New Nihilism

Italy’s Rifondazione Comunista (refounded Communist Party) are one of the most misunderstood political parties in Europe.

Born out of the splits in the old PCI in the early 1990’s, the foreign press frequently refer to them as ‘hard line communists’ or ‘old-style marxists’ simply because they rejected the transformation of the PCI into the broadly social-democratic Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left).

Yet Rifondazione are nothing of the sort. They have rejected most of the main tenents of old-style Marxism-Leninism. They don’t organise like a communist party and their world view is radically different from that of the stodgy dogmatists of the past.

However that hasn’t stopped them becoming a shining example to the stodgy dogmatists who dominate what remains of the British far left.

Almost all the sectarian groups involved in the Socialist Alliance regard Rifondazione as a role model for a future left organisation. The Italians’ rejection of Leninism and democratic-centralism give them an appeal to the flotsam and jetsam of disillusioned former members of Trotskyist groups that comprise the majority of individuals in the Socialist Alliance.

Even the Leninists of the Socialist Workers Party like Rifondazione because they are big, organise lots of demonstrations and are very active in the anti-globalisation movement.

So it is good that Rifondazione leader Fausto Bertinotti’s views have been given a wider audience in the UK today thanks to an opinion piece in the Guardian.

Good because it reveals that Bertinotti has no more clue about how to create a vibrant, democratic left than the rest of us. The article is, like much of Rifondazione’s political strategy, an alliance of contradiction with confusion.

Let’s put on one side Bertinotti’s view of the recent war and his attitude to the US. On these issues he is simply at one with the received wisdom of the anti-war movement. What is of greater interest are his ideas on how to construct a new left.

He says the anti-globalisation movement should be the basis of any project to challenge the hegemony of right-wing neo-liberal policies.

The only possibility in the face of rightwing extremism is to provide an alternative: of peace against war and of a new model of society against neo-liberalism. This does not mean either a detailed programme or unity among existing political forces. Nor does it mean defending democracy as it currently exists. Rather, it means starting from the main resource available, which is the movement against capitalist globalisation.

The anti-globalisation movement is the first movement that represents a break with the 20th century and its truths and myths. At present it is the main source of politics for an alternative to the global right. When, on February 15, 100 million people took to the streets, the New York Times referred to it as a second “world power”, a power that in the name of peace opposed those who wanted war.

It is no exaggeration to say that everything that has happened in the past few years has had something to do with this movement.

But that isan exaggeration. The anti-globalisation movement has no clear goals. It simply lacks political aims and objectives. It opposes globalisation but does not offer either a serious workable alternative way to conduct world trade nor does it strive to regulate or transform the processes within globalisation to benefit those who are currently left out of the benefits of the world economic system. It has achieved nothing.

Leaving aside the fact that the ‘movement’ is so broad that any sort of political programme would be impossible to even consider (put anarchists and French farmers in the same room and try and get a joint resolution!), Bertinotti specifically rejects any attempt at reformism.

His favourite slogan is that we live in an era of a ‘reformism that doesn’t reform”. It is a neat turn of phrase and it certainly captures the widely held view on the left that the main social-democratic parties have failed to carry forward radical agendas of social and economic reform.

But the problem is that Bertinotti is wrong in his understanding of why we have ‘reformism that doesn’t reform’:

Through globalisation, capitalism has won a historical battle: it has defeated the reform-minded left, both in Europe and America.” The consequences are there for everyone to see: reckless flexibility, extreme inequalities and the end of safety nets.

The demise of reformism has changed both analyses and prospects, bringing with it the difficulty of even achieving partial results that can be woven into the social fabric and provide cohesion. This is a problem even when there are major social and public-opinion movements.

In other words it is ‘globalisation’ that has defeated reformism. The result of this is that reformism is therefore impossible in a modern context.

Strangely, this view echoes that of the right-wing of social-democratic parties Bertinotti opposes – those who have accepted that the new global realities make any radical agenda impossible.

If we accept this then we might as well give up the whole idea of changing society in a progressive direction. Bertinotti’s rejection of reformism is thankfully done without the usual call for ‘revolution’ yet without the injection of any optimistic alternative, all that remains is nihilism.

At the very best all that we are offered is a better-organised defence of the post-war settlement.

Now there is the chance of re-opening a Europe-wide battle over the welfare state. In the face of converging government policies, only an organisation fighting at European level can make its case.

Unless they move in this direction, the European anti-capitalist leftwing parties risk disappearing in terms of political representation; and within the anti-globalisation movement there could develop a temptation to flee from politics. The forces of the European left cannot depend on social democracy. They must break away with a radical, united initiative. Not only the prospects of the left and the anti-globalisation movement, but even the existence of Europe as an autonomous entity, is at stake.

Reading between the lines (and you have to because Bertinotti is not explicit here), I think he is calling for the creation of a new party of the European left. It is an idea that has been floated for some time. But if it has rejected reformism and broken with social democracy what exactly will this new Euro anti-globalisation party be for?

It can be for nothing as long as it is under the mistaken view that globalisation has defeated reformism.

The reality is that the dominance of capitalism on a global scale, the power of insitutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and the influence of the US, has changed the rules and made things much tougher for reformists. But globalisation has not defeated reformism.

Admitteldy the battle to win progressive reforms on a national level is extremely difficult given the limited room for movement that government’s have. Difficult but not impossible. It is not the case that New Labour, the German SPD and other Third Way governments tried to reform but were stopped by an all-powerful global capitalism system.

The rather more mundane truth is that with a few honourable occassional exceptions, the Third Way left hasn’t even tried to test the limits of the new world order. They have simply gone along with it with varying degrees of success.

New Labour have managed to introduce some progressive change. The IMF did not plot the downfall of Tony Blair because of the introduction of a minimum wage or the various urban social programmes. The left wants to see more of this but its chances of making an impact will hardly be helped by adopting the view that there is no chance.

We are not therefore looking at a reformism that cannot reform, but a reformism that either has not tried hard enough or has moved in a direction that many on the far left do not feel comfortable with (another discussion in itself).

What globalisation surely does mean for the reforming left though is that it must find a way to operate more effectively and positively on an international basis. Denying that possibility exists hardly seems to be the best road forward.