Theory, Democracy and the Left

An Interview with Leo Panitch
By Carlos Pessoa

Despite its many internal differences, the whole of the post-1989 Left has at least been characterized by the struggle to reset the boundaries of its political project. If anything, the post-1989 period can be understood in terms of the Left in toto finally accepting democracy and its general principles not only a means to achieve its objectives, but also as an end in itself. The question became no longer, or at least not just, 'which socialism?' but 'which democracy'?

One of the most successful proposals of this post-1989 period was that which became known as the 'Third Way', having as its main reference points the 'theoretical' work of Anthony Giddens and the programmes of the Blair, Schroeder and Clinton administrations. However critical various members of the Left have been of this project (Anderson 2000; Callinicos 2001), it is undeniable that representatives of the Third Way were successful in displacing the New Right which had hegemonised Anglo-Saxon politics in the 1980s. During this later period, the Third Way was implemented in various forms not only throughout Europe, but across the world. (Giddens 2001) Now, however, it seems that we may be witnessing a retreat of this project, manifested either in the rise of the extreme right throughout Europe or in the general realization of its inability to create or even effectively manage social change. The challenge for the Left becomes, then, how to re-think a political project that on the one hand initiates real structural social and economic change, but at the same time is actually politically viable.

It is with this question in mind that Carlos Pessoa conducted this interview with Leo Panitch, one of the leading advocates of a revived socialist project for the western democracies.

Leo V Panitch is a Canada Research Chair in Comparative Political Economy and Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science at York University. He is the Co-editor (with Colin Leys) of The Socialist Register, published annually in London and New York. His books include Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy, and Imagination (Westview 2001) and The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour (Verso 1997, updated and revised ed. Spring 2001).

Carlos Pessoa is currently finishing his doctoral research on the Brazilian Workers' Party in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

Question 1
In your attempt to revive the socialist project, you have written on the need to link with various social movements such feminist, ecological movements and etc. Nevertheless, in such a renewal proposal you also have stated the need to recognize the 'salience of class' (2001, p.35). Does not such an insistence on the salience of class act as an impediment to bringing together various other social actors who do not share such views on the salience of class in their struggle? Does not one need a theoretical re-conceptualization that could accommodate the diversity of non-class issues within a leftist political project?

[Question 1]
I would rather put the issue you raise this way. Rather than speaking in terms of a 'theoretical reconceptualization' that denies the salience of class, we need socialist strategies that are founded on the recognition of the diversity of the working classes. This must entail seeking to build on the diversity among working people rather than artificially attempting, as was sometimes done in the past, to homogenize the class to the end of a short-cut to a forced and artificial 'solidarity'. One of the things that has kept working classes from being socialist, or has produced socialist practices that have been disappointing or worse, has been the treatment of the wage relationship as the only salient aspect of working people's identity, whereas it is the bringing of the totality of their rich and complex identities into the struggle against the ruling classes that would make the struggle a socialist one.

[Question 1]
That said, I frankly don't understand how it is possible to conceive the socialist project being 'revived' by the types of actors who do not recognize the salience of class in contemporary capitalism. A recent article in the Economic Journal by Banco Milanovic shows, on the basis of a study of 85% of the world's population from 91 countries around the globe, that the richest 50 million people have the income equivalent of the poorest 2.7 billion or, put another way, that the top 1% of income earners have an income equivalent to the bottom 57% of the world's population. This represents a staggering increase in inequality over the past decade. And these kinds of statistics can only be made sense of in terms of growing inequality within each social formation itself - the main factors here include stagnant incomes in the countries of South Asia and Africa, the growing divide between rural China and urban China, and the polarization of incomes in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union. Of course, one cannot ignore the polarization that has occurred within the rich capitalist countries themselves either. Thus there can be no ignoring the fact that even the poorest 10% of Americans are better off than 2/3 of the world's population, nor should we ignore the growing inequality within the rich countries, not to mention the increase in absolute exploitation, measured in terms of longer hours worked, casual employment, the decline in the social protections, and so on.

