“Fighting instead of managing capitalism”: An interview with Sascha Staničić
Platypus Review 102 | December 2017 – January 2018
On May 11, 2017, Stefan Hain and Sebastian Vogel of the Platypus Affiliated Society conducted an interview with Sascha Staničić of the Sozialistische Alternative [SAV] and author of Anti-Sarrazin: Argumente Gegen Rassismus, Islamfeindlichkeit und Sozialdarwinismus (2011). What follows is a translation of the edited transcript of their conversation as published in the sixth issue of Die Platypus Review.
Stefan Hain and Sebastian Vogel: In its program Die Linke describes itself as a socialist party that wants to achieve "democratic socialism" through projects of gradual reform. What is the history and meaning of the concept of democratic socialism?
Sascha Staničić: "Democratic socialism" was a term coined by the social-democratic reformist left even before the collapse of Stalinism in the early 1990s. Marxists would not necessarily have distanced themselves from it, but they would not employ this phrase themselves. It was often used by those who were thinking of the "Scandinavian model" of a social market economy. Today things are different: The term "democratic socialism" is understood as a way of distancing yourself from Stalinism. In this latter sense, people express that they want a fundamental social change, even a change of the economic system, but that this should be organized democratically. Within Die Linke quite different ideas of social change exist. Nonetheless, everyone uses this term: both those who advocate the idea of a social market economy and those who see themselves as anti-capitalist or revolutionary.
SH and SV: The Socialist Alternative (SAV), which operates within die Linke and of which you are a member, is fighting for a "socialist democracy." How is this different from "democratic socialism"?
SS: "Socialist democracy" is more accurate and leaves no room for misinterpretation. The concept of "democratic socialism" implies that there could be undemocratic socialism. This is wrong in my view, because socialism constitutively includes the democratic shaping of society by the majority of working people. "Democratic socialism" suggests that the Soviet Union and the GDR were somehow socialist but only wrongly organized. I do not share that understanding. In my view, these were not socialist models, but bad caricatures of socialism. "Socialist democracy" expresses that today we live in a bourgeois democracy in which there are certain class-power relations. We aspire to a socialist democracy in which these relations of class power are overcome.
SH and SV: In his famous letter to Weydemeyer of March 5, 1852, Marx writes that he has discovered neither the existence of classes nor that of the class struggle, but the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship is only the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society. Is that still valid today?
SS: Absolutely. Today we would no longer use the term "dictatorship of the proletariat." But Marx is correct when he states that, before one can come to a classless society, one must first, in the course of a socialist transformation, overturn the prevailing property and power relations. We would use other terms today. Today we would talk, for example, about workers' democracy, that is, about the need for the working class to achieve a state and a society in which it can exercise democratic control and administration. Of course, such a circumstance would not yet be a classless society, as it is intended by socialists as a goal. The classless society cannot be introduced by fiat, but will be the product of a continuing historical development. This begins with the end of class rule of the bourgeoisie. Thereafter, power structures are certainly still existent, but in the form of democratic structures. We would favor council structures that we have experienced, for example, in the early days of the Russian Revolution. Of course, the ballast of capitalist society cannot be left behind overnight.
SH and SV: What role does Die Linke play in the establishment of this dictatorship of the proletariat?
SS: This can only be answered in the context of the historic break of the last 20-25 years. The collapse of the Stalinist states was a huge turning point, not only for the world as a whole and for historical development, but also for the workers' movement and for the Left. In a way, this has cleared away a hurdle to the struggle for socialist democracy. The Stalinist bureaucracies and their apparatuses held enormous power in the states of the Eastern Bloc as well as in the communist parties worldwide. They were shaken and discarded on the garbage heap of history. The effect was nevertheless a strengthening of capitalist classes worldwide, especially on an ideological level. The fact that world capitalism was able to reintegrate one third of the world has not led to a sustainable economic development. Above all, there was an enormous ideological confusion: The idea that there could be an alternative to this capitalism was shattered on a lasting basis. Margaret Thatcher's exclamation "There Is No Alternative" and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" both had a massive impact on the labor movement, on the Left, on the class. Consciousness has regressed. Until the 1970s and 80s, there was a significant layer of advanced workers, among them the youth, who had a basic socialist consciousness. There were strong workers' organizations that expressed the will to change society, even if only in a reformist direction. Since the beginning of the 1990s, this has declined massively.
This has changed the task that stands for leftists, for Marxists. In the Transitional Program (1938) by Leon Trotsky there is a sentence that reads: "The historical crisis of humanity is due to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.” This expresses how different the task was at that time: There was a strong labor movement that encompassed millions of people and had a socialist vision—albeit social-democratic-reformist on the one hand or Stalinist on the other. It was about the struggle for political clarity and the leadership of this workers' movement. That was the task set for themselves by the followers of Trotsky, in whose tradition the SAV stands. However, this task has changed in the last 20 years. We must continue to work for a revolutionary alternative, but the workers' movement must be rebuilt in its breadth. That is why we as SAV have a positive relation to projects for left-wing unity. We believe it makes sense and that it is probably also a historically necessary step for different left forces to come together. However, they must express the class interests of wage-earners and drive class struggles.
