The Ljubljana School of Radicalism

by Richard Seymour 

Anti-austerity demonstration in Ljubljana Image: pirancafe.com
Anti-austerity demonstration in Ljubljana Image: pirancafe.com

Correction: Richard Seymour’s interview with Slovenia’s United Left stated that the coalition consisted of 3 member oganisations and misrepresented the political positions of some of the member groups. ZL actually consists of 4 organisations, beside three political parties there is the fourth founding member, named 4. skupina Združene levice, civilnodružbena gibanja in posamezniki (the 4th Group of the United Left, civil social movements and individual, or the 4th Group), which is not a political party. For the full statement from the 4th Group, please visit their website here.

Some interesting things have begun to happen while the old far Left has been ‘waiting for the upturn’. Although strike rates in most OECD countries remain at historic lows, there are modest signs of the beginning of a leftist revival. Syriza and Podemos are the most visible cases, and perhaps the most expected, occurring as they do in indebted southern-European social formations subjected to the most extreme variants of austerity, with indigenous communist traditions and experience, within living memory, of struggles in which the whole future of society was at stake. But even in the Anglo-American wasteland, where neoliberalism once swept all before it, there are in Corbynism and the Sanders surge (#feelthebern – no matter how inadequate Sanders’ so-called ‘socialist’ politics) signs of the radicalisation of a minority who have broken with Third Way social democracy. Younger, more educated and more ‘white collar’ (to the extent that that distinction still means anything), the Corbynistas and Sandernistas are responding not in the first instance to workplace struggles, but to the breakdown in the traditional modes of political domination. They are the legatees of recent protest movements, seemingly ‘antipolitical’ in thrust; but, from Occupy to the Indignados, this is a ‘political antipolitics’, in which the breakdown of liberal democracy has been the central issue of contention, and the basis for some prefigurative agitation.

In fact, it’s striking that the dominant level at which, since the credit crunch, crises have occurred largely is the political- ideological level. No doubt this is in part because of the elevated role of capitalist states in orchestrating counter-recessionary measures, implementing mild institutional reforms, and subsequently austerity projects intended to restore profitability to capitalism. Yet this is in itself symptomatic of an acute phase in the chronic degeneration of representative democracy, as empirically demonstrated by Peter Mair and Wolfgang Streeck. And what’s also telling is the staggered nature of the crisis as it unfolds, the distinct temporalities of economic and political crises, and the different modes of action that characterise each.

Nicos Poulantzas addressed precisely this problem in his 1976 essay, ‘The Political Crisis and the Crisis of the State’. He took issue with both ‘bourgeois sociological’ conceptions of crisis as momentary disruptions of a harmonious social order, and ‘fundamentalist’ conceptions of crisis as a generic tendency in capitalism that is always sharpening towards a final showdown, arguing that such approaches missed the specificity of the political crisis.

Stressing the ‘relative separation’ of the capitalist state from capitalist productive relations, a separation marked in the state’s organisation and institutional arrangement, he argued that while economic crises certainly can give rise to political crises, the latter need to be understood primarily in relation to the specific characteristics of the political terrain – the parliamentary- democratic form; the struggle of parties; the relations between different ideological-state apparatuses; the convocation of masses as ‘social democratic’, ‘liberal-conservative’ or ‘reactionary’. And, because of the specificity of the political, there’s no necessary chronological concordance between economic and political crises. It has taken almost eight years since the economic crisis began, and a long and savage period of austerity, with worse to come, for this new phase of the crisis to kick in. Now that it definitively has, it’s imperative that we understand it.

Britain is, of course, a political backwater. The fact that Corbynism has emerged as a rebellion within the institutions of a sick and declining Labourism is a product of leftist weakness. Where, in the rest of the continent, the neoliberalisation of social democracy has resulted in sizeable split-offs and new radical-left formations bringing together reformist and revolutionary currents, in Britain, the Labour left was too emaciated and enfeebled by the wounds of the Thatcher years to put up much resistance to Blair. To make sense of this crisis, and – all our earned pessimism notwithstanding – the real opportunities for the Left it potentially offers, it’s more useful to examine a more advanced case.

