Europe, Democracy and the Left: An interview with Geoff Eley

Geoff Eley interviewed by George Souvlis

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There is no doubt that in 2008 the capitalist system in Europe and in United States suffered a severe shock from which has not yet recovered. Suggestive indications of this “permanent crisis” are the draconian austerity packages that the economic elites implemented as a response to these developments triggering the dissolution of European Union, the collapse of democratic institutions, the impoverishment of the working people and emergence of far-right movements and parties throughout the European continent.

Few are more appropriate to explain such developments in their historicity alongside the rise of Nazism and Fascism in the interwar period, and the historiographical complexities around these issues, than the British historian Geoff Eley. His work on the history of Germany and the authoritarian regimes of the interwar period; the role of class, gender and race in current debates within the field of historiography; and the inextricable trajectories of European democracy and the European left give him an insightful understanding of today’s political momentum and its meaning for the left. In particular, Eley’s contributions in the field of history have transformed the way we deal with the origins and the nature of autocratic politics, the history of the non-Stalinist left and the liaisons between history and politics.

Eley grew up in the north of England in the end of 1940s and went to university as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, continuing on to graduate school in 1970-74. In other words, he was a baby-boomer of the postwar Keynesian conjuncture and indirectly part of British new left that emerged in 1956 as outcome of a double crisis: on the one hand, the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks, and on the other by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal zone. Under the influence of this milieu his work was formed both by the intellectual developments around the New Left Review and the Communist Party Historians group.

In his first study Reshaping The German Right, he sheds light on the political context in which the German extreme right developed. Examining the political trajectory of several pressure groups (Navy League, Pan-German League) Geoff Eley argues that the German right was subjected to a right-wing radicalization under the pressure of the political demands from below by various groups of civil society for which it was unable to articulate adequate hegemonic responses opening in that way the political space for the rise of far-right. In that sense, Eley demonstrated against the mainstream historiography of the time that German Nazism during the interwar period emerged not from a society that had a weak civil society or from a society in which the aristocracy was the dominant social class but rather from a social formation in which civic and associational development outstripped the development of hegemonic political parties.

Four year later, Geoff Eley co-authored with David Blackbourn the study that established him as prominent scholar of Nazi Germany which challenged the orthodoxy in German social history known as the Sonderweg (or special path) thesis that advocated that Nazism can be explained with reference to the supposed failure of a bourgeois revolution in Germany in contrast to its success in France after 1789 and in England in the 1640’s. The two historians focus on the contrary on Weimar years and the impact of the First World War, along with the period of the late Kaiserreich, when the extreme tensions resulting from the consequences of Germany’s capitalist industrialization (the “contradictions of German modernity,” “modernity at its limits”) enabled the conditions of possibility for radicalized forms of right-wing politics to develop. Shifting the analysis from the longue durée of feudal domination to the conjunctural hegemonic crisis of the 1920s and 1930s indicate how the divisiveness of the bourgeois political parties, the emergence of antisystemic movements, and German capitalism contributed to the rise of Hitler. The next important study shifts to the left of the political spectrum and consists in the study of the making of the European left movement, Forging Democracy: The history of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. The study, as its title indicates, is structured around the idea that the left is best understood in terms of advancing the boundaries of democracy. Through this he conceptualizes western democracy as an open-ended historical process that was formed – against the dominant rhetoric – by the struggles from below through conflicts, violent confrontations and challenges to the established political order. In these and other works, Geoff Eley attempts to offer narratives in which the historical social process is structured but open-ended and its specific forms and interactions are ultimately undetermined. In this interview we discuss with him his insights on the historiographical debates on the German and Italian authoritarian regimes; the past, present and the future of the left and its role in the democratic processes; and the current geopolitical developments within and outside European Union.

George Souvlis: Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that strongly influenced you?

Geoff Eley: I was born in 1949, grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in the north of England (more strictly, the very southern edge of the north), and went to university as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, continuing on to graduate school in 1970-74. So in those terms I’d describe myself as simultaneously a child of the welfare state and the postwar settlement and an unrepentant 68er. My family was extremely lower middle class, provincial, and Methodist, with strong roots in a kind of Gladstonian-liberal Nonconformity – one grandfather was a photographer and skilled mold-maker in the Potteries (unemployed during much of the thirties); the other was a greengrocer. Each of my parents had gone to grammar school, but neither had been able to go to university for economic reasons. While acutely conscious of the advantages I received from both family and the time – the former gave me an understanding of the importance of education and a strong social conscience, the latter gave me all the benefits of the welfare state – I also found each to have been profoundly limiting in other ways. From that point of view, the explosion of new thinking, cultural experimentation, public permissiveness, and sexual freedoms during the sixties was immensely liberating – dizzyingly so! I was incredibly lucky to have come of age when I did and to have been a student during 1967-70. By accident, I also landed in a succession of remarkably intense and exciting institutions – first Balliol at Oxford, next Sussex for my Ph.D., then teaching in Cambridge 1975-79. I learned more from the times than from my teachers, although I certainly had an extraordinary immediate mentor, Hartmut Pogge von Strandmann, who taught me my European history in Balliol and then directed my dissertation at Sussex. I also learned hugely from those we usually call the British Marxist historians – Eric Hobsbawm, Edward Thompson, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, and so forth – along with their successors associated during the 1960s and 1970s with New Left Review, including especially Perry Anderson. The other name to cap this list would be Raymond Williams.

