Bringing the class back in(to what?): A response to F. Poenaru

01. 03. 2014

Only two things are certain: First, that if we fail to intervene, participate and attempt to shape these inchoate upheavals the Left will doom itself to even further irrelevance. Second, that no amount of ‘bringing the class back in’ will offer us a short cut to the complexities and wagers that are the lot of political struggle.

In his recent analysis of events in Ukraine, Florin Poenaru raises several points whose relevance goes well beyond the specific situation in that country. They speak to important problems that concern the (re-)building of the revolutionary Left in post-socialist Eastern Europe more broadly. This piece responds to some of these points in an effort to contribute to a wider political discussion on the strategies and analysis of the Left today.

The central argument here concerns Florin’s call for Leftists working in and on Eastern Europe to ‘bring class back’ when assessing the politics of mass movements. He makes this plea in light of Leftist support for the Euromaidan movement; a support, he argues, which was ‘theoretically weak and politically reactionary.’ By foregrounding class politics, Florin believes that the Left can avoid such mistakes in the future.

However, before moving onto my response to this argument I want to first address some points of concern in his representation and analysis of the recent upheavals in Ukraine.

Florin’s piece explicitly rejects the description of the recent events in Ukraine as a ‘revolution’, preferring, along with Stephen Cohen, the term ‘coup’:

‘[Yanukovich] was deposed not as a result of a popular uprising but following backdoor machinations and hidden politicking. The Ukrainian people in general and those protesting in Maidan for weeks were excluded from the wheeling and dealing, even though they were the first to take the bullet of the President’s thuggish way of dealing with protests. Therefore, events in Ukraine largely resemble a coup d’etat and not a democratic or socialist revolution.’

However critical we might be of the ‘democratic’ qualities of the upheaval over the past months – and there is a lot of which we should be wary – it seems churlish to reduce the final outcome to ‘backdoor machinations and hidden politicking.’

Florin’s account erases the real impact that Maidan had on the political status quo in Ukraine. The masses of people that braved subzero temperatures and police violence for months appear in his account as mere victims; first of Yanukovich’s ‘thuggish’ repression, second of the machinations of cunning politicians. Either bodies bleeding in the streets, or the passive puppets of conniving oligarchs. Never as empowered subjects. Such an account flies in the face of all that we have witnessed since November 2013.

Unquestionably it was the sustained pressure placed on Yanukovich’s government by tens of thousands of committed Ukrainian citizens occupying Kiev that forced the regime to make several strategic errors. First, the various brutal attempts of the government to disperse the crowds occupying Maidan using riot police were failures and succeeded in only further galvanizing and emboldening the protests. Second, the introduction of draconian protest laws (shamefully passed with the votes of the Ukrainian Communist Party) served to broaden the ranks of the protests, politicizing still further layers of ordinary Ukrainians. Finally, the attempts to pacify the protests by the resignation of Prime Minister Azarov and the repeal of the anti-protest laws, revealed to the world the fracturing of the government’s political will.

None of these key victories in the struggle can be chalked up to back room deals amongst politicians. They were the outcome of a real struggle initiated and pursued by tens of thousands of ordinary Ukrainians.

The movement’s victories engendered the political crisis of the Yanukovich regime, leading to defections within the Party of Regions – most notably Kiev’s mayor Volodymyr Makeyenko – which in turn opened up a space for the opposition to renegotiate a new power-sharing arrangement.  Importantly, this deal had to be taken to and agreed on by the representatives of Maidan precisely because the opposition recognized their lack of total authority over the movement. As one activist-security guard reportedly warned a triumphant Tymoshenko: “Yulia Vladimirovna, remember who made this revolution.”

Throughout this uprising, established political organizations have tried, and for the time being more or less succeeded, in presenting themselves as the voice of this movement, channeling it into their own priorities. However, they have only been able to seize power by riding the wave of mass opposition and exploiting the political crisis engendered by Maidan. Their authority did not lie in the power of the military, as Sisi’s does in Egypt, but rather in their unstable and politically dubious but nonetheless real connections with the movement in the streets. To describe this as a ‘coup’ is both erroneous and puts the Left in some very distasteful alliances; alliances which only serve to buttress the anti-leftist rhetoric of the far right.

