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Panitch on the lack of ambition and self-confidence of the Left

Jehu Featured, The Commune Leave a Comment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 2011, Leo Panitch wrote a piece, The Left’s Crisis, examining the Left’s response to the present crisis. He noted the Left’s response could be broken into two types: “irresponsible” and “fundamentally misleading”. In the irresponsible group, he puts those who called on Washington to let the banks fail, which, he asserted, gave no thought to the consequences of such an event. In the fundamentally misleading group he put those who called for tighter regulation of banks, which he asserted are already the most regulated in the world market.

The Left’s “lack of ambition” in the crisis, says Panitch, was indicated by the fact that there were far more calls for salary limits on top mamagers of Wall Street investment firms, than calls for turning the banks into public utilities. This was true, Panitch notes, despite the fact that turning banks into publicly owned utilities is a long-standing communist measure dating back to the Communist Manifesto. The fact that even some bourgeois writers were calling for just such a measure while the Left was not shows its lack of ambition and self-confidence.

Panitch states, fundamental change can only happen through a class struggle that would involve a massive transformation of the state itself. Getting reforms like converting banks into utilities is not going to happen by bringing a bunch of lawyers into a room. Even something as mundane as better regulation cannot be won without a mobilization of the working class:

“[We] ought to be trying to educate people on how capitalist finance really works, why it doesn’t for them and why what we need instead is a publicly owned banking system that is part of a system of democratic economic planning, in which what’s invested and where it’s invested and how it’s invested is democratically decided.”

The banking nationalization that is now occurring in the wake of the financial crisis by the government all over the world only involved socializing financial losses, while leaving the structures that lead to these losses in place:

“…this really represented “not the nationalisation of the banks, but the privatisation of the Treasury as a new kind of fund manager.”

Panitch argues the most important reason to nationalize the banks is to cripple finance capital and change the balance of forces. Additionally, according to Panitch, the socialist argument for nationalizing the banks would be to put credit to work for socially useful ends. Despite the disastrous collapse of the Soviet Union, socialists can’t avoid the need for planning, says Panitch, and credit is the core of any planned alteration of industry. Controlling credit provides for democratic control of investment. However, Panitch notes, people are not motivated by democratic control of investment, which, even if it does not fall prey to the errors of the Soviet Union, will not deliver benefits for decades.

“People need to be mobilized by immediate demands, as they were by the demands for trade union rights, a reduced workweek, a public educational system a welfare state, etc”

The solution is to combine a long term vision of democratic investment with immediate benefits that sustain it and make it possible. A case for this might be made for a massive public housing program, universal public pensions, free public transit, etc. These efforts would be aimed at decommodifying basic needs as far as this is possible within capitalist society. People like these things, but you very quickly face the problem of where the money for such programs will come from. This question can be addressed by bringing credit under the control of the state.

The Left on defense

The Left, Panitch argues, has been very defensive in its thinking:

“We need to try to see this moment of crisis from the perspective of what openings it could create. The limitations of a purely defensive response to the crisis lie in not taking advantage of the opportunity that the crisis creates. Despite the ‘Another World Is Possible’ rhetoric, the left has been more oriented to attempting to hold on to things than to taking things in a new direction.”

This is the defect of the view that says you can change things without taking power: we are left preventing the state from doing things, but do not advance our goals. You don’t engage on the terrain of the state or transform the structures of the state. While Panitch understand the current streak of anti-statism, he argues, “we need to go beyond protest, or we will be trapped forever in organizing the next demo.”

The state will transfer the crisis down to regional and local levels, and hopes thereby to impose limits on the response to the crisis. We must learn how to link up local struggles and turn them into a struggle for state power, otherwise we will be trapped by local limits.

I don’t think Panitch’s argument can just be dismissed. Unlike a lot of the shit I read, this guy appears to have decades of practical work and an encyclopedic knowledge of organizing history covering many countries. I was just floored by the breadth and depth of his argument here and here for instance. Moreover, there are two things about his argument that I find fascinating. First, he admits his ideas have gone nowhere practically — this admission is very fucking refreshing on the Left. Second, his argument that the Left has no ambition or self-confidence is frighteningly on fucking target.

On the basis of just those two statements alone, this guy deserves everyone’s attention, I think. He has given a lot of thought to the problem and invested a lot of effort figuring out a solution and clearly he cannot be accused of thinking on the margins. Moreover, I don’t think it is enough to say his conceptions of change are fundamentally flawed, since they are evidently no more flawed than any other ideas among, for instance, parties like SYRIZA, etc.

SYRIZA is rushing headlong into a crisis right now for ideas not much different than the ones for which Panitch argues. The only difference here is that the crisis for SYRIZA results from actually winning political power, not by a failure to win it. But failing to win political power and winning it makes all the difference in the world no matter how flawed our conceptions.