Arguably, the most interesting and exciting initiative of the radical Left in Europe is also one of the least acknowledged: Slovenia’s United Left.

As Left organisations go, the United Left alliance is one of the most militantly antisystemic, and yet – with its confident, media-savvy young leadership – it also stands a reasonable chance of actually winning the next parliamentary elections. At present it has only six of ninety National Assembly seats, but on some recent polling it could be propelled to first place. It faces the prospect of having to take office, despite being founded only in March 2014, and despite very limited experience of organising in state apparatuses.

The Slovenian situation is, in many ways, uniquely optimal for left-wing advance. It has relatively strong trade unions willing to collaborate with the radical Left; the values of the old revolutionary Liberation Front are kept alive through a mass organisation, the Alliance of Fighters; Yugonostalgia is an important element in the Slovenian cultural formation, thus allowing certain arguments about socialism to be made. Now, after years of careful underground work, and amid great waves of protest in 2012–13, a radical Left has finally emerged to take the lead.

In May 2015 I had the opportunity to visit Ljubljana, as guest of the Institute of Labour Studies (successor to the Workers’ and Punks’ University). Invited to speak on my book, Against Austerity, I offered a breezy, general summary of the book’s themes – the reorganisation of social classes, political power and ideology under neoliberalism, and the dual crises of capitalism and of the Left – and sat back. After some polite questions, a member of the audience finally said: ‘Excuse me, but, I may be a little cheeky here, but… we already know all this.’

More than familiar with the Althusserian and Poulantzian problematics I’d brought to bear, and unencumbered by the dogmas of revolutionary leftism in the UK, these activists found themselves inhabiting an advanced stage of the political crisis, one in which the general problems and questions posed by Against Austerity required concretisation. They had succeeded in building a political organisation that was articulated with social movements and trade unions, that had occupied a space in the state apparatuses, and that had a very successful media strategy, without being politically subordinate to mainstream media narratives. Indeed, they were, if anything, alarmed at the prospect that they might actually win a parliamentary election, have to take control of the ministries and try to govern, despite their inexperience at running state apparatuses and the inevitable resistance they would face upon trying to implement a socialist policy.

It struck me that they didn’t need to hear from British socialists, but that the British Left urgently needed to hear from them. Not because I expect all of their answers to convince everyone, and allay all doubts. They are conspicuously in the process of developing their outlook, learning from experience and building on their theory. The British Left needs to hear from them because they are posing the correct questions.

Boštjan Remic and Rok Kogej are members of one of the United Left’s constituent organisations, the Initiative for Democratic Socialism, and representatives on its main leadership body, the Council, as well as advisors to the parliamentary group of the United Left. They also work at the Institute of Labour Studies. In the interview below, they explain the organisational, political and theoretical background to their current success, and their strategy for confronting capital both inside and beyond the state.

The recent background to the formation of United Left was the 2012–13 Maribor protests, against the corruption of Maribor city mayor Franc Kangler, Ljubljana city mayor Zoran Janković, and the right-wing Slovenian Democratic Party government led by Janez Janša. The protests broke out in Maribor, Slovenia’s second city, and quickly spread to other urban centres, including the capital Ljubljana. If the protests were driven in the first instance by ruling-class political corruption, this fused into a wider discontent about the economic crisis and the austerity measures which were imposed as a result. Out of this struggle, two new organisations were formed, the Initiative for Democratic Socialism (IDS) and Solidarity, which Boštjan Remic describes as ‘a left-liberal party, mostly consisting of old transitional left cadres and some new actors’. There was, he says, ‘quite intense electoral struggle between our political party [IDS] and theirs’, which was in part a struggle to ‘hegemonise the space that was opening up with these uprisings’. Solidarity’s decision to cooperate with the social democrats left them discredited and now ‘more or less non-existent’.