Far from a ‘coup’ the events in Ukraine resemble a replay of the Orange Revolution of 2004, with the crucial difference that the mainstream opposition parties hold far less authority with the people in the streets today than they did a decade ago. The weakness of their authority will open real spaces in which the Ukrainian Left can grow, but only if that Left places itself alongside the masses of politically active Ukrainians taking to the streets to struggle for a better life.

But it is the main thesis of Florin’s piece that I think is most relevant to the Left in post-socialist Eastern Europe today; that is, his call for us to ‘bring class back in’ to our analysis and assessment of movements today. Florin asks us to break with the ‘ideological mystifications’ that led many on the Left to ‘fetishize the mere presence of people in the streets’. In place of such naive and disoriented enthusiasm we should instead prioritize an intellectual framework based on class politics, which would help us to assess ‘the very social basis and political aims of mass gatherings.’

Class here functions as a kind of guiding tool for an analysis of the ‘real’ meaning of a protest, a barometer for measuring the political trajectory of an event. Florin’s call for East European Leftists to ‘bring class back in’ is an important one, but his use of the term strays dangerously close to replaying the mistakes of economism and risks reducing the term to a category of sociological analysis that flattens out and narrows wider discussions of political strategy.

The biggest problem with Florin’s call is the simple fact that class no longer carries with it the same political legitimacy today as it did half a century ago, especially in Eastern Europe. The collapse of state-socialism and the subsequent onslaught of ‘transition’ reforms not only had the effect of decimating large scale industries across Eastern Europe, they also led to the decomposition of the working class as both a community of real individuals and a political subject. Indeed, we could argue that the latter was already under crisis following the failure of reform movements of the late 1960s (with the possible exceptions of Poland and Yugoslavia where working class movements continued to play key roles in leading mass opposition to the state well into the 1980s).

The decay of this political subject led to the flowering of new poles of authority, new discourses of political legitimacy: the nation, ‘Europe’, the ‘citizens’, or appeals to European legal norms or to human rights. Workers continued to be active as individuals, but their subjectivity came to be determined primarily by these new discursive fields, and therefore their structural power remains unrealized. Speaking of the social composition of Euromaidan one of Ukraine’s revolutionary syndicalists argued that ‘it’s doubtless that the protest has become more “proletarian” – although the share of workers is still low, and when they are present, they are there as “Ukrainians” or “citizens” but not as “workers”.’

The decomposition of the working class – both as a political subject and a real social class – confronts the Left of Eastern Europe with a monumental task: the resurrection of this central revolutionary subject. And yet, in a period in which unemployment has reached staggering proportions, salaries and pensions go unpaid, and workers are as likely to demand the privatization of their workplaces as they are to oppose it, how can this rebirth come about? Where is the class that we need to ‘bring back in’? And into what are we to bring it?

At the moment it seems clear that the key political conjunctures of the region emerge around questions of poor political governance: corruption, illegal or ‘incorrect’ privatizations, nepotism, links to organized crime, etc. It is particularly telling that the largest protest movements since the onset of economic crisis in 2008/2009 have centered on the policies of specific governments, rather than either more global political and economic forces (the EU, IMF, the US or Russia) or local economic actors (businessmen, tycoons, oligarchs). A deep reservoir of anti-political contempt for the ruling political class has been behind protests that broke the backs of the Jansa government in Slovenia and the Borisov government in Bulgaria, despite the fact that both protests initially emerged from deeper social issues. In Ukraine the Euromaidan quickly transformed from a protest around Yanukovich’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement to a general call for his resignation, a demand that resonated with a wider layer of people fed up with his authoritarian rule. Even in Bosnia, where we have witnessed the most articulate form of working class politics in the region, the targets of the protests have been the local political class.

