Event: Podemos and Syriza together

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Identification: Once again on Laibach

This keyword was one of fifty explored and put to work on this site. The notes on the keywords are revised and collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Language and Transformation

One thing for sure over recent years is that the ‘left’ has had to learn about new ways of organising itself to take on board the politics of different social movements, and that has also meant changing the way we describe what we are up against and where we are going.

The rapid rise of popularity of Podemos in Spain is one more example of a movement that demands that in order to do politics differently we need to speak differently about it too. The December 2014 meeting in Manchester co-organised by Podemos and Left Unity saw this issue of the link between language and action come to the fore again. One speaker from Podemos rehearsed the line that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ came from the time of the National Assembly during the French Revolution over two hundred years ago, and now we need to move on. Other speakers from the floor argued that they did not want to give up terms like ‘capitalism’ to describe what we face today, and others argued that ‘communism’ was still absolutely relevant to what we are aiming for, including in the new Spanish movements. Even the Podemos activists, and even the speaker questioning the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, agreed that this working class history of struggle was key to our politics today, but that we also need to key into the way people sick of the history of the ‘left’ and its bad practice in many countries spoke about their lives and about transforming the world.

The problem with the transformation of language in our politics really revolves around the conditions in which we work on the link between language and action. There are two ways we are under pressure to change our language. The first way causes anger and anxiety on the left, and rightly so, even if that anger and anxiety also has the effect of isolating us even further. That pressure comes from the defeat of struggle against exploitation and oppression, the marginalisation of alternative ideas and caricatures of socialism and communism in the media. Some of academic language used by ex-left and anti-left writers feeds that marginalisation, and the claims that we now live in some kind of ‘postmodern’ world where the old modern politics that began at the time of the French Revolution are irrelevant make things worse. That kind of pressure is intensified today in neoliberal capitalism; that is the kind of capitalism that rolls back state welfare provision and pretends to set the market free and make each individual responsible for fighting for themselves. Today’s neoliberal language of individual ‘freedom’, fake freedom where we are divided from each other, is poisonous for our collective struggle to make sense of how this world works and how to act to change it.

But there is another way we are under pressure to change our language that also causes anger and anxiety in the leadership of the little old left-wing sects. That second kind of pressure is something we must connect with and respond to, that we must have something to say about ourselves. Every social struggle in history has forced people to rethink how they view the world, and how they speak about it. When the exploited and the oppressed speak about their experience and mobilise to change their conditions of life they always discover that the language of the rulers is not enough, that the dominant language shuts them out. New terms are invented, and there is a transformation of language at the very same time as politics is transformed. That is exactly what has happened with the emergence of feminism, and alongside that feminism the voices of Black feminists. They demand that we change our language, demand that we change, so that we can make this world a place where we can all speak and mobilise. Some of us are even speaking differently now about the relationships we have with each other as part of a system of life in which we are part of the ecology of our planet, and the language of ‘ecosocialism’ helps us do that.

It is significant that activists from another country, our comrades and friends in Podemos, put this question of language and action on the agenda again. When they live here in Manchester, they are very aware that different languages give a different shape to the world, and that experience connects with what they are learning about transformations of language to make politics different in Spain. And now we can learn from that, from a difference of cultural perspective, but only if we also take seriously that there are always real social forces, of the feminist movement, of the movements of the oppressed who are also too often silenced in mainstream left struggle which pretends to maintain what it thinks of as the unity of the ‘working class’ or ‘the left’ or, most often, simply their own organisation. Some organisations are closed off to this and will insist on speaking in the same way they always have, but some, and we have seen the Fourth International sharing the experiences of struggle in different parts of the world slowly do this, have opened themselves to the progressive radical pressure from social movements so that we can better take on the miserable corrupt forces of neoliberalism.

As a key part of the process of linking our radical action with a new radical language that supports it, that helps us to think through what that action involves and what it needs next, we are going to have to spend a bit of time working on some of the new keywords of struggle. We will do that in the next months in the ‘keywords’ section of the FIIMG website. As we link the new keywords of struggle with transformation we can work through what kinds of language demoralise and demobilise us and what kinds of language actually clarify our tasks, connect us with the people coming into politics outside the old ‘left’ and empower us to change the world. The notes on the keywords which were published on this site were revised collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

Podemos in Manchester

Circulo Podemos in Manchester is one of the forces that could re-energise the left here. Podemos is a new radical party in Spain that is saying no to corruption, no to austerity and it is putting the question of radical change on the political agenda. The 8 December 2014 meeting at Friends Meeting House was organised by members of Left Unity together with Podemos, and we built this meeting as a Podemos meeting which aims to connect with the rest of the left in Manchester. There are some opportunities and dangers, and we should not underestimate either of those. There are many reasons why this link between Podemos and Left Unity could be so important. These notes are written before the meeting as a contribution to the debate we will have there and continue as we work together after it.