More generally, I benefitted hugely from the extraordinary ferment of Marxist creativity in the 1970s – especially the translations of Gramsci; everything proceeding via NLR and New Left Books/Verso; the proliferating new journals discipline by discipline; the new interdisciplinarity, especially cultural studies; the opening up of debate in and around the Communist Party; and so forth. Both in dialogue with the new Marxisms and flourishing independently of them, often very impatiently, was the new range of feminist theory. Finally, especially during the later seventies, I have to mention Stuart Hall, along with Ernesto Laclau (for thinking about ideology and fascism) and Göran Therborn (ditto ideology, but also the state); and I’d made a very important detour via Althusser and Poulantzas! By the time I left the UK for Michigan in 1979, my key influences – my intellectual and political guides, really – had become Stuart Hall, feminism, Gramsci, Williams, Anderson, Laclau. What came later during the eighties included Foucault, cultural studies more broadly, and all that we now call the cultural turn. Politically between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties I was most comfortable with a kind of feminist left-Eurocommunism.

GS: In your first study, Reshaping The German Right (Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1980), you discuss the political context in which the German extreme right developed. Scrutinizing the political trajectory of several pressure groups (Navy League, Pan-German League) you argue that the German right was subjected to a right-wing radicalization under the pressure of the political demands from below by various groups of civil society like the ones you examine. This process produced the necessary historical conditions for the emergence of Nazism. In other words, using a Gramscian terminology, the inability or the unwillingness of the dominant bourgeois political establishment to articulate adequate hegemonic responses to such pressures from below created the political space for the rise of the German radical right. A direct theoretical implication of this reasoning is that German Nazism during the interwar period emerged not from a society that had a weak civil society or from a society in which the aristocracy was the dominant social class but rather from a social formation in which civic and associational development outstripped the development of hegemonic political parties. Do you agree with this interpretation?

GE: I like the way you’ve summarized what I was trying to do with that first book. The main thrust was certainly to argue against that whole complex of assumptions about what made Germany different or peculiar that we call the Sonderweg [ed: special path] – i.e. failed bourgeois revolution, weak liberalism, primacy of pre-industrial traditions, feudalization of the bourgeoisie, etc etc. I found Laclau’s formulations about populism extraordinary helpful – inspiring, in fact – in trying to think my ideas through; his book containing the essays on populism and fascism was published by Verso just as I was struggling to formulate my arguments about radical nationalism and its relationship to the given dominant forms of the Right in the ten years before 1914. The one cautionary note I’d add to how you’ve described my argument concerns that phrase “the necessary historical conditions for the emergence of Nazism.” I’d put it rather differently. I was extremely concerned not to reach forward from 1913-14 too straightforwardly or directly to the Nazis (to fascism), because the intervening impact and consequences of both the First World War and the revolutionary conjuncture of 1917-23, along with the 1920s and the later crisis conjuncture of 1929-33, were absolutely decisive in that regard. So my own formulation in the final sentence at the very end of the book, about which some reviewers complained, but which was very deliberately cautious and distanced on my part was that the pre-1914 radicalization had produced “a vital condition of future possibility for the emergence of a German fascism.”

GS: What do you think about the rediscussion of the Sonderweg? Does it still have some uses?

GE: In general the Sonderweg has exhausted its usefulness. Returning to the “special path” leads only to a dead end. Once upon a time, it clearly had its uses. It came from an entire discursive formation of the post-1945 era, when a definite ideal of the successfully “modernized” liberal-democratic “West” modeled on ideologically constructed and sanitized histories of Britain and the United States (more ambiguously of France) could be fashioned into a plausibly normative claim about how successful modern societies and their political systems develop in general – a claim of powerful appeal for a society like West Germany, where progressive intellectuals were passionately committed to coming to terms with the Nazi past and developing a general interpretation of how the “German catastrophe” was ever able to happen. But heavily normative history of that kind was always based on comparative understanding that was poorly grounded and conceptually flawed. It presumed a reading of British and French history that had long been superseded in those historiographies themselves. It reflected assumptions about what had happened in Britain and France between the 17th and 19th centuries that were never properly examined, with the result that German historical inquiry became focused around the wrong questions. Part of our critique in Peculiarities was to pose the most fundamental of counterfactuals: namely, if the case for Germany’s “failed bourgeois revolution” (i.e. the Sonderweg) was to be seriously made, then what was the positive concept of bourgeois revolution that had to be presumed? And once the answer to that question was pursued, it rapidly emerged that what Wehler and co. believed had happened in the histories of Britain and France was precisely what revisionist historians of the English and French Revolutions had so decisively pulled apart and set aside. The Sonderweg turned out to be based on a fantasy of what happened in the British and French elsewhere. This was all deliciously ironic. A British Marxist (myself) was able to invoke anti-Marxist revisionist historiographies of the English and French Revolutions against West German anti-Marxists (Wehler and co.), who relied on discredited Marxist interpretations of British and French history.