[Question 1]
Thus while class is certainly is not everything, as our post-modernist and post-structuralist friends on the left have always insisted, that hardly make it nothing. Especially in this era of so-called globalization - which is really another word for the spread of capitalist social relations to every corner of the globe and every facet of our lives - the world can't be understood without some sort of framework that incorporates class analysis. Indeed, as we argued in the 2001 Socialist Register on Working Classes/Global Realities, globalization may be best understood as mobile capital having an increasing number of proletariats around the world to land on, with growing numbers of the world's producers now - directly or indirectly - depending on the sale of their labour power for their own daily reproduction (the World Bank in 1995 put that number at 2.5 billion) so that the global proletariat is not vanishing but expanding at a rate that has doubled its numbers since 1975. Thus apart from the classic process of industrial proletarianization taking place in most countries in the South, we can also witness both there and in the rich countries of the North, as Ursula Huws and Andrew Ross show in this volume of the Socialist Register, the emergence of a 'cybertariat' which also involves the unmistakable process of proletarianization taking place among highly educated workers in the Silicon Valleys and Silicon Alleys of the world.

[Question 1]
Class is so salient these days that one has to wear particularly strong blinders not to see it. For instance, while I have no inclination to 'reduce' the horror of September 11th and it's aftermath to a simplistic class analysis, class pops up everywhere - not in terms that necessarily convey profound meaning, but at a superficial, immediately visible, level. This is not just a matter of the media's focus on the fate of the fire-fighters, or of the role of Bruce Springsteen, and the general way working class symbols were used to represent the disaster so as to link working class identity with patriotism. It is even a matter of news reportage that reflects, in some measure, a critical class perspective on the effects of September 11th. Take for instance a story in the New York Times that reports on the fact that the largest corporations who had offices in lower Manhattan are getting compensation massive compensation, something like over $6,000 for each employee for the interruption of their business, while small entrepreneurs in Chinatown are getting less than half of what the large corporations are getting per employee; and in terms of those displaced from their housing, people who lived in expensive apartments are getting far more compensation than people who lived in the lower east side or in Chinatown. Notably, this account in the Times goes on to ask whether the financial service worker is more valuable to the city than the owner of the dumpling shop and whether the owner of a million dollar loft is worthy of more aid than an immigrant in a tiny apartment. The answer to this ought to be obvious. In the definition of worth given by capitalist society, the answer can only be yes. Whether that should be so is another question, and if the New York Times is serious about that one, we may conclude that socialists may be finding allies in strange places these days.

[Question 1]
What are we to say then of a feminist movement or an ecological movement (to use the two examples cited in your question) that have no recognition of the salience of class? If certain feminists (and I must say this has been not been true of the feminist movement in Canada) have really denied the salience of the class position of most women around the globe, then it may well be because of this that contemporary feminism has become splintered and demobilized to the extent it has. As for ecologists, it is true that the Green Party of Germany's ideological location to the right of the Social Democrats in Germany's governing coalition, especially in wanting to push through neoliberal 'reforms' for labour market 'flexibility' (to cheapen the cost for German business of unskilled casual labour) may well reflect their denial of the salience of class. So may Pollution Probe's support for the privatization of electricity production and distribution here in Ontario. But this hardly means class is not really salient in these organizations. It may rather reflect the domination of specific class interests, ones that are inimical to those of the working classes, and especially of the poorest among them.

[Question 1]
In a capitalist society all issues bear on class, even if they are not all about class and even if a great many problems we face are cross class boundaries. Sexism affects women of all classes, even if what they can do about it is very much class-related. Similarly, all of humanity stands on the precipice of ecological disaster, and if the blind pursuit of economic growth is to be rejected, all classes, and not least the consumerist working classes of the North, will need to engage in a massive project of income and wealth redistribution to the working classes of the South. That means that any serious ecological project can not ignore the 'salience' of the ruling classes that are in the driver's seat of the capitalist growth machine, if we are to get anywhere in this respect.