Podemos has succeeded in building in Spain what Left Unity still aims to build in Britain, a broad left party that could mobilise millions of people who are sick of the austerity programme and who know that there must be an alternative. That alternative would defend public services, make them accountable to people and end the rule of those who have got richer and richer before the crisis and even richer during austerity at the expense of working people. In Spain Podemos is now leading in the polls, and Left Unity should be in that position now, given the failure of the Labour Party here to stand up to the ConDem government. Why is it not? It is not an easy task given the ingrained bureaucracy of the reformist and the revolutionary left.

Supporters of the Fourth International in Manchester have been committed to building Left Unity, but because we insist that this should be a broad inclusive party that mobilises people to work together we are sometimes accused of being to the ‘right’. It is easy for the little old far left groups who spout revolutionary rhetoric to claim that they want to win Left Unity over to a full revolutionary programme, but in the process they threaten to sabotage the attempt to build something more inclusive and wide-ranging. This is not a game, and it is precisely because we are revolutionaries that we are putting our energies into something that can genuinely shake capitalism with a self-organised movement of the exploited and oppressed.

People in Britain are sick of capitalism, and in the absence of a genuine alternative some are turning to right-wing and racist parties like UKIP who will enforce their own version of the austerity programme protecting big business. And those who have been involved in socialist politics are also sick of the traditional far left groups who try to manipulate those who they see as less clued up than themselves in various front organisations. These are groups who abuse the power they hold, sometimes abusing members of their own groups at the same time. It is time for a change in the way we do our politics, and Podemos has made us face that question of how we organise again now.

We also have a particular link with the debates in Podemos because our comrades in Izquierda Anticapitalista, the Fourth International in Spain, have been active in building Podemos. And just as we have here, they have been accused of building something to the ‘right’. Yes, it is true! They have succeeded in working alongside people they have political differences with, and what has emerged now in Podemos is much bigger than them, bigger than the tiny revolutionary organisation that they are. This is something in the organisation of Podemos that we need to discuss, how to keep open a space for the different left traditions while making sure that no one group seizes control, and our group in Spain working in Podemos has made it clear that they will be loyal to Podemos, they will keep building it while still insisting on that discussion.

It is not enough to say that these new organisations like Podemos must learn lessons from the past or that they must use the same terms that we have always used. We too have to learn that simply saying that we are on the ‘left’ or that we are ‘socialist’ or ‘anti-capitalist’ will magically solve the problems we face. The Fourth International, for example, was founded as a revolutionary Marxist world-wide party that would keep alive the authentic democratic spirit of communism, and keep that alive against the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union under Stalin, a bureaucracy that murdered so many revolutionaries to maintain itself in power. But while that history of struggle and that tradition is a revolutionary thread of resistance to capitalism and bureaucracy that we are proud of, we know that those terms ‘communism’ and even ‘revolution’ are for many people associated with dictatorship and repression.

So we understand well the need to find a language, terms of debate that will resonate with peoples experience today, and that is all the more important given that there were aspects of our own ‘socialist’ history that was also problematic. We recognise that today with some of the baggage of that history and language of the ‘left’ there are problems we need to face, even that we are part of the problem. It is not enough, for example, to say that we have a proud record of fighting for women’s rights as some ‘left’ groups still do today. We need to take on board arguments from feminism that point to the way that men in left groups enjoy power as leaders. And we need to expand our sense of what ‘socialism’ is to care for people in a planet in serious ecological crisis. If that means going beyond ‘left’ and ‘right’ as Podemos say, then so be it, if we go beyond that old language to a new genuinely liberating politics together.

If we are to re-energise Left Unity we need to tackle the problem of a top-heavy organisation that spends too much time on developing ‘policy’ on this and that issue, and, like Podemos, we need to target our message to people around a few clear points, a few clear demands that will mobilise people. And we need to be clear that our diversity is not a weakness, working together it is our strength. A top-down old-fashioned ‘party’ is the last thing we need, and our debate with our comrades from Podemos must be in the spirit of active involvement in the ‘circles’. We want to link Left Unity activists, and those who are joining Left Unity now with the Circulo Podemos activists in Manchester in protests and political argument, and to do that in a way that is welcoming to revolutionaries redefining themselves and to all who really want people to take power.