In response, we wanted to build up a different and more fruitful basis for thinking about German history’s comparative location and thence to reopen the question of a more sensible and sophisticated approach to the “origins of Nazism.” Partly this involved shifting the focus back to the Weimar years and the impact of the First World War, along with the period of the late Kaiserreich, when the extreme tensions resulting from the consequences of Germany’s capitalist industrialization (the “contradictions of German modernity,” “modernity at its limits”) enabled the conditions of possibility for radicalized forms of right-wing politics to develop. From that, over the ensuing couple of decades, there developed a long-term interest in establishing the coherence of the overall period between the 1890s and 1930s. But it also involved shifting the possible grounds of comparison. Rather than persisting in the Dahrendorfian lament (“why wasn’t Germany England?” as David Blackbourn quipped), perhaps it would be more interesting to put Germany alongside Italy. Each was a new state unified in the 1860s; each society produced a governing fascism; each had extreme disparities of regional social formation (East Elbia and Bavaria as against the Mezzogiorno). Then, on a similar basis of equivalence, we might also add Japan. So for us, the issue was never one of comparison per se – never whether to compare, but rather how and on what basis?

These underlying questions are still the ones at stake in German historical discussion. And any return of a Sonderweg perspective, however modified or muted, still renders them confused. What are the best ways of locating 1933 in the longer course of the German past? How did Germany differ from other national histories and in what ways? What are the most fruitful strategies for conceptualizing the movement of whole societies through time? How might a workable understanding of “the modern” or “modernity” be historicized by looking closely at the German case? How should national histories best be compared? The best place from which to begin remains the more immediate conjunctures, in my view, and not the deep mists of German time.

There’s yet another dimension, one that becomes ever-more apparent in the contemporary priorities of the historian’s working agenda, viz. the insufficiencies of a national-historical perspective in a variety of ways, some of them scalar, some structural, some theoretical and epistemological, some ontological and experiential. The Sonderweg approach remains problematic in all of these directions. It becomes all the harder to defend any deep-longitudinal account of a particular national history now that the global and the transnational have increasingly captured the historian’s imagination. Some of the most interesting historical work is now occurring in contexts either larger or smaller that the territorially sovereign national state – either in relation to globalization and transnationally defined entities of one kind or another, in smaller-scale supra-national regions that transgress established and nationally understood frontiers, or through inventively constructed microhistories. By projecting German peculiarities (the distinctiveness of Germany’s history in the first half of the 20th century) ever more deeply into much earlier periods, from 1848 all the way back to the Reformation, inside a discretely bounded conception of how “Germany” should be defined, the Sonderweg approach pulls implicitly away from these current grounds of analysis and discussion.

Once we move away from scholarly historiography, unfortunately, the Sonderweg style of thinking remains very much alive and well – whether among broader publics or in the common-sense assumptions that still guide the thinking of politicians, journalists, and scholars who aren’t historians (especially political scientists and literary scholars) when they’re writing about Nazism’s relationship to the deeper German past. The huge commotions surrounding Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996) twenty years ago offer especially egregious evidence of that kind. But among German historians at large, the Sonderweg seems mainly to have been abandoned. Vestigial traces can still be found here and there, especially among the Bielefelder and other Kehrite veterans of the 1960s and their allies – e.g. in arguments about the authoritarianism of the Kaiserreich’s core institutions, which Wehler continued doggedly defending. A particularly unbudging advocate of the classic Sonderweg perspective, Heinrich August Winkler, has codified it into two sequences of general history, one a two-volume history of Germany per se, Germany: The Long Road West, 1789-1990, the other a two-volume history of the West in the 20th century. But these are mainly expressions of an earlier dogma. A few colleagues in the English-speaking world seem to be smuggling disguised or equivocal versions of a Sonderweg perspective back in, but even they will usually disclaim any such intention. The full range of interests and available approaches in the field has long outgrown that older framework, which has long ceased to enable any fruitful directions or insights. Very tellingly, the single most important general history of Germany’s 20th century yet to have appeared, Ulrich Herbert’s magisterial Geschichte Deutschlands im 20. Jahrhundert (2014), entirely eschews any such reference or discussion.

GS: Can we apply this analytical scheme in order to interpret the rise of Fascism in Italy? In Italy we do not have nationalist leagues in quite the same way as in the German case but rather a civil society whose manifestations included the wide spread of agrarian cooperatives in several rural regions (Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Liguria). Do we have here the same dynamic of a crisis expressed through the fascisization of these components of civil society because of the political elites’ inability to satisfy their demands? (opening in that way political opportunities for the National Fascist Party)

GE: Interesting. In the Italian case it was surely the imposing strength of the Socialists in the northern countryside during 1919-20 that finally precipitated the convergence of the elites with Mussolini’s movement. On the one hand, this brought a drastic rightward movement of the Fascists, through which the early progressivism of the early program of 1919 was rapidly shed and the use of militarized forms and direct violence taken up (killing socialists and beating them up rather than just arguing with them on the speaker’s platform); on the other hand, the landowners and capitalists saw the Fascists as their solution, given the ineffectuality of the liberal state and the rhetorical maximalism of the PSI. So it was the far greater radicalism of the PSI (compared with the SPD, for instance) that created the dimensions of crisis in which the Fascist option started to make sense for the Italian elites. In Germany, the SPD turned out to be a far more crucial stabilizing factor against the Left.