The decision to form an electoral alliance was therefore ‘a pragmatic one’, Remic explains.

There were two other parties on the left, apart from IDS. One was the Democratic Labour Party (DSD), and the other was the Party for Sustainable Development of Slovenia (TRS). The key question for us was how to intervene in the upcoming elections. There was a pragmatic question of how to multiply our forces so as to field enough candidates, since we were a small party. We wanted to build a socialist left to unite the remains of the old liberal-left which had collapsed, and we also had three consecutive elections coming up in Slovenia: the EU parliamentary elections, the national parliamentary elections, and the local elections. So we needed to form some kind of alliance.

The resulting coalition is relatively broad, with constituents including a liberal-Green party (the TRS) and a populist social- democratic party (the DSD). The ‘main cadres’ of the TRS ‘came from the 1980s social movements’, says Kogej. Founded in 2012, ‘they had got quite a lot of media coverage, obtaining two to three per cent of the vote, just below the four per cent threshold for entering parliament’. The DSD ‘were also formed before the 2012 elections. They fight on a bare-bones programme, stressing the fight for workers’ rights.’

So, the IDS is the only party that has an elaborate reference to examples in other countries – Die Linke, Syriza, Fronte de gauche, etc. However, there are some important differences. Our ideological programme is quite pure. IDS was formed in the wake of protests in 2013. The main motor of the initiative was a small group of students from social studies and humanities departments, which was built around a project called the Workers’ and Punks’ University. It was a Marxist project, with references to Marx, Lacan, Hegel – but the dominant reference, if you look, was basically Althusser. Insofar as the Lacanian School was influential, it was not so much Žižek or even Mladen Dolar, but Rastko Močnik. When the Workers’ and Punks’ University was initially established in late 1990s, it was at first Arendtian, then later Hegelian and Lacanian. However, with the change of generations, it became radicalised and the main reference became a more orthodox Marxism.

Kogej argues that the collaboration has been ‘quite a success’ for the IDS in that the coalition’s programme reflects that of the IDS on all key points. ‘We managed to unite all the relevant parts of the extra- parliamentary left other than anarchists and NGOs.’ Electorally, IDS occupied a radical left space supported by ‘well-educated, precarious students, young people just joining the labour market’.

Their biggest support is ‘young people, especially in the eighteen to thirty-five category’, which reflects the average age of the leadership group: their main spokesperson, Luka Mesec, is twenty- eight years old. According to Remic and Kogej, the organisation is very self-critical on this point, acknowledging a need to broaden out. However (as King’s College researcher and political scientist Paolo Chiocchetti has observed in his unpublished dissertation on the European radical left parties), this demographic basis is mirrored in most other European countries, as the social basis of the Left shifts from older, typically male industrial workers to younger, white-collar and more highly educated workers.

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As Chiocchetti also points out, however, the striking fact about all European radical left formations thus far has been the limits of their achievements. Most such organisations, occupying a political space previously defended by the left wing of social democracy, have, at best, stabilised at around 10 per cent of the vote – if not less – without seriously altering the dynamics of electoral competition or the neoliberal constitution of the state. Podemos has achieved much stronger support, but even its surge is now contested by a right-wing ‘antipolitical’ rival, Cuidadanos. And in the one case where such a party has succeeded in taking office, Syriza, the resulting defeat and closure of radical possibilities has been quite devastating – witness the collapse in turnout at the second election this year, Tsipras’s etiolated ‘triumph’. United Left have taken note of Syriza’s failures, but what, if anything, makes them different and prevents them from following a similar path? ‘The answer’, according to Kogej, ‘is quite complex’.

