Vladimir Borțun is a political scientist and activist from Bucharest currently living in Barcelona. We spoke about borders & the East-West divide, contemporary mythologies of the past & the core-periphery cleavage, disillusionment & the European elites, and the importance of internationalism in our toolkits.

  • Please tell us more about your academic/educational and personal background and journey, as well as your coming of age and the cultivation of left-driven foundations?

The top-down, bureaucratic form of socialism that we had in Romania was guilty of many sins, but its forced modernisation managed to lift a few million people from abject poverty and from what Marx used to call “the imbecility of the country life.” My paternal grandfather was one of these people: from an orphan young peasant who had to look after his younger siblings and who would wear shoes only on Sundays, he became a small-town civil servant in southern Romania. He was thus able to send his three children to some of the best universities in the country and one of them, my father, soon became a Marxist and, later on, a university lecturer in scientific socialism in Brasov, where I was born a few months after the Chernobyl disaster. 

In 1990, we moved to Bucharest, where I grew up and where, under his tacit influence, I read the Communist Manifesto at fourteen (although I have left-wing credentials also from my mother’s side, whose father was a member of the old, inter-war social democratic party). I later chose to study philosophy at the University of Bucharest, for both my BA and first MA degrees.

Bucharest, 1999. Rapid—Dinamo

The department of political philosophy there was, in the mid-2000s, heavily dominated by right-wing libertarians and conservatives, which was of course reflected in the authors we studied, with virtually no Marxist thinkers on the curricula. Suffice to say that Rawls was probably the most left-wing author we discussed. The hegemony of pro-capitalist ideas also prevailed among students, which is pretty unusual for a politics department. Apart from three people, of whom one is now a comrade of mine in Mâna de Lucru and the other two are members of the left reformist party Demos, I can’t remember anybody else in my year who was on the left.

This ideological desert was reflective of the entire Romanian public sphere at the time. There was absolutely nothing on the left other than the Idea publishing project at Cluj and the Romanian franchise of Indymedia, where I also published my first political article ever around 2004-2005 (a naïve piece about the neo-colonial relations between the US and Romania). I would desperately look for leftish inflections in Radu Cosașu’s weekly column in the right-wing cultural magazine Dilema Veche, which is pretty sad given that he was describing himself as an “extreme centrist”. 

In such an ideological climate, my self-proclaimed Marxism was more of the vague, abstract kind, a rather intellectual than truly political option. My actual politics were in fact quite left-reformist, classic social democratic so to speak. That started to change, however, with the 2008 financial crisis, which brought home to me Marx’s ideas about the inherent contradictions of capitalism and its propensity for ever deeper crises. It showed Marxism to be a living method to analyse the world today and point the way forward. 

I’m sure that crisis had a similar effect on many of my generation, and not only, which was articulated in the following years in the rise of the first contemporary anti-capitalist, quasi-Marxist discourses in our public sphere. As you know, they were mostly centred around the online platform CriticAtac, which was the first pole of attraction for the post-’89 Romanian left and where I started to publish in early 2012, joining then the editorial team in 2015. I’m not as much involved at the moment, which is mainly due to a certain exhaustion of the platform’s initial purpose.

In 2013, I moved to the UK to do an MA degree in European Studies, driven by the reformist illusion that the EU could somehow be reclaimed from the left. The more I learned about it, though, the more aware and critical I became of its fundamental class character. But the key role in my political coming of age was joining, very shortly after my arrival there, the Committee for a Workers’ International—a revolutionary socialist organisation with sections and sympathising groups in over 35 countries around the world, which Mâna de Lucru collaborates with. 

Thus, from an unorganised and inconsistent Marxist, I became a Marxist building the revolutionary party, which in my book is the only kind of Marxist you can be. Academic Marxism is a contradiction, and not of the dialectical kind: it completely misses the point of what Marxism is all about, which is theory and practice and the inextricable, dynamic relationship between the two. As Lenin used to say, paraphrasing Kant, practice without theory is blind and theory without practice is sterile. But I would add to this that theory without practice is not only sterile but also half-blind, because Marxist theory and analysis fundamentally feeds upon the changing objective and subjective factors, which you need to engage with, especially the latter, if you want to really grasp them. 

To conclude on this point, if we look in history at all the great missed opportunities for revolution, from the Paris Commune to the Arab Spring, each time the key missing piece was a revolutionary party that would seize the moment with the correct programme, strategy and tactics. So, if you’re serious about changing the world, then you should start building the revolutionary party, wherever you are.

  • You belong to a diminishing yet persistent group of people from the region, with whom we identify, who are working across scenes and the old “East-West” divide, contributing to ongoing discussions happening both in Romania and the UK. In the context of Eastern Europe, how do you position yourself within a wider geopolitical field? (Or, alternatively, do you even think of your work through such a framework?) 