From the interwar period to current crisis

GS: Could we detect some analogies between the socioeconomic crisis of the interwar period and the ongoing capitalist crisis we are experiencing since 2008?

GE: Here I still tend to be extremely Poulantzian! I’ve always found his idea of a dual crisis, or of powerfully intersecting twin crises – crisis of representation, crisis of hegemony – incredibly helpful in beginning to define the kind of crisis from which fascism might come – that is, the kind of crisis in which the idea of turning to fascism starts to seem feasible. On the one hand, the state-institutional complex becomes paralyzed or ceases to function, so that the process of organizing a sufficient basis of cohesion among the key fractions of the dominant classes becomes harder and harder to accomplish. In that case strategies like a presidential dictatorship (e.g. Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution) or a “government of experts” or some other form of authoritarian and non-accountable government start to become appealing for the Right and their allies, so that constitutional democracy and proceduralism can be set aside. On the other hand, the complexities of mobilizing sufficiently broad bases of popular support among the people (in the electorate) also become too unmanageable and the existing party apparatuses fall apart. In that case, the popular constituences also begin to look elsewhere. If we use this framework of a dual crisis, then we have a very good means of beginning to assess the political fallout from the crisis of 2008 – country by country, capitalism by capitalism, polity by polity. Without drawing facile equivalences, it’s not too hard to see signs of the elements I’ve just described (e.g. presidential dictatorship, government by experts, non-accountability, plus disaffection and cynicism of the electorate) in the contemporary European climate. Even though we’re a long way from a fullblown “Poulantzian dual crisis,” it’s really important to identify, as clearheadedly and responsibly as possible, the places where such a crisis can grow.

George Giannakopoulos: How do you assess the recent surge of historical commentary on the peculiarities of the German past? Is the current crisis in Europe a product of the German imperial legacy as some, Brendan Simms for instance, seem to suggest?

GE: On the whole I’m very skeptical about arguments that rely on geopolitical perspectives of a deep-structural kind or long-run, grand-scale continuities going back to the Treaty of Westphalia, Frederick the Great, the reaction against Napoleon, and Bismarck’s Realpolitik. These are too often lazy substitutions for the more exacting kinds of analysis that begin from the distinctive features of very particular conjunctures and their shifting political opportunity structures – the complex fields of possibility shaped by the circumstances of particular societies at particular times, which may or may not be strongly interconnected or converge transnationally with one another in the international system, and which the historian needs to find ways of reconstructing and reentering. Relative to this challenge, I find the various books and essays of Brendan Simms not very suggestive and often quite banal. The resurgence of older-style diplomatic and strategic history delivers no greater insights than it did in the heyday of A. J. P. Taylor in the 1950s and 1960s. It clearly has its place, but the extraordinary gains enabled in the late 1960s and 1970s by the assertion of the “primacy of domestic politics” (Primat der Innenpolitik) by Fritz Fischer and his students along with Hans-Ulrich Wehler deserve to be vigorously upheld. Clearly the contemporary ambitions of a Schäuble bespeak an expansionist conception of Germany’s interests profoundly informed or even inspired by a dogmatically derived view of Germany’s place in Europe earlier in the 20th century. But the most important starting-point for analyzing the provenance of such a vision (Schäuble’s, that is) is now in the late 20th and early 21st century present, and not in the 19th and early 20th geopolitical continuities that Simms wants to prioritize, let alone the even deeper ones going back through Napoleon to the Thirty Years War.

GS: In the book that you edited, German Colonialism in a Global Age (Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2014), there is a comprehensive discussion of the German colonial empire and its significance. Considering the current Germany’s intentions to be the EU’s major political as well as economic power, and to dominate European governance, could it be described as a neocolonial power?

GE: Such a description is very polemically charged for all sorts of historical reasons, to be sure. But in light of all of the disclosures and revelations about the terms through which Schäuble and others have been conducting and understanding the recent negotiations, it’s impossible not to see those resonances. The EU has definitely been passing into a different period of its history. “Europe” has never been a democratic project, in terms of the constitutional and procedural mechanisms and modalities of its existence and the compete absence of any form of democratic accountability. But it has certainly been a cultural project of unification and common aspiration (a regime of signification, if you like), and since the 1980s there has increasingly developed a common cultural architecture and even some really existing bases of common belonging. For a time, moreover, between say the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, it was even possible to convince oneself that “social Europe” had some real conditions of possibility. But now all of that is gone. With exception of the explicitly socialist Left, which remains quite weak, there’s no discernible support anywhere in the current European configuration for a project of effective democratization or social progressivism of any kind. “Europe” is reduced only to a “regime of regulation” – one that’s patently structured around German hegemony.

The Bourgeois revolution and the challenges of the revisionist historiography

GS: One of the main analytical categories that your study Peculiarities of German History attempts to revise is that of the “bourgeois revolution.” Has this concept something still to offer to historians under the light of new studies like that of Neil Davidson? Which are its main limitations and in which ways we can push the historical research some steps further?

