Transforming Capitalist Power: From the Streets to the State

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1852 ... June 25, 2019

Transforming Capitalist Power: From the Streets to the State

Paul Christopher Gray

The communist playwright Bertolt Brecht once wrote, "The individual can be annihilated/But the Party cannot be annihilated." And yet, in the neoliberal era, the Party has been annihilated -- only the individual remains. Or so it seemed until a few years ago. Communist parties have become insignificant political forces, or, as in China, are establishing capitalism. Meanwhile, social democratic parties everywhere have abandoned any attempt to achieve socialism through gradual reforms. At the most, they are resigned to preserving a more humane capitalism the permanence of which they do not doubt. Furthermore, for significant parts of the radical left, these experiences of ‘state socialism’ have not discredited the need for an alternative to capitalism, only the idea that it can be achieved through taking state power. For them, the annihilation of the Party is not an obstacle, but an opportunity. This strategy persuaded many within the ‘New Left’ and the ‘new social movements’ since the late 1960s; the anti-globalization, alter-globalization, or global justice... movements from the 1990s; the World Social Forums since the early 2000s; and the ‘Occupy’ and ‘Squares’ movements from the late 2000s and early 2010s. The spirit of this diverse political tendency is best captured by the radical left theorist John Holloway and his slogan, ‘Change the world without taking power’. Since 2015, however, much of the radical left has given renewed prominence to participation within, and debates about, political parties, electoral politics, and taking state power.

This shift has occurred for various reasons. The 2015 election of Syriza in Greece, so far the only radical left party to be elected to national government since the financial crisis of 2007-8, inspired much optimism, and then provoked much consternation as it sacrificed much of its programme and party vitality with its increasing co-optation into the institutions of the Greek state and the European Union. A similar dynamic has occurred with the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, who has put democratic socialism on the agenda in the U.K., but has become mired in immense difficulties navigating potential exit from the Eurozone. The new radical left parties in Spain, Portugal, and Germany confront these issues while also debating whether to join coalitional governments in order to temper the austerity with which their parties might then become associated. The new radical left party in Turkey, the Halkların Demokratik Partisi (People’s Democratic Party), has, despite the Erdoğan government’s repression, achieved considerable electoral victories, but its increasing influence relative to the local neighbourhood assemblies, from which the party emerged, creates tensions throughout these allied institutions. The left governments in Latin America, and, in particular, the ‘21st century socialism’ of Chavismo in Venezuela, face familiarly 20th century challenges with the ebbing of the Pink Tide through complex combinations of internal shortcomings, defeats, and outright coups. In the U.S., the candidacy of Bernie Sanders fostered dramatic increases in the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America, but, in the midst of its modest electoral successes, there are fraught discussions about how they should relate both to those self-described democratic socialists elected in the Democratic Party and to that party as a whole.

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