See, for instance, the Paris Commune, when the communards were faced with the necessity of breaking the state power, not reforming it. There is no hint of this necessity to be found in the Communist Manifesto — it was imposed on the Communards by the reality of implementing their program. All the measures indicated in the Communist Manifesto program had to take the back seat to the necessity, first of all, to break the state. When Panitch refers to this program — “Marx made – among his list of ten reforms – for the centralization of credit in the hands of the state” — he completely overlooks that these demands were superseded by breaking the state, not simply “transforming the structures of the state”.

Is breaking the state as valid as public banking?

Was this lesson from the Commune valid? By the time of the Great War there were clearly two opinions on this. Some Marxists held the state had to be broken, others argued the existing state did not have to be broken. The Bolsheviks, who argued for the former, upon taking power changed their view and actually proposed to employ the existing state to build socialism. By the end of World War II, this debate over the state was further distorted into whether there had to be a violent revolution or not. So the question hinged, it seems, on whether this state would be “seized” or simply won by “peaceful means” in an election.

In Panitch’s opinion, the distinction is now between “change the world without taking power” and “engaging on the terrain of the state”. But, there is a fallacy in Panitch’s argument regarding the need to engage on the terrain of the state: simply stated society at large is the terrain of the state. By supposedly engaging on the terrain of the state, Panitch clearly means engaging within the machinery of state itself, as distinct from society. Which is to say, Panitch is suggesting we attempt to transform society by means of the state machinery. This is pretty much the gist of what he means when he says, “a system of democratic economic planning, in which what’s invested and where it’s invested and how it’s invested is democratically decided.”

However, if these decisions are not already being democratically decided, they must be despotically imposed by the state. The leads us to another problem with Panitch’s argument: if the decisions of the democratic state are being despotically imposed on society despite democracy, it seems to me this would be easier to explain this to people than it would to explain, “how capitalist finance really works, why it doesn’t for them and why what we need instead is a publicly owned banking system that is part of a system of democratic economic planning.” It should, in other words, be easier to explain why democracy itself is a farce and must be replaced by an association of producers. This is particularly true since it is widely felt that Washington is just not at all responsive to the control of voters.

It seems Panitch is ready to accept the then innovative ideas of mid-19th century communists when it comes to such standard present day bourgeois practices as a progressive income tax, credit socialization, land use regulation, free education, public roads and infrastructure, etc., but he is not willing to accept the addition of the lesson, hard won at the cost of the lives of many communards, that the state must be broken to this list. I am not sure why this is, and can find no reason for this except that it is the one item not accepted by the fascists. Almost every measure in the Communist Manifesto is standard practice by the fascist states in every country except the replacement of the state itself by association.

A further objection can be made to Panitch’s argument: As he states,

“But you do have to be a Marxist to understand that [reform] is not going to happen by bringing some lawyers into a room and signing a few documents. … fundamental change can only really happen through a massive class struggle, which would involve a massive transformation of the state itself.”

If even a simple reform recommended by bourgeois writers, and proposed by communists 150 years ago, like making banks public utilities, requires a massive class struggle involving a massive transformation of the state, why not simply aim at the outset to replace the state by association — thus ending the false distinction between changing the world without taking power and engaging on the terrain of the state. The only argument for not aiming at the outset to replace the state by association is that simple reforms like public banking is easier than wholesale reorganization of society. Panitch’s argument is that this is not true: even such a modest and self-evident reform of banks, recommended by a bourgeois writer, requires a massive class struggle.

Changing the world without taking power over others

tahrir-square_1166216I think Panitch definitely falls for a phony and entirely meaningless distinction between “changing the world without taking power” and “engaging on the terrain of the state”, i.e., within society itself. Both can be accomplished by changing the world without taking power over others, i.e., by replacing the state by association. If, as Panitch argues, even simple reforms require massive class struggle, the working class cannnot afford to dispense with its own organization. The aim of mobilization cannot be to turn this power over to the state, as was done in Egypt, but to become the new conditions of society.

In Tahrir Square all were equal and no one was able to dictate the views of others, this short-lived association, however, soon gave way to talk of constitutions and ministries. The association that had brought down the Mubarak regime was deemed unfit to manage its own affairs. Although for three decades no political party was able to do what the association did in 18 days, “commonsense” ruled this association too inept to manage society. In other words, “commonsense” decided that the working class should only serve as cannon fodder. The working class should be “mobilized” whenever some faction or another wishes to marginally change the existing state with some piecemeal reform and then rapidly demobilized once success has been secured.

I am not suggesting this is what Panitch is trying to do, but he has to see events like Egypt in this light as well as the danger hidden beneath SYRIZA’s growing popularity and likely victory. If upon winning the coming election, SYRIZA does not immediately begin replacing the state with association it must fail.