GE: Well, to be honest I’ve not tended to think with that concept for a long time now. That wasn’t the result of any specific decision on my part, more a consequence of a gradually developing unease about the hardness of the causal relations it tended to imply (within the Marxist tradition as then constituted) between processes of class formation and the operative forms of politics at the level of collective action and the state. In 1988 I published an essay called “In Search of the Bourgeois Revolution: The Particularities of German History,” in which I stepped back from my part of Peculiarities and the immediate Sonderweg debate in order to develop some more explicit generalizing arguments about the comparative implications for political development and state formation. But after that my main interests migrated elsewhere and I’ve never really gone back to the question of “bourgeois revolution” per se. I’ve been thinking for quite a while that it would be pretty interesting and important to do so, with Neil Davidson’s and others’ work as recent prods. But to do this properly I’d have to spend a lot of time bringing myself up to speed on huge bodies of historiography and theory that have been accumulating during the past quarter century (on the French Revolution alone, for example!), and I’ve too much else on at the moment to make that feasible. There’s no point in doing it unless you can do it conscientiously and seriously. But there are some very interesting recent interventions like Neil Davidson’s work. I’ve also been very taken by Marc Mulholland’s Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear, for example. In this respect I’ve always found it very intriguing that Perry Anderson’s successor volume to Lineages of the Absolutist State never materialized. E.g. in Cambridge c. 1977 he presented an extraordinary tour de force of a paper on the topic of the “bourgeois revolution” but that’s the last that I’m aware of.

GS: One of the central aims of the book, Reviving the English Revolution (Verso, London, 1988), you edited along with William Hunt is, by paraphrasing E. P. Thompson, to rescue Christopher Hill’s work from the enormous condescension of the conservative revisionists. This historiographical trend expanded to revisionisms affecting almost every modern “revolutionary” process in opposition to the respective Marxist narratives. Is that process in the historiographic field connected with wider social processes or it proceed with relative autonomy in regard to the society? Could we compare the revisionist challenge with the phenomenon of postmodernism? Do you find homologies, both regarding the causes of their emergence and their epistemological claims, between the two?

GE: Hmmmm. I’m not sure I like that implied equation! I was actually very excited by the interest in postmodernism from the later-eighties into the early-nineties, especially in the range of interventions that ran from Fred Jameson to David Harvey. Many of the wilder cultural studies discussions were also incredibly interesting in their time, especially among feminists. So I was never resistant or disapproving of those discussions. Under other auspices, the use of the “postmodernist” label to argue for certain new kinds of historical work could also be quite liberating, even if I quickly parted company with the most extreme advocates. Having said that, “postmodernism” did become a very divisive kind of marker in wide areas of debate during the 1990s among historians in the English-speaking world, and that’s where I could certainly see the connections you’re drawing. In our book The Future of Class in History: What’s Left of the Social? (2007), Keith Nield and I devoted an entire chapter to trying to figure out what was enabling and what was wrong-headed in the whole postmodernism discussion, and that’s where I tended to leave it!

GS: One of the interesting epistemological underpinnings of your historical work is the suggestion that there is no necessary contradiction between the macro and micro history, or, as you mention in one of your articles, “between the everyday life analytic and the pursuit of the proverbial ‘big questions’ or the use of theory per se.” Would like you to elaborate more on this epistemological parameter that informs your work?

GE: In some ways it’s rather straightforward: i.e. for the purposes of addressing different orders of questions you’ll always need different registers of theory, different methodologies, and different bodies of knowledge. I’m very avowedly eclectic these days. It all depends on the kinds of questions you’re trying to ask. The same questions can also be addressed at a variety of levels and in a variety of ways. There’ll always be more that a single approach and more than just one answer. So why do we need to choose? I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not saying that anything goes in some wishy-washy way. Rather, we need to think through, as rigorously and creatively as possible, how our particular questions can best be addressed, i.e. most imaginatively and most effectively. Sometimes we might need one kind of approach, at other times another. Most commonly we probably need varieties of combination. It all depends what works. Different theory for different purposes. That’s what I mean by eclecticism.

Left: Party, movement & power

GS: In your study Forging Democracy you insist on the crucial role of working-class parties and movements bringing European democracies into emergence. Taking into account the hollowing of Western democratic institutions that is taking place the last twenty years, do you think that the contemporary left should be aiming at the restoration of bourgeois parliamentary life? and if yes under which conditions.

GE: I’m not sure what the force of the “bourgeois” qualifying adjective might be! If it means “a parliamentary politics structured around a set of primary bourgeois interests and affiliations,” then that wouldn’t seem very desirable! But if we’re approaching “parliamentary politics” institutionally and procedurally as a set of practices and protocols for defining the conduct of politics in a variety of arenas (national, regional, local, supra-national), with a strong proceduralism and a democratic constitution that does NOT exclude other forms of participatory citizenship and grassroots activism, THEN it seems really essential.

