The collapse of mainstream parties around the world is the most significant political development in decades. In this issue of Catalyst, we examine the two key issues linked to this phenomenon — the growth of an insurgent populism within the electoral arena, and the efforts to rekindle a workers’ movement outside of it.
Arthur Borriello and Anton Jäger offer a diagnosis of the conditions that gave rise to the populist turn in Europe, as well as an audit of what the parties attached to it are likely to achieve. They make a compelling argument that the new formations seeking to displace mainstream parties can offer only a partial break from the political culture that produced them, because they have neither the means nor a strategy for constructing an alternative economic model. On the other hand, there are signs that the rapid corrosion of their base is taking its toll on some of the traditional Left parties. In an update to his article on Germany cowritten with Oliver Nachtwey in our Winter 2019 issue, Loren Balhorn examines the recent party elections in the SPD, which seem to signal a turn to the left. The election of Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans to leadership is no doubt a rebuke by party members, but Balhorn cautions that the chances of any meaningful return to class politics are vanishingly small. The most likely outcome is a continuation of the party’s rightward lurch, but with a patina of class rhetoric to appease the rank and file.
For many on the Left, the long decline of social democracy and the precarious future of left populism only amplify the need to build a base within the working class. David Broder offers a cautionary tale of an earlier attempt by progressives to imbricate themselves within the labor movement in order to revitalize a moribund left culture. He revisits the Italian left during the period leading up to the 1968 upheavals and after, focusing on the emergence of “workerism,” or operaismo, a strategic view that elevated worker militancy and class mobilization.
Broder observes that, while the workerist trends within the Italian left were understandably frustrated by the conservatism of the Communist Party, their social distance from the class itself rapidly led to a political and strategic degeneration. Finding it increasingly difficult to drop an anchor within the labor movement, workerism split into ever-smaller sects and, as is often the case, tried to turn its weaknesses into a political principle. Within a few years, the earlier calls to undertake the long, hard road of class organizing were displaced by a blind faith in spontaneity, the iconography of violence, and, in the end, the elevation of intellectual activity itself as a substitute for class organizing. Broder ends his piece with a searing indictment of many of the current incarnations of workerism, which, if anything, are even more detached from labor, more immersed in language games, and more fixated on performance over organizing. Whatever the flaws of the traditional Left, they knew that the road to victory went through the working class, not around it.
Continuing with the question of strategy, Gary Mongiovi reviews Keynes Against Capitalism, the important recent book by James Crotty, which argues for the continuing relevance of the great economist John Maynard Keynes for the socialist left. Keynes is most commonly presented as the economist who saved capitalism through his prescriptions for managing the economy so as to blunt the force of economic crises. But Crotty makes the case that Keynes was much more radical than this view makes him out to be, and, in fact, that he argued for a substantial socialization of private investment. Mongiovi puts this view to the test, and while he raises some doubts about Crotty’s case for a socialist Keynes, he registers his agreement with Crotty that Keynes has much to offer for a radical economic strategy.
Finally, Vanessa Chishti presents a brief but compelling analytical history of the tragedy unfolding in Kashmir. One of the longest and most brutal military occupations in the world today, the Indian presence in Kashmir is also one of the least known in the Western world. With over half a million troops now permanently stationed in the state, sucking up a substantial part of Kashmir’s resources, and denying basic freedoms on a daily basis, the occupation proceeds with barely a mention in the Western press. Chishti presents a synoptic view of the Kashmiri struggle, starting from the early twentieth century and continuing to recent months, highlighting Delhi’s duplicity from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, as well as the vicissitudes of the struggle for autonomy.