After an intensive discussion process in the mid-90s, the SAV raised the demand for the formation of a new workers' party. We saw the task not just in building a revolutionary organization, but in rebuilding the labor movement. We understood that this needed to take on a broader character and involve the building of a political party. For this reason, we supported and actively helped to develop the new party initiative “Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice" (WASG) as soon as it started getting off the ground in 2004. We wanted to influence the debates that were waged within this party in a left, anti-capitalist, and socialist direction. The party Die Linke is quite a contradictory phenomenon. But in our view, it is today the only substantial starting point in which people come together both to debate socialism and to try to move society in an anti-capitalist direction. However, the Left acts more like two parties in one: The wing, which emerged from the old Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), is oriented exclusively toward administering capitalist relations, to government participation with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens. This, in our view, constitutes a barrier to a truly socialist development of the party.
SH and SV: The participation of Die Linke in the government at a federal level is currently being discussed. To what extent would such participation in the government be a means to an end and in what ways might it impede the party’s purposes?
SS: Participation in a government with pro-capitalist parties, such as the SPD and the Greens, would in no case be a means to bring about socialist changes in society or even to bring us closer to them. This cannot be a means to further build the party as a truly leftist, anti-capitalist, and opposition party. The entire experience of government participation by leftist or socialist parties with pro-capitalist parties in the context of capitalist relations shows this clearly. One can go back to the debates around 1900, such as Rosa Luxemburg's opposition to entry into office by the French socialist Millerand. There she stated that assuming governmental responsibility, even through a single ministerial post, means assuming responsibility for all government policy, and thus for the maintenance and management of capitalist grievances.
But one need not refer to history. One can also draw a concrete picture of the government participation by the PDS and die Linke at the state level in recent years. Nowhere have they brought about significant, positive reform changes in the interests of the majority of the population. Sooner or later, the party has repeatedly been forced to support measures that contradict a leftist program—because otherwise they would have to put government participation into question. This has always meant a weakening of the Die Linke, most dramatically in Berlin. After ten years of participating with the SPD in government, Die Linke has lost an important part of its activist base and its link with oppositional social movements and left-wing trade union activists. Therefore, together with many other activists in the party, we in the SAV oppose government coalitions with the SPD and the Greens, whether at the state or the federal level. The last national party congress in June of this year showed that a large number of party members likewise view government participation with the SPD and the Greens very critically.
SH and SV: What is the difference for a leftist party between working in Parliament and participating in a government?
SS: A fundamental difference. Working in Parliament means, so to speak, exploiting the opportunities that bourgeois democracy offers to spread socialist ideas and promote the class struggle. This is how Karl Liebknecht used it. A government is an executive organ of capitalist class rule, especially when exercised in coalition with pro-capitalist parties. If you also start as a junior partner—which would be the case right now—then it is completely out of the question that you can even push for the implementation of sustainable left-wing reforms. It is a tradition in the Marxist workers' movement that they typically participate in parliamentary elections. One tries to take advantage of parliamentary positions. But that is different from participating in the government.
The SAV is part of an international organization, the "Committee for a Workers International,” which has had a great deal of parliamentary experience in a number of countries. There were also SAV members who held municipal offices in recent years. We use these as tools for class struggle, for protest movements, for resistance. However, one has to say that Die Linke does that too. Although it participates disproportionately in the parliamentary quagmire, it also supports strikes and resistance movements from its parliamentary position. The party has repeatedly organized conferences and other activities in support of strikes, as in the case of the movement for more staff in hospitals or the retail strikes two years ago.
SH and SV: Die Linke sees itself as an anti-neoliberal party and, at the same time, it is shaped by the crisis of neoliberalism. At the policy level, this crisis has brought SYRIZA into government and Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn into key positions of their parties.
SS: The term "anti-neoliberal" is an important but insufficient self-definition. We are dealing with a specific phase of capitalism which, of course, can be seen through capitalist globalization and the triumphant advance of neoliberal ideas and neoliberal policies. In my view, however, this is not a process that has its origins only on the political level—as though neoliberal ideas had simply prevailed over Keynesian economic models. It is a development that was a direct consequence of the crisis processes of capitalism itself. After the end of the post-war upswing had set in, that is around the end of the 1960s into the early 70s, there was a capital over-accumulation. That is, capital lacked profitable investment opportunities. This led to a financialization of capitalism that has bloated financial markets. Neoliberalism was an attempt to create investment opportunities for capital through privatization measures. The neoliberal phase of capitalism is thus not a product of struggles for ideas and economic concepts in bourgeois economics, but a consequence of the capitalist crisis.