I would say if you look at Syriza concretely, one of the problems they had was in terms of their mode of political organisation. As they became integrated into the parliamentary system and became more of an electoral than a socialist force, the leadership became more and more distant from the party. The link between the mass base and the party leadership was broken, such that the leadership didn’t even listen to decisions of the central committee; it became totally autonomous. This is one of the things we are working on. We are trying to build an organisation that will not become a hostage of leadership. However, it is not only an organisational problem, it is structural. It comes from being integrated into the logic of corporate media and so on. Basically in today’s political format, the media demand that the organisation has some kind of ‘face’. As soon as you have that, one individual has a lot of political power. So here we are trying to find some organisational solutions for disciplining our leadership, and ensuring they are answerable to the base.

The organisational degeneration derives not just from the structural logic of electoral politics, but also from political strategy. Syriza was ultimately imprisoned by its pro-European politics, such that it could not countenance any break with the European institutions. United Left stands out among radical left formations in the Balkans in that it has always had a profoundly sceptical attitude to the European Union.

Formed against the backdrop of the eurozone crisis, the alliance’s constituents, particularly the IDS, began to think through the crisis. ‘In the sense of our programme’, Remic says, ‘the two topics that influenced us were financialisation, and the crises of the European Union.’ In the context of the uprisings, ‘the signifier of democratic socialism was put forward and managed to draw in a leading core of students, many of them PhD students, young precarious workers, people just joining the labour market with no possibility of some kind of career’. In the ensuing arguments about what democratic socialism meant, ‘we discussed the famous Lapavitsas debate’ – about Eurozone exit.

We went through his proposals. We organised a lot of international events through which we debated this question. And I would say that most of us were anti-EU. This became a uniform position in the last few months because of Syriza, but even before, insofar as we had quite a lot of people who were pro-EU in the Syriza sense, this was mainly pragmatic. We are presently developing a programme for the coalition, and at the upcoming conference we will try to collectively confirm a euroscepticist position in the mould of Lapavitsas’s stance.

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Aside even from the combined power of the European ruling classes and their specific condensation in the European institutions, there are inevitably, to put it mildly, dilemmas in trying to exercise power in a capitalist state without either being coopted or effectively neutralised. United Left’s perspective is a broadly left-Poulantzian one, of attempting to build resistances within the state in order to change the balance of state forces, while simultaneously building up popular power at the base. ‘Democratisation’, Kogej says, has been the main strategic concept in this regard, but,

[w]e are being forced to concretise what this exactly means. At the Institute of Labour Studies, we are now working on higher-education legislation alongside progressive parts of the profession, so we can concretely see the problems and work through the relations of force. This was where the general slogan of democratisation has to be concretised, but it will mean different things in different contexts.

Remic does not believe that United Left will face exactly the same difficulties as Syriza:

The Slovenian state apparatus, I would say, is a ‘young state’ in a sense. We don’t have this deep state in the way that Greece has, linking right-wing organisations to legal/police networks – although there is some continuity of cadres from the ex-Yugoslav regimes. The key question is how to move this neoliberal power bloc that functions in the state, particularly when there is a nostalgic left-leaning presence in the state apparatuses. The right often complains that the courts are filled with ex-communists, and in some sense I believe it is one of the more left-liberal parts of the state apparatuses. ‘Structural selectivity’ in the Poulantzian sense is at work, so we have to have this guerilla tactic of moving the initiative between state apparatuses, moving in and out of situations, retreating where necessary. The main opportunity that radical socialists have in parliamentary office, having taken control of the executive, is to take ministers and put them into practice mobilising people in bottom- up struggles – for example, in education, which is very important in Slovenia. You can use different parts of the state apparatuses to promote social movements and achieve transformations.

The major danger, he says, is ‘being absorbed into a parliamentary logic’. Kogej agrees.

One of main problems we are dealing with right now is parliamentarism. We have learned that this abstract term refers to very concrete and powerful processes, which are affecting the relationship between the party and a very strong parliamentary group. The parliamentary group is a group of three different parties, so this anomaly accentuates some of the processes of parliamentarism. We are trying to work out how to democratise ourselves so that the mass base in the party can control the whole political project, along with its parliamentary group. This is not a simple problem to solve, but the key is political. Our strategy is not mainly to win elections, but to mobilise the mass of society in the direction of progressive change. The main precondition for achieving this is a revolutionary party with a revolutionary subjectivity, which could be capable of operating in parliament without being subsumed into its logic.

