Claim no automatic support

Where can the left look to inspiration in the wake of defeat? Our first letter from our new deputy editor.

Chile 2019. Image credit Diego Correa via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Two Sundays ago—before the passing of some country’s elderly monarch consumed all media attention—the international left received news that for some fell like an anvil: Chile’s new constitution, put to a referendum, was defeated in a landslide. The repudiation was overwhelming: 62% against, compared to 38% in favor. Up until that point, Chile had been a lodestar for progressives worldwide. The social upsurge in 2019 that precipitated the re-draft, was viewed as a symbolic turning point. On the day of the referendum, hopes were that the country which was the “birthplace of neoliberalism” under Pinochet, would bury it under Gabriel Boric, the strapping, avowedly democratic-socialist president who took power in a watershed victory in 2021. It would not be so.

Everyone is scrambling for answers. Some are unsettling, particularly the indications that most low-income Chileans voted against the document. Explanations mainly cite that Chilean voters were subject to a widespread and sophisticated misinformation campaign. Granted, there are good reasons to believe that the Chilean right’s underhanded tactics are to blame for creating a climate of confusion and mistrust. At the same time, the latent tendency to melancholia is all too familiar. As Enzo Traverso writes in Left-Wing Melancholia, “The memory of the left is a huge, prismatic continent made of conquests and defeats.” When Bernie Sanders’ odds of winning the Democratic nomination in 2020 crashed after a poor showing on Super Tuesday, Sam-Adler Bell reflected on how the left has become “conditioned by history to expect defeat—to see it as inevitable, the product of malevolent forces beyond our control—we welcome its arrival with something like relief.”

Taking responsibility for our losses comes uneasily to the left, in significant part because responsibility itself is an idea treated with suspicion and disdain. In crude summary, materialism—the Marxist method of interpreting politics and history—treats individuals first and foremost as products of their social circumstances. The logic then extends to our movements, our shortcomings reflecting more the constraints of the conjuncture than the erring of our actions. As a spatiotemporal location, the revolutionary moment is when things are just right, when we are unencumbered by the vicissitudes of the here and now. It becomes that elusive, mythical plane of opportunity, a horizon of paradisical relief.

The revolutionary vista—whether one consciously clings to it or not—keeps the daunting sight of organizing today out of view and in abeyance. In South Africa, this is evident in an attachment to the politics of rupture, those occasions when popular energy erupts and constitutes a “moment” of opportunity—the Marikana, NUMSA (and its United Front), and Fallist ones being paradigmatic of the post-apartheid period. At our symposium commemorating the 10 year Anniversary of the Marikana massacre (which was sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, and hosted in partnership with the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice as well as the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg), filmmaker Rehad Desai urged that “The only way we can turn these moments into a movement, is if we start talking seriously about a worker’s party” (Desai added that this would not come from the country’s trade union bureaucrats, who are locked in a bitter contest for control over the country’s federations). This was echoed earlier by a panelist, the activist and filmmaker Shaeera Kalla, who called for a politics of “what needs to fall to what needs to rise.” African politics in the post-colonial era has operated mainly on negativity—we reject neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and the national bourgeoisie. But what kind of society do we want?

Of course, the Chilean case demonstrates that advocating for what we want is not so straightforward. It is not just the beauty of our aspirations that wins people over. The draft text included advanced provisions on socioeconomic rights, indigenous rights and representation, and gender equality. Perry Anderson’s observation about Lula’s first presidential run in Brazil (where he lost to the right-wing Fernando Collor), is worth mulling over:

The political scientist André Singer, press secretary to Lula in his first mandate, but an independent and original mind, has pivoted a striking analysis of Lulismo on the psychology of the Brazilian poor. This, he argues, is a sub-proletariat, comprising nearly half—48 per cent—of the population, that is moved by two principal emotions: hope that the state might moderate inequality, and fear that social movements might create disorder. On Singer’s reading, instability is a spectre for the poor, whatever form it takes—armed struggle, price inflation or industrial action. So long as the left failed to understand this, the right captured their votes for conservatism.

