]             https://fightback.org.nz/2018/05/09/the-red-brown-zombie-plague-part-one/

[43]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/24/episode-2-transcription/

[44]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/10/19/aucklands-no-choice-elections-blue-greens-and-conservative-leftists/

[45]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/

[46]             https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/feb/06/global-recession-backlash

[47]             Some of the diagrams in On Populist Reason which illustrate Laclau’s theory of building unity in a populist movement between different social forces depict these forces as ovals… that is, potato-shaped.

[48]             https://newleftreview.org/issues/II97/articles/stathis-kouvelakis-syriza-s-rise-and-fall.pdf

[49]             https://isreview.org/issue/100/reflections-our-experience-syriza

[50]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/episode-1-transcription/

[51]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1966/twosouls/index.htm

[52]             https://www.expressandstar.com/news/uk-news/2017/05/28/corbyn-pledges-increased-staffing-levels-at-security-and-intelligence-agencies/

[53]             https://socialistworker.org/2017/07/13/being-honest-about-venezuela

[54]             https://www.politics.co.uk/blogs/2020/06/26/week-in-review-labour-returns-to-its-anti-racist-roots

[55]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1294068877522014208

[56]             https://fightback.org.nz/2016/02/15/against-conservative-leftism/

[57]             https://twitter.com/NickRup/status/1278128227274371072

[58]             https://www.mediamatters.org/donald-trump/myth-donald-dove-shows-perils-gullible-press

[59]             https://www.thedailybeast.com/anti-establishment-americas-new-syphilitic-politics-of-the-far-left-and-alt-right

[60]             https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-06-26/behind-trumps-sharp-slump-white-women-who-stuck-with-him-before-are-abandoning-him-now

[61]             https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/4/10/21214970/bernie-sanders-2020-lost-class-socialism

[62]             https://washingtonmonthly.com/2020/04/11/leftist-policy-didnt-lose-marxist-electoral-theory-did/

[63]             https://fightback.org.nz/2017/10/17/winning-with-conservative-leftism-jeremy-corbyn-and-brexit/; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0176268018301320

[64]             https://twitter.com/joeyayoub/status/1276194859167121408

[65]             http://www.leninology.co.uk/2015/06/yes-you-can-hate-rich.html; http://www.leninology.co.uk/2016/06/in-praise-of-hate.html

[66]             See thread beginning at https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1249712403404783618

[67]             https://www.forbes.com/sites/dawnstaceyennis/2020/01/26/joe-rogans-endorsement-the-stain-on-bernie-sanders-that-some-voters-think-makes-him-more-attractive/

[68]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288588513601040384

[69]             https://twitter.com/mtwidns

[70]             Those familiar with the theories of Jacques Lacan may recognize the psychoanalytic concept of “The Name of the Father” at work here.

[71]             https://corbynismpostmortem.wordpress.com/2020/02/28/episode-7-transcription/

[72]             https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1967/01/lesser.htm

[73]             https://twitter.com/gwensnyderPHL/status/1288144108431773696. The importance of direct mass action in changing mass consciousness – rather than leaving it to elected politicians or professional organisers – was also raised by US union organiser Jane McAlevey in No Shortcuts, a book I reviewed in Fightback last year: https://fightback.org.nz/2020/01/13/book-review-no-shortcuts/

[74]             Some wags have dubbed it the “ACAB Spring” (All Cops Are Bastards).

[75]             https://twitter.com/JoshMessite/status/1276318659984703489

[76]             https://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2020/07/09/the-old-world-is-dying-and-the-new-world-struggles-to-be-born-call-the-midwife-ireland-needs-a-new-left-party/

Zombie Stalinism: 25 years later, who wants the Berlin Wall back?

honecker

This piece was originally printed on the IS Network (UK) website on the 18th November 2014.

We reprint it in light of the lapsing of that original post, aswell as our own convergence with the analysis of Stalinism and ‘campism’ (see for example Daphne Lawless’ Against Campism: What makes some leftists support Putin?).

Twenty-five years on, how has the fall of the Berlin Wall affected our analysis of Soviet Russia? How has what we have learnt changed our analysis of post-’89 Eastern Europe, Russia and the current situation in Ukraine?

The deepest discussions in the international workers’ movement about the relationship between dictatorship and democracy happened in the years after 1917 and either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the 1980s, revolutionary Marxists faced a growing crisis of Stalinist power in the East, and of the Stalinist parties in the West. Unlike the 1930s or 1940s, the failure of the Stalinist states to deliver democratic rights was more visible to many workers than capitalism’s failings. That, coupled with the low level of class consciousness, meant that many aspirations of working people and our allies could easily be channelled into social democracy and other pro-capitalist avenues. The way that the USSR and the other Stalinist states misrepresented the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ meant that workers rejected it both East and West.

In the 1980s, working people around the world were looking for alternatives to the dogmas of Stalinism. Stalinism was the root of elitist schemes in which a paternalist and monolithic party excluded workers from power, on the premise that freedom of discussion opened up the possibilities for counter-revolutionary ideas. Because it reflected the common sense of the post-war imperialism, this notion spread beyond the Stalinist parties and into parts of the social democratic and revolutionary Marxist movements.

The search for alternatives took place largely outside these parties and flowed into the social movements. In the East and the West, class consciousness was deeply stratified and uneven. Struggles spilled out in many directions, picking up the movements and leaderships to hand, like flood waters flowing down the path of least resistance.

The paucity of open, democratic and accessible organisations on the left had two results. First, the anti-Stalinist movements had to find direction independently, much as early feminist movements rejected by the western Communist parties found their ways into the social movements: the Stalinist narrative saw independent movements only as counter-revolutionary. Second, the left could not learn from those movements if it failed to recruit from them.

Schemas and dogmas, however, were not the sole preserve of Stalinists. Many revolutionary Marxists equated socialism with states that used nationalisation to deprive imperialism of a toehold, regardless of the concrete power of the working class. That blind spot meant that some socialists found themselves quite adrift. Some ended up supporting state-capitalist enterprises that operated in order to intensify the profit system. Many found themselves disoriented when working class movements confronted states that opposed a larger imperialism or defended nationalised property. They focused attention on the crimes of imperialism, but failed to make solidarity with the masses when they confronted governments which simultaneously excluded imperialism and the people from power. This acquiescence to the repressive secret-police apparatus of the Stalinist states meant that some socialists underestimated the degree to which the Stalinist co-option of socialist rhetoric would channel working class struggles into trade union, church and democratic movements.

Some comrades found themselves caught in the political dead-end that Ernest Mandel, the pre-eminent leader of the post-war Fourth International, called “campism”. Writing in 1983, Mandel criticised those who subordinated the interests of the working class and the revolution to the interests of defending the camp of states that opposed Western imperialism. He pointed out that the bureaucratic leaderships of these states were often mortal enemies of national liberation movements and working class struggles.

This campist viewpoint was widespead in the Trotskyist movement, notably in the English-speaking countries, as well as in the social democratic and Communist parties. In 1986, for example, the US SWP wrote that the progressive character of the Russian states was “a far more weighty factor for the world revolution than the obstacles represented by the Stalinist bureaucracies”. Mandel’s position was the opposite: “The counter-revolutionary role of the Soviet bureaucracy weighs more heavily on world history than the objective positive effects.”

These dogmas made much of the left unable to understand the developments of the anti-Stalinist movements, and the reality of the new movements’ fragile foundations led many on the left into quite disoriented positions.

The fall of the Berlin Wall remains a useful yardstick for revolutionaries. The working class moves imperfectly, and works with the ideas and the leaders it has to hand. The left must celebrate and learn from its imperfect legacies, from the NHS to the unfinished struggle for equality and unity in Germany.


On the 20th anniversary Gareth Dale wrote in the International Socialism journal to remind us of  the revolutionary nature of the movement for unification in East Germany. Those struggles are outlined well in his trio of books on the end of the DDR. However, Dale showed an appreciation of his readers when he wrote, “Readers of this journal are unlikely to be participating in the twentieth anniversary celebrations of the ‘transition to capitalism’ in Central and Eastern Europe and it’s easy to see why.”

Ironically it is Gregor Gysi, spokesperson of Germany’s ex-Stalinist party, who struck a more useful note on the 25th anniversary. Speaking last week, he reminded the Bundestag that the fall of the Wall was a victory for the masses: they confronted a dictatorship and defeated it in order to fight for democracy.

The challenge for the left is to celebrate the fall of the Wall as a progressive, revolutionary accomplishment of the German working class. The East German masses took up the ideas they had to hand: pacifism and trade unionism. The peace movement provided the initial core for the New Forum, a movement eventually backed by 200,000 East Germans. It argued for participatory democracy to reshape society but, partly because the trade unions were state organs, it mobilised workers through a grassroots movement rather than through the workplace.

That said, trade union militancy has deep roots in Germany, which had been warped by the DDR to meet the needs of the state. With the movements for democracy came new labour struggles and the foundation of independent trade unions, starting in East Berlin, encouraged by the positive experience of the independent Solidarity union in Poland. There were also unsuccessful attempts to move the New Forum into the workplaces by demanding a general strike, as Linda Fuller mentions in her book Where Was the Working Class? Mathieu Denis and Gareth Dale have also written convincingly about the role of workers in the movement: something removed from pro-capitalist and campist narratives about reunification. We should not deny the mass, revolutionary nature of these movements because of the later failure to defend and extend the social state, or because of the collapse of heavy industry on both sides of the former border. The ‘counter-revolution’ in East Germany did not happen in 1989, but before the establishment of the DDR itself. The creation of the DDR, far from creating socialism, had replaced one brutal, repressive dictatorship with another.

Nor, as John Rees does, should we view the outcome of reunification primarily as a matter of shifting walls between camps of states. In Rees’s opinion, the mass movement in 1989 was doomed because of the absence of socialist ideas. On the Counterfire website, he writes, “When Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned his East German satellite there was no social force that could resist the embrace of right wing West German chancellor Helmut Kohl. German unification would be a Western annexation, not the beginning of a social revolution…  The neoliberal offensive that took a huge step forward in Germany in 1989 has created a wall between the rich and the poor that is higher than ever, and more difficult to cross.”

This view is mistaken. Echoing Dale’s 2009 article in International Socialism, the revolutionary struggle in East Germany is discounted because of the prior absence of the ideal social force: a working class with revolutionary socialist ideas. The outcome is measured only in the partial attenuation of inequality between West and East, and the geopolitical defeat of Russia. For Rees, it seems, the development, success and memory of mass movements that ended the Stalinist dictatorships are nothing when weighed up against the expansion of NATO.

The same must be said of other struggles. Campism is alive and well, most clearly in relation to Ukraine and Syria. Some socialists have cultivated the absurdity of seeing Putin, leader of the Russian plutocracy that has used IMF diktats to suck wealth out of Russia, and his allies as governing an anti-imperialist bloc of states. The revolutionary struggles of the Syrian workers and peasants against the Syrian dictatorship are discounted by these comrades because US imperialism finds it expedient to oppose dictators who are independent of its sphere of control. In Ukraine, with a different constellation, some comrades are championing reactionary ultra-nationalists in the Donbass against a mass democratic movement. The nationwide Maidan movement took the path of demanding democratic rights and legal protections against corruption and oligarchical power. Because that movement mistakenly believed that an association with the EU was the most effective path towards those victories, some socialists discount the positive nature of the mass movements because one faction of imperialists benefits.

The reality is that mass movements do not always arise in the form of a working class acting consciously for itself. Whatever the level of class consciousness, factions of imperialism will try to co-opt, channel the course of and benefit from progressive movements. Transforming these capitalist factions into blocs whose interests outweigh progressive working class movements leads us to not celebrate the masses’ victories, but eventually to see them as counterproductive struggles which should be subordinated to the interests of neoliberal elites in Russia, Syria and elsewhere.

Socialists must learn different lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall. The working class and its allies will never have perfect self-consciousness. Our task is to support its forward movement, preparing for the reality of the uneven and unknown path ahead, and never to mourn partial victories.

Ernest Mandel on state campism:

What lies today behind the argument of the ‘international relationship of forces’ is in reality the strategy of ‘state campism’, which tends to subordinate the interests of the working class and the revolution in a given country to the interests of defending this or that workers’ state, or the so-called ‘socialist camp’ of states in its totality. We do not accept that subordination in any shape or form – again not for ‘dogmatic’ reasons, but because history has proven again and again that any victorious spread of revolution strengthens the international situation of any and all workers’ states, because it weakens imperialism and international capitalism. Reciprocally, the defeat of revolution in any country, whatever may have been its origins or the pretexts for which it was sacrificed, weakens the international situation of the workers’ states and the working class.