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I point out to Kogej that, ordinarily, if one speaks of a ‘revolutionary party’, one thinks of the sect parties, not of a group that is at the core of an alliance that could wield governmental power. ‘The irony’, he allows, ‘is that we would be a sect in any other political situation, say in the UK’. It is only ‘the specifics of the Slovenian situation’ that allow it to happen.

But even so, it is not clear what exactly ‘revolutionary’ means in this context. These strategic outlines contain none of the references to dual power, for example, or to the ‘smashing’ of the repressive core of the state apparatuses, that Leninists would look for. However, one of the key references for the United Left is the unique Yugoslav experience, elements of which the coalition seeks to articulate in a twenty-first-century socialism. This makes sense due, as Remic points out, to cultural traditions dating from the Titoist era, the values of World War II antifascism embodied in the Alliance of Fighters, traditions of socialism supported by pensioners groups, voluntary organisations, and the Alliance of Firefighters

In an abstract sense, self-management could develop. We have not found a practical form that could be a realistic alternative to capitalist productive processes yet, but in terms of the political idea behind it, it points to the workers’ control of the productive process. But we are also dealing with the critics of this self-management experience, and of course there are many difficulties. In practice, it wasn’t a system that could be made to function, because it was tied to market reforms. There were economic and political crises arising from this, and the attempt to resolve them usually involved more decentralisation coupled with more self-management rhetoric. But the consequence of this was the strong antagonisms which developed between the different republics of Yugoslavia. The question is how to organise the social and political life of the country. It is always productive to start from local historical experiences and try to build on that. But of course, we are engaging with it critically. IDS strongly supports the self-management aspect of Yugoslav socialism, but we are sceptical especially of the market side of it, and the reforms that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. We also focus on ex-Yugoslav territories as a cultural space and as the basis for some kind of Balkan internationalism, even if the other outposts of the Left in Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia are weaker.

Whatever resources in theory and experience Slovenes may be able to mobilise for the construction of socialism, there are more immediate – and large-scale – problems. United Left, if they take office, are objectively committed to the administering of capitalism. Aware that they would be unable to simply take a quantum leap to the socialist future, they assert that they will aim to implement anti-austerian, socialist policies within the context of the capitalist mode of production. But of course, if they are to expand welfare and the social wage as elements of a socialist programme, they will have to do so in a way that is consistent with the reproduction of capitalist relations in the short run.

In other words, they will need a growth formula, a way of developing a productive base that can sustain significant levels of taxation, while at the same time undermining the class power of capital. How is this possible? Is, indeed, this possible?

‘One of the specifics of the Slovene economy’, says Kogej, ‘even now, in the midst of the third wave of privatization since 1991, is that a great share of the economy and also the financial sector is still owned by the state. For example, NLB, our largest bank, is 100 per cent state-owned.’ This, United Left hold, is the key lever through which their programme can be implemented. Kogej continues:

The core of our economic programme consists of what we call a ‘socialist development programme’, which is a more or less concrete plan of how to use government control of the economy to democratise the management of these companies and banks. We will make them more transparent, build new chains of production and develop existing ones, and integrate them into an industrial policy, focused on sustainable growth, even regional development, technological progress, employment and gender equality, to name just few of our goals. So I would say that our goal is to build a sort of ‘developmental state’, but one that goes beyond ‘actually existing’ developmental states of, say, East and South East Asia and would have a completely different orientation. It would not stop at economic development in the capitalist sense (of rising economic output and competitiveness in international markets), but would also try to develop internal aggregate demand (via rising public investment, welfare state and household expenditure). And above all, it wouldn’t measure its success only by quantitative (monetary) means, but also by how far it got with the elimination of class, gender and other forms of inequality and with building a truly democratic society, where the question of democracy will not be posed only every four or five years at presidential, parliamentary, local or European elections, but daily and at all levels of our social lives.