There are two ways to read this. The first is to scoff at the suggestion that the marginalized are afraid of change (supposedly, they are on standby and ever ready for spontaneous resistance given the right prompt). This sentiment takes us back to our false start, which is to assume that simply by the novelty and ambition of our proposals that people will take heed (the “worker’s party” hoarding political space in South Africa—the Socialist and Revolutionary Workers Party—went this route in the last general election and failed to get a single seat in parliament). The other is to endeavor to explain what is going on here. Vivek Chibber takes up this task in his most recent book, The Class Matrix (we interviewed him about it). There, Chibber argues that political resignation stems not from “false consciousness,” from the masses being duped—but because workers rationally choose compliance and individual resistance given the risks and demands of political organizing.

Associate editor at Jacobin, Meagan Day, once tweeted: “The left needs to raise people’s expectations for society. To do that we need to put forward demands that are two steps ahead of popular consciousness, not twenty. Utopian “demands” actually depress expectations by making change appear unachievable, contributing to demoralization.” This caused some stir, inviting charges of reformism, capitulation, etc. I have no wish to enter a reform versus revolution debate here. The thing to remember, as Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin put it, is that today “Political hopes are inseparable from notions of what is possible.” No one will join your movement unless it has prospects of achieving what it sets out to, and it’s the small victories—easy, though they may not be—that creates the momentum for larger ones.

In a conversation last week on the AIAC podcast with the South African writer and critic Christopher McMichael about his latest book on police violence, Shoot to Kill: Police and Power in South Africa (Inkani Books, 2022), this is the note that we concluded on. A modest political program in South Africa, which focuses just on getting minimum social provision right: reliable supply of electricity, expanded public transport, quality basic education, and public administration reform to build a state capable of delivering—would go a long way, and additionally expand the realm of possibility. What these policies look like, of course, is up to debate, and we welcome them on the pages of AIAC. On this count, we draw again from Anderson to embrace his challenge: “Mere proliferation for its own sake, a plague of too many submissions today, will not pass. It should be a matter of honour on the Left to write at least as well, without redundancy or clutter, as its adversaries.”

Yet, unlike our adversaries who are nihilistic at their core (both liberals and conservatives mistrust the ability of the people to govern themselves), we do in fact have a positive vision of the world. And unlike Anderson (I say this perhaps unfairly), we are not committed to a dour realism that can at times, seem indistinguishable from nihilism. Last week, the French new wave filmmaker Jean Luc-Godard passed away. He will be remembered for his many bold cinematic innovations and political nerve, but we especially remember when he cast then 21-year-old Senegalese theoretician and revolutionary Omar Blondin Diop in his 1967 cult classic, La Chinoise. In his cameo, Blondin delivers a wide-ranging seminar on Marxist philosophy and politics to the firebrand group of petit-bourgeois, young French Maoists. One of them, asks if a non-socialist revolution can “peacefully be changed into a socialist one.” Blondin answers in the affirmative (under specific conditions), and then, clarifies that in contrast, the absence of revolution cannot be changed into revolution. However, he adds, “No matter how you look at it, the road to socialism leads to revolution.”

Maybe the real insight of Blondin’s line, is that revolution is inevitable, in a tautological (and arguably, teleological) sense—there will be some eventual point in which society is qualitatively distinct from the status quo, enough to constitute a radical break from it (the evidence shows that in the long sweep, society tends towards welfare state growth). The question is how revolution happens—in a moment, like a bang, or as a long passage, the cumulative result of slow, patient work. Part of this work—and here is where the work of a publication can be useful—is making that alternative world, for which “socialism” is the shorthand, seem legible and desirable. In this contest, we compete not only with liberals and conservatives in making the case that our project will lead to rising standards of living, but also against the church (or where it makes strategic sense, alongside it), aristocracies, and the tyranny of the market, to say that we are offering a spiritual vision as well, a case for what it means to be truly human.

We are all watching, with fascination, the queues of mourners filing in to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II in England. How come there is so much popular enthusiasm for the deceased figurehead of an irrelevant, exorbitant, and disgraced monarchy? Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari would retort, “That is why the fundamental problem of political philosophy is still precisely the one that Spinoza saw so clearly, and that Wilhelm Reich rediscovered: Why do men fight for their servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation?” Well, maybe the workers of the world do actually have a lot to lose besides their chains. The point is to convince that the risks are worthwhile. The task, protracted and sometimes repetitive (I am personally guilty of writing the same article over and over again)—is to persuade. Claim no automatic support.

Further Reading