Reply to Callinicos on anti-politics & social struggle

by · November 18, 2014

15-M protest in Madrid

15-M protest in Madrid

When Elizabeth Humphrys and I originally wrote “Anti-politics: Elephant in the room” on Left Flank just over a year ago, we were trying to summarise the changes in our thinking over the causes and consequences of the “crisis of representation” that the blog had been focused on since its inception. The post has been widely read, debated and criticised on the Marxist Left, including as part of a major article on the crisis of the radical Left by Alex Callinicos in International Socialism, “Thunder on the Left”. Our reply has been published in the print and online editions of the journal. We reproduce here a slightly longer version than the one that was eventually published.


‘Anti-politics’ and the return of the social: A reply to Alex Callinicos

By Tad Tietze & Elizabeth Humphrys

The concrete analysis of the concrete situation is not an opposite of “pure” theory, but — on the contrary — it is the culmination of genuine theory, its consummation — the point where it breaks into practice.

—Lukacs, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought[1]

In his diagnosis of the causes of the crisis of the radical Left in the last issue of this journal, Alex Callinicos criticised the “anti-politics” analysis that we have developed over recent years, in particular at our blog Left Flank.[2] Surveying the current context we stand by our delineation of three distinct but interrelated types of “anti-politics”: A widespread popular mood; the emergence of political projects that attempt to capitalise on this mood; and a revolutionary socialist strategy to overcome the state (and, therefore, the practice of politics centred on it) once and for all. We contend that Callinicos’s objections rest on two errors: Theoretical confusion about the relationship between society and politics, and a muddled “concrete analysis of the concrete situation”.

A generalized crisis of politics

The comparative strength of bourgeois politics throughout most of the 20th century led to confusion among Marxists about the relationship between society and politics. Mass parties and related organisations like trade unions drew millions of people into direct political activity, and into seeing the state as a site where their social interests could be represented. The era of mass democracy obscured the reality that the state’s primary interest was the maintenance of capitalist social relations against the interests of the vast majority of people. Social power was represented within the state only in a distorted, debased, or estranged way via political parties associated with classes, other social groups or policies. Further, the practice of politics — in both parliamentary and more “radical” forms — tended to channel the social weight of the organised working class into the limits set by the state. Rather than going onto enemy terrain to disrupt its logic, such engagement with politics more often adapted to its rules, leading to the diffusion, derailment and disorganization of social resistance.

As we argued in the article Callinicos directly addresses, our starting point was to locate the popular reception to Russell Brand’s attack on the political system in “the crisis of representation that leads most people to see politics as completely detached from their lives. Crucially, this detachment is not caused by the political class being less ‘representative’ of their social base than in some previous era; rather, its lack of a social base makes the political class’ actual role in representing the interests of the state within civil society more apparent.” Further, it is the separation of the state from civil society that “creates the appearance of representation, one that masks the underlying social relations of domination. It is this appearance that is now breaking down.”[3]

Australia provides a useful case study. Labourism was the pivot around which Australian politics was organised during the 20th century, and popular detachment from politics since then has been driven by the decline of the Labor Party’s social base in the unions, whose membership and strength have collapsed in the last 30 years. This was in part because the unions actively participated in a social contract with the Labor governments of 1983-96 that drove through “neoliberal” restructuring. At the time, the union Left around the Communist Party argued this “Accord” represented the apex of working class political action.[4] By the time of the most recent Labor government (2010-13) the party was suffering state election results and national opinion polling comparable to lows not seen since the Great Depression. Up to a third of its former base has defected to the Greens party, which itself underwent a serious setback after entering an alliance with Labor.[5] And in case people thought this was just a crisis of one side of politics, the right-wing Abbott government has experienced the worst first 12 months of a new government since regular polling began, with its austerity agenda under serious threat. These are just the latest installments in a protracted political derailment, and the dysfunction is sufficiently bad that elite commentators publicly fret that the system is no longer capable of delivering pro-business “reform”.[6] Meanwhile, media discussion of the anti-political mood among voters is everywhere.[7] Importantly, this is happening despite Australia avoiding a serious economic downturn after 2008, alongside a very low level of social struggle since the mid-2000s.

While the specifics vary in different countries, similar patterns emerge. The late Peter Mair’s Ruling The Void details the hollowing out of the political system in Europe in the decades leading up to the crisis of 2008, measured in terms of collapsing party memberships, declining voter allegiance, growing electoral volatility, the deterioration of associated organisations, and increasingly negative social attitudes towards politics and politicians.[8] This has taken place in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal where dictatorships collapsed in the 1970s, even though the resultant democratic settlements initially seemed to rest on solid institutional roots in civil society for their stability and cohesion.[9] While recent economic chaos has accelerated these processes of decline, they long predate the current era of “austerity”.