In formulating these policies, they derive their general strategic perspective from Marxists, but many of the concrete practical ideas come from developmental and left-Keynesian economists such as Ha Joon Chang. This, Kogej and Remic argue, is not to limit their purview to left-nationalist or Keynesian objectives. Such aims would require a shift in the direction of a national capitalism to a transformative extent: as Remic argues, ‘deindustralisation and financialisation of the European periphery is directly connected to the Eurozone framework and its policies, so getting free of this limitation is a precondition for any progressive economic development’. Historically, as Yugoslavia was dismantled and industries privatised as part of the incorporation into the European Union, Slovenia lost many of its developmental advantages. ‘Slovenia had quite an advanced information and communication technologies sector’, says Remic, ‘which was dismantled in the process of privatisation and turned into small firms which produce parts for German automobile industry’.

The point is that all of these proposed measures are not about producing growth on capitalist terms. The objectives, rather, are to reduce the working week, raise the living standards of the majority, equalise wealth and incomes, and replace competition with cooperation and planning. This, then, according to Remic and Kogej, is the concrete mediation between austerian capitalism and socialist democracy.

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It’s particularly arresting about the Slovene experience that the opportunities presenting themselves have little to do with the ‘classical’ scenario of workers’ struggles leading to political generalisations, and/or of the moulding of cadres of battle-hardened militants capable of leading the struggle. The strike rate is so low that the Association of Free Trade Unions, the main private sector union confederation, has stopped collecting data on stoppages. It is political generalisations that have come first, perhaps to be followed, in the best of cases, by a generalised economic struggle.

The leadership of the present struggle comes from those who have the least leverage in terms of production relations, those whose collective power in relation to the ruling class is limited. Certainly, the unions have an important role to play in the radical movement, but, at this stage at least, they’re allies in a campaign led by students and by those precarious young. They provide funding and potential social power, but are not – yet? – exerting that power in any frontline confrontations. This is class struggle at the political level, in which a far-from-enormous coalition (comprising roughly two thousand people in a nation of two million) has taken upon itself the task of using this crisis to implement practical radical reformist steps – as they see it – toward socialism, to use state power to empower the dominated classes, and develop a viable – revolutionary – subjectivity.

Put this way, for these reasons, the situation might seem terribly unstable. There has been a crisis in the traditional, weakly rooted forms of political domination, one that is partly attributable to the loss of legitimacy incurred by the dominant institutions in the context of economic crisis, eurozone turmoil, and austerity. The window created will not remain open forever. The restoration of political stability would by no means be assured by the stabilisation of the economic situation, but the political initiative of the ruling class won’t remain deadlocked indefinitely. United Left are keenly attuned to the problems of parliamentarism, but there is also the far larger problem of controlling capitalism itself. If they are to succeed, they will have to find a way to square the circle of administering capitalism, while preparing for its overthrow. This is something no ruling class in control of its affairs will give them any time or space to do.

No one has as yet come close to a historically validated model for socialist transition, least of all in a contemporary capitalist social formation. The question of how to confront the political power of the ruling class in a modern, expanded capitalist state, which has incorporated great chunks of the citizenry into its workforce, and integrated all into its daily operations, has been solved precisely nowhere. However, the fact that this question can even be posed in a serious, sober and theoretically scrupulous way in a relatively prosperous, educationally and culturally advanced European nation-state, with, even, some concrete and practical mediations being suggested by the terrain, is a challenge to the traditional conceptions of the far Left.

Whatever their ultimate successes – or failures – United Left are thriving because they’ve grasped, as few other anticapitalist political parties or coalitions have, the key features of the conjuncture, and have acted on them accordingly. Those of us in more backward situations, up against far more daunting odds, should have the humility at least to learn from success.

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