So in reality, those who defend revolutionary self-restraint and self-limitation (including in Poland) do not defend the interests of the working class, the workers’ states, world socialism or world peace. They defend the interests and material privileges of the labour bureaucracy, even if this defence finds its ideological roots in the ‘dialectic of partial conquests’. In the bureaucratised workers’ states, these layers have become a monstrous ossified caste which rules despotically over society and oppresses the great majority of the working class. In open conflicts with that working class, they do not defend the workers’ state. They defend their privileges and their monopoly in the exercise of power, which are barriers on the way forward towards socialism. Likewise, when they oppose the international extension of the revolution, including with ‘pacifist’ arguments of the type ‘We do not want to provoke imperialism into launching war’ or ‘Destabilisation undermines peace’, they do not serve the interests of the workers’ state, of world socialism or of world peace. They serve the particular, conservative, anti-socialist interests of the bureaucracy. So there is no reason whatsoever to yield to these reactionary strategies and arguments.

Sources

Dale, Gareth, ‘A short autumn of utopia: The East German revolution of 1989’, International Socialism 124 (autumn 2009), http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=581&issue=124

Denis, Mathieu, ‘Labor in the Collapse of the GDR and Reunification: A Crucial, Yet Overlooked Actor’, doctoral dissertation, http://edoc.hu-berlin.de/dissertationen/denis-mathieu-2007-05-31/PDF/denis.pdf

Fuller, Linda, Where Was the Working Class?, University of Illinois Press, 1999

Mandel, Ernest, ‘The Threat of Nuclear War and the Struggle for Socialism’, New Left Review http://bit.ly/Campism

Rees, John, ‘Berlin: the wall that came down and the walls that went up’, http://www.counterfire.org/articles/analysis/17510-berlin-the-wall-that-came-down-and-the-walls-that-went-up

Syrian revolution pamphlet successfully crowdfunded

free syria

Fightback are pleased to announce we have successfully met our goal of raising $1,000 for our upcoming pamphlet Syria: Revolution and Counter-Revolution. The pamphlet will be published in both electronic and printed forms, and in English and Arabic.

In Syria today, Assad and his lackeys are flattening entire neighbourhoods, so this little collection of writing seems like a small contribution in terms of solidarity.

However, ugly lies about Syria have become a commonplace, infecting even the left which claims to be a bastion of solidarity. We therefore consider it important to tell the truth about Syria, as an absolute minimum commitment of anyone who believes in democracy and self-determination.

The pamphlet will feature five articles, including reviews of the books The Impossible Revolution and Burning Country, and an interview with Syrian Australian artist Miream Salameh (alongside featuring Salameh’s artwork).

The campaign closes on March 14th, so there is still time if you’d like to contribute and receive a copy.

Funds raised will go directly to production and distribution costs, including translation. Sincere thanks to all who have pledged.

Click here here for PledgeMe campaign

Crowdfunding campaign for Syria pamphlet launched

idlib-kafranbel-protest

“The people want the fall of the regime – الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام‎.”

Having emerged from the Tunisian revolution and the wider ‘Arab Spring’, this slogan played a role in setting off the Syrian revolution when a group of youths were ‘disappeared’ for grafitiing it in the city of Dara’a. Citizens from many faiths mobilised in the streets of Syria, calling for democratic reform, before Assad’s military repression set off the ongoing crisis we see today – the greatest refugee crisis in a generation.

However, misinformation about the Syrian revolution abounds. You don’t have to go far on the internet to find claims that the Syrian revolution was a CIA conspiracy from the start – a claim made by Chris Trotter on New Zealand’s most popular left blog.

As put in the book Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, “the start of solidarity is correcting the narrative.” Fightback therefore seeks to help correct the narrative with a collection of articles on the Syrian revolution. The pamphlet will contain five articles by Fightback members, including two book reviews, an interview with a resettled Syrian Australian, and other analysis.

Rather than making grand uninformed claims about the war, this material seeks to engage with work by Syrian revolutionaries, and encourage wider engagement.

The pamphlet will be published in both English and Arabic, and in both electronic and printed forms.

Funds will go towards design, printing, mailout, and translation of articles.

كتيب حول سوريا: الثورة والثورة المضادة باللغة الإنجليزية والعربية

إن شعار الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام“. بعد أن خرج من الثورة التونسية و وبشكل اوسع من الربيع العربي، لعب دوراً في إنطلاقة الثورة السورية وذلك عندما تم اعتقال مجموعة من الشبان بسبب كتابة هذا الشعار على جدران مدينة درعا. احتشد المواطنون من مختلف الأديان في شوارع سوريا ، داعين إلى الإصلاح الديمقراطي ، قبل أن يؤدي القمع العسكري للأسد إلى الأزمة الحالية التي نشهدها اليوم وهي أكبر أزمة لاجئين لهذا الجيل.

إن المعلومات الخاطئة حول الثورة السورية هي معلومات زاخرة، وليس علينا الذهاب بعيدا على الانترنت للعثور على مزاعم بأن الثورة السورية هي مؤامرة من قبل سي آي إي وكالة الاستخبارات المركزية الأميركية” – وهو ادعاء قدمه مارتين برادبري ، مدون اليسارالأكثر شعبية في نيوزيلندا.

وكما ورد في كتاب الأرض المحروقة: سوريا في الثورة والحربيبدأ التضامن في تصحيح السرد ومنظمة فايت باك دافعتسعى للمساعدة في ذلك من خلال طرح كتيب لمجموعة من المقالات حول الثورة السورية.

يحتوي هذا الكتيب على خمس مقالات من أعضاء حزب فايت باك دافع، تتضمن هذه المقالات مراجعة لكتابين ومقابلة مع سورية استرالية تم توطينها وتحليلات أخرى. فبدلا من تقديم ادعاءات كبيرة غير معلنة عن الحرب، تسعى هذه المادة الى الانخراط في العمل مع الثوريين السوريين وتشجيع المشاركة على نطاق أوسع.

سيتم نشر الكتيب باللغتين الإنجليزية والعربية ، وفي كلتي النماذج الإلكترونية والمطبوعة.

سوف يستخدم المال من أجل التصميم والطباعة والبريد وترجمة المقالات.

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Why I no longer support #changethedate

Aboriginals communities stage a protest on Australia Day

This article is reprinted from the Aboriginal-led website IndigenousX. Please consider donating to their patreon.

This will also be reprinted in our upcoming magazine on theme of ‘International Perspectives.’ You can subscribe to our magazine here.

You want a day to celebrate Australia. I want an Australia that’s worth celebrating.

In the past I have supported the #changethedate campaign.

Until recently, when you searched ‘change the date’ on Google in Australia the first entry was even an article I wrote a few years back titled ‘Why we should change the date ofAustralia Day’.

It is still the most successful article on this website, by far.

I had hoped that there were enough Australians who would agree that celebrating Invasion is a pretty shit thing to do, and that changing the date could provide a catalyst for creating a country worthy of celebration. However, after seeing the rise of the #changethedate campaign I have come to the opinion that there are too many people who seem to think that the problem with Australia Day rests solely on the day we celebrate it, not with what we are celebrating.

I don’t really feel that Australia, where we sit right now, is worth celebrating.

Not just the actions of 230 years ago, or a century ago, or 50 or even 15 years ago that are problematic.

It is those things that exist today that are so problematic that I couldn’t in good faith celebrate our nation as a whole. A lot of that is tied up in our denial of history and our collective refusal to make any meaningful steps to reconcile it, but it extends beyond that too.

A simple observation would be to point out that there are only two events where we can be guaranteed to see white people wearing flag capes – on Australia Day and at neo-Nazi rallies.

Moving an overly politicised and problematic day to another date won’t change that.

A country that is content with Indigenous incarceration rates sometimes going up to as high as 100% in individual prisons, even though we represent 3% of the population, is not one I really want to celebrate anyway, regardless of what date it is on.

Especially not when you look at those incarcerated often dealing with issues of FASD, severe hearing loss, intergenerational trauma, or abuse at the hands of the state.

Many people whose only real crime is being poor; poor in a country made wealthy of the backs of Indigenous peoples’ dispossession, exploitation and exclusion from the opportunities created within colony.

A country that refuses to ever hold authorities to account for the deaths of Indigenous people in custody is one that does not deserve a party.

And that’s just scratching the surface of issues to do with incarceration. There are countless other issues in countless other areas across the colony in health, education, media, housing… you name it.

We have people homeless on their homelands while billions have been ripped out of those same lands through mining.

We have communities whose water is poisoned.

People who are routinely punished for not applying for jobs that don’t exist.

We have people whose languages were stolen from their parents and grandparents and today we act like teaching people their languages in school would somehow be doing them a disservice.

We have corporates who we applaud for hiring Indigenous people even if the government has to pay them to do it.

We acknowledge the traditional owners at events, but we don’t acknowledge what happened to change them from ‘owners’ to ‘traditional owners’.

How many of us even know what happened right under our feet to make that change? In detail. Do you know the names? Do you know the sacred sites and the massacre sites?

How can we acknowledge what we don’t even know?

That is not to say that there aren’t amazing and beautiful people, places and actions all across Australia that are worthy of celebration, but most of those things for me exist in spite of the colonial project, not because of it.

We have wonderful slogans of a fair go for all, or of being a lucky country. For years we have had politicians ignore racism by calling Australia ‘the most successful multicultural country on earth’, but now that they are trying to move away from the spirit of multiculturalism to a more open admittance that the Australian-ness of any non-white migrant is always conditional, and that their citizenship can and will be withdrawn at a minute’s notice. In this environment even the lie of being multicultural has needed to be downgraded to ‘the most successful migrant nation’.

These are the lies Australia tells itself, not to aspire to a greater future, but to deny our past and our present. This is why we changed the International Day of the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and made it Harmony Day instead. Not because we had eliminated racial discrimination, but because we wanted to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

This is what Australia does with its symbolic gestures. It uses them to pretend that no further changes are required.

And that is why I cannot in good conscience support #changethedate anymore. If public pressure for changing the date grows to sufficient level I don’t doubt that the major parties would do a 180 to support it. But because it would be a responsive vote grab rather than reflecting any sincerely belief or aspirations for a better country, they would continue to dismiss and undermine Indigenous aspirations and to avoid the tough questions of Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.

So, change the country first, and then we can talk about a date.

Show me a country with a Treaty or Treaties that are robust. A country with meaningful Indigenous representation in decision making that affects us, at the local and the national level.

Show a me a country where the greatest areas for Indigenous representation aren’t in prisons, child removal, and suicide.

Show me a country that acknowledges not just its white supremacist origins, but it’s current state. A country that fights to eradicate racism and understands that we must be eternally vigilant against its resurgence once it is removed.

Show me a country that I can be proud of, that I can teach my children to be proud of, where they can grow up confident in the knowledge that this country doesn’t see their very existence as a problem to be solved, and then I will talk about what could be a good date in the calendar year to throw a party for how awesome the country is. Because right now, I just don’t see a country worth celebrating, and I’m not willing to change the date in the hopes that it might come next year, or the year after that.

Every year more and media orgs at large plays #changethedate for clicks and sensationalism rather than to highlight issues or foster dialogue. Political parties pounce on it with such breathtaking hypocrisy that in the same breath they talk about being a free country and in the next about forcing local councils to hold celebrations and about dress codes for citizenship ceremonies. They hide behind a faux support of migrants to mask their support for white nationalism.

And for the record, the 26th of January will always remain Invasion Day, and Survival Day, and a Day of Mourning, because #LestWeForget.

Hopefully though, one day, Australia might become a country that I could celebrate, but only if we name the changes that need to occur, and we work towards achieving them. Changing the date is one of the final steps one that list, not one of the first.

But even then, the goal should not be so that we can ‘reconcile’, or that we can all have a party together some day on a given date. It needs to be less about appeasing white guilt and more about supporting Indigenous empowerment.

The goal is a country that does not treat Indigenous people as a threat but instead recognises and respects the unique status of Indigenous peoples in Australia, and strives to weave that in to the national identity, decision making processes, and day to day life of the colony – even where that means some Indigenous people choose to withdraw from the communities and institutions that have so long rejected and disenfranchised us and create our own instead.