Under capitalism all politics is necessarily “capitalist politics” precisely because “the political” only exists as a separate — and alienated — sphere in modern, bourgeois society. This is why we say that a consistent strategy of social revolution must be “anti-political”: because by ending the capitalist state and moving to replace capitalist social relations with an organization of freely associated producers, the social revolution will remove the material basis of a separate politics. Our position is not that intervention into politics or “taking power” are unimportant; on the contrary, we think that understanding the precise nature of the relationship between the social and political — and how this plays out concretely in the present — is an essential precondition of knowing how to intervene in the sphere of politics so as to maximize the chance that social struggles can defeat the limits constantly being imposed by the political.

Puerta del Sol

Anti-political social movements?

Unless we start with the capitalist nature of previously robust political structures we can fall into a one-sided view that their decay necessarily limits social progress. It is true that in recent times minority sections of the Right such as UKIP and the French National Front have taken advantage of popular revulsion with the political class, but Callinicos is wrong to imply that the prevailing anti-political mood tends to lead to regressive outcomes. By way of contrast, the example of Spain is one that raises questions about where the crisis of politics might lead and what kinds of social struggles may emerge as a result. Callinicos only touches on the 15-M (“Indignados”) movement, despite it being the largest and most radical social movement of the last 15 years in the West, perhaps because it so clearly contradicts his narrative.[10]

While 15-M was similar in form to other movements originating in square occupations, such as “Occupy”, Syntagma and Gezi, it reached far deeper into Spanish society than these, and at its height some six million people were directly involved. Yet the movement was also characterised by a high level of antipathy to politics, including an initial refusal to allow trade unions, political parties and even the revolutionary Left to participate in openly organised form. One of 15-M’s central slogans was “No nos representan” (“They don’t represent us”) and the movement erupted in the lead-up to the 2011 general election at a time the traditional Left was seen as part of the problem; quite understandably given the unions’ deal with the Socialist government to wind down resistance to austerity in 2010. The recent meteoric rise of Podemos — an electoral intervention expressing both a sharp critique of “the political caste” and the social demands of 15-M that won 8 percent of the vote in European elections within months of being formed — further poses the question of how anti-politics might relate to radical struggle.[11]

The disdain for political parties within 15-M and other recent movements is more acute than that within the anti-capitalist movement over a decade ago. Yet the Marxist Left tends to dismiss the growing antagonism of social movement participants to existing politics as a kind of infantile disorder to be corrected. This reminds us of the kind of incomprehension at social change Bob Dylan was referring to when he sang, “Something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is / Do you, Mr. Jones?”

Nevertheless, Podemos — a Left political project relating to the anti-political mood — is not without contradictions, in particular its ambiguous position regarding the state. As its campaign chief Iñigo Errejón made clear in a recent essay, he does not see the party’s relentless attacks on “the political caste” as a critique of politics or the state per se. In his view Podemos’s version of social change would occur through the radical reshaping of existing state structures, not a revolution against the state. Quite brazenly in light of the struggles that dominated the three years preceding Podemos’s breakthrough, Errejón claims:

[W]e dared to criticize the rigidity of the concept of “social”, which constitutes a separate entity that precedes politics, and which needed first to accumulate forces, and only then could translate electorally. Contrary to the argument claiming that there is “no shortcut”, defended by “movementist” currents and the extreme left, Podemos — born from “above” and not “from below” — argues that election time is also a time of articulation and construction of political identities. [12]

This argument for subordinating social interests to the primacy of politics finds its echo in the approach of much of the Marxist Left, depending as it does on the kind of inverted view of society that Marx criticized in Hegel and others in the 1840s. For Marx, on the other hand, the basis of politics is to be found in the social relations that constitute bourgeois civil society.[13]

The struggle inside Podemos, which has drawn thousands of activists into a more centralised and focused national body, is therefore one between those like Errejón whose focus is on delivering change from above (with the movements acting as a prop for this) and those who want to make it a vehicle for progressive social transformation from below. Because Podemos was born of radical social struggles, its fate is not pre-determined. But it ultimately depends on whether it is content to become another player on the existing terrain of politics or whether it tries to mobilise what Marx and Engels called “the real movement” against the state.[14] The panic induced by Podemos in Spain’s elites is tied up with the threat of the latter and not the former.