In part owing to the disorienting dissolution of political discourse during the period of ‘transition’, these protests have been heterogeneous and even contradictory in their ideologies, strategies and demands. In their ranks we can see independent trade unionists marching alongside hardened nationalists demanding the repression of ethnic or religious minorities, proselytizers of European integration calling on their ‘European’ people to protest for ‘European reforms’, and NGOs evoking the language of human rights. Middle class elites, working class youth, disgruntled pensioners, radical students and petit bourgeois nationalists: all participate in these diverse movements. Far from representing any clear balance of class forces, what we are increasingly witnessing today in Eastern Europe is a series of confrontations between a corrupt and self-serving political class and an inchoate and contradictory civil society.

These political conjunctures contain the potential openings for revolutionary leftist politics, but our capacity to exploit these openings will turn on our developing a more nuanced vision of political strategy, and breaking with the hope that one day a ‘pure’ class struggle will emerge. Lenin’s argument regarding the impossibility of such a ‘pure’ social revolution is particularly relevant to our current moment:

‘The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it—without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible—and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately “purge” itself of petty-bourgeois slag.’

I quote this passage fully aware of its dissonance in today’s ears – especially with regards to events in Ukraine. Not only does such language of historical ‘objectivity’ sound anachronistic, but the optimism, the revolutionary vision and even confident arrogance of the speaker appear as an irresponsible luxury, a fantasy that we can ill afford, bunkered down as we are in these embattled positions.

However, what I want to highlight with this quote is Lenin’s sense of the plurality of any genuine mass revolutionary movement; the fact that it will not lend itself to a simple assessment of and reduction to some kind of essential ‘social basis’ but will be instead a site of contestation and contradiction. The curse of the current generation of Eastern European leftists (but not only them) is precisely the lack of the ‘class-conscious vanguard’; the central character of this historical drama has failed to appear. In its absence many of the current political confrontations in the region have displayed a comprehensive exhibition of the ‘prejudices’, ‘reactionary fantasies’, ‘weaknesses’ and ‘errors’ of post-socialist society – nowhere more so than in Ukraine.

However, it is precisely within these movements that new social antagonisms are being realized, new demands and discourses articulated and new political subjectivities forged. And the truth is that these phenomena do not stop at the factory door or the office lobby; they contribute to the formation, revival or further decomposition of class politics.

Who five years ago could have predicted that a dispute regarding the distribution of citizen ID numbers to new born children was a salient concern for the working class? It certainly did little to address the key dynamics of the post-socialist transition as they effected working people – privatization, the dismantling of the welfare state, austerity. And yet, amidst the wave of workers’ protests engulfing Bosnia today, we can clearly see how the ‘bebolucija’ of June 2013 was a key moment in tracing a new socio-political antagonism that cut through the language of nationalism inscribed in the Dayton state and paved the way for the kind of political cooperation amongst Croat, Serb and Bosniak workers today. What appeared as a ‘liberal’ conflict regarding the appropriate functioning of a democratic state, in fact had important repercussions for shaping the political horizon of the current workers’ revolts.

‘The class’ is not formed in a political vacuum.

A revolutionary working class movement in Eastern Europe today will not suddenly emerge from outside of the current political struggles. And if we stand on the sidelines of these contemporary struggles, quietly waiting for them to condense into the ‘pure’ forms of class conflict we recognize from our ABC of Marxism, we will doom ourselves to an even greater insignificance.

In the current struggles between a corrupt and discredited political class and an inchoate and inarticulate civil society there are important seeds of class revolt (even in Maidan!). The task of the Left is to organize and throw itself into these struggles, to identify those moments of class conflict, those points at which the structures of the system come into question and to amplify their contradictions, sharpen their antagonisms.

The seeds of class revolt are dispersed across a wide array of political possibilities contained within these movements. And these possibilities cannot be disclosed in advance. Florin’s suggestion that we might ‘bring class back’ to help us assess ‘the very social basis and political aims of mass gatherings’ will do little to orient us in these chaotic times. Rather, the only way forward lies in an organized and strategic intervention within these movements, to struggle for the realization of their more radical and emancipatory possibilities.