Luke Pearson is the founder of IndigenousX.

It’s not about ‘regime change’: A brief history of US intervention in Syria

trump putin

By Ani White.

Chomsky’s criticism of US withdrawal from Kurdish-held territory poses a strange contradiction; why have so many on the left accused Syrian Arab rebels of being US proxies, while either supporting or remaining silent on the far more consistent US support of the Kurdish SDF against ISIS?

Given the widespread misinformation about Syria, a basic rundown of the facts about US involvement is necessary. This is a very brief outline of well-known facts about the war – for a more detailed analysis of the various forces involved, the work of Michael Karadjis is particularly recommended.

The dominant narrative on the left holds that US involvement in Syria is an attempt at ‘regime change.’ As highlighted by Karadjis, this is in contradiction with the statements of US officials:

  • In 2016, declaring that the US was “not seeking so-called regime change as it is known in Syria,” Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry added that the US and Russia see the conflict “fundamentally very similarly.”

  • In March 2017, Trump’s UN representative, Nikki Haley, despite her own tendency to spout anti-Assad rhetoric, declared that the Trump administration was “no longer” focused on removing Assad “the way the previous administration was.”

  • The same month, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, noted that “The United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities. With respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept.”

  • In July 2017, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson clarified that the only fight in Syria is with ISIS, that Assad’s future is Russia’s issue, and he essentially called the regime allies: “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another …”

  • Following the one-off US strike on an empty Assadist air-base after Assad’s horrific chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib, US National Security Advisor HR McMaster clarified that the US had no concern with the fact that the base was being used to bomb Syrians again the very next day, because harming Assad’s military capacities was not the aim of the strike; and far from “regime change”, the US desired a “change in the nature of the Assad regime and its behavior in particular.” [note: not a change in the nature of the regime, a change in the nature of the Assad regime].

  • Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s speech in January 2018 focused on supporting the Geneva process for a “political solution,” but now the US no longer expected Assad to stand down at the beginning of a transition phase as under early Obama, or even at its end as under late Obama; rather, US policy was to wait for an eventual “free election” under Assad: “The United States believes that free and transparent elections … will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership.”

  • Even before his most recent, more blatant, statement, [Trump’s special envoy to Syria Jim Jeffrey] had already made a similar statement in his November 29 address to the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria, declaring that the US was committed to a political process that “will change the nature and the behaviour of the Syrian government … this is not regime change, this is not related to personalities.”1

 

However, it’s not enough to take officials at their word. Do these claims contradict the actual practice of US intervention? Well, no.

The USA has continuously attacked ISIS-held territory since 2014, killing thousands of civilians.2 Meanwhile, two direct actions against Assad – an airfield bombing in 2017, and a chemical weapons factory bombing in 2018 – killed nobody, and both sought to warn the regime against chemical weapons attacks, rather than remove it from power per se. These two actions prompted widespread protests in the Anglosphere, while continuous US attacks on ISIS-held territory prompted silence, or in some cases support (see the open letter to the US to ‘defend Rojava’ signed by David Harvey, David Graeber and Noam Chomsky among others). If the USA sought to remove Assad from power, why not bomb Damascus? Why focus primarily on ISIS-held territory?

Crucially, the war began not with US involvement, but with an independent popular regional rebellion (against both US-backed states and ‘anti-imperialist’ ones), that was militarily attacked by Assad. In August 2012, Obama famously stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime was a “red line” that if crossed would invite direct US intervention. Yet in 2013, the Obama administration backed down from a threatened bombing campaign after Assad’s use of chemical weapons in East Ghouta killed 1,400 people.3

Although the USA offered some assistance to the Syrian rebels, this was limited. The Assad regime was able to rain death on the rebels from the sky, while rebels were limited to ground forces, so to beat Assad they would have needed aerial support or weaponry. Yet the CIA specifically blocked Saudi Arabia from providing the rebels with anti-aircraft weapons,45 and the USA did not implement a No Fly Zone. While the reasons for this are murky, they may include the fact that US policy was an ad hoc response to a volatile situation, that many rebels were anti-Zionist and hard to control, and/or the ‘realist’ policy of the Obama administration. Obama infamously mocked the rebels as “farmers or dentists” and said training them would take a lot of time and resources,6 showing a lukewarm attitude to the situation.

Finally, in 2014, ISIS intervention in the Syrian war triggered expanded US involvement. Contrary to narratives which reduce the Syrian revolution to ISIS, the group formed in Iraq, recruited internationally, and opportunistically intervened in the Syrian war as an occupying force – 3 years into the conflict. In September 2014, Congress approved a $500 million expansion of funding for US involvement, focused on equipping rebels to fight ISIS.7 A number of rebels left the training programme after it specifically placed a condition on trainees that they only fight ISIS and not Assad’s forces.8 This led to the US swivel towards supporting the Kurdish forces, which increasingly reached a detente with Assad against their common enemy ISIS. The USA also began bombing ISIS-held territory. In July 2017, Trump ceased arming Syrian rebels.9

US forces would not directly intervene against Assad until 2017, after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib. At this point Trump warned Assad and Putin of the attack, allowing them to evacuate the targeted airfield. This was a symbolic action, at most a warning against further chemical weapons attacks. Again, if the intention was to take out Assad, the USA could have rained death on Damascus rather than Raqqa.

In sum, US policy in Syria since at least 2015 has focused primarily on fighting ISIS, while remaining complicit with Assad. This is not a defence of US policy; complicity with Assad is a bad thing. Trump’s recent claim that “Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS. We were doing there [sic] work” is a logical extension of this policy.

As for why so many leftists falsely characterise the intervention as a ‘regime change’ effort, a few factors seem salient:

  • Reducing a complex situation to an easily understandable one.

  • Relatedly, failing to catch up with a shift in geopolitics whereby the Trump and Putin administrations increasingly converge around reactionary politics.

  • Most fundamentally, solidarity with states rather than people; Assad is imagined to have ‘sovereignty’ despite obviously fake elections, while the Syrian people are secondary.

Those who still identify with the left must catch up with reality; we risk irrelevance at best, and siding with reaction at worst.

Singapore: The unseen migrant workers behind those skyscrapers

A migrant construction worker throws his boots to the side as he takes a break with fellow workers at the end of his shift in the central business district in Singapore
Photo: Reuters

By Sangeetha Thanapal.
This article will be published in Fightback’s upcoming magazine issue on migrant and refugee rights. To subscribe, click here.

Many migrant workers come to Singapore in the hopes of making a better life for themselves and their families back home, only to leave disheartened at the exploitative practices and abuse they undergo in the country.

Migrant workers in Singapore make up about 1.4 million within Singapore’s larger population of 5.6 million people.[1] Desperate for cheap labour to build the state, Singapore has had an open door policy for low-wage workers for decades. These workers are usually from India, Bangladesh and China and it is their labour that has built the skyscrapers which tourists love so much about Singapore.

They also live under harsh and extremely restrictive measures, and are often mistreated, overworked and underpaid. Their employers (who are overwhelmingly rich, Chinese businessmen in a country with a 77% Chinese majority) often cajole them with promises of paying later, and then resort to threats and mistreatment.

The state pays lip service to fair work but its policies say otherwise. More often than not, itrarely prosecutes employers[2] who withhold the wages of their employee and does not step in to ensure safe working environments.[3] It also unwittingly supports employers in their mistreatment, as workers who complain or take their employers to task can have their work permits cancelled. Thus, there is serious disincentive for workers to even claim what is rightfully theirs, made worse by a system that condones their disenfranchisement.

An analysis of workers and their plight in Singapore also requires a gendered aspect. Foreign domestic workers in Singapore are women, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. Their stories diverge from male construction workers but only a little. Stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse are rife.[4] Women are locked up, overworked and underfed.[5] Some have been offered up “for sale”6 and many others have resorted to suicide.[7]

It is clear that migrant work in Singapore is a form of modern day slavery.[8]

So why do neighbouring countries keep sending their workers to be treated in such abysmal ways? There seems to be a convergence of interest between rich states who desire cheap labour and poor ones who can’t afford to keep many unemployed workers at home. Furthermore, a weak civil society[9] within Singapore that is kept crippled by a strong state finds it hard to grapple with this problem. There is often the idea that Singaporeans themselves are economically exploited, and that needs to be the first priority amongst civil society. There are only two NGOs that work on behalf of migrant workers, TWC2[10] and HOME.[11] On a typical day, TWC2 can see up to 500 workers with different grievances. The kind of exploitation faced by these workers is too deeply endemic for two NGOs to deal with adequately, especially when faced with an apathetic government that sees these workers as dehumanised objects to be used and tossed aside.

As a state, Singapore practices a type of surveillance mechanism, where every aspect of people’s lives are watched and controlled. Foreign workers are often subject to containment measures, especially dark-skinned South Asian men whose mere physical presence alone causes panic. There is a spatial othering that occurs with these men, who are often confined to certain areas of the country. There was even an outcry at government plans to build a dormitory for these workers in a high density building estate.[12] Singaporeans want migrant workers to do their ‘dirty work’ for them, but do not want to lay eyes on them while they do it.

The women are subjected to a different kind of scrutiny, where their bodies are the site of medical surveillance. Work permit policies prohibit these women from becoming pregnant[13] on the threat of losing their jobs and being deported. These women come to look after Singaporean families but they cannot create any of their own. They also bear all the responsibility for not getting pregnant and given the strong possibility of abuse and rape as a domestic worker in Singapore, this is an undue and unjust burden that is placed on them.

Historically, the Singapore state has practiced a form of eugenics,14 where poor women’s children’s are deemed simply not good enough for the state. The policies aimed at controlling the bodies of domestic workers are an extension of that. Unwanted children from unwanted women is transgressive: the state only desires certain types of bodies to procreate, despite a concern for the falling birth rate.[15]

Workers in Singapore in general have little rights and migrant workers face a predominance of abusive work situations with little recourse or avenue for recompense. As the Singapore government refuses to see them as human beings who deserve a safe environment to work in, this state of affairs seems likely to continue in time to come.

1Migrant workers struggle to get paid, CNN: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/02/24/asia/singapore-migrant-workers-intl/index.html
2More errant workers should be prosecuted, Today: https://www.todayonline.com/voices/more-errant-employers-should-be-prosecuted-not-paying-salaries
3Migrant workers’ cases in Singapore more shocking than in Hong Kong, South China Morning Post: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-crime/article/2076082/cases-involving-migrant-workers-more-shocking-singapore
46 out of 10 maids in Singapore are exploited, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/6-out-of-10-maids-in-singapore-are-exploited-survey-9454694
5Singapore couple jailed for starving Philipino maid, BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-39402698
6Singapore ads for Indonesian maids for sale ignites anger, Rappler: https://www.rappler.com/world/regions/asia-pacific/212335-anger-over-singapore-ads-offering-indonesian-maids-for-sale
7Maid commits suicide after being locked up for three days straight, The Independent: http://theindependent.sg/maid-commits-suicide-after-being-locked-up-for-three-months-straight/
8Migrant workers in Singapore “vulnerable to forced labour”, TWC: http://twc2.org.sg/2017/07/14/migrant-workers-in-singapore-vulnerable-to-forced-labor-including-debt-bondage-says-us-tip-2017-report/
9Singapore’s constrained civil society, BBE: http://www.b-b-e.de/fileadmin/inhalte/aktuelles/2016/02/enl-2-ortmann-gastbeitrag.pdf
10TWC2: http://twc2.org.sg/
11HOME: https://www.home.org.sg/
12Serangoon Gardens Dormitory Saga, Progress in GP: https://progressgp.wordpress.com/2009/07/19/serangoon-gardens-dormitory-saga/
13Maids fear losing jobs when they get pregnant, The Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/maids-fear-losing-job-when-they-get-pregnant
14Population planning in Singapore, Wikipedia: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_planning_in_Singapore
15Singapore’s fertility rate at new seven-year low, Channel NewsAsia: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-total-fertility-rate-new-low-1-16-10002558

Fascism in Australia: An interview with slackbastard

Andy Fleming, aka slackbastard is a minor internet celebrity with a range of platforms promoting radical politics, particularly focusing on anti-fascism. Fightback’s ANI WHITE interviews him about fascism, anti-fascism and politics in Australia today. This interview appears in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

Ani: Your online platforms cover a range of issues, but particularly focus on anti-fascism. Is there any reason you consider this work to be particularly important?