So it is not enough to be anti-neoliberal. Anti-neoliberal must also mean being anti-capitalist. In the fight against neoliberal politics, one should not propagate a return to a Keynesian economic policy. The latter would not abolish the fundamental features of capitalist economics, such as profit production and the exploitation of wage laborers, nor would it address capitalism's crisis-prone character. The neoliberal phase of capitalism itself has now fallen into a deep crisis because it has not been able to overcome the problems of capital over-accumulation and crises.
There is a great deal of antipathy towards neoliberal politics and against those representatives of the bourgeois institutions who stand for this policy. This offers tremendous opportunities for left-wing forces. We saw mass demonstrations in Germany against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). For example, there are many movements, struggles, and local referendums against privatization measures that are generally successful. There is no longer any support for privatizations. This is a big difference from the 1990s, where the idea of "private works better" resonated in many ways within the workers' movement and unions. This is no longer true today. Therefore, the crisis of neoliberalism offers good starting points to organize resistance and to re-disseminate left-wing ideas.
SH and SV: Ever since the Brexit vote and the presidential election in the US, it seems that attacks against neoliberalism and its crisis are no longer led by the Left, but rather by politicians like Donald Trump and Theresa May. What does it mean that the status quo is not being adequately addressed and changed by the political left?
SS: There is a certain countermovement towards protectionism. Nevertheless, I would say that the dispute over the question of how to solve this crisis has not been answered conclusively. Donald Trump won the election, but he is the least popular president ever in US history. He faces the largest resistance movement to have ever emerged immediately after a presidential election. There were also surveys that attributed Sanders better odds than Hillary Clinton at beating Donald Trump. The working people in the US are reacting massively against the capitalist establishment. They saw Hillary Clinton as a representative of Wall Street. It is of course paradoxical that people have chosen Trump just to make a change and to prevent "keep it up." They fell for Trump's promise to keep or resettle jobs in the US through protectionist economic measures. But, for me, this tremendous support for leftist ideas, as expressed in the Sanders election campaign, is very important. The US is an enormously polarized country.
Sanders made the mistake of running for president within the Democratic Party. He should have realized that it is so closely tied to the capitalist system that it cannot serve as a vehicle for social change. His mistake was that he did not announce his own candidacy after losing the primaries and instead supported Clinton. Nevertheless, he has put the question of representing the interests of ordinary people on the agenda. There is a significant increase of socialist forces in the US and a huge upsurge for the Left. This is an opportunity and suggests that Donald Trump's electoral victory was not a final victory for the right.
I would also consider Brexit much more differentiated. In my view, the Brexit vote was an expression of the dissatisfaction with prevailing circumstances on the part of the poorest sections of Britain's working class. They are dissatisfied with an EU that is thoroughly capitalist and imperialist in nature, which has brought no positive social changes for the people of the working class in Europe. Therefore, there was an instinctive rejection of the Tory government's proposal to stay within the EU. Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, who was elected as chairman as a Labor Party leftist, did not use this situation to run a socialist Brexit campaign. He left the field open to the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the right wing of the Tories. Nevertheless, the Brexit vote in my view marks no step to the right, but is, again, an expression of the enormous class polarization in society. Developments since the Brexit vote confirm this view. In the UK, the political right have not simply been strengthened. UKIP was wiped out in local and parliamentary elections and is in a tremendous crisis. For many people that voted for Brexit, the main motivation was neither flat nationalism nor racism, but the social question. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to party leader has shown the potential for an offensive, actually leftist policy. But this potential can be wasted if one does not courageously set oneself apart from the pro-capitalist forces, in this case, within Labor. We are currently watching this situation in the UK. Corbyn has with left reformist demands mobilized the hope of many British people for change. At the same time, he makes too many compromises to the Blairites, the supporters of the right wing of the party. He may be blocking the potential that his election as Labor leader opened.
SH and SV:You located the beginning of neoliberalism in the crisis of Keynesianism in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Compared to today there was a strong left at that time. So is neoliberalism also a product of the failure of the New Left?