That also connects to electoral politics too, clearly. Thus an electoralist strategy – or a politics that focuses on elections – doesn’t have to translate necessarily into equivalent forms of the very narrow kinds of electoral politics we have now. There are all sorts of ways of using the electoral process as a vehicle, as an instrument, as a platform, as an arena in which you argue for the importance of your particular kind of politics – as opposed to the electoral machinery that has come to provide the contemporary norm, i.e. an electoralism of the contemporary social democratic parties that’s effectively emptied of anything else. By the last third of the 20th century, the whole raison d’être of the party became reduced downwards into fighting an election, winning an election, keeping itself in office, or getting back there. But the classic slogan of the SPD left before the First World War had been Durch das Fenster reden (“Speak through the Window!”), i.e.. use the parliamentary chamber as an opportunity to challenge the given rules and boundaries of the politically possible by addressing the people outside, and thereby overcome the gap between the committee room and the street. So the problem isn’t so much the bankruptcy of an electoralist politics as such (or parliamentarism per se), but rather the degree to which fighting elections and manoeuvring inside parliaments can turn into the sole and sufficient focus, one that’s exclusive of the other grounds and arenas of action.

The challenge now is to think of viable political purposes and objectives in a manner to overcome the present limitations. By what means can you acquire a voice of significance, so that you are actually inside the conversations that determine how policy gets made, and how can you use local concentrations of strength in order to ensure the delivery of services and public goods in effective and just ways? Which then become, actually, the bases for political argument themselves. When people can see that something is actually doable, and may even work, then that’s how movements can begin to acquire momentum.

Historically speaking, there are lots of examples of a movement or a party, often on a very local basis, using the opportunities for political voice in order to build solidarities, create continuities over time, that were not simply subsumed under the electoral strategy of a Labour party or an SPD at a deradicalized, national level.

So it seems to me to be self-defeatingly ultra-left to ignore elections and parliamentary politics completely. Politics has to begin from the already existing points of access – not least because that’s where the majority of people understand politics to be located. So, democratically speaking, it seems self-defeating just to ignore elections and the parliamentary arena or relegate them to purely instrumental or tactical importance. I mean, obviously there will be occasions, and situations, where you may not want to prioritize your politics around an election campaign or building a parliamentary coalition, but, in principle, it seems to be foolish not to acknowledge that this is one of the key places where political practice needs to occur.

GS: The last fifteen years we are observing new modes of theorization and formation of political realties by the left that ignore in their analysis the state apparatus and consequently the institution of the party as the modern form of the representation of the various class interests. Hardt and Negri’s work is one example of this theoretico-political tendency. Could you provide us with a historicization of the explanatory causes of this phenomenon? Do you think that the contemporary left should come to grip with these issues more systematically?

GE: It does seem to me that between the 1870s and 1890s, the socialist tradition invented the mass party. The Left established the lasting model of the national parliamentary party and allied trade union federation geared toward elections, while harnessing mass memberships via educational, arts, recreational, sporting, cooperative, self-help, and social clubs, plus big auxiliaries for women and youth. By 1900 this model had become so successful, country by country, that it was also adopted by the Left’s opponents – first by Catholics, conservatives, and liberals, then after 1918 by fascists. After 1917-23, Communists followed the same pattern too. This socialist associationism (as we might call it) aspired to enter and organize the entirety of its supporters’ lives, ideally backed by the local governments the Left controlled and eventually by the future socialist state. This model grounded the parliamentary party in the everyday lives of its members. Its promise inspired far wider circles than just workers, focusing many more popular hopes – inside individual communities, during particular campaigns, when votes were cast in elections, as coalitions were formed for government. In their heyday – from the early 1900s to the 1960s – socialist and Communist parties became magnets for very diverse groups: not just waged workers (across skill levels, occupations, ages, religions, ethnicities, genders), but also white-collar workers, professionals, intellectuals, non-employed family members, discriminated national and other minorities, and so on. This was a massive achievement. But post-1945 changes – first the consumer capitalism of the great prosperity, then the post-Fordist transition – slowly destroyed the infrastructures making those very broadly-based socialist cultures possible. As a movement simultaneously rooted in working-class communities but always magnetizing much wider social supporters and hopes, that old mass party has gone. What might possibly replace it is one of the biggest challenges now facing the Left for the future.

I’ve been summarizing fairly recklessly here, and the argument will obviously vary in many important ways country by country. What I’ve said applies most straightforwardly to central and northen Europe too. But in principle and as a broad starting-point I think it applies more generally, because it proceeds from a very carefully grounded argument about the kinds of structural circumstances that delivered the infrastructure during the first two thirds of the 20th century for a rather successful version of Left politics. And with the capitalist restructuring and the attendant social transformations and political realignments of the past few decades (including state-institutional relations and forms) – everything we now summarize as neoliberal globalization – that infrastructure has now GONE.

So THIS is where I’d converge to some extent with the Hardt & Negri argumentation, although I don’t find their conception of “multitude” remotely helpful in trying to grasp those new forms of organized collective action and democratic practice that can begin to replace what’s now been pretty definitively lost.

In the period since the 1970s, the Left has bifurcated into two sharply separate spheres. One of these is the world of the given parliamentary parties: originally based in comprehensive, high-intensity membership machines, socialist subcultures, and class-based residential and work-related solidarity communities, these are now geared exclusively for the purposes of elections. The other world is that of the new social movements, the new extra-parliamentary popular movements: these are far looser associations of the like-minded, who combine together in remarkably creative citizens’ movements and other forms of activism completely beyond the bounds of the parliamentary system. This latter kind of grass-roots dissidence flourishes in both the big-city “alternative scenes” and the more gentrified professional and semi-bohemian enclaves, as well as the ethico-cultural spaces of smaller towns and villages, where communities of sentiment around the post-1968 values coalesced. These two quite distinct Left formations have a separate but overlapping existence. They also correspond to different periods of the Left’s history: one is the temporality of the major accomplishments of the social democratic and Communist parties in the first two thirds of the 20th century; the other reflects the fluidities of the period that followed.