Andy: I began blogging in earnest in late 2005, while the Facebook page went up in 2010 and I’ve been Twittering away since 2009. Since I began, the primary focus of the blog has gradually evolved into anti-fascism, which in this case means monitoring the activities of various far-right actors, mostly of Australian origin, and with a particular focus on Melbourne (where I live). One of the main reasons for this is the relative absence of other forums in which this discussion might take place. Basically, there are very few public resources dedicated to monitoring fascism and the far right in Australia, and over time the blog has become a (I hope useful) resource for those wanting to explore this world. Certainly, anyone who jumps online and searches for information about fascism and the far right in Australia will sooner or later (generally sooner) stumble upon the blog. As a result, particularly since the emergence of ‘Reclaim Australia’ in early 2015, but also preceding it, I’ve been contacted by numerous journalists, researchers, students and so on, who want to be backgrounded on and seek orientation towards the contemporary antics of the far right. In a sense, it’s developed its own momentum, and the blog’s contents reflect what it is that others identify as being especially interesting and useful about it in its coverage of this domain. Beyond this, I identify as an anarchist, and from this perspective fascism is deeply antithetical to my own political commitments. Further, I suppose I’m one of those who believes that there is actually scope for a fascist or proto-fascist movement to develop in Australia. This is informed by the country’s status as a British penal colony which, at the beginning of the twentieth-century and its establishment as the Commonwealth of Australia, formally adopted white nationalism as state policy, a policy abandoned only relatively recently. In other words, I think Australia is relatively fertile ground upon which a fascist movement might develop, and historically-speaking, its relative absence is in large part due to the role of the state in already having captured that political territory. This essay covers more of this territory.

Ani: What are the defining traits of neo-fascism?

Andy: Well, that depends: in one sense, neo-fascism may be traced back to the immediate post-WWII era, in which the defeated forces of fascism in Europe were forced to reassess, regroup, and rearticulate their politics. But I suppose in the more immediate historical and social context, I’d suggest that the ‘newer’ expressions of fascist doctrine and movement are shaped, in critical ways, by the inauguration of the (seemingly endless) ‘War on Terror’ in 2001 and attendant spike in Islamophobia, neoliberal crisis and, in the Australian context, the punitive measures adopted by both major parties with regards the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees: ‘Fortress Australia’ (see below). This is the political and social backdrop against which newer fascist political formations have arisen, and whose political expressions are variations on older and generally familiar themes: racism and white supremacy, ultra-nationalism, the cult of masculinist violence, and so on. (For what it’s worth, I think Roger Griffin’s concept of ‘palingenetic ultra-nationalism’ remains a key reference point for understanding generic fascism.)

Ani: What neo-fascist groups are operating in Australia today?

Andy: There’s a small number of formally-constituted groups — political parties like the ‘Australia First Party’, neo-Nazi grouplets like ‘Antipodean Resistance’ and ‘Nationalist Alternative’ and so on — but by my reckoning, most of these groups operate on a more informal level, as part of wider social networks which have as their chief platform social media (especially Facebook). In other words, while documenting the moments when groups formally constitute themselves as groups is important (see A (very) brief guide to the Australian far right (December 2016 Edition)), it’s also important not to lose sight of the political undercurrents which generate such moments. This, I think, is what gives rise to things like the Cronulla pogrom (see Under the Beach, the Barbed Wire’, Angela Mitropoulos, Mute, February 7, 2006), helps to explain the sudden emergence and eventual collapse of ‘Reclaim Australia’, and other such events. Further, the same kinds of ideas that motivate neo-fascists are also present, to a greater-or-lesser degree, in mainstream politics, and it’s useful to examine, for example, the ways in which various mythologies about ‘Cultural Marxism’ have moved from the political margins to the centre. (See Martin Jay, ‘Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment: The Frankfurt School as Scapegoat of the Lunatic Fringe’).

Ani: Can you tell us about the new group Antipodean Resistance, which appears to be more militant than the existing groups?

Andy: Antipodean Resistance (AR) is a relatively new grouplet which is neo-Nazi, mostly composed of young men in their teens and twenties, and which specialises in provocative propaganda. It’s claimed to have a membership in the hundreds but this seems doubtful. To date, its militancy is confined to its rhetoric. The group emerged in late 2016 and has gained some media attention as a result of it targeting schools, University campuses and political offices with its posters and stickers. It has its origins among a handful of ‘United Patriots Front’ (UPF) supporters in Melbourne but has subsequently extended its reach to other cities and towns in Victoria and to other states. It’s also connected to and models itself upon a handful of other neo-Nazi groups: the banned organisation ‘National Action’ in the UK, the ‘Nordic Resistance Movement’ in Scandinavia, and ‘Atomwaffen’ in the US; this networking took place via the now-defunct neo-Nazi website ‘Iron March’. National Action was proscribed as a terrorist organisation in December 2016; a number of its members have been arrested and charged with preparation of terrorist acts, while the group notoriously celebrated the assassination of British MP Jo Cox in June 2016. Members of the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden have been convicted of carrying out bombing attacks upon asylum seeker refuges and a left-wing bookshop, while members of Atomwaffen are currently on trial for a string of murders, the most recent being that of Jewish student Blaze Bernstein in January 2018. Currently, the group is linked to members of the UPF and something called ‘The Lads Society’, which describes itself as a fraternal organisation and which, in October last year, opened up a social centre in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham. The leaseholder is ex-UPF member Tom Sewell and in January the centre served as the venue for a joint meeting with another racist gang called the ‘True Blue Crew’ based in the Victorian town of Bendigo and the suburb of Melton. (The meeting was called in order to discuss the formation of a vigilante gang to confront an alleged African gang crime-wave.) Outside of neo-Nazi skinhead groups like Blood & Honour and the (Southern Cross) Hammerskins, AR is one of relatively few grouplets that doesn’t bother to disguise its commitment to Nazi doctrines. For those interested, you can read more about AR in the following: Who are Antipodean Resistance?; Jacob Hersant : An Antipodean Resistance Lad; Julie Nathan, “Antipodean Resistance: The Rise and Goals of Australia’s New Nazis”.

brigadaaf

Brigada Anti-Fascista, a Melbourne antifa crew. Photo from the slackbastard blog

Ani: Pauline Hanson’s racial populist party One Nation has had a resurgence recently. What is the relationship between One Nation and more explicit neo-fascist groups, if any?

Andy: In its earlier iteration, this subject was explored by Danny Ben-Moshe (see: ‘One Nation and the Australian far right’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol.35, No.3, 2001). They concluded that, while neo-fascist and other (racist) right-wing actors joined the party and sought to obtain influence within it, this endeavour was largely unsuccessful, and in the end their presence proved to be simply destabilising. One Nation’s return has been accompanied by similar manoeuvres. In terms of policy, fear of being ‘swamped by Asians’ has been replaced by fear of being ‘swamped by Muslims’ — so hey, you can’t say that Hanson isn’t adaptable (though you might also say that she’s a rank opportunist) — but even a cursory examination of its candidates for office reveals an often bizarre amalgam of all kinds of fears and resentments, and the party is, perhaps not surprisingly, still beset by internal ructions. Still, it’s my impression that Hanson is now better able to exert control over the party as a whole, and it exists as a kind of permanent shrine to her endless — and I do mean endless — whining. Naturally, racists have welcomed her and the party’s return; to date, however, the party has failed to break out of its chiefly regional and rural base in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales, where it competes most keenly with the Nationals (the junior ruling Coalition partner) for support. Race and immigration remain key issues for the party and its supporters, whose views on other matters and voting record in parliament otherwise reflects that of the Coalition.

Ani: While neo-fascists seek an escalation of violence against refugees and visible minorities, the Australian state is already exceptional in its brutal Mandatory Detention policy. Can you tell us about Australia’s refugee policy, and about the refugee solidarity movement?

Andy: It’s certainly the case that the Australian state does a good job of brutalising asylum seekers, but its exceptionality may be rather short-lived, sadly, as governments and parties in Europe now look to Australia for cutting-edge methods of controlling population flows. These policies and programs have proven inspiring to the continent’s far right. In general, the policy of mandatory detention, inaugurated in 1994 under the Keating Labor government, has enjoyed bipartisan support ever since, and the Australian public largely supports the measures adopted to penalise those asylum seekers who arrive on Australia’s shores by boat. Occasionally, some noises in opposition will emanate from back-benchers, but it seems as though there are no real cracks in the parliamentary facade, and so the policy will remain in place for some time to come. Of course, some Australians celebrate the state’s cruelty, and workers in the detention industry — which, like other government services, is now semi-privatised — notoriously posed with Hanson at a Reclaim rally in 2015. On the flip side, the relocation of the concentration camps from the cities to rural areas and then to other islands — and the various, generally crackpot schemes hatched in conjunction with regional governments for them to accept some portion of Australia’s inmates — could be read as being a reaction to resistance within the camps, as well as a rational desire to keep torture out of public sight. Currently, the refugee solidarity movement is largely confined to the conduct of periodic rallies and protests, the effects of which are generally minimal outside, perhaps, of keeping the abuse of refugees and asylum seekers in the public mind. Other, related campaigns have sought to attack the underlying infrastructure of the detention industry, especially through divestment campaigns, and specifically by seeking to have union superfunds withdrawn from the industry. This has met with some limited success and lukewarm support from the labour movement, which remains dominated by the ALP. A relatively recent project is called ‘Can’t Stand Buy’, which seeks (or sought) to harness acts of civil disobedience to escalate the economic and social costs of maintaining the regime. It generated some media attention, but not mass public participation. In general, the XBorder blog is a useful resource — one which also attempts to situate the regime within a global complex of institutions and political arrangements — and the ‘RISE: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-Detainees’ organisation in Melbourne is a unique presence in the ‘refugee solidarity’ movement, with both it and the imprisoned journalist Behrouz Boochani continuing to be important voices of protest.

Ani: Melbourne cops have recently made headlines for police brutality. What do we need to know about our mates in the Victorian Police?

Andy: The short answer? They’re not your mates! More seriously, there’s a handful of different organisations that monitor police activity in Victoria, one of which is the ‘Police Accountability Project’: I recommend that those interested read its publications. The ‘Melbourne Activist Legal Service’ (MALS) is another interesting and worthwhile project. Of particular relevance to anti-fascists, in early 2017, the Victorian state government introduced a bill to parliament — the ‘Crimes Amendment (Public Order) Bill 2017’ — which, inter alia, criminalises the wearing of clothing which obscures one’s appearance. MALS has critiqued the introduction of these and similar laws. Oh, and ‘Sisters Inside’, an organisation based in Queensland, is holding a Prison Abolition conference in Brisbane in November, which readers may find of interest.

Ani: I recently read a mainstream Australian opinion piece which promoted the ‘Cultural Marxism’ conspiracy theory, a far-right theory that Marxist elites are dismantling Western civilisation. While it’s very flattering to imagine Marxists have anything like that influence, it was shocking for me to see this in a mainstream opinion piece. I recently came over from Aotearoa/New Zealand, and while we certainly have conservative media, mainstream promotion of these kind of outright far-right ideas seems particularly extreme. Can you tell us about the mainstreaming of these ideas in Australian media?