To be sure, these possibilities will be contested, and the Left will be fighting for an audience amongst nationalists of all stripes, Europhiles and liberals. And we are at a huge disadvantage. But our ability to shape these movements, to ‘bring back’ a revolutionary language of class, will turn on our capacity to strategically intervene in an organized way and to try to pull these movements into a more progressive direction.

It was clear from the beginning that the Euromaidan movement would pose an enormous challenge to the Ukrainian Left. The EU Association Agreement was a blatant and cynical attempt to pull Ukraine into the political and economic periphery of Europe, while guaranteeing ordinary working Ukrainians nothing; the idealism of ‘Europe’ that echoed through the streets of Kiev could not but seem like a sick joke in the shadow of today’s Greece; and the vocal presence of well-organized right wing groups like Svoboda made the movement distasteful to many (and not just on the Left).

As the movement advanced things became more complicated. As the protesters shifted their focus on to the wider problem of authoritarianism and state repression, the question of ‘Europe’ faded into the background and the ranks of the movement widened to include broader swathes of Ukrainian civil society. At the same time, this opened the space for the far right to grow. Its victories, however, were tied to the group’s central role in confronting the police, providing defensive infrastructure for the encampment and a point of leadership, particularly after the events of 19 January. Once their power was established, they were easily able to protect their hegemony from any possible Leftist interventions, beating trade unionists, breaking up anarchist meetings and destroying leftist propaganda material.

But it is important to recognize that the victories of the far right were not predetermined by some kind of inherent social basis of the movement. Their hegemony stemmed from two key factors, which the Left will need to engage with if it is to target the roots of fascist growth.

First, to a large degree the right’s authority lay in their important strategic interventions within the movement, including the vanguard role they played in confronting the police and protecting the Maidan from attacks. This was a question of political strategy and the Left were outmaneuvered, outflanked.

Second, the legitimacy of nationalist discourse in Ukraine make the politics of the right more accepted than they might be elsewhere. Remarking on the dominance of nationalism in Ukraine,Ilya Budraitskis has pointed out that:

‘[Nationalism is] bound up with the way that Ukraine was founded as an independent nation – through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That’s why nationalism is such a popular ideological persuasion. The mentality is like that of a former colony. Most Ukrainians think that the most important thing is not to be dominated by a foreign power.’

To a large extent, then, the favorable climate for far right nationalism lies in the history of Russian imperialism and the role of Ukrainian nationalism as a discourse of resistance. Any struggle against the far right must necessarily, then, engage seriously with the Ukrainian national question.

Florin’s focus on class, however, at times seems almost precisely designed to pull us away from addressing these questions. His argument that Yankovich’s presidency ‘represented, at least minimally, concrete interests of a large section of the Ukrainian post-communist working class’ neglects to mention that this base of support was largely amongst the Russian-speaking working class of the south and east. In other words, class here serves to bracket a whole set of political questions that are key to understanding how the far right have been able to grow.

Even if we are to ‘bring class back in’ it must necessarily enter as refracted through the prism of the national question and the politics of Russian imperial rule. The revolutionary Left have a long legacy of anti-imperialist resistance, and any project to revive the language of socialism will surely need to draw on that rich legacy. But aligning ourselves (however obliquely) with a president, seen by many to be pulling Ukraine closer to the Russian sphere of influence, will only further discredit the Left and strengthen the position of the far right.

There are very real questions that emerge in the wake of the events in Ukraine concerning the urgency of organizing common Leftist interventions, our capacity to challenge the growth of right wing militancy, learning how to organize and strategize in these contradictory movements, knowing when we have lost the struggle and what to do with that realization.

These are real and messy questions that require subtle assessments best provided by activists fully immersed in the struggles on the ground. But our success is going to depend on taking seriously the possibilities of these new and inchoate forms of struggles erupting across the region. In our interventions, we are going to have to make wagers; sometimes they will come to naught, sometimes we will be beaten back and sometimes we might even find ourselves in the den of our worst enemies.

Only two things are certain: First, that if we fail to intervene, participate and attempt to shape these inchoate upheavals the Left will doom itself to even further irrelevance. Second, that no amount of ‘bringing the class back in’ will offer us a short cut to the complexities and wagers that are the lot of political struggle.