What does this splitting into parties and movements mean? Socialist parties can no longer presume the loyalties of long-term supporters who happily reproduce their socialist allegiances over time (and down the generations) and turn out reliably for elections. Those parties’ ability to generate activist identification, binding their members together with wider progressive networks, has definitely gone. They are now exclusively parliamentary operations. In the extra-parliamentary world, in contrast, vigorous social movements have developed locally, largely disconnected from any national party. These parallel systems of Left affiliation may work together for elections, but once socialists form a government they pull apart. Socialist governments may distribute public appointments, create funding opportunities, and sub-contract areas of policy and research (typically for women’s issues, racial equality, or culture and the arts), all of which offer areas of social movement participation. Out of office, socialist parties can also converge more easily with those extra-parliamentary oppositions. But since the 1980s, parties have narrowed increasingly around their parliamentary domain. Links are closer with local government, where collaboration with grass-roots and decentralized movements can be easier to manage.

But socialist parties are now completely SCARED of extra-parliamentary energy. The broadest social movements have formed since the 1970s and 1980s around single issues or particular events, but without the backing of many socialist parliamentarians – peace movements, abortion campaigns, anti-nuclear protests, Sicilian anti-Mafia campaigns, urban squatting, anti-roads protests, and so forth. Thus the model of the nationally organized socialist party and its affiliated union federation, so effective from the later 19th century to the 1960s has come to an end. For the first time since the rise of labor movements, the main impulse for democratic enlargement is coming from elsewhere – not only from outside the official socialist parties, but often against them too. In one of the most vital areas of all – anti-racist activism and the collective self-organization of migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers, and ethnic minorities – the activity is poorly connected not only with left-wing parties but with the NSMs as well.

A strong and successful Left has always combined electoral and parliamentary with social and extra-parliamentary strategies. In other words, “the committee room” and “the streets” will always need to be moved into acting together. In the European present, unfortunately, resulting from long-term processes of social, cultural, and political change going back to the 1960s and 1970s, these two aspects of democratic politics have been broken apart. How might they be re-connected? Given their almost wholly deradicalized centrism and dismal showing in recent elections, the existing socialist parties are unlikely to offer any solution. Stronger articulations between grass-roots activism and potential allies inside the parties are more likely to occur locally. But if a social movement politics is to outgrow the localism of its immediate context and take on much wider efficacy and resonance, a Left will be needed that can act on a larger-than-local level too – that is, spatially across a region or in chains of coordination across other cities elsewhere, in the multiple settings of contemporary publicness (electronic media, internet, and blogosphere, as well as press, radio, and TV), in national parliaments and assemblies via parties and constellations of NGOs, pressure groups, and campaigning organizations, in the transnationally active versions of all of these forms of coalitioning, and so on. To be effective again, the Left will need ways of bringing each of these spheres and levels together.

It does seem to me that – in dramatic contrast to the utter hopelessness of the British Labour Party in the last two elections, to use an example of a once-vigorous but now entirely hollowed-out electoral party – it’s phenomena like the current SNP or Podemos, and of course Syriza (allowing for the outcome of the current crisis) that begin to show us a way into the future.

The Europe during the global economic crisis

GS: In the book, After the Nazi Racial State (Rita Chin, Heide Fehrenbach, Geoff Eley, and Atina Grossmann (ed.), Michigan University Press, Michigan, 2009), there is an attempt to reintroduce the notion of race as a legitimate conceptual and empirical tool for the analysis of difference in Europe. Would you like to elaborate more on the reasons you consider this concept useful for the historical analysis of the postwar societies? Do you think that it is possible after the recomposition of the European political scene since the crisis of 2008 to see the conservative and far-right leading the politics of European Union?

GE: Of course this is an exceptionally delicate and complicated area, because any time you argue that “race” has to be taken seriously as a category of analysis you run the risk of seeming to accept that it’s something “real” in the sense of having objective or scientific validity. So right from the start I want to make a distinction between the importance of investigating how “race” functions in social and political life and the equal importance, in fact the ethical and epistemological necessity, of continuing to challenge its existence. Taking it seriously doesn’t mean accepting the legitimacy of racial theories or reifying racial differences.