Andy: To begin with, I think Martin Jay’s essay is required reading on this subject; further, I’d recommend ‘‘Cultural Marxism’: a uniting theory for right-wingers who love to play the victim’ and “Chris Uhlmann should mind his language on ‘cultural Marxism’’ by Jason Wilson, which helps to situate the idea in contemporary Australian political discourse. In terms of how this theory has assumed some mainstream prominence, I’d suggest that this is no accident, and demonstrates that the far right is able to produce ideas that, over time, can reach a much wider audience. Much the same can be said of the ‘White Genocide’ meme, especially as it applies to South Africa. In just the last week, the Australian attorney-general, Christian Porter, has urged white South African farmers seeking asylum in Australia to contact his office for specialist advice; previously, the Minister for Home Affairs, Peter Dutton, had publicly expressed support for the proposal to bring ‘persecuted’ white South African farmers to Australia under a special visa arrangement. (See also: Jon Piccini, “Peter Dutton’s ‘fast track’ for white South African farmers is a throwback to a long, racist history”, and John Marnell, “South Africa: where ‘Australia’ is code for racist”)

I’m unsure how Australian mainstream media compares to that in Aotearoa/New Zealand, but outside of state media, it’s my understanding that private ownership is exceptionally highly concentrated (even for a Western democracy), and Rupert Murdoch (via Newscorpse) rules over a very large chunk of this private kingdom. The only national daily newspaper, ‘The Australian’, has been running at a loss basically since it first began publishing in 1964, but serves as the flagship for conservative politics, a useful political tool for elites. If you examine the proliferation of the term in the pages of ‘The Australian’ (print and online), it seems to have undergone a sharp increase over the course of the last two to three years, and where previously it was closely-associated with the ravings of someone like Anders Breivik (or to be found only in an especially apoplectic ‘letter to the editor’), it’s now considered part and parcel of respectable discourse. The relative popularity of the term is partly attributable, I would suggest, to its flexibility, and each and every ‘progressive’ idea or movement of the last several decades has been attributed to the influence of ‘Cultural Marxism’.

Ani: In recent years some liberals and leftists have bought into the idea that the ‘white working class’ was left behind by multiculturalism. What is your take on this?

Andy: For various reasons, I’m not especially convinced by this line of argument, but I should say at the outset that there’s a wealth of literature on the subject of ‘multiculturalism’ and its meaning for Australian society, and I’m unable to do much more than make a few notes regarding it. In which context, in practice, ‘multiculturalism’ typically means ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multinational’ and/or ‘multiracial’, and ‘culture’ is understood to be synonymous with these terms. Thus there is ‘British culture’, ‘Irish culture’, ‘Italian culture’, ‘Black culture’, ‘Asian culture’ and so on; further, these are typically assumed to be unitary (which is, in my view, not the case). In other words, I think that there are some conceptual issues with the uses to which this term is put, and addressing these is necessary before the matter can be discussed more sensibly. In the Australian context, ‘multiculturalism’ can refer both to: a) demographic changes, especially in the post-WWII era, in the ethnic composition of an overwhelmingly British and Irish-derived settler-colonial population and also; b) changes in state policy following the abandonment of both the White Australia policy and the assimilationist doctrines which replaced them. More generally, it seems fairly obvious that the ‘(white) working class’ has not benefited from a whole range of state policies, because the purpose of those policies is not to benefit the working class as a class: generally-speaking, the state remains the instrument of the ruling class, and reflects its interests and the interests of those forces which dominate the economy. If there is some truth to the notion that the ‘white working class’ has been left behind by multiculturalism, it’s the proposal that, as state policy, multiculturalism has tended to promote the advancement of an ‘ethnic’ middle class which may/not advance the interests of the specific grouping of which it purports to be the representative. But again, it makes most sense to discuss such matters in their specificities. It’s also, of course, worth remembering that the working class, especially in a country like the US, is disproportionately comprised of non-whites (‘people of colour’) and that, while Trump attempted to pose as a champion of workers, his main support base is drawn from wealthier classes; further, that given the dispiriting alternatives on offer — Trump versus Clinton — a very large proportion of working-class people didn’t bother to vote at all: a similar pattern of working-class abstention is evident in many other electoral contests, in many other countries.

Ani: In the USA, the so-called ‘alt right’ has brought neo-reactionary ideas into the mainstream. Does the alt-right have a coherent presence in Australia? Has it boosted existing groups?

Andy: It’s a rather tired cliche, but yes, as with many other things, the development of an ‘AltRight’ in the United States has encouraged the development of something similar in Australia (and in other countries subject to US cultural hegemony). In this context, I think George Hawley’s recent book ‘Making Sense of the Alt-Right’ is useful, especially for the ways in which it discusses the political recomposition of ‘conservatism’ in the US, and there’s some evidence to suggest that similar developments are or may be taking place in Australia. But it seems to me that if the US AltRight is coherent, the Australian AltRight is rather less so. Otherwise, the far-right has often aped elements of the left, and the AltRight is often interpreted as being evidence of a ‘culturalist’ turn by these political forces, and a response to the supposed dominance of something called ‘Cultural Marxism’. It’s a political nonsense, of course, but it does provide a useful bucket into which reactionaries of all sorts can pour their resentments. Otherwise, the election of Trump has provided a minor fillip to neo-fascist groupings in Australia, but this has yet to really translate into something politically significant. This may yet happen, but perhaps an example of the influence of the AltRight may be found in the political degeneration of someone like Mark Latham. Once a Labor leader and potential prime minister, he’s now largely confined to the fringes of mainstream media, and has even been an honoured guest — twice — on a local neo-Nazi podcast. ‘Sad!’

Ani: What are the international links of neo-fascists in Australia, that you are aware of?

Andy: International linkages are sometimes formal but more often informal. So there are a number of neo-fascist groups in Australia which are franchises (for example, Blood & Honour, Combat 18, Hammerskins) and there are various ‘ethnic’ fascisms (Croatian, Greek, Serbian and so on) which are part and parcel of various diasporas. But in the contemporary era, most of these linkages tend to be informal and conducted by the way of the Internet, and especially social media. (It may be relevant to add that, closer to home, Kyle Chapman’s ‘Right Wing Resistance’ groupuscule has found a few boneheaded adherents in Australia, but as in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s basically a shambles.)

Ani: What tactics have proved most effective in smashing fascist groups?

Andy: If by ‘smashing’ is meant effective disruption, I’d say: constant political pressure. So as a general rule, if fascists go marching hurrah hurrah, it’s important that they be countered. If, as sometimes happens, they are gifted a platform by mainstream media, or attempt to weasel their way into some institution, it’s important to be able to expose their real agenda and their actual political commitments. Exposing fascist lies, ridiculing their pretensions to mastery, and presenting life-affirming alternatives to fascist dogmas — alternatives based on other political and ethical principles, such as commitments to equality, cooperation, mutual aid and conviviality — is also necessary. So too, the promotion of critical inquiry and structural analysis as opposed to conspiracist mentalities and political scapegoating. Finally, the following observations by Ken Knabb are germane:

Irrational popular tendencies do sometimes call for discretion. But powerful though they may be, they are not irresistible forces. They contain their own contradictions. Clinging to some absolute authority is not necessarily a sign of faith in authority; it may be a desperate attempt to overcome one’s increasing doubts (the convulsive tightening of a slipping grip). People who join gangs or reactionary groups, or who get caught up in religious cults or patriotic hysteria, are also seeking a sense of liberation, connection, purpose, participation, empowerment. As Reich himself showed, fascism gives a particularly vigorous and dramatic expression to these basic aspirations, which is why it often has a deeper appeal than the vacillations, compromises and hypocrisies of liberalism and leftism.

In the long run the only way to defeat reaction is to present more forthright expressions of these aspirations, and more authentic opportunities to fulfil them. When basic issues are forced into the open, irrationalities that flourished under the cover of psychological repression tend to be weakened, like disease germs exposed to sunlight and fresh air. In any case, even if we don’t prevail, there is at least some satisfaction in fighting for what we really believe, rather than being defeated in a posture of hesitancy and hypocrisy.

Ani: Socialist Sue Bolton recently criticised militant antifascist presence at a broader rally. Could you briefly comment on this?

Andy: I wrote about the event on the blog and some further criticisms were made by Andy Blunden and Lynn Beaton on the ‘Arena’ magazine blog, to which I also later responded. Sue’s account of the events of the day is largely correct in its essentials: there was a rally in the Victoria Street mall in Coburg, and fascists held a rally several hundred metres away in Bridges Reserve. Otherwise: I can’t speak to or for Socialist Alternative’s actions on the day as I’m not a member and was not part of their contingent; I think it was a difficult situation, but my basic position is/was as follows: I think that it was important for Sue’s rally to go ahead without being disrupted by fascists and for the fascist rally to be contained. (In this context, it should be noted that, while the bulk of the fascist rally consisted of members and supporters of the ‘True Blue Crew’, it was supplemented by a handful of ‘United Patriots Front’ members and a scattering of (other) neo-Nazis belonging to ‘Combat 18’ and several boys who later went on to found ‘Antipodean Resistance’.) As it became apparent very early on that Sue’s rally would not be disrupted — both because of police saturation and the distance between the two gatherings — it then seemed to me to be a priority to contain the fascists in the reserve, and to not allow them to march through Coburg as they intended. This was accomplished, despite police action. I suppose it should be added that Coburg is a suburb with a relatively ‘diverse’ population, with about 40% of residents being born overseas (largely Italy, Greece and Lebanon) and a relatively large proportion of Muslims (between 5 and 10%), whereas the vast bulk of those attending the fascist rally came from outside Coburg and the northern suburbs (many journeyed from outside Melbourne and even interstate). In summary, despite a media and police scare campaign, many hundreds of locals, including many younger folks, joined the grouping that directly confronted the fascists to keep them penned in and unable to march — and they’ve not been back since.

Ani: What do you say to those who assert anti-fascism goes too far, or replicates fascism?

Andy: I say, ‘Pull the other one, it’s got bells on’. More seriously: more often than not, I think this arises from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of fascism, one which applies the term to any instance in which someone or something is thought to be ‘authoritarian’ or ‘overbearing’; this reflects the debasement of ‘fascism’ as a sensible political term. That said, I do think it’s incumbent upon anti-fascists (as well, of course, as other political actors) to think seriously about matters of political principle, strategy and tactics, and to be vigilant in terms of not seeking to reproduce in its organisation and activity the forces which it opposes.

Ani: What sources or groups would you recommend people follow to keep up with the anti-fascist movement, in Australia or abroad? (In addition to your own channels!)

Andy: Within Australia, there’s relatively few good sources of information on the far right, but occasionally there will appear some media reportage which is useful. In Melbourne, the ‘Campaign Against Racism and Fascism’ is a campaigning group which is worth following, but I’m unaware of any comparable project outside of Melbourne. There are also several Facebook pages which document fascist and promote anti-fascist activity, for example Anti Fascist Action Sydney and Antifascist Action Brisbane. In the UK, the Anti-Fascist Network is useful, and in the US there are a number of similar, local and regional groupings and projects, for example, New York City Antifa and Rose City (Portland) Antifa. Political Research Associates has published numerous accounts of fascist and far right politics in the US, and Mark Bray’s book ‘Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook’ is recommended reading. Readers may also be interested in the titles being published in the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right series, especially ‘Anti-Fascism in Britain’. In Europe, of course, there are numerous anti-fascist groups and projects; there’s also beginning to emerge an anti-fascist community in places like Indonesia. Links to these and many other, related items of interest are available on my blog.

 

The Red-Brown “zombie plague” PART ONE

 

The Red-Brown “zombie plague”: how fascist ideas are becoming popular on the Left – PART ONE

By DAPHNE LAWLESS

is this marxist

This is part one of three of a major article to appear in Fightback’s June issue on Fascism and Anti-Fascism. Please contact fightback.australasia@gmail.com for subscription information.

UPDATE 2018/08/13: A Spanish-language translation of this piece by Jaume Allioli is now available. Una traducción al español de esta pieza por Jaume Allioli ya está disponible.

 

Preface

This analysis follows on from that in three previous articles of mine which have previously appeared in Fightback publications:

The second and third articles are collected in our Fightback pamphlet What is Conservative Leftism?. In what follows, references to articles in that pamphlet will be cited with WiCL and the page number.

Introduction: Conspiracy theories and “pod people”

When I wrote “Against Conservative Leftism” just over two years ago, I considered it disturbing that socialists would rally to support New Zealand’s colonial-era flag. If I was disturbed then, there are no words left to describe how to feel in an era when committed revolutionary activists – people who have an honourable track record of struggle in favour of a classless society and against all oppression – are happy to argue that the recent chemical warfare attacks against rebel-held towns in Syria are a “false flag”, something faked by the US state or its allies to justify an invasion. Even one of my favourite musicians has recently repeated such baseless slander from the concert stage.

It’s a toss-up whether this version is more sickening than the alternative line, that the attacks were real but were carried out by the rebels themselves – that is, the rebels murdered their own children in order to manipulate foreign opinion. This is not the place to take these conspiracy theories to pieces – this has been admirably done already by many sources, for example Bellingcat or Snopes. The British ecosocialist writer George Monbiot also ably dismantled previous Syrian regime chemical warfare denial last year. The question – among others – that I wish to deal with here is of the similarity between this behaviour and the behaviour of the Right-wing conspiracy theorists who regularly yell FALSE FLAG to every mass killing in the United States – from the 9/11/2001 attacks in New York to the depressingly regular mass shootings in schools.

