Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Italy: Clark Kent screws up again


Does this news report seem familiar? It should do, if you're a Kiwi and a lefty like me. Italy's Refoundation Communist Party is being torn apart by the same issue that destroyed New Zealand's Alliance Party in 2001 - the war in Afghanistan.

Like the Alliance, the PRC is a coalition of social democrats and anti-capitalists led by a charismatic politician far to the right of his grassroots supporters. After entering a government dedicated to defending the interests of Italian capitalism and to strengthening of the European Union and NATO, the PRC has been faced with a choice between giving up the perks of power, on the one hand, and voting for the deployment of more Italian troops to Afghanistan and the expansion of a US military base in Italy, on the other. No prizes for guessing which option the party leadership has taken. After a massive protest against the base expansion last week, one PRC senator broke with party discipline and voted against the centre-left coalition government, prompting Prime Minister Prodi's resignation and all sorts of threats from the PRC leadership.

Along with the Respect Party in England and the Scottish Socialist Party, the PRC has sometimes been held up as an example of the 'parties of a new type' which supposedly offer a way forward for Kiwi socialists looking to (re)build a left alternative to Labour. Revolutionary socialists have played a key role in building Respect, the SSP, and the PRC, but most of them have avoided promoting revolutionary politics inside the new parties. Fearing that calls for the abolition of capitalism and arguments for the superiority of socialism would frighten away potential members, they have been focused almost exclusively on campaigning around 'bread and butter' issues like better wages and housing and more money for services like health and education. The 'parties of a new type' have focused on contesting elections, and given potential voters the impression that the route to change can come through parliament rather than through revolution on the streets and in the workplace.

The revolutionaries in 'parties of a new type' sometimes talk amongst themselves about a 'Clark Kent strategy'. While the party is gathering support, and the climate of public opinion is unsympathetic to socialism, these cunning folk will present themselves as nothing more than nice respectable social democrats. When the time is ripe, they will rip off this disguise and reveal themselves as revolutionary 'super-(wo)men' dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.

Kiwi lefties with long memories will know that the New Labour Party founded here in 1989 was an example of a 'party of the new type'. Some of its most influential members were 'Clark Kent' Marxists. The Greens and - in the 1970s and '80s - the Labour Party have also attracted their share of Clark Kents. Like their counterparts in today's PRC, these undercover revolutionaries often decided to make their disguise permanent. One-time radicals like Matt Robson, Keith Locke, Sue Bradford, Marian Hobbs, and Metiria Turei have all become respectable MPs happy to serve the interests of New Zealand capital and US imperialism (Robson and Hobbs backed the invasion of Afghanistan; Locke and Turei are vocal defenders of the neo-colonial occupations that are killing East Timorese and Solomon Islanders and defending Australian and American investments).

Some critics of the 'parties of a new type' make the mistake of promoting an isolationist strategy for the anti-capitalist left as an alternative. They say that no pro-capitalist party should ever be supported in any way, and that even trade unions have to be viewed with suspicion, because of their close links with organisations like the Labour Party.

But there's a middle way between the extremes of selling out, on the one hand, and isolationism, on the other. Anti-capitalists have to accept that the vast majority of the people we want to win over have a belief in some sort of reformist, social democratic politics, which they see as, at the very least, a 'lesser evil' compared to the savage neo-liberal economics and craven pro-US foreign policies promoted by the parties of the right.

Workers in Italy voted a centre-left government into power because they hated and feared Berlusconi; workers in New Zealand have continued to vote Labour because they fear the damage the likes of Don Brash and Bill English could do. The Alliance would have been destroyed by its supporters if it had left National in power in 1999; the PRC would have disintegrated if it had refused to use its MPs to dispose of Berlusconi's government last year.

But there is no reason why either the Alliance or the PRC should have had to go into a government in which they were doomed to be an impotent minority. The Alliance could have pledged to support Labour on votes of confidence and supply, and thus get rid of the hated Nats, and yet refuse to enter Clark's Cabinet. Instead of trying to extract one or two favours in Beehive backrooms, the party could have campaigned on the streets and in worksites to try to pressure the government into adopting more progressive policies. The party might have lost some support in the short-term by refusing to join the Clark government in 1999, but it would have gained support in the long-term, as disillusionment with Clark kicked in amongst core Labour supporters.

Outside of government, the Alliance could have played a role in opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and the beginning of Bush's worldwide 'War of Terror', instead of becoming one of the casualties of this war. The Alliance could have become a vehicle for the massive movement against Labour's racist seabed and foreshore legislation in 2004, and it could have become a powerful advocate for a Kiwi trade union movement which is becoming stronger and more militant after the nadir of the 1990s.

What stopped the Alliance making the right choice and keeping its MPs' bums off Cabinet seats? By 1999, the argument against participation in a Labour government did not stand any chance of winning mass support in the Alliance. In the decade since the foundation of New Labour, the 'Clark Kents' in the party had done a very good job of avoiding debate on the pros and cons of support for capitalist governments, and on the possibilities and limitations of a strategy of reforming capitalism through parliament.