What I want to argue is that when ideas of race have such wide circulation and capture such widespread acceptance, they acquire some powerful purchase on social experience, whether or not they have scientific standing, and so in those terms they do become real. A government practice, a system of policy, a set of political languages, a body of scientific or academic knowledge, a religious creed, a big political idea, but also an event or chain of events like a riot or a rash of violent incidents, a public spectacle, or a political campaign, not to speak of deep legacies inside the culture, persistent patterns of unreflected thinking, widely diffused dogmas of common-sense understanding, and straightforward systems of prejudice – all of these generate categories which people then have to inhabit, which they then have to live with and to live inside. This is how the Althusserian concept of “interpellation” wanted us to understand ideology: people begin to understand themselves in a particular way, they recognize themselves in a set of ideas and appeals, they are interpellated by them. That interpellation isn’t automatic, it’s not inevitable, it’s not a process over which people have no choice. There are competing ideas out there too: race can also be contested. But in all sorts of ways ideas about race create places where in practice, with varying degrees of awareness, people in a society have little choice but to dwell. This describes more than just a process of “racialization” or the existence of a racist attitude or an ideology that’s somehow external or secondary to a material reality structured around something else. It describes a real social topography: forms of everydayness, actually existing patterns of organized community, an entire architecture of common belonging, ways of regulating public and personal space, institutional machineries, systems of governmentality. If we decide not to tackle race head on, then we miss this vital materiality. Race keeps its tenacity and its appeal because it inhabits an actually existing world of practices and ideas. That’s why we need to break the silence about it.

This becomes all the more urgent precisely because the Right finds in “race” such a powerful source of appeal. Since the 1990s, and perhaps all the more so since 2008, the Right has been making race into the ground of its widening success. Now of course I’m not saying that we have to become racists too, or that we have to tack towards the right in order to counter the Right’s appeal. That’s exactly what the center-left and social democrats have been doing so disastrously for the past 50 years. What I’m saying is that to acknowledge the “realness” of race as a set of descriptions of the world where people actually live is the first step to developing a politics that might be effective in countering racism.

George Giannakopoulos: You are currently engaged in writing a history of twentieth century Europe. What are the key challenges one faces when reflecting on recent European history at a time of profound political and socio-economic crisis?

GE: Well, many of the challenges are those involved in writing any general history of Europe, whether 20th century or not. I’m fundamentally committed to writing a history that is genuinely European for instance – one that does justice to east as well as west, south as well as north, small countries as well as big ones. Most general accounts quickly devolve in practice into the view from Paris, London, Berlin, and sometimes Rome. I also want to pay attention to all the possible dimensions and types of history – the social, political, and economic, the cultural and intellectual, history of science and technology, history of international relations, history of the environment, history of the big events and the history of everyday life, the micro and the macro, and so forth. I want to register what we’ve learned as historians during the past few decades from the histories of gender, sexuality, popular culture, the self and subjectivity, everyday life and microhistory, history of emotions, and more. Then there are the big questions of perspective, which I’m continuously trying to keep in mind. How do you write a history that’s legitimately focused on Europe without becoming Eurocentric, for example? How do you write the history of European integration without becoming teleological? How do you balance the need for an overall narrative architecture against the full diversity of national, regional, and local patterns and trajectories across the 20th century as a whole? I’m trying in addition to do full justice to the global, the transnational, and the comparative.

The balance between different priorities and registers of analysis – bringing together different temporalities for example, such as the eventfulness of the big moments of political upheaval and transition on the one hand, and the structural patterns and logics of the longue durée on the other hand – is very hard to get right. Certain structural and long-run patterns of development – demography, family relations, sexuality, childhood, generational conflicts, leisure and recreation, privacy and intimate life, health and nutrition, ecology and environment, etc etc – don’t easily map onto the more familiar political periodizations, which necessarily retain their meanings and salience. How do you balance the big eventfulness of the spectacular emblematic dates of the 20th century (1914, 1918, 1933, 1939, 1945, 1956, 1968, 1989, and more) with the underlyng patterns and trends of that kind? Certain problems are highly specific to the 20th century, of course. How does the Second World War need to be repositioned as we acquire ever-greater distance on that cataclysmic concentration of eventfulness, for example? Now that we’re able to view the 20th century from the outside, facing a new horizon of equivalently massive upheavals in the form of climate change and its consequences, how should the century’s first half (the so-called Thirty Years’ Civil War of 1914-45) be resituated in relation to its second half? How, in the light of the intervening genocides, do we now historicize the Holocaust, and how do we study it comparatively without diminishing its enormities? Shifting focus, how do we best historicize the exceptional accomplishments of western European social democracy in the post-1945 decades during the heyday of the postwar settlement before the inception and advance of neoliberalism started to take those conditions away?

There are many other particular challenges. Underlying them all, for me, is the abiding difficulty of finding the appropriate ground of analysis (epistemologically, perspectivally, ethically, politically) from which, in full recognition of European privilege and its effects, it’s possible to continue to write European history responsibly. Once Europe has been “provincialized,” in other words, how do you then proceed?

GS: How you would evaluate the political presence both of Syriza and Podemos until now in this crucial conjuncture for the future of Europe? Could be this kind of politics a viable long-term alternative for the ongoing continent’s crisis?

GE: My short answer is that Syriza and Podemos, along with the remarkable Jeremy Corbyn story and some other developments we might mention (e.g. the shifting around in Portugal), are each signs that important fissures are appearing in the given political landscape. But this still barely translates across “European” political discourse as such, DiEm25 notwithstanding. The sad conclusion to be drawn from the recent non-negotiations is that the basis from which to imagine a viable left politics in and for Europe seems still distressingly shallow and thin.


1The interview conducted in August 2015. Two of the questions formulated by George Giannakopoulos and the last question answered by Geoff Eley in March 2016.

The Interview was originally published by Sygxrona themata (in Greek).

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