It’s common sense in liberal and Left circles that ideas like “9/11 Truth”, the theories that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was forged, or that the victims of the Sandy Hook or Parkland school shootings were “crisis actors”, are wild fantasies either made up by the bigoted and ill-informed to justify their prejudices, or else false narratives being deliberately fed to such people (for profit or political gain) by unscrupulous media operatives such as FOX News or Alex Jones’ InfoWars. We are appalled when parents of school shooting victims are harassed by unhinged strangers calling them conspiracy operatives and telling them that their dead children never existed.

And yet this is precisely what much of the Western Left has been doing to the people whose children died of chlorine poisoning in the basements of Douma, Syria. Experienced Western journalist Robert Fisk even took a trip to Douma – courtesy of the Syrian government – to find an anonymous doctor who would confirm such fantasies. This, while actual Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors were still barred from the site, so that the regime and its allies could make the evidence disappear.

The motivation is clear. “False flag” theories are based on the idea that elaborate lies are being told by a secret conspiracy to manipulate public opinion, and that mainstream sources are part of this conspiracy. Alex Jones claims that school shootings are arranged/faked by the US state (or a secret faction within it, known as the “Deep State”) to take away US citizens’ rights to bear arms. The Left argues the same about atrocities in Syria, only the goal of the conspirators is to build support for a “regime change” invasion of Syria. Similar stories are currently circulating on Leftist social media about the protests against social welfare cuts in Nicaragua, and their murderous suppression by that country’s government (search “Nicaragua CIA” on Twitter). The far-Right and the Left end up with the same narrative – there is a conspiracy within the current US State to fake atrocities and protest movements so as to expand its influence, which must be pushed back. In fact, American fascists are just as keen as any on the US Left to deny chemical attacks in Syria – the Snopes article cited above reproduces a tweet from alt-right celebrity and star of the famous “punch in the face” video, Richard Spencer, doing just that.

The question is not whether states have ever faked attacks to justify interventions (there is evidence that the US intervention in Vietnam began with one. The question is the willingness of the Left to act like FOX News or InfoWars followers, to use the logical fallacy known as the “argument from consequences” to deny inconvenient facts and reporting. The fallacy goes like this: if X is true, it would lead to political consequences I oppose; therefore, X cannot be true. And any evidence that X is true is, as Donald Trump would put it, “FAKE NEWS”. If all we wish to do is to oppose US intervention in the Syrian war (ignoring for the moment that the US has been involved in the Syrian war since 2014, launching over 1000 air strikes against the “Islamic State” group), then denying the Assad regime’s chemical warfare atrocities is simply not necessary. All we have to do is argue that US attacks on the Assad regime would not prevent such atrocities, or otherwise make things worse.

Robin Yassin-Kassab, co-author of the essential text on the Syrian conflict Burning Country, recently discussed his run-ins with Western activists bending his ear about how “the Rothschilds” or “pipelines” were the secret behind all Middle-Eastern conflicts, and commented:

Arabs and Muslims are notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, in part because in a previous generation so much politics was actually done by conspiracy, and in part through intellectual laziness. It’s always been simpler to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Shia’ for all ills than to actually address the ills. But not really simpler. Conspiracy theories don’t merely promote complacent inaction, they create new tragedies too. In north western Pakistan, for instance, where word spread that the polio inoculation was a UN poison to render Muslims infertile, a new generation has been stunted by the disease.

Perhaps there’s more excuse for conspiracism in regions where the people are subject to the traumas of poverty, dictatorship and war. If so, its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.

So, what is behind the enthusiasm of the Western activist Left for these denialist narratives? The argument that I wish to make in this article is as follows:

  1. the growing willingness of Left activists to believe ideologically-convenient conspiracy theory over well-supported reporting is part of a growing convergence of Leftist and farright rhetoric, in particular around the ongoing war in Syria. While – with some exceptions to be discussed – Leftists do not openly or consciously align themselves with fascists, many increasingly accept ideas that are disquietingly close to fascist narratives. The idea of a politics which unifies Leftists and fascists has historically been known by many names, including Strasserism, Third Position or Querfront (German for “cross-front”). In this article I will use the well-established term redbrown; brown taken from the Nazi “brownshirts” (stormtroopers).
  2. This “Red-Brown” convergence is based on a political misrecognition of neoliberal globalism as a conspiracy of the US and other Western countries for global domination, rather than a strategy adopted by the global capitalist class as a whole. This has led the Left into an “anti-imperialism” which is in fact nationalism under another name; which leads to programmatic unity with fascists who support authoritarian “ethno-states”.
  3. This is a problem which cuts across the “revolutionary/reformist” division on the Left. A strong base of this thinking is found in the revitalised “Marxist-Leninist” (ML) trend on the Internet, but the acceptance of nationalism, traditionalism and anti-rationalism which I have previously called “conservative leftism” has a long history in both the social-democratic and Communist traditions on the Left, including the support base of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
  4. This convergence is encouraged by the propaganda/intelligence branches of the Russian state, for its own geopolitical reasons. But it is also perpetuated by an unwillingness for socialists (who have lived through decades of isolations) to struggle among themselves over political line; or, worse, a more-or-less conscious rejection of international solidarity in favour of keeping the biggest “broad front” at home. Finally, there is a small contingent of people associated with the Left who have discarded anti-fascist principle and now actively support a Querfront (with the Russian state, the US “alt-right” and even the Trump administration) against neoliberal globalism. While this explicit alliance makes up a minority of the left, it must be actively fought.’

Some Leftists on social media have expressed their bemusement at their erstwhile comrades coming out with conspiracy theories in support of the brutal authoritarian regime in Syria. Some have jokingly used the term “pod people” – an image taken from the old horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where people are replaced by clones grown in pods by alien invaders. I prefer to use another science-fiction trope – that of a “zombie plague”. As I see it, Red-Brown politics is the intellectual equivalent of an infectious disease that has taken hold in a lot of the Left and led to a lot of good comrades taking up positions which have led to them supporting fascist positions. I continue to believe that there is a “cure” for this plague, that good activists can be won back from such positions, and that articles such as this one may play a part in doing so.

Class politics or geopolitics? – against “alt-imperialism”

In a piece from August last year, British-Pakistani academic and journalist Idrees Ahmed ably summed up what he calls as the “alt-left” trend in Western politics. His article is worth reading in full if you’re not already aware of the situation () but here are some salient extracts:

…a strain of leftism that sees liberalism rather than fascism as the main enemy. It is distinguished mainly by a reactionary contrarianism, a seething ressentiment, and a conspiracist worldview.

In its preoccupations it is closer to the right: More alarmed by Hillary Clinton winning the primary than by Donald Trump winning the presidency; more concerned with imagined “deep state” conspiracies than with actual Russian subversion of US democracy; eager to prevent a global war no one is contemplating but supportive of a US alliance with Russia for a new “war on terror”.

Like the right it disdains “globalists”, it sees internationalism as liberal frivolity, and its solidarity is confined to repressive regimes overseas….

For the alt-left, Hillary Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone to protect Syria’s civilians was proof that she wanted a global war. Donald Trump on the other hand was going to protect America from WWIII because of his “non-interventionist mindset” (Glenn Greenwald).

Jill Stein and Susan Sarandon both insisted that Trump was “the lesser evil”. Even his bombings were “consistent with the particular ‘non-interventionist’ outlook” (Greenwald & Tracey).

These arguments turned out to be convincing to a small but significant minority of the US voting population – which was enough to set us down the path we are on now. The 10% of people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary who went on to vote for Trump in the general election may well have tipped the balance.

As suggested above, I do not believe that this kind of politics is becoming more and more prevalent because of a conscious softening to fascism (in the majority of cases). In part, it is an outcome of the developing logic of the “conservative leftist” arguments which I have argued have become hegemonic on the Western Left – arguments based on nationalism, traditionalism and anti-rationalism. But more recently, these ideas have been assiduously propagated by extremely well-resourced media networks (both state-directed and corporate), which has led even staunch anti-fascists to adopt positions and arguments which agree with fascist principles.

The most pressing issue, as I see it, is that a sizeable part (perhaps a majority) of liberal and Left opinion in the West has adopted a one-sided view of imperialism, which has more to do with fascist ideas than the socialist tradition. In Vladimir Lenin’s classic analysis, made against other socialists who thought that capitalist globalisation would lead to world peace, imperialism is “the most recent phase (also translated “highest stage”) of capitalism” Against Karl Kautsky, who believed that capitalist globalisation might lead to an end to war, Lenin argued that the international expansion of capitalist firms and their fusion with state power would inevitably lead to military rivalries for markets and resources.

However, it seems much of the Left has (openly or quietly) has instead adopted an idea that “imperialism” only applies to the United States, or the group of advanced capitalist countries of which the US is generally seen to be the leader. States like Russia or China, by this analysis, cannot be imperialist by definition. And as neoliberal globalisation is seen as only the latest ploy by US-centric imperialism to achieve global domination, neoliberalism, globalisation/“globalism”, imperialism and “Western” power are all collapsed into meaning the same thing. This conspiratorial analysis of neoliberal globalism views the phenomenon as a ploy of one state, faction of states, or actors within a state to gain global domination. On the contrary, a systematic analysis of neoliberal globalism, following on from Lenin’s, reads neoliberalism and globalization a reaction of the global capitalist system as a whole to expand its profits. The latter points towards global solidarity of the oppressed; the former puts the Left in the same camp as fascists. (I will discuss what I see as the intellectual origins of this interpretation of “imperialism” on the Left later on in this article.)

The most obvious “outbreak” of this Red-Brown zombie plague is the debate on the ongoing conflict in Syria. Since the foreign policy of the US state under President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (the high point of neoliberalism to date) was to confront Russian expansion and give support (if half-heartedly) to the “Arab Spring” liberation movements, then these movements have become seen as enemies (“US proxies” and/or “terrorists”) by many Leftists. To be blunt, for much of the “anti-imperialist Left”, for Bashar al-Assad to gas children to death in a basement is preferable than for the United States or other Western countries to interfere with this in any way. But Russian or Iranian interference to support Assad is not a problem worth talking about, let alone demonstrating about. In this, the “alt-imperialist” Left is precisely mimicking the arguments of the fascist Right – as seen when fascists march alongside Left anti-imperialists against Western intervention in Syria, both carrying pictures of Assad and Putin.

In what follows, I wish to take a deep dive into a couple of articles from Leftists – not among those consciously supporting the Assad regime or Russian foreign policy, but what are on the surface “anti-fascist” articles repeating as common sense the very ideas that have allowed fascist activists to walk hand-in-hand with anti-imperialist Leftists on the Syria issue.

My first example is respected US Marxist John Bellamy Foster. In the middle of a generally excellent article arguing that the Trump administration is indeed neo-fascist, the author gives the following summary of US foreign policy over the last decade:

The push of NATO into the Ukraine, supporting a right-wing coup in the attempt to check Russia as a reemerging superpower, led to a Russian pushback under Vladimir Putin, with the annexation of the Crimea and intervention in the Ukraine along its borders. Russia further responded by aggressively intervening in Syria, undermining the attempt by the United States, NATO and Saudi Arabia to bring down the Assad regime by supporting surrogate pro-Salafist forces (committed to the creation of a fundamentalist Sunni state) … The main part of the ruling class and the national security state was strongly committed to a new Cold War with Russia, with Hillary Clinton vowing to introduce no-fly zones in Syria, which would have meant shooting down Russian as well as Syrian planes, bringing the world to the brink of global thermonuclear war. (emphases added)

The talking points emphasised above – that the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s government by the “Euromaidan” movement in Ukraine in 2014 was a “right wing coup”; that the Syrian rebels are “pro-Salafist… fundamentalist Sunni”, and that a pushback against Russian support for the Assad regime would risk “thermonuclear war” – could have come straight from a Russian Embassy press release. A cursory Google search will show that they are at best misleading half-truths and at worst nothing but Russian propaganda. To give an obvious illustration, Turkish forces shot down a Russian plane over Syria in 2015 – and Donald Trump conducted missile strikes against Assad regime targets in April 2017 and in April 2018. Yet, curiously, thermonuclear war hasn’t broken out yet.

