Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Salvaging the Socialist Cause

Here's Richard Seymour reviewing Eric Hobsbawm's recent How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism (via Lenin's Tomb).


Richard said...
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Richard said...

I admit that I only have a glancing familiarity with Hobsbawm, but lenin's optimistic conclusion, that Hobsbawm gives us some tools with which to struggle against capitalism in the future, is seemingly at odds with what comes before it. One of Hobsbawm's most recent evaluations of the state of the global left, in New Left Review 61(Jan/Feb 2010), was pessimistic, bordering on despondency. It would have been nice if lenin had elaborated further.

Eurocommunism and New Labour have been disasterous for the left, having played a prominent role in the dismantling of the social welfare state in Europe, and yet, Hobsbawm embraced both.

Leaving aside New Labour, Hobsbawm's identification with the PCI as a model for left participation in the social democratic, capitalist societies of Western Europe is especially problematic. The PCI played a prominent role in the suppression of radical left movements in Italy in the 1970s, collapsed as an electoral force in the 1980s and then dissolved itself in the wake of the end of the USSR and the East Bloc, paving the way for Berlusconi and the postmodern form of a soft core autocratic society currently on display in Italy (as described by Pablo Flores d'Arcais in the most current New Left Review (No. 68). Not a very appealing record to say the least.

Rossana Rossanda, a prominent member of the PCI from about 1943 to 1969, when she was expelled, provides a different picture of the PCI in her recent book, "The Comrade from Milan", one of a plodding, sclorotic institution that was unable to adapt the emerging feminism and radicalism of the 1960s because of its inability to decisively break with Stalinism after Khrushchev's secret speech and the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, when it lost many of its most engaged members in academia and the arts. Of course, the PCI was not Stalinist, but it was incapable of modifying the practice of democratic centralism in such a way as to clearly distinguish itself from it. Ironically, when the PCI decisively broke with the USSR in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it did so to facilitate a rightward turn into Eurocommunism so that it could participate, from a position in the background, in the suppression of the anti-authoritarian movements of the 1970s.

Rossanda explosively suggests that this happened because Togliatti and those who succeeeded him possessed a fundamentally bourgeois vision for the future of Italy. Given Hobsbawm's embrace of the PCI and New Labour, it raises the troubling question as to whether he shared it as well. Lurking beneath the surface of all this is his rejection of radical left movements that break with Trotskyite and Stalinist forms of vanguard organization toward move anti-authoritarian approaches.

Richard said...

you might also want to check out johng's comment in response to lenin's review over at Lenin's Tomb

t said...

I agree with you about Hobsbawm's recent NLR piece and I agree with you about the political bankruptcy of Eurocommunism, the Stalinism of the PCI, and the neoliberalism of New Labour.

Perry Anderson's take on the PCI and the Italian left is worth invoking here. I agree with the sense in which the Eurocommunist program, which eventually collapsed in the late 80s, more or less primed the pumps for the Berlusconi backlash. What remains of the Left in that country is an invertebrate non-entity.

I'll have to look into Rossanda's stuff, but I'm inclined to disagree with the conclusion that her experiences are a stain on the Trotskyist tradition. Stalinism, Eurocommunism and Social-Democratic reformism are, it seems to me, very distinct political currents from the Trotskyist tradition (which uncompromisingly emphasizes internationalism and workers power).

To be sure, there are plenty of problems with the Trotskyist tradition. The Fourth International was a disaster, and it's aftermath mostly consists of irrelevant sects who stake their whole identity on outcomes of debates that have nothing to do with the present situation. And Trotsky himself made many political blunders, e.g. substitutionism in the arguments about trade unions in post-civil war Russia.

Still, for all that, the tradition that emerged from the efforts of Trotsky and the Left Opposition is, I think, still worth defending. Not as an ossified, frozen set of ideas and practices that are valid for all eternity- but as a living, vibrant tradition of political thought and practice that is anti-capitalist, internationalist, and insistent on working-class self-emancipation.

It would be sectarian, I think, to exclude Third Camp Trots, who stand for socialism-from-below, from the "anti-authoritarian left".

t said...

Also, I haven't read Hobsbawm's recent book, so perhaps it is less problematic than his previous interventions in support of Eurocommunism, etc.

As a Historian, however, Hobsbawm's work is magisterial. The Age of Extremes is incredible, economically sophisticated, and the politics are generally quite good. The Age of Revolution and the Age of Capital are also excellent. So is Industry and Empire, and his work on the politics of bandits is also really good.

In general, the British Marxist Historians had lots of great things to say about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and other matters of historical significance... but their analyses of contemporary politics were generally questionable at best.

Richard said...

I agree, the Age of Extremes is quite impressive, very few historians have possessed Hobsbawm's grasp of such complex social material

as for Rossanda, I wouldn't go so far as to say that she maligned the Trotskyist tradition, nor, do I think that I did, merely that the PCI, to the extent that it was a political manifestation of such a tradition, failed to effectively navigate the social changes within Italy in the 1950s and 1960s effectively, because of failings within leadership and its inability to modify party organizational practice

my remark about Hobsbawm and his antipathy towards anti-authoritarian movements that lacked the hierarchies historically associated with Trotskyism and Stalinism was really only for the purpose of suggesting that his vision of the left has been too narrow

Given the state of the left in the US, and my small voice, it would be ludicrous for me to exclude anyone from anything, although I have heard that some of the Maoist groups can be odd, very homophobic, that sort of thing, and, yes, the Left Opposition is worth defending, given the sacrifices that the participants made in the struggle against Stalinism, who knows how many died in the camps?