Question 2
One of the main elements in your work has been the call for a ' different kind of state', which would deepen and extend democratic principles within various parts of the state. (1993) In other words, a democratization of state political institutions. In Canada, as you know, calls for a democratization of state have been more prominent within the right than on the left. Such a fact seems to imply that calls for democratization of the state has no necessary leftist character and is thus, in itself a limited rupturing character to the overall dominant political structure. Can you offer some comments on how you see the democratization of the state as a leftist rupturing project?

[Question 2]
The left's defensive posture vis a vis neo-liberalism (they say the state is bad, so we must say the state is good) is the new Hegelianism of our time. It should be the left that offers a critique of the bureaucratic aspects of the welfare state, of the military like top-down organization of government departments, of the secrecy within which so much state activity is enveloped. Even those people most dependent on the welfare state, like single mothers, are afraid of it and don't feel they have any influence over it but rather see it as an agency of control over their lives. As Marx made clear from his critique of Hegel as a young man (and again in his critique of the Gotha Programme as an old man) the state needs to be turned from an imposition over society to a democratic instrument of society. Right wing populist attacks on bureaucracy and support for referenda and recall, like their call for further marketization and privatization, are part and parcel of their tax-revolt politics. But this does not have anything to do with democratization of the state apparatus, and their hypocrisy is evident insofar as they are blindly supportive of the military and police apparatuses of the state. What should, above all, distinguish a radical socialist programme of democratization, moreover, is the use of the state's resources and the engagement of public employees in facilitating the collective organization of all the people who face the state and capital as isolated and marginalized individuals. The facilitation of the collective organization of single mothers so they could stand up to the welfare agencies together and have an influence on it is an example of what I understand by the democratization of the state as a left project.

Question 3
You have re-affirmed the importance of the political party as an organizational instrument. (2001; chpt. 1) However, an issue quickly arises at this point. Does not such a form of institutional participation within a liberal democratic regime limit the challenging character its political proposals, since the act of participating gives legitimacy to the very political regime that it tries to subvert. Some movements, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico or the Landless Movements (MST) in Brazil, seems to have understood that to the extent of deciding not to form a political party. Can you say a few words on this issue?

[Question 3]
Well, would you also say this of American trade unionism and its Gomperist refusal to ally itself with a labour party? There is nothing inherently socialist about the rejection of party. When I refer to a party as an important element in socialist strategies, it is an organizational instrument, not primarily related to electoral participation or parliamentary representation, but as an agency of collective mobilization and education. It is not a matter of 'either-or'. Given the diversity of the working classes, there must be a multitude of organizations that emerge out of it, and all of them, whether they are parties or not (including the ones you mention) have to face tactical and strategic questions about the form and degree of institutional engagement with the existing structures of power (and all of them need to be sensitive to the need to retain their autonomy). Certainly no one in the MST would deny that the PT in Brazil should not exist. It performs a different role, best understood not as the electoral one but rather as that of organizing the diverse, broadly defined Brazilian working classes into a coherent political force, one that should benefit from and support the land-occupations the MST is engaged in, but one that engages the state and ruling class over the whole range of issues that confront Brazilian society.

Question 4
You have correctly pointed to the need for the left to materialize alternative political institutions, the failure to do so continuing to be one of the weakest features of the left. At the same time, you have also stated the need to incorporate liberal democratic elements into the renewal of socialist project (2001; 103). Which exact elements or institutions of liberal democracy do you see as important for a renewal of the socialist project? And how do you see them overlapping between these two political discourses?

[Question 4]
As the great Canadian Marxist C.B. Macpherson was constantly telling liberal theorists there is nothing wrong with liberal freedoms except that they are restricted so much and hollowed out by the class society within which they are embedded in capitalism. Liberal freedoms would only fully blossom in a socialist society. So when I put my argument as you suggest I have, I mean nothing more than what Rosa Luxemburg meant when she said, in her critique of the Bolsheviks, that without freedom of association, speech, press, assembly, etc 'life dies out in every institution, becomes only the mere semblance of life, in which bureaucracy remains as the only active element.' Precisely because socialism involves, first of all and above all, developing the capacities of heterogeneous and diverse working classes, it requires institutions through which their diversity can be expressed, and through which their capacities, heretofore stifled by multifarious forms of subordination, marginalization and exclusion, can be developed via participation, debate, collective organization, etc. This is why internal democracy is so crucial in the organizations of the oppressed. As for a post-revolutionary situation, Rosa again put it best: 'The negative, the tearing down can be decreed: the building up, the positive, cannot. New Territory. A thousand problems.' Only experience is capable of correcting and opening new ways. Only unobstructed, effervescing life falls into a thousand new forms and improvisations.