Similarly, Australian anarchist academic Ben Debney approvingly quotes Gary Leupp writing on the website Counterpunch, a website which has been a source for a lot of Assadist propaganda over the last five years, that among good reasons not to support Hillary Clinton over Trump were:

various U.S. interventions during the “Arab Spring;” the U.S./NATO assault on Libya that destroyed that modern state, etc. (emphasis added)

Debney goes on to argue that “the fifty-three percent of white females who voted for [Trump] might have felt that having a woman president of the order of a Neocon [neo-conservative] by Any Other Name wasn’t the most liberating option on the table for women”. Similarly, Bellamy Foster argues that the Obama/Clinton pushback on Russia led to a pro-Russian split in the ruling class, whose interests are expressed through Donald Trump.

The argument that both writers are making is that the rise of Trumpist neofascism, or protofascism, was in part fuelled by the neoliberals’ “hawkish” foreign policy. By this, they mean supporting the insurgency which brought down Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorial, murderous “modern state” in Syria; supporting certain rebel forces in Syria (some of whom but not all could be described as Islamist or “Salafist” [i]); or pushing against Russian interests in Eastern Europe.

Worse yet, Trump is sometimes even seen as a lesser evil – not because he is any less militaristic than Obama or the Clintons, but because he is on the same side as Russia. Every bomb dropped on “Islamic State” targets such as Raqqa is fine by Leftists who are only concerned about whether Russia supports such mayhem or not (and it does). One particularly confused American Marxist-Leninist organisation put it like this:

… a Clinton presidency would have been more dangerous for the international working class and the oppressed peoples of the world… A President Clinton could have led in short order to a major war between Russia and the USA… (Ray O’Light Newsletter, November-December 2016, p. 4).

Fascism as a lesser evil to confrontation with Russia? Firstly, as American journalist Charles Davis has written on several occasions (for example), Trump’s foreign policy was openly more militaristic than Clinton’s. He actually promised before the election to expand the existing US/allied bombing campaign against “Islamic State” targets in Syria. No-one who had a principled position against US military interventions could have supported Trump over Clinton. But it was certainly possible if you supported Russian policy in, for example, Ukraine and Syria, and wanted the US to fall in line with that policy.

Curiously absent, too, from these criticisms of neoliberal “hawkery” is any concern with the interests and agency of the people of the territories concerned themselves. NATO intervened to support an uprising against Qadhafi; but why was there an uprising? Why would Syrians form armed factions, even ones with a conservative “Salafist” programme, in opposition to their regime? Why would many Ukrainians support parties seeking to join the NATO imperialist alliance as a “lesser evil” to domination by Russian interests? Surely that’s the first thing that socialists or anarchists, devoted to radical democracy from below, should be asking? (I will return to this “Orientalist” view of the Middle East later.)

Writing 20 years ago, the late American socialist academic Moishe Postone set out the argument against this kind of politics:

What the Cold War seems to have eradicated from memory … is that opposition to an imperial power is not necessarily progressive, that there were fascist “anti-imperialisms” as well. This distinction was blurred during the Cold War in part because the USSR aligned itself with authoritarian regimes, for example, in the Middle East, that had little in common with socialist and communist movements, that, if anything, had more in common with fascism than communism and that, in fact, sought to liquidate their own Left. Consequently, anti-Americanism per se became coded as progressive, although there had and have been deeply reactionary as well as progressive forms of anti-Americanism.

Examples of pre-Cold War “fascist anti-imperialism” could be Imperial Japan’s appeal against British and French imperialism to justify its expansion into east Asia, or Lehi, the Zionist paramilitary group in British-ruled Palestine who were explicitly fascist at some stages and Red-Brown at others.

What Postone is calling out here is what I have previously called out as “campism”, but which could also be called RedBrown antiimperialism – or even, on the model of Idrees Ahmed’s “alt-leftism”, altimperialism. This is the politics where imperialism is seen only as coming from one country, or one alliance of countries, and is contrasted to the “national sovereignty” of various regimes – no matter how autocratic, rather than in favour of the self-determination and autonomy of peoples. Lebanese journalist Joey Hussein Ayoub has given the name “essentialist anti-imperialism” to the same phenomenon: “defined solely in relation to [one’s] own governments rather than on the basis of a universal opposition to all forms of imperialism.”

Amar Diwarkar argues that this is not so much a conscious embrace of Fascist politics, but:

a tactical tolerance of the far-right’s nativist anti-establishment logic to accelerate the dissolution of the ruling order and bring about a transitional phase preceding social transformation. However, by eliminating the dimension of the international from its purview, what remains is a strikingly non-radical relativism. Its underlying logic is one that is infused with a colonial unconscious; a conviction that Western agency is the eternal subject and locus of motion – the prime mover of History.

Thus, although Debney is an anarchist who strongly criticises the Soviet state in Russia, his arguments about how “neoliberalism helped lead to Trump” are in fact in line with that very state-centric Cold War leftism which supported the USSR as the “lesser evil” against capitalist imperialism. Struggles of ordinary people in the Middle East and Eastern Europe are seen in this framework entirely through the lens of whether US “power” is extended thereby. The governments of Assad in Syria, Qadhafi in Libya or Yanukovych in Ukraine are not seen in relationship to the people over whom they claim authority, but whether they support or oppose the supposed designs of United States foreign policy. The argument is not over “militarism”, but of instinctive support for any state which is seen to oppose US foreign policy – and if they are supported by Russian foreign policy, so much the better.

Bellamy Foster and Debney demonstrate that even those Leftists who recognize the warning signs of fascism in his “base” see Trump as a possible counter-balance to those parts of the US federal government who supposedly plot global domination via neoliberal globalization. In another recent example of this, Senator Bernie Sanders, the great “left-wing” hope in the 2016 election against Clintonite neoliberalism, expressed qualified support for Trump’s protectionist economics. Whether the bad guys are called the “military-industrial complex” or “the Deep State”, the argument is precisely the same as that offered by those Rightists who admit Trump’s failings but see him as an “anti-politician” going into Washington to “combat the elites” and “drain the swamp”.

Bellamy Foster and Debney both make arguments that, in one way or another, “neoliberals did it to themselves”. This also mirrors an argument made by pro-Trump and other far-right forces. The Rightist version of the argument is to point to any support for multiculturalism, feminism or queer/trans rights and say: “This is why people voted for Trump” (Google that phrase for examples). A subtler one – heard on the Left as well as the Right – is the rightly-mocked “economic anxiety” argument, that Trump voters were motivated by poverty and insecurity caused by neoliberal economics. All these narratives have the same ideological basis – to provide an alibi for Trump voters, to argue that Trump voters didntreallysupport their candidates stated xenophobic, militaristic platform and his misogynist behaviour.

The final word has to go to Ray OLight Newsletter, who agree with Debney and Bellamy Foster, in a simpler and more extreme form:

In our view, a fascist was elected U.S. president, but strong elements of fascism had already arrived here long before Trump’s election… with Trump as President, promoters of harmful illusions about Obama, Clinton and the Democrats… will be in a weaker position… It should not take too long before the white working masses who voted for Trump have had enough experience to begin a serious struggle against this reactionary billionaire. (November-December 2016, pp. 4-5).

In other words, the German Communists’ boast: after Hitler, us!, updated for a 21st century audience.

Thus we see parts of the Left reading the victories of the far Right as an obstacle to or “payback” for neoliberal globalist overreach – or performatively shrugging, on the grounds that nothing real has changed or even that opportunities are opening up for the Left. They share a belief that Western imperialism is the great threat to the world, rather than Russian or Chinese expansionism or smaller authoritarian states; they agree that democracy is not to be trusted if it might be exploited by Islamist movements. They are state-centric (even anarchists such as Debney, or Noam Chomsky) and prize “stability and order” against democracy and self-determination. Their main interest in the growth of far-Right and Fascism movements globally is to use it as a stick to beat neoliberalism with. It’s as if 1933 never happened.

Still to come: Vectors and Germs of the Red-Brown Virus


[i]                       “Salafist” or “Salafi” means a “fundamentalist” Muslim who wishes to return Islam to the practices of Prophet Muhammad and his Companions (salaf). However, in popular articles about the Middle East it is used generally a “snarl word”, meaning any devout Sunni Muslim of whom the author does not approve. Michael Muhammad Knight’s Why I Am A Salafi (2014) is a good introduction to these issues: see a review here.

Winning with Conservative Leftism: Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit

by Daphne Lawless

maxresdefaultBritish exit from the European Union (EU) is fast becoming a disaster acknowledged on all sides. Theresa May’s Conservative (Tory) Government is making no headway in their negotiations with the EU’s leaders on finding a way for the UK to leave the EU without causing a massive economic crash and social dislocation. The Tories are split between moderates who would like to keep the status quo as much as possible, maintaining many current EU institutions, on one hand; and on the other, a fanatical right-wing who’d prefer a “hard Brexit”. This would entail complete disentanglement from Europe’s laws and institutions, creating some kind of deregulated tax-haven capitalist utopia, leaning heavily on Trump’s USA.

Meanwhile, after shocking the world by winning the British Labour Party leadership in September 2015, veteran left MP Jeremy Corbyn again confounded his detractors by leading the party to a respectable second place in the June 2017 general election. In left-wing politics, after 35 years of global neoliberal onslaught, sometimes victory can be its own argument. The feeling of many activists seems to be that if Labour (or whoever the local centre-left party are) do well in an election, what they are doing must be right and the radical left is obliged to support them.

Certainly there’s been a rush from various British Left groups to join the Labour Party to “back Jeremy” against his opponents within the party. But there’s such a thing as a Pyrrhic victory – winning at such a cost that the win was not worth it. Has “Corbynmania” been purchased at the cost of the British Left’s principles – specifically its internationalism?

Brexit is reaction

There’s a common myth on the Left that the vote for Brexit was some kind of “cross-ethnic working class uprising”, a revolt against the neoliberal elite by the oppressed and excluded. But the British revolutionary group Socialist Resistance said at the time:

Most of the radical left supported an exit vote and the so-called Lexit [Left-Brexit] campaign – which had zero influence on the entire referendum. It peddled the illusion that a left exit was on offer when it was not…  [T]hose in Lexit such as the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] claim that it was a “revolt against the rich and powerful” and that the danger from racism “is far from inevitable”.

They failed to recognise the dangers that the mainstream exit campaigns, led by right-wing xenophobes, represented. They were oblivious [to] the racism and hatred that would be generated by them, the reactionary impact this would have on the political situation and the balance of class forces, and dangers involved of being in any way associated with them—particularly in the case of an exit vote.

They chose to ignore (even when challenged) the damaging outcome that an exit vote would have for the 2.2m EU citizens living in this country whose status would have been threatened as a direct result.

This analysis has been borne out by research showing that support for Brexit was “largely determined by authoritarianism, which is itself significantly linked with fear of diversity, novelty, uncertainty, and change.” John Curtice, research fellow at the NatCen research agency, comments:

“Brexit is not an issue that divides those on the left from those on the right. Instead, it divides ‘social liberals’, that is, those who relatively comfortable living in a diverse society in which people follow different customs and social norms, and ‘social conservatives’, that is, those who feel that everyone should share and respect a common culture. Those of the former view typically voted to Remain in the EU, while those of the later disposition usually backed Leave. Not least of the reasons why this is the case, of course, is that one of the central issues in the Brexit debate was and still is immigration…

‘What clearly emerges from our analysis is that Labour’s advance in the 2017 election was strongest not in left-wing Britain but rather in socially liberal Britain…’

‘Labour’s advance in June then does not simply lie in the popularity of the more left-wing stance that the party adopted. Indeed, that may not have been particularly important at all. Rather, in an election in which Brexit and immigration were also central issues, Labour’s advance was strongest amongst those who were keenest on staying in the EU and those who were least concerned about immigration.’

Most tellingly – the only ethnic group to back Brexit were white British. Like a Trump voter, the best predictor of wanting to quit the EU was being white. Leftists trying to cheerlead for Brexit as a radical mass movement are making the same ghastly category error as who claimed that voters for Donald Trump were motivated by “economic anxiety”– out of over-optimism, cynicism or unacknowledged racism, attempting to take a groundswell of white nationalism and “paint it red”.