T.I.N.A.: There is no alternative to the fascist state?

Panitch’s essay led me to contemplate what he called the lack of ambition and self-confidence of the Left. People have completely accepted T.I.N.A. The Left is now incapable of articulating an alternative that does not go through the existing state. The healthy section of the Left now no longer even tries — it has given up entirely — while the unhealthy section is mired in opportunism.

I think this is a good thing.

Fascism has completely broken the Left down: appropriated its symbols and converted its highest ideals into election Newspeak. Fascism has made it impossible for the Left to formulate its argument in a political form by immediately expropriating every instance.

Just look how Tahrir Square turned into the FSA — T.I.N.A writ large.

Every time the Left looks for a political exit from this crisis it must fall into the lap of fascism — T.I.N.A. Fascism thrives on politics, since it is an entirely political mode of production — the production of surplus value in the form of the state. If the Left are having a problem articulating their aims in a political form is it not just possible “political aims” are the problem? It is not a problem of finding the correct political aim, but of realizing politics itself is a dead end.

For you mainstream Marxists out there, that means there is no longer any possibility of a so-called “minimum program” for the working class. Another way to put it: the first act of the Commune was to break the state. This is no longer possible without breaking capitalism entirely. When the state is the capitalist, the first cannot be separated from the second. Breaking the state was always the “minimum program” of communism — you just forgot this. Everything else proposed to be undertaken in the Communist Manifesto — which is still the only common program adopted by all communists alike, irrespective of whether they call themselves Marxist or anarchist — depended on immediately breaking the state. It is the development of the capitalist mode of production itself that has altered this and made it impossible to do one without the other. So the task hasn’t changed in 150 years, the implications of breaking the state has: it must immediately lead to breaking capitalism itself.

So let’s assume there is a need for a so-called “minimum program” as proposed by mainstream Marxism. This means a set of measures communists propose must be accomplished by the working class upon assuming power. This is based on some assessment of the current situation and the difficulties the class will face once in power. This fucking minimum program itself rests on the assumption the working class will replace the state with its association. It is not as if replacing the state is a long term goal; it is the precondition of an assumption of power, the form this assumption takes. Before embarking on any sweeping changes to society, in other words, as Marx argued against Bakunin, “the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.”

I mean, how much clearer could Marx have been on this, Marxists? Did he mumble? So before you can even articulate a minimum program, you have to explain how the existing state must be replaced by association. In other words, you can’t articulate political aims but aims that are entirely anti-political. You begin with the notion that, in any case, the existing state will be leveled in its entirety and replaced by association — no fucking minimum wage, no fucking social security, no fucking EPA, no fucking defense department — only association. If you can’t get on-board with this — which is ONLY the precondition for a minimum program — stop calling yourself a Marxist, please. Call yourself a progressive, or better yet, a fucking fascist, which you are.

Do we need a state to care for the elderly?

Yes, the environment, the disabled, the elderly, the unemployed etc. have to be cared for — but it is the association that does this! The task is not left to a bunch of elite managers who move back and forth from Wall Street to federal agencies. The association of producers decides EVERYTHING. This is already a more audacious program than conceived in any party program produced by a Marxist party today. And I think I can say this without reservation: Marxist programs do not even come up to this minimum requirement for a minimum program.

The point is not how much of the social product is devoted to education of children, but who decides this. Is this decided by bureaucrats in the Department of Education or by an association of producers?

T.I.N.A. is not about where social resources go or how they are employed, it is about where these decisions are being made. Once the association of producers has taken command of the social resources, these resources no longer exist as forms of capital. They are transformed into mere use value — objects of utility for the mass of society and subordinated to their needs alone. Marxists and the Left in general focus on how the social product will be divided, when the real question is who is making this decision.

Folks, the capitalist class is trapped. It is utterly dependent on the state and has no options in this regard. It cannot go back to an earlier mode of accumulation, which is why as a class it is desperate and violent in the extreme. There is not one country today where the capitalist class can survive the replacement of the state by an association of producers. And, as Egypt proved, there is not one country today where the working class can “take power” without replacing the state with its association.

Marxists and the Left in general keep trying to avoid this brutal fact, by articulating a set of demands aimed at less than association. It will not work: as Tahrir Square shows, anything less than association will be co-opted by the fascist state.

Author: Jehu Eaves
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I am a "marxist-in-recovery", which is to say, I am someone trying to recover for myself the essential humanist thought of Karl Marx. I understand his writings as a radical, critical, and determined opposition to all forms of social coercion and "laws" of society, including, but not limited to, Labor, Property and the State -- a decidedly negative critique of present society that offers no vision of what replaces it. My somewhat awkward musings on this can be found at therealmovement.wordpress.com. I am also on Twitter @damn_jehu
JehuPanitch on the lack of ambition and self-confidence of the Left