Question 5
Although sharing similar political propositions, the left in these days seems to often be divided by their theoretical differences. For example, some of the main propositions of your work such as the inclusion of various social actors as political agents within a left political project, critical outlook towards liberal democracy, arguments for a radicalization of democracy to various spheres of the state, come close to the propositions offered by the discourse school in their re-thinking of the left political project. (Laclau and Mouffe 1985; Mouffe 1992) Besides the theoretical approach, do you see much difference between their political propositions and yours? If so, what are they? If not, do you see a gap between theoretical considerations and political propositions that seem often to divide the left among itself?

[Question 5]
The main difference, of course, is the one you already focused on in relation to the salience of class for socialist strategy. Laclau and Mouffe's indictment of class politics was based entirely on readings of the theorists associated with working class parties rather than on any examination of the actual practices, organizational structures and strategic dilemmas of working class organizations, and without any consideration of under what conditions these might be changed so that socialism reflected the diversity of the working classes. What they engaged in -- if I may say so, tongue in cheek -- was 'theoretical reductionism'. If we treat socialism not as abstract discourse, but as politics, then we need to pay attention above all to organization. Of course it is true that there is no basis for assuming that the class identities formed among manual workers in their trade unions and local communities would automatically persist or that numerical growth would make the working class hegemonic in any socialist sense. The point of inserting the working class party into the equation as the mediating factor between class and socialism was that they were potentially more than aggregators or pre-existing class identity; rather they were the essential element for the potential recomposition and extension of class identity in the face of a capitalism that constantly deconstructed and reconstructed industry, occupation, locale, etc. So if the notion of hegemonic struggle for socialism meant anything it meant not assuming pre-existing class identity as given but as something to be continually produced and reproduced in away that embodied liberatory capacities. This was necessary if the struggle for socialism was to be more than elitist or vanguardist (pick your anti-Leninist adjective), and this had to include a socialist vision that entailed more than demanding 'more' wages, but rather developing capacities in working people to provide leadership in their communities in relation to the diverse forms of subordination, discrimination and marginalization they faced. The failure of socialist and communist parties to do this is what needed examination, not the attribution of all problems of working class organization to the writings of a few of their theorists.

[Question 5]
Laclau and Mouffe's alternative of 'articulation' among movements, on the other hand, also suffered from its lack of any organizational specificity; and they were rather uncurious about whether some of the same problems of working class organization in the past were not also replicated on other movements. If we don't ask key organizational questions --- such as where do the leaders of the movements get their authority? to whom are they accountable? are the movement's organizations structured in a manner as to overcome the gap between leaders and led? - then the theory of 'articulation' will only be purely abstract, and is likely to do little to offset tendencies of a top-down 'popular front' kind - i.e. an alliance only among the leaders of various organizations, but with the people they allegedly speak for hardly being brought together (articulated?) at all.

Question 6
In these days, the bare mention of the word 'socialism' can bring quick dismissal for having quixotic aspirations. While many have dropped the term in their proposals for a renewal of the left, you have retained it.(2001) By keeping a term that has been strongly linked to authoritarian forms of government, however unfortunate such an attribution might be, doesn't one limit the possible reach of such a project for renewal?