Groups and individuals who argued that tinkering with capitalism around a Cabinet table was no good, and that the overthrow of the whole system was necessary, were purged at the beginning of the nineties, and the tens of thousands of members who flocked to the Alliance in the middle of the decade were assured that a government with Jim Anderton in it could solve all their problems. The Clark Kents who acted as enforcers for Anderton liked to ridicule members who openly argued for socialism and revolution as 'loony leftists' whose policies could only lead the party to electoral disaster and a marginal place in New Zealand politics. It was the Clark Kents, though, who led the Alliance into government with Labour and oversaw its demise as a serious electoral force.

The lesson of the demise of the Alliance, and of the coming demise of the PRC, is that anti-capitalist organisations must make it a point of principle never to sit around the Cabinet tables of capitalist governments. Activists involved in attempts to resusitate the Alliance, or to build a new party around the Workers Charter newspaper, must make sure this lesson is remembered.

Footnote: if anybody wants to know why the US-NATO occupation of Afghanistan should be opposed by the left, they could do worse than check out this new post by Jeff Sparrow over at the leftwrites blog.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Nick said...

As an SSP activist I don't recognise your description of 'clark kent socialists'. The SSP is clear in it's refusal to serve in a capitalist government and issues of how bring about the transition to socialism are widely debated. I don't see a problem with a focus on bread and butter issues - these are the issues that motivate people to become active, though it is true that there is a tension in the party between focus on parliamentary bills and on grassroots activism although most of the time we manage to combine the two creatively. The PRC and Respect are both very different individual cases - respect is more or less a single issue group aimed at recruiting from the anti-war movement whereas the PRC despite having a strong revolutionary minority has always carried a lot of euro-communist baggage.

2:29 am  
Blogger maps said...

I'm sure there are some great people in the SSP, and it definitely has a much healthier internal culture than the New Labour Party/Alliance, but are you so sure about the leadership being disinclined to join a capitalist government?

A couple of years ago Colin Fox MSP popped over to NZ for a visit organised by the remnants of the Alliance (remnants which have, to their credit, moved a long way left since the events of 2001-2002).

At a public meeting Fox pooh poohed the idea of revolutionary socialism, saying it was hopelessly outdated, and claimed that in the 21st century change could come through parliament. He specificially picked out Trotsky and Lenin for ridicule.

My understanding is that the SSP have pretty close links with the Scottish Nationalists, and have been talking about forming a government with them in order to bring about Scottish independence, as the first stage in the trek toward socialism. Is this correct, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

3:14 am  
Anonymous Nick said...

The idea of a coalition with the Nats has been specifically ruled out by the SSP repeatedly and there is no support for such a move amongst the 'leadership' or the vast bulk of the membership. There has been some debate about how we should relate to other pro-independence forces but a governemntal coalition has never been seriously put forward (the Nats in fact would be equally reluctant as they're desperately trying to prove their 'responsibility' to big business). I'm not suggesting for a second that their is no danger of the SSP moving in a parliamentary reformist direction and Colin may well have put forward such arguments at the Alliance meeting, however the bulk of the active membership are critically aware of this danger, and particularly since summer's nasty split always looking for new ways to ensure we hold true to our class struggle basis.

3:47 am  
Blogger maps said...

Sounds good...

3:56 am  
Blogger maps said...

Talking of redrawing the map of Britain, here's something completely daft:
http://strangemaps.wordpress.com/2006/11/14/32-britain-usa/#more-82

4:01 am  
Anonymous AN said...

The comparison between the SSP and PRC doesn't really fit.

The PRC included a very large component from the former PCI, and they are more closely akin to the German PDS. Specifically both the PDS and PRC are members/affilates of the "Party of the European left", who are broadly sympathetic, and always have been, to entry into coalitions.

That is not to say that the PRC and PDS do not have a potential role in left regroupment, but you need ot understand where they are coming from.

The other issue is that there was an overwhellming urge for unity to get rid of Berlusconi, and far left friends of mine in PRC were prepared for the PRC to enter the Olice Tree coalition for that reason, so i think the support for the PRC leadership's position was very wide within the party.

With regard to the question of revolution I dont know what Colin precisely said in NZ, but it is of course true we will never see a revolution on the Russian model again, and some comrades do stupidly adopt a cargo cult attitude to the Bolsheviks and their experience.

The SSP is not a reformist party, nor a revolutionary party, it is a socialist party.

7:27 am  
Blogger Alex said...

Franco Turigliatto, the PRC senator who refused to vote for the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, has been threatened with expulsion. You can read a call for solidarity with him here

12:20 am  
Blogger AN said...

I deal with tis issue at a bit more length here:;
http://socialistunity.blogspot.com/2007/03/left-unity-at-crossroads.html

12:10 pm  
Blogger cbmilne33 said...

Wednesday/16 May/2007.Sender:Colin Bruce Milne.Te Awamutu.Waikato.3800.New Zealand.Dear Comrades/Citizens,Could You Please Join Us In the Alliance Party Of NZ?Yours Fraternally,C.Bruce Milne.C.B.Milne.

12:16 am  

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