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Why is it so difficult to re-unite the Left nowadays?

Emre Özçelik

David Harvey (b. 1935) is one of the most prolific and influential Marxist intellectuals of our times. A few months ago, he published on-line a very lucid and concise essay – “The Party of Wall Street Meets its Nemesis” (Harvey, 2011). In this piece, Harvey not only described adeptly the ultimate ‘final stage’ of capitalism, but also welcomed and supported enthusiastically the Arab and Occupy uprisings as promising anti-systemic movements. He concluded with a good deal of optimism, as far as a revival of the Left is concerned: “Which street will we occupy? Only time will tell. But what we do know is that the time is now. The system is not only broken and exposed but incapable of any response other than repression” (emphases mine). In a sense, Harvey’s essay implies that, in the face of the ‘global financial crisis’, the neoliberal ‘commanding heights’ of capitalism are now in ‘an absolutely hopeless situation’.

In this regard, one cannot help remembering Lenin’s warning to his optimistic comrades in the unprecedented dust and heat of the aftermath of World War I: “Revolutionaries sometimes try to prove that there is absolutely no way out of a crisis [for the ruling class]. This is a mistake. There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation [for the bourgeoisie]” (Lenin, 1920).

I do not want to do injustice to a great figure like David Harvey. Indeed, I cannot do that because, for sure, he is incomparably more aware than me, in terms of both theoretical competence and practical experience, that there are too significant obstacles in front of a prospective ‘re-union’ of the Left. However, with all my sincere respect to Professor Harvey and other great figures on the Left, I am inclined to think that, especially at the times after reading them, ‘unwarranted optimism’ has historically been one of the strongest obstacles in front of anti-systemic movements.

One of the many examples of unrealized optimism in the ‘annals’ of the Left is the now-classic 1944-book by Karl Polanyi – The Great Transformation. The opening sentence of the book told us that “Nineteenth century civilization has collapsed”. The rest of the book was devoted to a masterful explanation of the internal contradictions of the ‘liberal movement’, which, during the nineteenth century, attempted a full-scale commodification of land, labor and money by utilizing the state apparatus. This liberal movement was self-defeating in the final analysis because it was all the more natural that large segments of society effectively demanded protection from the humiliating and annihilating consequences of such a generalized system of free markets. The anti-social ‘liberal movement’ was doomed to generate its own opposition in the form of an anti-liberal ‘social movement’, which, in its turn, started to gain momentum especially during the inter-war period of the twentieth century, thereby leading Polanyi to expect a world-wide ‘great transformation’ towards ‘socialism’ at the end of World War II.

However, the ‘nineteenth-century civilization’ has never collapsed. In the 1945-1975 period, roughly, there existed quite a ‘small transformation’ of the ‘self-regulating market system’ into Keynesian ‘embedded liberalism’, whereby the vagaries of the ‘free market’ were purged temporarily in order to mitigate and contain the anti-capitalist fervor, sustaining the commodification and exploitation processes at relatively lower levels. Towards the late 1970s, a specter was haunting the world – the specter of neoliberalism. Nineteenth-century civilization was back.

Why did history prove Polanyi wrong? The answer may lie in his underestimation of capitalism’s institutional preparedness against potential and kinetic fervors of anti-systemic sort. At the expense of some significant details in Polanyi’s work, if his above-explained ‘double movement’ is transmuted into a more Marxian parlance, what we can see is the following: Initially, the ‘whole bourgeoisie’ utilized the state apparatus as its own ‘executive committee’ during the nineteenth century (that is, the liberal movement). Eventually, however, the ‘whole proletariat’ was succeeding in transforming the state apparatus into its own ‘executive committee’ during the first half of the twentieth century (that is, the social movement). What is more, Polanyi optimistically expected that such ‘socialist’ transformation of the state would continue with success in the second half of the twentieth century, because, he thought, humanity had already learned clearly that the state becomes utterly anti-human in the hands of the capitalists. The nineteenth-century politico-culture was an attempt to reduce humanity to a servant of the privileged few. What Polanyi hoped to see in the aftermath of World War II was a brand new politico-culture designed to serve the wants and needs of humanity.