Look, here is no magic to the word socialism. But if you are a genuine democrat and recognize that the full development of human capacities can be realized only insofar as the capacity to make decisions about what is to be done with the means of communication, production, exchange and administration are fully democratized (which is what socialist have meant by 'common ownership'), you are going to get called a socialist anyway. And if you insist that the principle of co-operation ought to, and just possibly can, replace the principle of competition in the constitution of human societies, then you are going to get called a socialist as well. I think it is better to meet the problem of past failures head on, and seriously address how to act now so as to build in safeguards that can prevent the same problems happening again, rather than pretend that another word will solve the problem. Of course you can decide to live with capitalism, and many do this while pretending or deluding themselves that they are just finding another word for socialism. The 'third way' of today's social democracy comes to mind. But the rejection of the word socialism also has been associated recently with a certain the loss of idealism that has come with certain aspects of identity politics, whereby the recognition and validation of a pre-given identity within the existing class society is what motivated people. The anti-capitalist slogan 'Another World Is Possible', articulated by the anti-globalization movement, bespeaks a recovery of idealism on the Left today, I am happy to say.

Question 7
You have sometimes made reference to the Brazilian Workers Party in your work. (2001; p.192) Do you think there is a need for greater communication and an exchange of political strategies between the lefts of the South and the North?

Of course there is great need for such communication, but we have to be serious about it and use this as an opportunity to learn about our respective difficulties and to strategize together about how to overcome them. I spent less of my time at the World Social Forum Porto Alegre last winter listening attending the plenaries and listening to speeches about 'Another World is Possible' than interviewing people at all levels in the PT, and urging them to explain to me what limitations they were facing, how their organizations were finding it difficult to overcome these and to talk together about what needed to be changed to do better. Too often we treat internationalism as pure public relations on the Left. We need sober international reflection on the Left on the problems we face, including the ones within our respective organizations, in achieving a genuine democratization in our respective societies. We need to learn from one another' struggles, not be the PR agents of one another's putative achievements.

Question 8
You have urged socialists to 'transcend pessimism' for the re-elaboration of political strategies. In your view, is there any political or social movement that one could take as empirical evidence for a more optimistic outlook on the possible success of a socialist political project?

Well, let's stay with the example of the Brazilian PT. It gives me optimism that a party which emerged barely 20 years ago, and did so by explicitly presenting itself as a post-social democratic and post-communist working class party, one which would advance the struggle for socialism by learning from the mistakes of the earlier incarnations of socialist politics, should have made such enormous strides in such a short period. I am actually very sober about the difficulties and limitations of the PT itself, and would urge people to read Sergio Baeirle's essay on 'The Porto Alegre Thermidor' in the 2003 Socialist Register to get a superb examination and reflection on these. What the PT shows us, however, is that those who wrote off socialism and the working class at the end of the 20th century were wrong to do so. Capitalism is such a powerful and dynamic system that it is hardly surprising that the first organizations conceived to overcome it should not have been adequate to the task. What the PT suggests is that there will be many new attempts at creative socialist organization in the 21st century, and this must give us hope that this will lead to advances being made on the old ones.


  • Anderson, P. (2000) 'Renewals', New Left Review (II), no. 1
  • Baierle, Sergio (2002) 'The Porto Alegre Thermidor? Brazil "Participatory Budget" at the crossroads', Fighting Identities: Socialist Register 2003, London: Merlin Press.
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  • Giddens, Anthony (2001) The Global Third Way Debate. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Huws, Ursula, 'The Making of a Cybertariat? Virtual Work in Real World'; and Andrew Ross 'No-Collar Labour in America's "New Economy"' (2000) in L. Panitch et al, Working Classes/Global Realities: Socialist Register 2001 London: Merlin Press.
  • Laclau, Ernest & Mouffe, Chantal (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.



  • Mouffe, Chantal (1992). Dimensions of Radical Democracy. London: Verso.
  • Milanovic, Branco (2002) 'True World Income Distribution, 1988 and 1993: First Calculation Based on Household Surveys Alone', The Economic Journal Volume 112, Number 476.
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  • Panitch, Leo (1993). A different kind of state? Popular power and Democratic Administration. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Pessoa, Carlos et al (2001). 'Theory, Democracy and the Left: An Interview with Ernesto Laclau'; Umbr(a): A Journal of the Unconscious.