SS: The triumph of neoliberalism was not only determined by economic development. While it was an answer to the crisis, economics is political economy, and in political economy the living struggle—the class struggle—has an impact on capitalist economy and on the question of which economic concepts get pushed through. In the 1970s, the labor movement and the Left could have prevented this development. There were a lot of possibilities. But not on the basis of a social-democratic policy that wanted to stick to the idea of a social market and Keynesian concepts. This is the tragic aspect of development in the 70s. There was a tremendous upswing within the Left, which, by the way, was not only supported by what is called the "New Left," but also by the traditional organizations of the labor movement, namely social democracy and trade unions. But the struggles were not strategically directed at overcoming the capitalist situation. There was the Portuguese revolution, mass movements in Spain after the end of the Franco dictatorship, and the uprising against the military dictatorship in Greece. Left-wing, social-democratic parties emerged, representing programs that hardly anyone can imagine today. The PASOK in Greece, at least on paper, has a very clear socialist position. Mitterrand, who was elected president in France in the early 1980s, included massive nationalization programs in his election program. All these possibilities could have prevented the triumph of neoliberalism. In the end, I think they failed because the workers' movement was dominated by Social Democratic or Stalinist apparatuses. They had no confidence that overcoming capitalism was possible. Instead, they stuck to the old Keynesian concepts.
SH and SV: This year is the centenary of the October Revolution. What continuities and discontinuities in Marxism would you make out between 1917 and 2017?
SS: The October Revolution remains the greatest event in human history. It proved that class rule of the bourgeoisie can be broken. Even in as backward a country as Russia was back then, a new social structure can be created through mass movements and the self-organization of the oppressed, the wage-earners and, in this case, the peasants and soldiers also.
I would also reject the entire bourgeois representation that we will surely face in bulk this year. The Russian Revolution was neither a Bolshevik coup nor an undemocratic minority action. It was indeed the most democratic mass movement imaginable. It was organized in the workers', soldiers', and peasants' councils, where the most urgent tasks were set: the end of the war; the land question; and the improvement of social conditions and democratic rights of the oppressed nationalities in the Tsar's empire. They took power from the capitalist government and put it into the hands of the councils. The Bolsheviks were the only party to push these demands forward. They did not replace the councils but came, by way of political contestation even with other leftist currents inside the councils, to gain majority support.
Today one must continue to draw lessons from this for the Left and for the labor movement. Incidentally, with regard to the question of government participation, an important condition for the Bolsheviks’ winning of a majority in the councils and the revolution was their utterly clear attitude: They refused to join a capitalist coalition government. They wanted to criticize the government instead of participating in the management of capitalist grievances.
Of course, part of our confrontation with the October Revolution must be that it ends in a monstrous Stalinist dictatorship. But that, from my point of view, was not inevitable. Its causes were neither in the revolution itself nor in the politics of the Bolshevik Party in 1917–1918 . More importantly, the revolution in Russia remained internationally isolated. The Russian economy was bled, the working class was wiped out in the Civil War, and the country had to defend itself against military intervention backed by more than a dozen imperialist states. The social, cultural, and economic basis for a socialist development was not given. The Bolsheviks always saw the Russian Revolution as a prelude to international revolutions. When these failed, conditions developed that led to the Stalinist dictatorship. There is a continuity with the socialist and communist opposition to the Stalinist dictatorship, symbolized above all by the person of Leon Trotsky in the 1920s and 30s. Continuity continues in the opposition to bureaucratic rule and capitalism. We must learn lessons from it today.
SH and SV: One of the central problems for Trotsky was revolutionary leadership. In connection with that, you describe the struggle of the Bolsheviks in 1917 against the Provisional Government or the rebellion of the New Left against the Social Democratic and Stalinist leadership of the workers' organizations. Does this problem not turn out to be different, given the great change and crisis of social democracy and the collapse of the Soviet Union? Is the problem of leadership still relevant to a revolutionary or Marxist left?
SS: Today there are no mass parties of the working class. The task has therefore been postponed. Today we must orientate ourselves more strongly towards the revolutionary socialists of the 19th century: The working-class movement as such must be built up. Organizations must be created without the condition that they adopt a Marxist program. Marxists must work there to anchor Marxist ideas in the debate as well as the common struggles, ultimately making theirs the majority position.
Within the SAV and the "Committee for a Workers International" we have described this as a double task: With the SAV, we are building a Marxist organization, but we must also participate in the reconstruction of the workers' movement in a broad sense. Trade union structures are broken or do not exist in many areas. They have to be rebuilt. We also support left-wing unity projects, as long as they actually have a combative and fundamentally anti-capitalist orientation. We are trying to re-disseminate socialist ideas and to fundamentally develop socialist consciousness. This was simply more advanced in the 20th century within the working class. The fact that the old apparatuses of social democracy and Stalinism no longer exist in the same form makes a decisive difference. By the way, this does not mean that Social Democratic and Stalinist ideas have simply disappeared. They are also reproduced today in new leftist parties. Whether in SYRIZA or other major left-wing parties, the political-ideological debate often follows a similar course to what it took in the past.|P
 Staničić here quotes from memory. Trotsky’s exact formulation in the first line of the Transitional Program reads in English as follows: “The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.” At the end of the same introduction, Trotsky writes, “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.” Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1977), 145 and 146; available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/.