SWP opposition: Seymour in Greece
He may have been propelled to the vanguard of the SWP opposition - but it is not immediately clear what Richard Seymours politics actually are. Paul Demarty looks for clues
The Socialist Workers Party’s latest Party Notes is punchier than normal. It has always been a factional weapon of the central committee, of course, but now that august body has an excuse, to paraphrase Game of thrones, to stick someone with the pointy end.
“Some [members] are seeking to overturn important parts of what we stand for - and the politics we reaffirmed at conference,” the anonymous authors mutter darkly. “There are some people who want to replace a Marxist analysis of women’s liberation with one centred on patriarchy theory. Others believe that changes in capitalism have altered the structure of the working class so fundamentally that it is no longer the key element in the battle for socialism.” Crikey.
Who are these nefarious heretics? The latter may be Neil Davidson, whose arguments, however, are caricatured here in the extreme. We (might) know this not because Party Notes is so vulgar as to name its opponents, but because Richard Seymour raises the idea on the SWP opposition’s semi-official blog. As for the patriarchy business, the culpability, alas, lies closer to home for comrade Seymour - it “probably refers to my blog on ‘patriarchy and the capitalist state’, where I tentatively suggest that a greatly revised and historically delimited concept of patriarchy might have some use to Marxist analysis.”1
We may take the comrade’s protestation at the implied charge of ‘creeping feminism’ at face value. This minor eddy in the great torrent of slander - most of it unofficial, unwritten and thus conveniently irrefutable - directed by the CC against its wayward charges, does, however, raise an interesting question. There is no denying that - by accident or design - comrade Seymour has ended up as one of the core leaders of the SWP opposition. He took the lead in openly criticising the CC, and gave up his blog to those who wanted to do the same; he has responded to every sally from party centre almost before each has landed.
Yet what has not come through is what the comrade actually thinks outside the parameters of this discussion. It is no minor matter, since the more successful the SWP opposition actually is, the more significant become the individuals who have driven it onwards, and what future they envisage for their embattled organisation.
That article on patriarchy, as it happens, is a good place to start. In spinning his theory, Seymour makes plenty of references to Bob Jessop, a political theorist of the late 1970s and 80s of a broadly Eurocommunist character. More significantly is the debt he bears - shared despite a relatively modest single reference in this particular article - to Nicos Poulantzas.
With a few telling exceptions, most of the writing Seymour has put out in the last year or so - on the blog, in his Guardian column and so on - has worn its Poulantzianism pretty obviously. Understanding where he is coming from means understanding Poulantzas.
So who was he? Poulantzas was a Greek Marxist theorist; having moved to France in the 1950s, he took up with the then highly influential current of ‘existentialist Marxism’. He wrote for Les Temps Modernes, the journal of Jean-Paul Sartre and his circle. Then, in the late 1960s, something happened - to him and many other young, radicalising Marxists of his generation. He came across Louis Althusser. Approving reviews of Pour Marx and Lire le Capital followed, and before long Poulantzas’s exile from the Sartre circle.
Sartre’s intellectual star was on the wane, and Althusser’s - at that time - was going pretty stratospheric, in Francophone and Anglophone Marxism. Poulantzas’s role in this process is fairly substantial. The reason is simple - Althusser’s immediate circle was focused by what are properly called the humanities. Philosophy played a special role, but his followers also addressed literary theory (Pierre Macherey), linguistics (Michel Pêcheux) and similar fields.
To this, Poulantzas added something indispensable: an Althusserian theory of politics and the state. Moreover, he accomplished this with, as Althusserians like to say, a ‘detour’ via Antonio Gramsci. His theory can be summarised - extremely crudely - as follows.2
Poulantzas opposes, fundamentally, ‘instrumentalist’ conceptions of the state. The pertinent example, here, would be the view of a ‘naive’ Marxist - the state is a weapon of class domination. It is wielded by the ruling class against the exploited, rather in the manner that a gun is wielded by a highwayman (or Party Notes is wielded by the CC). For Poulantzas - in true Althusserian fashion - the state is a condensed complex of social relationships; its ‘function’ is rather to ensure the continuation of a particular structure of class power.
It can do this, partly, the ‘old-fashioned way’ - via the violent action of the repressive state apparatus. It can also, however, build hegemony, organising an alliance of classes and class fractions into a ruling bloc. Here we meet a crucial distinction, between the ruling and the dominant class. The dominant class is the one whose superior position is most fundamentally at issue in the exercise of political power - the bourgeoisie in 20th century Europe. The task of administrating the state, of forming governments, however, may be assigned to another class in the ruling bloc. A clear example - developed in a very interesting book3 - is the emergence of the petty bourgeoisie as a ruling class in the fascist regimes.
What does all this have to do with the price of eggs? The prominence of Gramsci notwithstanding, the strengths and weaknesses of this approach (which Seymour follows quite closely) are those of Althusser’s project as a whole. Althusserian Marxism is a Marxism of the moment - the singular situation, the ‘conjuncture’, in all its complexity. If your aim is to unpick a particular structure of class power in punishing, pedantic detail, Poulantzas is - as they say - ‘good to think with’. His theory demands detailed examination, and abhors ‘airy generalities’. It tells us one or two things about, to take a very immediate example, the difficulties in contemporary Toryism over the question of gay marriage - since, as I have argued many times in this paper, at stake is fundamentally the consent of the petty bourgeoisie to the current regime.