Complex question. Culturally, I see myself as a South-Eastern European, if such a cultural category does exist. This might sound incredibly crude, but I think Romania is, in a way, unique because it has no clear place in one Europe or another, but is itself the place where three different Europes meet, broadly corresponding to its three historical provinces: Eastern/Slavonic Europe (Moldova), Central/Habsburg Europe (Transylvania), and South-Eastern/Balkan/Byzantine Europe (Wallachia). And I think that’s great and, instead of chasing some artificial, self-colonising resemblance with “the West” (see, for example, the nickname “Little Paris” for a city that would be more aptly dubbed “Little Istanbul”), we should creatively embrace this multiple, split identity. 

I myself have started to do that only after moving to England, which gave me some hermeneutical distance from all this. Before that, I was a pretty zealous Anglophile, listening 90% to British music, copycat-ing British urban subcultures, imitating British accents to my friends as my main party trick etc. However, once in Britain, although my passion for The Clash and Adidas Originals trainers never went away, I started to broaden my interests and tastes towards other cultural horizons, Southern European and Latin American in particular (music-wise, if nothing else). Doing also a PhD on Southern European left parties and taking trips over there, I came to realise that I feel more at home in the (Northern) Mediterranean space than anywhere else, which is a big reason why I’m now relocating to Barcelona for work. And I think the South-Eastern dimension of Romania has many elements in common with this space, which is partly why that’s how I would identify culturally.

London, 2017. With Mick Jones from The Clash

Politically, on the other hand, I reject such geographical labels. I obviously take very much into account the objective core-periphery cleavage: Romania is an economic semi-colony in all but name and any serious left-wing analysis needs to start from this basic fact. But I think the best way to combat that cleavage is not by reinforcing it through some partly well-intended, partly resentful, and fully counter-productive romanticisation of “the periphery”, of “the East”, but through old school internationalism, by building class solidarity and cooperation across all borders, be them West-East or North-South. 

My enemy is not “the West” but big capital, its political representatives and useful idiots, regardless of where they’re from. Let’s not forget that imperialism wouldn’t work without the complicity of local elites benefitting from it and that imperialism also makes victims at home—see the ex-industrial workers in core countries living on benefits because their industries have been relocated to the periphery, see the islands of poverty that de-industrialisation has caused in places like Wallonia or Yorkshire. 

Of course, that international class unity faces obvious obstacles, including cultural ones, but as a materialist I believe that, fundamentally, the concrete needs, interests and lived experiences of workers and oppressed groups around the world can provide the basis for a joint, worldwide struggle against the common enemy—the profit system. This system has no nationality or geographical allegiance, and neither should we. And this is where the role of the international revolutionary party comes into play, as the force needed to help organise and lead such a struggle.

  • Eastern Europe’s socialist history has played a crucial role in establishing a network of peripheries, of uniting people into a sole purpose, which also manifested itself in an internationalist dimension. What can we learn from our contemporary history of dissenting against capitalism & what does your research conducted on transnational party cooperation teach us about politically-engaged solidarity? What lessons can be drawn from the alternative left political parties from the south of Europe that you have been researching (Portugal/O Bloco, Greece/Syriza, Spain/Podemos)? 

The short answer is that the main lesson we can draw from these parties is that they are failing precisely in doing what you suggest they’re doing, or should be doing: to organise dissent against capitalism. Now, a longer answer.

My PhD focused on the transnational networking and cooperation among these parties. The starting assumption was that, in the wider post-2009 context of the Eurozone crisis, their subjective (programme, strategy, orientation, internal organisation, international links) and objective (austerity-ridden societies, dramatic drop in living standards, crisis of mainstream parties, big social turmoil) similarities would make them strengthen their relations, maybe even set up a new international structure of the left. 

One of those subjective similarities is their neo-reformist programme: a neo-Keynesian economic agenda coupled with feminist, environmentalist, and LGBTQ concerns; in other words, a revival of post-WWII reformism topped up with what is commonly and utterly wrongly called “post-materialist” themes. The truth is that this reformism is often significantly more moderate even than post-WWII social democratic parties, many of which called for, up until the rise of neoliberalism, the public ownership of some key sectors of the economy, which these parties shy away from today (especially when they are in government, like SYRIZA). 

However, such parties are considered to be “radical” or “far” left, not only by their political competition and the capitalist media, but also by supposedly critically thinking scholars. This reflects the shift to the right of the political spectrum over the last four decades of neoliberalism. The old centre (at least in economic terms) is now the “radical” left. This serves the status quo in two ways: by attaching the pejorative connotations of the term “radical” and thereby symbolically marginalise anything that is to the left of the neoliberal orthodoxy and, more importantly, by trying to exclude altogether from the debate what is truly radical, that is, what aims to change society from its roots, i.e. anti-capitalist, socialist transformation—for why would anyone debate what is even to the left of the “radical” left, right? 

