Valuable but flawed

Kit Robinson reviews Alex Callinicos' 'An anti-capitalist manifesto', Polity, 2003, pp180,£13.99

This smallish book by the Socialist Workers Party’s chief international spokesperson is evidently aimed at bringing some sort of understanding of Marxism to the anti-capitalist movement

Comrade Callinicos begins by saying that it was “conceived and written on the run”… between various summits and the counter-mobilisations that inevitably accompany them, as well as more general gatherings of the anti-capitalist milieu, the social forums, etc (pvii). In terms of explaining some basic concepts of Marxism, there is much that is positive in this book - it no doubt will gain a certain readership among those whose eyes have been opened to the iniquities of modern-day capitalism, and will add to the stock of useful literature for any further radicalisation of that diffuse movement.

Callinicos’s own understanding of the significance of the anti-capitalist movement is quite subtle: “The distinctive character of the contemporary anti-capitalist movement reflects its emergence in an ideological climate defined by the apparent triumph of liberal capitalism and the eclipse of Marxism (p84)…

“The anti-capitalist movement is undeniably a new movement. But, as it has developed, it has begun to confront some old problems - problems that have in one form or another faced every great movement for transformation over the past two centuries.

“In many respects, implicit in all these problems is the ancient dilemma of reform or revolution: is the aim of the movement gradually to humanise the system or completely to replace, and if the goal is the latter, can this be achieved without what Susan George rejects - the forcible overthrow of the main institutions of capitalist power?” (p86). Callinicos rightly makes quite clear his view that George’s views are utopian, and thus to his credit comes down clearly on the side of “forcible overthrow”.

On show in this pamphlet is the SWP’s most leftwing face. It obviously sees anti-capitalism as a movement that has much in common with the historic origins of most of its leading cadre - something very much like the 1960s new left: a large protest movement that can sometimes, albeit episodically, move masses, and consisting in its activist layers to a very large extent of radical youth without much in the way of material bonds or ideological commitment to the organised working class. They are there to be won to the SWP’s particular brand of socialism.

In seeking to provide the political framework for this, Callinicos elaborates at the end of the book what he himself subtitles as a “transitional programme” - something of a departure for an organisation whose founder, Tony Cliff, prided himself in rejecting programmes almost as a matter of ‘principle’.

The programme elaborated by Callinicos, unfortunately, is rather a dog’s dinner. It is comprised of a mixture of supportable and useful democratic and economic demands with some canards of the less radical sections of the anti-capitalist movement that really do not belong in a socialist programme, being at best irrelevant, at worst harmful.

Callinicos is so keen to appear as an orthodox Marxist that some insights that do not normally find their way into the SWP’s more routine political activity get an airing here. Cliff’s assertion of Soviet ‘state capitalism’ - that the cold war was really a manifestation of ‘competition’ between two different forms of capitalism - is somewhat contradicted by Callinicos’s own potted rendition of capitalist and imperialist history.

He writes: “… in both world wars German imperialism sought to use its military might to carve out a zone in central and eastern Europe, in which it would gain privileged access to markets, resources and labour; the US used the second world war to ensure that the outcome would be an open world economy, in which American capital and goods could freely flow.

“After 1945 the patterns of competition diverged: the Soviet Union was a geopolitical and ideological rival to the US, but not, on the whole, an economic threat. The cold war gave Washington both the incentive and the means to unite the other major capitalist states - western Europe and Japan - under its political and military leadership. The long post-war boom saw Germany and Japan emerge as serious economic competitors to the US, but this conflict remained relatively muted politically, in large part because of Bonn’s and Tokyo’s dependence on the American military shield …” (p58).

A fairly unexceptionable sketch, but hardly one that sits easily with Cliff’s theory that the cold war represented competition between different forms of capitalism. It appears that increasingly Cliffite dogma is semi-expendable for the post-Soviet, post-Cliff SWP, as it seeks to ‘build the revolutionary party’, but somewhat without the demarcations he insisted upon, based on his particular theory of the Soviet Union as the “highest form” of (state) capitalism. Given that this whole question is retreating into the background - and even, as the passage quoted above from Callinicos illustrates, tending to be absorbed into a more generic Marxist understanding of the post-war history of imperialism (conceived, in a way, as a pre-history to the post-Soviet world of US imperialist hegemony and the self-contradictory globalisation of capital in which we now live) - it is legitimate to wonder how the SWP justifies its existence as a separate Marxist organisation.

Separate, that is, from the numerous other international and national sects that make up the left, that would seem in a world of competing versions of the sect paradigm to have at least as much claim to some sort of ‘revolutionary’ credentials as the post-Cliff SWP. Perhaps it is the lack of any coherent justification for its own existence - combined with the bureaucratic inertia that inevitably accompanies a largish and reasonably successful mono-ideological sect, whose cadre and material assets were assembled in a different historical period - that explains the SWP’s recent gyrations from one extreme to the other. One gets a hint of this when Callinicos praises the United Secretariat of the Fourth International and even the ex-Stalinist Rifondazione Comunista for their flexible approach to ‘anti-capitalism’:

“While some Trotskyist tendencies reacted to the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement in a characteristically dogmatic and sectarian fashion, the two main international Trotskyist currents, the Fourth International (FI) and the International Socialist Tendency (IST) quickly recognised the potential of the movement. Activists of the FI’s leading European organisation, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire, performed an important role in Attac from the start; supporters of the FI from both Latin America and Europe have been heavily involved in the World Social Forums at Porto Alegre ….