This comes with certain dangers, however. It is no accident that Bob Jessop ended up a Eurocommunist. After all, so did Poulantzas (albeit of a less theoretically moribund type than the average). This is not an inevitable political conclusion. Yet the concept of the ruling bloc invites us at least to consider a bloc of the oppressed as a counter-concept, as opposed to a strict ‘class struggle’ politics; a Poulantzian theory of the capitalist state’s relationship to patriarchy does not come complete, on its own, with a guarantee that the word ‘capitalist’ has any relevance in this connection.
And, moreover, it is impossible to justify the ‘automatic’ relevance of class and class struggle on the basis of the ‘concrete analysis of the concrete conjuncture’, the classic Althusserian ‘single moment’. There is no guarantee - without falling into the purported sin of ‘historicism’ - on the basis of the current conjuncture that the next one will be similar, in this respect or any other (it is striking that the jargon of Eurocommunism - ‘new times’, ‘post-Fordism’, ‘postmodernity’ - is primarily a rhetoric of novelty). Rather, this has to do with the underlying, long-term dynamics of historical change, measured in centuries rather than years or decades. On this theoretical problem, the best that can be said of Althusserianism so far (Poulantzas included) is that its Hegelian opponents have scarcely done any better.
This theoretical grounding is reflected in the one directly political issue out of which Seymour has spun criticisms of the SWP up to now - the politics of Greece. Poulantzas, in fact, ended up in the KKE(I), or Communist Party of Greece (Interior), the Eurocommunist wing of Greek ‘official communism’, until his suicide in 1979.
In a certain sense, so has Seymour. After all, the most obvious inheritor to the KKE(I) is the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), and most especially its ‘ruling bloc’, Synaspismos. Syriza caused all manner of excitement on the European left when its vote quadrupled almost overnight; the strong second-place showings have cemented that international profile.
The SWP is not joining in. The official reason is that Syriza is ‘left reformist’; surely the real reason, however, is that its Greek co-thinkers are - for now - backing Antarsya, a ‘rival’ (not much of a rival these days) coalition of left fragments, with a radical youth split from the official KKE at its core.
In a rare display of public debate, comrade Seymour was granted access to the pages of International Socialism, the SWP’s theoretical journal, to oppose this line (having made cryptic suggestions in this direction on his blog).4 It has to be said that he does a fairly good job of taking the majority’s line apart, as far as it goes. It is a job for which his Poulantzian theoretical formation is well suited - if ever there was a ‘singular essence’ in history, it was Syriza, a product of the mind-bogglingly complicated dance between different fragments of Greek ‘official communism’, propelled upwards on the storm-winds of economic and political crisis.
Yet he also makes a telling argument:
“The key problem posed by this conjuncture is how we can, as Stathis Kouvelakis put it, articulate a series of ‘workable intermediate objectives’ between reformist minimum programmes and revolutionary maximalism. This journal’s debate on ‘transitional programmes’ represents one possible attempt to square the circle. However, no-one on the left has as yet alighted on a coherent solution. In practice, we are all pursuing ‘left reformist’ agendas, in the hope that the ensuing class struggles and crises will provide the means (popular self-organisation, workers’ rebellion) to turn them into tools for transition … In this context, I think that Syriza’s attempt to answer the question by proposing a united government of the left is a valuable step in a pedagogical process.”
It should be clear that, here, Seymour is stating the operative political method of the SWP in almost admirably unadorned form. It is less clear what the flaw in his cunning plan is, so let us ask: why did Syriza have to come out of nowhere? It is, after all, an organisation with an older pedigree than all that.
In fact, Synaspismos, before it started leading coalitions, was a coalition itself. It united the two main factions of the KKE, on the occasion of … entering into government as a minority partner in the early 90s. The oblivion from which Alexis Tsipras and co emerged last year was one to which they consigned themselves by going into government. Far from encouraging protest and new organs of popular power, this folly destroyed the Greek left; just as surely would Syriza be destroyed were it to win an election today.
In addition to its de facto ‘left reformism’, then, what other debts does Seymour owe his organisation? In this particular connection, we would have to add its short memory. Yet he has arrived at this point relatively independently of the International Socialist tradition. He is not condemned to live or die by Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism; or the idea of the permanent arms economy as an explanation for the post-war boom.
And in sitting slightly askew to the dominant intellectual trends of the SWP - such as they are - Seymour, quite apart from his ‘party patriotism’ and very obviously passionate commitment to saving his organisation, has a more straightforward personal interest in driving forward the group’s democratisation. He has things to say, and needs a party regime which is not under the tyranny of a priestly caste in order to say them (apart from in incidental face-offs like the debate in ISJ, or gnomic contributions to Lenin’s Tomb).
Seymour is a perfect representative of the SWP opposition, above all because he sees plenty of the wrong turnings that left his organisation on the road to Comrade Delta. He also exemplifies how much the dissident comrades need to rethink the tradition they inherit. The will is there; we shall see if he delivers in the end.
2. The relevant texts, criminally, are entirely out of print so far as I know; in any case, see Political power and social classes (trans: T O’Hagan; London 1973) for the clearest statement of his most influential theses.
3. N Poulantzas Fascism and dictatorship (trans: J White) London 1974.