However, the ‘ruling classes’ were historically well-prepared against such ‘anti-systemic’ human demands and attempts. For instance, Poor Laws had existed in England since 1349! The Poor Laws are one of the most interesting institutions that the ‘ruling classes’ have ever innovated for keeping the employed and unemployed poor under control. Over the centuries, they were amended frequently and duly in response to changing economic circumstances and interests. At a time when the juvenile Marx was trying to understand Hegel’s understanding of the world, the Poor Law Commission in England reported that: “It is an admitted maxim of social policy that the first charge upon the land must be the maintenance of those reared upon it. Society exists for the preservation of property; but subject to the condition that the wants of the few shall only be realized by first making provision for the necessities of the many” (cited in Dale, 2010: 76, emphases mine). In other words, the English government in the first half of the nineteenth century was clearly aware that sustainability of exploitation and protection of the wealth of the privileged few depended on the provision of the basic needs of the unprivileged many. Later on, the 1848-Revolutions in Europe, even if they failed, forced the ‘liberal state’ to give some ‘democratic’ and ‘material’ concessions to the masses for mitigating and containing their anti-systemic fervor. At a time when Polanyi was doing his PhD, Winston Churchill, as the President of the Board of Trade, was working on the preparation of the first minimum-wage legislation in England and a so-called Labor Exchanges Act designed to help the unemployed find jobs. Conservative Churchill announced in 1909 the rationale behind his efforts, when he was advocating the institution of ‘national insurance’: “The idea is to increase the stability of our institutions by giving the mass of industrial workers a direct interest in maintaining them. With a ‘stake’ in the country in the form of insurance against evil days, these workers will pay no attention to the vague promises of revolutionary socialism… it will make him a better citizen, a more efficient worker, and a happier man” (cited ibid).  This statement is a good summary of how the ruling class prepares itself against the potential and kinetic anti-systemic movements. Indeed, later on, ‘invention’ of macroeconomics by Keynes in the 1930s turned out to be an historic contribution to the survival of capitalism.

Now if we come back to our times, one can argue that the recent ‘global financial crisis’ is rather different from all previous crises of capitalism, or that it is not a crisis of overproduction that can be overcome by Keynesian macroeconomic policy. Okay, but so what? Don’t we have every reason to think that a different sort of Keynes-the-savior must be in the making in the Western or Chinese universities? Don’t we have every reason to think that the overwhelming majority of economic, politico-cultural and ideological apparatuses are still in the hands of the ‘commanding heights’ of the capitalist world-system? And, thus, don’t we have every reason to think that the great figures of the Left, from David Harvey to Slavoj Zizek and from Tariq Ali to Immanuel Wallerstein, are disseminating an ‘unwarranted optimism’ by attributing an ‘anti-systemic’ character to Arab and Occupy movements, majority of the participants of which are obviously demanding nothing more than some voice and esteem along with some plausible amount of ‘hush money’?

That the great figures of the Left are propagating unfounded hope at a time when the Left badly needs to know how to cope with capitalism’s subtle ability and historical flexibility to contain truly anti-systemic movements is the reason why it is so difficult to re-unite the Left nowadays.

It is now time for the great figures of the Left to choose to teach one of the two: How to kill capitalism or how to kill time.



Dale, Gareth (2010), Karl Polanyi – The Limits of the Market, Polity Press: Cambridge, UK. [The original source to the citations in the text is: Chris Jones & Tony Novack (1980), “The State and Social Policy”, in P. Corrigan (ed.), Capitalism, State Formation and Marxist Theory, Quartet].

Harvey, David (2011), “The Party of Wall Street Meets its Nemesis”,, 28 October 2011, accessed on: 31 March 2012.

Lenin, Nikolai (1920), “The International Situation and the Fundamental Tasks of the Communist International”, Report to the Second Congress of the Communist International, 19 July 1920.


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