Despite this trick, though, the sheer failure of capitalism to improve the living standards of the majority of people in the world today means that, inevitably, anti-capitalist and socialist ideas are coming back into the spotlight. Of course, there’s still a lot of confusion around them, as proven by the mischaracterisation of these parties or of Scandinavian countries as democratic socialist, but consciousness is much better today compared to the “end of history” era of the 1990s. 

And parties like Podemos, Bloco and SYRIZA (which I’m not sure it can even be considered neo-reformist after enforcing neoliberal measures) are lagging behind this process. They still think it’s the 1990s! They still think it’s not the right time to openly raise the need for systemic change, for socialist transformation. Of course, the way to do that would not be simply attaching the call for socialism at the end of every propaganda material, but in a transitional way that skilfully makes demands about concrete issues affecting ordinary people while also pointing towards the need for socialism to secure and expand any gains in addressing those issues. 

All this should be done through social mobilisation and active engagement with the trade unions, social movements, activist networks etc., where electoral politics serves as an auxiliary platform to boost visibility and support for these demands and struggles. Unfortunately, it’s the other way around with these parties and others like them (e.g. Die Linke, La France Insoumise). Despite their initial orientation towards social movements (which enhanced their electoral appeal in the first place), these parties, or more precisely their leaderships, have largely abandoned the streets in favour of the institutions (which saw them lose from their electoral appeal, unsurprisingly). They look more and more like the mainstream parties they were supposed to be an alternative to. 

With this shift in orientation and strategy also came along a process of internal bureaucratisation. Although they present themselves as “parties of their members”, the rank-and-file have little control over the leadership and limited say in the direction of the organisation. Genuine debates and bottom-up flow of ideas are obstructed. And it’s actually ironic how they invoke fuzzy things like horizontalism and grassroots democracy as opposed to the Leninist democratic centralism. However, not only do they embrace a caricature of democratic centralism, no different from what bourgeois parties and ideologues have always done, but they end up resembling that caricature themselves. By contrast, the real democratic centralism practiced by the Bolsheviks allowed, before Stalin hijacked the party, for an incredibly open and dynamic internal life, from which the “anti-authoritarian” left of today would have a lot to learn.

This top-down character is also reflected in their transnational cooperation, which is mostly limited to MEPs, party leaders and their assistants. Thus, despite the favourable context provided in this regard by the Eurozone crisis, there’s hardly been any transnational mobilisation initiated or galvanised by these parties, whose transnational joint activity mostly amounts to rather sterile and repetitive quasi-academic conferences. The “Plan B for Europe” initiative had the potential to be something more than that but has ended up in yet another elite thing, completely detached from the popular classes and, frankly, politically irrelevant—it’s now called “Now, the people!” movement, but without “the people.”

All these are important lessons that the left can draw from the experiences of these parties. In sum, their problem is that, contrary to the widespread image, they are not radical enough, neither programmatically, nor strategically, nor organisationally.

Bucharest, 2013. Roșia Montană protests
  • Another key interest of yours seems to be precarious conditions of labour/living in contemporary neoliberal capitalism. You heavily engage with these tensions regarding notions of labour and precarity, such as increasingly fluid working hours, debt and inequality, high demand of mobility, intermittent contracts, high living costs. You started Mâna de lucru (Workforce/Mano de obra), an internationalist platform that deals with precarious labour. First of all, tell us more about it (how did it come to exist?) and why this kind of emphasis is required in Romania? Second, what is the internationalist dimension of the platform and what is your/its connection with the CWI?

I will start from the second dimension. The Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) is, as I said, a revolutionary socialist international with sections and sympathising groups in over 35 countries, including Romania, as well as some very difficult places for socialists to organise, such as China, Sudan, Turkey, Brazil, or Russia. We are rooted in the political tradition of the Fourth International, but, unlike most international organisations belonging to this tradition, we are neither an eclectic and federalist collection of groups from different countries (often with fundamental programmatic and strategic differences between them), nor a big group from a certain country surrounded by smaller satellites that follow its line dutifully. We are, by contrast, a world revolutionary party, with a both cohesive and democratic structure, centred around a coherent programme, orientation, strategy and methods. At the same time, we display tactical flexibility from country to country; for example, while all sections recognise the central role that trade unions can or should play in the struggle for socialist transformation, the precise way we engage with them, what kind of demands we raise, depends on the state of the labour movement and the wider context in each country. This reflects our understanding of Marxism as a living and breathing method, firm in its principles but flexible in its tactics, in accordance to the different, changing concrete circumstances that we face in different places and at different times.

But those fundamental principles are the same throughout the international.