Theoretical confusion and weaknesses of analysis

In his article, Callinicos writes, “The trouble is that the state, the broader political process of which it is the focus, and the parties that struggle over it remain fundamental determinants of the social, whatever autonomists and neoliberals fondly claim.”[15] As with Errejón this represents a reversal of Marx’s argument. Callinicos also quotes Daniel Bensaid’s suggestive formulation that politics involves “transfigured social antagonisms”.[16] Bensaid seems to us to be saying much more than politics simply being the “concentration” of capitalist social relations, yet whenever Callinicos returns to the relationship between social and political contradictions he either conflates them or implies a fairly direct connection. It is the specific nature of this relationship, of politics and the state being estranged or abstracted expressions of capitalist society, that is crucial. It’s not for nothing that Marx sometimes called the capitalist state an “abstract state” and even “this supernaturalist abortion of society”.[17]

Further, when Callinicos writes that “the state operates in the interests of capital, but this does not mean that struggles over the state are all versions of bourgeois politics”[18] he conflates two types of struggle: those that are social and those that are merely political. That is, he confuses struggles where ordinary people take action to change society in their own interests — including in relation to the state — with political activities that merely seek a change in the policies, personnel or form of the state. Of course there are many struggles that contain both types of activity, but by definition communism is the result of a struggle for social emancipation that ends the state, not a struggle that stops at political emancipation in relation to the state, a distinction Marx drew most famously in “On the Jewish Question”.[19]

We believe that Callinicos’s theoretical confusion on the relationship between society and politics, one shared by most of the radical Left, also lies at the core of our disagreement over the nature of the current period and the problems of the Left.

Callinicos charges us with, “worse still,” “making the present situation seem better than it is” by associating the anti-capitalist Left with “anti-politics”.[20] We presume this reflects his desire to paint the rise of anti-politics as a negative development. Instead, when he writes that, “capital is economically weak, but much stronger politically, less because of mass ideological commitment to the system than because of the weakness of credible anti-capitalist alternatives”[21] he gets things completely upside-down. The social and economic dominance of capital over labour are much greater than 30 or 40 years ago, in large part because the defeats of the 1970s and 80s undermined workers’ collective social strength. The ability of capitalists to push the costs of the current crisis onto workers through job losses, wage cuts and productivity drives is evidence this has not been reversed. On the other hand, organised politics has been undergoing all kinds of convulsions and meltdowns despite the relative absence of powerful “from below” organisations and struggles like those of the last “upturn”.

Clarifying the roots of a crisis that spans the entire political spectrum, one which the radical Left has found itself caught up in despite relating to explosive mass struggles over the last 15 years, is therefore at the centre of our analysis.

Callinicos claims that, “In equating ‘communism’ with anti-politics, Humphrys and Tietze make concessions to the autonomist myth that it is possible to change the world without taking power and thereby to renounce strategy.”[22] While many will read his labeling of our argument “autonomist” as an insult — in particular because the term was used to attack dissident members in the SWP’s recent crises — we think Callinicos’s characterization also emerges from his theoretical confusion. Furthermore, it seems to be designed to distract from how, far from renouncing strategy, we make an argument about the nature of the period that has profound strategic implications.

Callinicos, meanwhile, splits the journey of the European radical Left into two phases: an “era of good feelings” up to mid-2005 where it “began to have an impact on the bourgeois political scene” on the back of mass movements; and an era of fragmentation once the movements receded. We find his account unpersuasive.

Firstly, of the “radical Left” parties Callinicos mentions, only the SSP and Respect actually fit his periodization in terms of measures like electoral results, let alone their relationship to patterns of struggle. In the absence of a more empirically-based argument it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Callinicos is projecting the SWP’s experience onto quite different circumstances elsewhere.

Secondly, he treats the radical Left in relative isolation from the general malaise of bourgeois politics, in particular the openings thereby created. Attention to such factors would, for example, explain Die Linke’s 2009 increase in vote over its 2005 breakthrough during relative social quiescence — on the basis it was underpinned by the worsening of the SPD’s fortunes through its coalition with Merkel.

Finally, we think Callinicos gives a one-sided account that focuses too much on the power of “objective” factors in the Left’s problems, at the expense of lending his analytical skills to a much-needed critique of radical Left strategy. He sees the progress of the radical Left as limited much more by the lack of sustained “economic class struggle” than any subjective errors. Even the disastrous decision by Rifondazione Comunista to join a centre-Left governing coalition that betrayed its supporters in the social movements is given short shrift in order to sustain an overarching narrative of circumstances beyond any political actor’s control. This strikes us as class struggle fatalism. We fail to see how such fatalism will develop the political clarity needed to avoid repeating the cycle of hope and despair Callinicos depicts.