“In Italy, however, a socialist version of anti-capitalism has been taken up by a much more substantial organisation, the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) … In the summer of 2001, the PRC mobilised heavily for the Genoa protests and both participated in and benefited from the subsequent radicalisation …” (pp84-5).

In its own way, this underlines the dilemma of the SWP. All these organisations have fundamentally different political histories and traditions from the SWP, yet the logic of this narrative is that very little separates these different forces in terms of their shared ‘socialist anti-capitalism’ - they really ought to be acting as one force, you could surmise. Surely they should come together in a pan-European socialist bloc or, if you like, a European Socialist Alliance - whose logic in turn points to a Europe-wide working class party: ultimately a Communist Party of the European Union.

The SWP’s partial, contradictory going along with this process, both in Britain and on the level of the European anti-capitalist movement, shows that the organisation at least partially recognises that sect politics is no longer remotely sufficient. Yet because of its whole sect tradition, the SWP is incapable of providing leadership to such a transitional bloc or pre-party formation, judging by the treachery the SWP has inflicted even on its supposed allies, the British co-thinkers of the French LCR, the International Socialist Group: for instance in Birmingham Socialist Alliance, where a supporter of Resistance (a monthly paper whose main backer is the ISG) was voted out of office as part of the SWP’s purge of those in the Socialist Alliance who hold ‘awkward views’.

Despite the evident fact that the SWP no longer has a clear conception of what the real lines of demarcation defining its sect actually are, nevertheless the moment a perceived opportunity for organisational advantage arises, the SWP snaps back into its worst sectarian mode with a form of perverse dynamism which I suppose you could compare to rigor mortis.

Contrary to the rather odd claims of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s Paul Hampton in his review of this book, An anti-capitalist manifesto is not short of correct and useful explanations of why the working class is the central agent of revolutionary social change (Solidarity May 29). In a short book aimed at radical youth, who are in many cases alienated from the labour movement, this is unsurprising. What is a weakness, however, is the ‘transitional programme’ that Callinicos cooks up at the end. The role of an action programme, which is what this is presented as, should be to express things as they really are, to point a real way forward for the movement and for the working class, and to fight against false and pernicious notions that have the potential to cripple future class struggles.

Callinicos’s programme contains a number of laudable points: the demand for the cancellation of third world debt (though the impact of this without the prior overthrow of capitalism should not be overestimated - new debts would be quickly generated); the introduction of a universal basic income; reduction of the working week; the defence of public services and the renationalisation of privatised industries; progressive taxation; the abolition of immigration controls and extension of citizenship rights; a programme to forestall environmental catastrophe (much of which is green-tinged and problematic, but nevertheless has a progressive core in terms of a rational preservation and restoration of the environment); dissolution of the military-industrial complex; defence of civil liberties. These points - obviously skeletal as presented here - are all basically supportable, and, if fought for and won by an international, working class-centred, anti-capitalist movement, would radically shift the global balance of class forces in the direction of labour from capital.

Good and progressive, as far as it goes. In Callinicos’s words, “This list of demands is merely indicative. Others could come up with more extensive and imaginative programmes, and the one outlined here no doubt reflects to a significant extent the preoccupations of intellectuals and activists in the north” (p139).

More to the point than this, however, is the inclusion of two other demands in Callinicos’s programme: the introduction of the Tobin tax on international currency transactions and the restoration of capital controls. These demands are panaceas of nationalist perversions of socialism and of the more utopian, programmatically rightwing and reformist sections of the anti-capitalist movement. If implemented, the Tobin tax might raise a bit more money for national governments to use to promote various reforms, but both demands are aimed in their fundamental thrust at rolling back capitalist globalisation - back to the old paradigm of ‘national’ capitalism. This opportunist absorption of rightwing, national-reformist canards into its ‘internationalist’ programme is another example of the SWP’s opportunism.

It is of a piece with its support for a ‘no’ vote in the projected referendum on the euro in Britain, which again embodies an adaptation to forms of ‘working class’ nationalism (that are tinged with class sentiment, to be sure). Incapable of elaborating a way to separate the class sentiment from the nationalist expression of it, the SWP ends up adopting elements of reformist nationalism in its own programme.

Also it should be noted that in its logic this kind of national reformism contradicts the thrust of the most progressive demands in Callinicos’s ‘transitional programme’ - most notably the demand for the abolition of immigration controls. Reformist national governments implementing such policies as capital controls also tend to be hostile to the free movement of labour, as the history of British Labourism certainly shows.

All in all, this book epitomises the contradictory character of the SWP today: as an organisation that claims to represent ‘the revolutionary party’, yet which vacillates at different times between an abstract, revolutionary phraseology (even trying to outdo the anarchists in slogan-mongering and bravado, as with its ‘F**k capitalism’ bullshit - radicalism so daring it flinches from spelling out the word ‘fuck’) and opportunistic national reformism. All the time it seeks to keep the inherently incompatible political logic of these complementary deviations at bay by bureaucratic and sectarian means.

Thus, while this book contains some undeniably valuable arguments and explanations of Marxist concepts, overall the political perspective being advocated falls far short of what the anti-capitalist movement, and indeed the international labour movement, needs. That is, a perspective of open political struggle, freedom of criticism and unity in action, leading to the rebirth of a genuinely revolutionary democratic communism on an international scale.