“Social democracy has been exhausted”: Kees van der Pijl on Marxism, barbarism, and prospects for left renewal

What are the hope for a renewed Social Democracy across Europe? Who constitute the new Atlantic ruling class? How do we combat the rise of xenophobia? And what is the future of the war-torn countries across the globe? Kees van der Pijl, one of the leading Marxist political scientists, takes us through his intellectual and political development since the 1970s, as well as pointing towards the future developments for emancipatory politics in this wide-ranging interview with George Souvlis and Yulia Yurchenko (originally published by LeftEast).

Q1: Would you like to present yourself by focusing on the formative experiences (academic and political) that have strongly influenced you?

My generation was a lucky one, the baby-boomers whose society was in competition with state socialism, our own social order discredited by the Great Depression and two world wars. So capitalism was compelled to show a human face (at home, not in southeast Asia, Africa or Latin America, of course). Although coming from a very modest background, I was able to study for practically nothing, enjoy quality schooling compared to what is offered today, and profit from other social provision and protection. It was generally a Spartan but optimistic environment to grow up in. From my background in the declining petty bourgeoisie of small shopkeepers, I also inherited a mentality of hard work, not counting on others, and a penchant for not trusting the high and mighty (that turned out very useful, too).

So when my generation experienced first-hand what is now recognised as the moment the capitalist class called into question the post-war class compromise forced upon it by Depression and war, and we ourselves burst onto the scene with a permissive culture breaking with the rigidities of reconstruction Cold War Europe, we were relatively well-trained, hungry for a different world (socialism in any form), and optimistic.

Yet at the time I personally completely failed to see what Wolfgang Streeck has called the three successive attempts by Western governments (inflation, state debt, private debt) to cover the breakdown of the post-war class compromise by throwing money into the breaches. We interpreted the 1970s crisis as a crisis of capital, whereas it was in fact a crisis of the post-war class compromise as a consequence of the restructuring of capital to relations of exploitation and domination outside that compromise –both at home and abroad.

I was hired by the University of Amsterdam in 1973, which was then faced with a massive expansion of student intake, in a climate of student revolt, ‘Marxism’, and with mainstream theories such as positivism being ridiculed. Much time was spent in meetings that in hindsight served no purpose but to offer a terrain the government and university administration had decided or just guessed would slowly tame the student movement by incorporating the administratively-minded into the governing structures and prepare these for a transition towards a market-oriented university regime.

I was also, from the mid-70s to when it collapsed, a member of the Dutch communist party CPN. That party had no clue of what was going on either, and basically mistrusted intellectuals. Even so, my membership satisfied my search for a real opposition, and I must say that in the party I finally encountered the working class, its culture, powerful humanity, and the tradition from which the party had been able to build the most powerful resistance movement in our country against the Nazi occupation in World War II. All this, the strength of character, humour, and iron organisation, made the party an unforgettable life experience but intellectually it did not really influence me. Those who influenced me were French communists, some East German and Soviet authors, whose books I found in the communist bookshop: Paul Boccara, Christian Palloix, and so on to Poulantzas, Suzanne de Brunhoff.

My most inspiring teacher in Leiden, where I studied, was the Indologist, Jan Heesterman, who appreciated my creativity and intellectual curiosity more than the political science teachers such as Hans Daalder and Arend Lijphart who wanted an American-style discipline. Ben Sijes, a veteran Council Communist (anti-party) was a guest professor and intellectually was very important for me, because he introduced us to Pannekoek, who (as a contemporary internationally renowned Marxist) criticised Stalinist propagation of Lenin’s original, mistaken materialism.

Once in Amsterdam, my late friend Gabriel Kolko, the US historian, who along with his wife and (co-) author Joyce had come to live there, was a great source of inspiration and so was Robert Cox whom I got to know through Stephen Gill. André Gunder Frank was employed by our university for a year or so and during that time we had some very memorable encounters. Of course my co-conspirators in Amsterdam, Meindert Fennema, Henk Overbeek and later Otto Holman, and others, and several cohorts of unforgettable students, were able and insightful interlocutors in developing intellectually.

Source: Verso