The rise of “anti-politics” in the current period is a product of the breakdown of the political order that prevailed in many rich capitalist countries for much of last century. While this has created space for some political projects of the Left and Right to take advantage of popular disdain for political elites, it has also thrown light on the relationship between the social and political spheres of modern capitalism. The Spanish experience, discussed above, most sharply poses the question of how the interests of the great mass of people can be won — through relatively uncritical participation within the logic of capitalist politics or through social struggles that seek to challenge that logic? It is possible that this wave of anti-politics will end with “the political” reasserting itself in a new form on some quite different social basis, but without overturning capitalism — that is, if there is no social emancipatory movement that can come out on top instead.

Recognising “anti-politics” is not the same as negating intervention in the political sphere. But it means that the goal of such interventions is to surpass the alienated sphere of the political instead of perpetuating it. We cannot conjure social struggles out of thin air, but neither do we do ourselves any favours by pre-empting them with the demand they conform to the rules of the political game.


[1] Lukács, 1970, p43.


[3] Humphrys and Tietze, 2013.

[4] Tietze, 2012; Humphrys 2012; Humphrys and Tietze, 2014.

[5] Tietze, 2013.

[6] Kelly and Jones, 2014.

[7] See, for example, Evans 2013; Pash, 2014; Triffit, 2014.

[8] Mair, 2013.

[9] See, for example, Kampagiannis, 2013 on Greece.

[10] Stobart 2014a; 2014b.

[11] Stobart 2014c.

[12] Errejón, 2014.

[13] Marx 1975a [1843]; 1977 [1859]

[14] Marx and Engels, 1968 [1845].

[15] Callinicos, 2014, p115.

[16] Callinicos, 2014, p118.

[17] Marx 1975a [1843]; 1966 [1871].

[18] Callinicos, 2014, p118.

[19] Marx 1975b [1843].

[20] Callinicos, 2014, p119.

[21] Callinicos, 2014, p111.

[22] Callinicos, 2014, p119.


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Callinicos, Alex, 2014, “Thunder on the Left”, International Socialism 143 (summer),

Errejón, Iñigo, 2014, “Spain’s Podemos: Inside view of a radical left sensation” (15 July), Revolting Europe,

Evans, Mark, 2013, “Why do Australians Hate Politics?” (11 July), The Conversation,

Harman, Chris, 1979, “Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left”, International Socialism 4 (Spring),

Harman, Chris, 2008, “Italian lessons”, International Socialism 119 (Summer),

Humphrys, Elizabeth, 2012, “Still stuck in the 1980s? The unions and the Accord”, Overland,

Humphrys, Elizabeth, and Tad Tietze, 2013, “Anti-Politics: Elephant in the Room” (31 October), Left Flank,

Humphrys, Elizabeth, and Tad Tietze, 2014, “Qantas and job losses: the reality of union decline must be faced” (5 March), The Guardian,

Kampagiannis, Thanasis, 2013, “The Greek crisis: Between democracy & dictatorship?” (20 November), Left Flank, [Original in Greek in Σοσιαλισμός από Κάτω, journal of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK)]

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Pash, Chris, 2014, “Study: Australians dislike their politicians more than ever, and Tony Abbott is the most unpopular PM in 26 years” (21 February), Business Insider,

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Stobart, Luke, 2014b, “Whatever happened to the Indignados? 2: Regime crisis” (24 March), Left Flank,

Stobart, Luke, 2014c, “Spain shows that the ‘anti-politics’ vote is not a monopoly of the right” (28 May), The Guardian,

Tietze, Tad, 2012, “ALP’s condition terminal? A crisis of social democracy” (12 March), The Drum,

Tietze, Tad, 2013, “A change in the order of things? The Left, the Greens and the Crisis”, Overland 212 (Spring),

Triffitt, Mark, 2014, “Are we seeing the death of the two-party system?” (29 August), Sydney Morning Herald,

Discussion2 Comments

  1. I add my support to the way Liz and Tad frame our local and global realities: ‘far from renouncing strategy, we make an argument about the nature of the period that has profound strategic implications’.

    It is so weird to read and hear Callinicos and Panitch not only referring to the ‘real action’ as being in the dead old houses of parliament and boys clubs of unions but also wagging their fingers at all of us active in the ‘alternative’ spaces which, for us, are the main game.

    I will hold hands with the left who are active in mainstream politics on all the campaigns that concern us both but I will not take their scorn seriously till I see any real points to do so — successful activities and convincing arguments.

    A typical claim, trotted out by Panitch at the 2014 Historical Materialism Conference in Sydney, is that the Occupy movement has no demands. There it is right in his face: OCCUPY. Marx would love it, says it all, bang on. What a demand, what a strategy. Wake up!!!

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