Corbyn’s successful fudge

Jeremy Corbyn, whatever else you can say, has the virtue of consistency, having opposed British membership of the EU since he became an MP in 1983. However, he toed his party’s line and (unenthusiastically) backed Remain in the referendum. The next year, in the election campaign, the Labour Party cleverly “fudged” the issue of Brexit, seeking to attract both “Remainers” aghast at Tory bungling of the process, and traditional Labour voters in the North of England who had voted Leave or supported the near-fascist UK Independence Party (UKIP). It worked – in that Labour gained a few seats, despite universal media predictions of total disaster. But Labour still lost the election, and the Tories were able to stay in power with the support on confidence and supply of Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), a group of fundamentalist Christian reactionaries.

If some would argue that Corbyn’s performance was an endorsement of Brexit, research shows that voters who shifted to Labour in 2017, denying May her majority, were overwhelmingly “Remain” voters in 2016. More than half of Remain voters backed a Labour government, presumably as the best chance of stopping a hard Brexit.

Corbyn is now considered the credible alternative Prime Minister by the mainstream media – to the extent that apparently some Tories are talking quietly about his rise to power being “inevitable”. Labour’s fudged position allows it to mercilessly attack the Tories’ hapless performance in negotiations with the EU, without exposing its own divisions. But it’s odd for self-described revolutionaries to be talking about the electoral fortunes of the British Labour Party to as if they were the same thing as the interests of the working masses.

Throwing migrants under the bus

Corbyn has stuck to the line taken by the radical left all the way back to the first, failed “Brexit” referendum in 1975. The argument made then by opponents such as left-wing Labour legend Tony Benn was that the EEC (predecessor of the EU) was a “bosses’ club”, a cartel of capitalist states ganging up to impose pro-corporate politics all over Western Europe, in the days when Eastern Europe still belonged to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

But a lot of things have changed over 42 years. The biggest difference between the EEC which Tony Benn opposed and the EU which Corbyn wants to leave is free movement of workers between EU countries, which was enacted in 1992. Simply put, any citizen of an EU country has the right to live and work in the UK – just like New Zealanders may freely live and work in Australia. There’s of course no real reason why free movement of workers couldn’t still exist after Brexit, as it does with non-EU countries like Switzerland or Norway. But that would require continuing to abide by many EU rules and regulations– which certainly not be welcome to the reactionary, authoritarian, and mainly white bloc which dominated the Brexit majority.

Citizens of other EU countries now living in Britain – many of whom have put down roots and have families – are terrified for what will happen to them once Britain leaves the EU. The rising tide of hate crime in Britain is an important marker of how Brexit has encouraged racism and the fascist right, in the same way as Trump’s election in the US. American news network NBC reported:

Two words hit Nikola Cugova where it hurts: “Go home.”

That phrase has been directed at the 37-year-old Czech national a lot since just over half of voters rejected keeping the U.K. in the European Union in last June’s “Brexit” referendum.

“I hear English people say, ‘Now it’s Brexit, we’re leaving the EU, go home,’” said Cugova, who moved to the U.K. 13 years ago. “My children were small when they came here. My daughter doesn’t speak Czech and knows nothing about the Czech Republic.”

Neil Faulkner on Britain’s Left Unity website adds:

There has been a permanent shift, underpinned by relentless anti-migrant messaging from the political elite and their media echo-chambers since the Brexit vote, giving confidence and licence to every closet racist who wants to spit at an East European.

It’s important to remember that, no matter on what terms Britain actually leaves the EU, the political effect of Brexit has been a “green light” for the worst racists and reactionaries to come out from under their rocks – which is why the radical left which had no love for the Brussels bureaucracy were right to oppose Brexit. Meanwhile, British citizens who live and work in the other EU countries are waking up to the realisation that they may lose their rights as well.

It’s true that the EU’s policy towards migrants from outside– where refugees are kept out on the borders with Turkey or Morocco with barbed-wire fences, or left no choice but to risk drowning in open boats in the Mediterranean Sea– is barbaric and racist and must be opposed. Is there any hope, though, that a UK “in control of its own borders” would be anything other than even more racist? One of the biggest ironies is,while Jeremy Corbyn has himself always been a promoter of Irish unity, Brexit would quite probably lead once again to a “hard border” (fences and police checkpoints) between the two parts of Ireland – while under the EU, the border between the Republic and the northern Six Counties is nothing more than a sign on the A1 highway.

There have even been some attempts by “Lexiters” to make a socialist case against free movement – which boil down to the old “immigrants drag down wages” argument, that we in Aotearoa/NZ know how to reject when we hear it from our own Labour or NZ First. One particularly disgusting argument on the Labour Leave website (now deleted but available elsewhere) was that migrant workers to Britain were “scabs”, probably the worst insult that any unionist can make about another worker. The author even had the cheek to chide Eastern European workers for not appreciating living behind the barbed wire and concrete walls of Soviet-style “communism” while they had it! (One little-noticed story is how many of Jeremy Corbyn’s major advisors, such as Seumas Milne or Andrew Murray, come from the pro-USSR political tradition.)

Other “Lexit” articles took the tack of depicting migrant workers (and foreigners in general) as an elite, privileged layer, contrasted to struggling native British workers. Such xenophobia, where “cosmopolitan” becomes an insult and nativist bigotry is treated as if it were class consciousness, is not only the exact same narrative used by American writers who want to alibi the racist Trump movement. It becomes the point where the radical left start talking like the radical right.

This is the growing tide of “red-brown” politics which I have warned against in previous articles. Such a Left has totally sold out its principles to jump on a bandwagon which is giving the liberal centre a pummelling – from the fascist direction. Thankfully, a Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been set up to push back against this tide.

EU or UK: which is more reactionary?

Another argument is made by “Lexiters” that the EU stands between a Corbyn-led Labour government and a socialist transformation of the UK. Like many reactionary ideas, Brexit arguments of both left and right portray the UK as a weak victim of EU neoliberalism. However, the UK is in fact one of the EU’s three most powerful members – and, historically, the most neoliberal of them all. Since the election of Thatcher in 1979, it is in fact Britain which has pushed the EU in a neoliberal direction – not the other way around. At the recent Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the EU would prevent a Labour government from nationalising companies – at the very same time that France’s incoming centrist President, Emmanuel Macron, nationalised a shipyard to protect France’s “national interests”.

Economist Martin Sandbu recently wrote in the Financial Times (paywall):

two lawyers have looked carefully at the general structure of state aid laws and how they would apply to the policies set out in the Labour manifesto. Their analysis concludes: “Neither EU state aid rules, nor other EU rules which are distinct from state aid rules but sometimes considered in the same bracket, provide any obvious barrier to the implementation in the UK of the measures contained in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.”

Lexiters want to make the argument about “democracy”. Firstly, there’s the argument that somehow opposing the outcome of the Brexit referendum is “undemocratic” – as if, once the majority has decided something, that question can never be revisited. Neil Faulkner again:

Both the Lexit Left and the Corbynista Left are arguing that socialists should ‘respect’ the Brexit vote. This argument is false. It is a betrayal of every migrant worker whose status has been threatened by the vote. And it is a massive concession to the racist discourse for which Brexit is now the primary framework.

…Referendums are particularly dubious. There is a long history of referendums being used by authoritarian regimes to enhance their legitimacy.

Who is setting the agenda? Who is formulating the question? Who is supplying the information (or misinformation)? Whose interests are being served? To ask these questions is to underline the critical difference between their democracy and ours – the democracy of parliamentary (mis)representation and the democracy of mass assemblies.

There’s also a populist idea that dismantling bigger entities and empowering smaller communities and countries is always more democratic and better for working people. But British Labour (like its leader) strongly opposes Scotland separating from the UK; while at the same time they are now criticising the EU for not supporting Catalonia’s right to separate from Spain. Similarly, there’s a lot of talk about how the EU has victimised Greece. But Greece’s forcible submission to the yoke of austerity came about because of its membership of the single currency, the euro – not because of the EU itself, which only a tiny minority of Greeks want to leave.

The EU is not a democratic federal state, even to the extent that Germany, the US or Australia are. The European Parliament – which is elected by the people – has little control over the European Commission, who are the real “government” of the EU. The Commission is far more under the control of the various national governments – which is one reason why the Commission is being “leant on” by Spain to oppose Catalan separation, and why – while the UK was a staunch member of the EU – the Commission also opposed Scottish independence.

No matter how much British nationalists might spout romantic nonsense about their “mother of Parliaments”, the United Kingdom has no written constitution, very few guaranteed civil liberties, a crushed union movement and a parliament half elected by the undemocratic FPP system, and half (the House of Lords) which isn’t elected at all. British socialist John Game put it like this on Facebook:

The primary barriers to socialism are British laws, not European ones. Neo-Liberalism is practically in the European context a British invention. It is quite simply chauvinism to suggest anything else. In an odd way, if the old argument was that the EU couldn’t rescue us from the British state, the new argument has become that only the British state can rescue us from the EU. Which is obvious nonsense.

Lessons for the rest of us

  1. Avoid nationalism. No socialist could defend the current undemocratic, neoliberal and racist EU system with a straight face. But no-one could defend Hillary Clinton with a straight face either – until her opposition was Donald Trump, who whipped up racism and fascist currents, making the vulnerable more vulnerable, showing that there are worse things than neoliberalism. The British state is in important ways less democratic, and more racist, than the EU. It is significant that the separatist local governments of Scotland and Catalonia both wish to remain in the EU after independence – precisely because of its guarantees of some basic levels of civil liberties.

So one important point is – as I’ve mentioned in previous arguments – to strongly oppose attachment to “our own” nation state as an alternative to globalised neoliberalism. Not only does this cede important ground to fascism, it also whitewashes the colonial and imperialist bloodshed that set up all the existing nation-states on the planet.

  1. Avoid the pressures of electoralism. Another important point is that for radicals, electoral politics should be one means among many to the end of social change. The real danger comes when all we can see is the parliamentary fight, or even worse, an intra-party factional battle. When socialists and radicals entered the British Labour Party, especially through the “Momentum” network, they immersed themselves deep in th­e cut-throat world of struggle within the bureaucracy of a major electoral party, against the various anti-Corbyn factions (ranging from old Blairites to liberal Europhiles).

One consequence of this – apart from burning out activist energy – is a regrettable consequence of seeing events in the wider world through the prism of that faction fight. When you set out to rebuild the world on new foundations, it’s hard to accept that it all boils down to backroom deals and faction fighting within an organisation that most socialists wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole until recently. The fact that all sides agreed to not discuss Brexit at the recent Labour Party conference doesn’t say much for a democratic culture in that party.

A related pitfall of electoral politics is falling into leader worship. Some have accused the Corbynists of being more interested in propping up “Jezza” as leader than fighting injustice out in the real world. Every issue in the world gets boiled down to “is this good or bad for Corbyn?”– to the point of conspiracy theory, where political events are sometimes argued to have been cooked up by media or the “Deep State” for the purposes of undermining Corbyn’s leadership. Socialists in Aotearoa also have recent experience of being in broad formations where supporting the prestige or authority of a popular leader – for electoral or other purposes – overrode standing by radical principle.

  1. Don’t lie to yourself. “Lexit” is fundamentally a form of self-delusion, caused by a loss of faith in the power of the actually-existing movements to change the world. It is also something of a nostalgia trip for people whose ideas were formed in the 1970s, who are now trying to impose those ideas on the current movement. It replaces hope in the movements of the working class and the oppressed with cheerleading for the colonial, imperialist traditions of the UK against the neoliberal, technocratic EU. Some socialists have deluded themselves into going along with this through some kind of misplaced duty to be “optimistic”– to assume that any bandwagon must be going in a positive direction, just as some tried to paint the Trump movement red. This smacks of desperation to “win” something, anything, even if it is part of a global swing towards the radical-Right which if not stopped would literally mean death to ethnic minorities, LGBTs, or indeed socialists.

A real radical-left movement in Britain would not necessarily want to keep Britain in the current EU structure. But it would support all the social gains of the EU – especially free movement of peoples between countries – while demanding their extension. It would support replacing both the EU structures and the UK state with democratic, responsive organs of power based on solidarity and responsible to their peoples, rather than to multinational capitalism – a true “Social Europe” accepting all migrants and refugees. As the old saying  had it, “Another Europe Is Possible” which would give not one single inch to racist, xenophobic ideas. To bring this about, we must challenge the conservative left and the red-browns who have brought such ideas into the common sense of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.