First, that the big problems facing humanity, from poverty to women’s oppression to climate change, cannot be solved in the straitjacket of the profit system, but in a society where resources are publicly owned and democratically controlled to meet the needs of all; and where the institutions of the state reflect that, in a bottom-up way, rather than being captured by corporate interests as in the travesty of democracy that we have today.

Second, that the working class together with the precarious and oppressed groups in society is the social force best positioned to transform society. Why? Because it has most to gain out of it, because it has the power to do it as the driving force of the economy, and also because it is the best prepared, in terms of organisation and experience, to engage and succeed in a common struggle.

Third, in order to succeed, such a struggle needs to take on both the economic and political power of capital, which requires the programme, strategy and leadership that only a well-organised revolutionary party can provide.

Fourth, preparing for such a struggle is not simply calling for the abstract overthrow of capitalism but engaging here and now with the problems and consciousness of the people, starting from there to help them draw by themselves the conclusion that we need socialism.

Fifth, such a struggle can only be international—not as much out of moral idealism but practical necessity. Islands of socialism are not feasible in the long term, just like I cannot play football when everybody else on the pitch is playing rugby: I either play rugby too, or convince everybody that football is better. 😊 ⚽

Sixth, all this is doomed to fail without democracy, as painfully proven by the variety of Stalinist regimes in the last century; and that’s not only because democracy is nice and ethical, but necessary: you cannot plan the economy according to people’s needs if you don’t ask the people what their needs are! Indeed, democracy is vital not only in building socialism but also in building the kind of movement needed for that; the revolutionary party has to be, internally, the most democratic organisation possible, because the best programme, strategy and tactics can only stem from a genuine and dynamic exchange of ideas and experiences; at the same time, once that exchange reaches a conclusion, there needs to be unity in action—this is democratic centralism.

And all this is the kind of revolutionary socialism that Mâna de Lucru also stands for. We started the group in 2016 and now, apart from myself, we have members in Bucharest, Cluj, Craiova. We have a Facebook page, website and a paper called Lupta [The Struggle], whose third issue is about to come out in the new year. While we do focus on labour and economic issues, we believe they are interrelated with the various forms of oppression prevailing in our society (against women, the Roma people, the LGBTQ community, etc.)—they’re all expressions of the class system, which benefits directly from the division among people that sexism, racism and homophobia breed. The Romans were the first to practice it, as the famous saying goes.

In a country where socialism is still mostly associated with Stalinism, we aim to counter this misperception and spread our ideas of revolutionary and democratic socialism among workers, the youth, the oppressed. We cannot do that from the rooftops though, but we need to get involved in their struggles, in strikes, in protests, in community campaigns etc. That’s the only way we can build the forces needed for socialist transformation. Some will say “this guy is crazy if he thinks there’s any chance to build a revolutionary party in Romania now!”. But others have done it and are doing it in much more complicated situations than Romania. Because you don’t wait for the revolutionary situation to come in order to start building the revolutionary party. You don’t want to be like the lazy striker who walks around the pitch just waiting for the ideal pass and when the ideal pass comes, he’s offside or the ball hits him in the back of the head because he’s looking somewhere else.

At the same time, precisely because consciousness is not fully ripe for revolutionary ideas and a revolutionary organisation, we also call on the trade unions to create, together with the social movements and activist networks, a new mass workers’ party, where various left currents and tendencies would be allowed to operate. Building such a mass organisation that would fight for the interests of the majority would be part of the transitional approach of linking the more concrete and immediate needs of the people to the question of socialist transformation.

  • Onto a background of growing disillusionment with the system & and a European project seemingly constructed for/by the capitalist elites in the West, what types of thinking and practices do you think are needed to re-imagine the future of Europe and Eastern Europe? What is the alternative? Is there a new thinking possible beyond “the end of history” or “after the end of post-communism”? Is it possible to strategise and come up with a revised vision for the future of Europe, not in a totalising manner, but perhaps to provide a toolkit that would allow to critically explore this condition, to counter the intellectual/political hegemony of the West, and propose a more habitable setting through a new set of discourses and practices? 

As I said, as an internationalist socialist, for me the key problem is not the hegemony of the West, but the hegemony of capital, which has historically been and often still is located in the West. But nowadays it can also be located in China, or Saudi Arabia, or Russia. At the same time, the EU is indeed a hegemonic project of big capital from North-Western Europe. And it’s always been that. It is not some good idea that was wrongly applied, but it’s a wrong idea that was rather well applied, up until the contradictions of the Eurozone and of capitalism more generally caught up with it. What that idea was from the very beginning was for a common market that would boost profits for big companies from the historic core of European capitalism, which had emerged in a highly weakened position from the Second World War and anti-colonial struggles that followed. 

The idea of a “brotherhood of nations” has served as a legitimation narrative like that of Christianity or “civilisation” did in previous incarnations of European imperialism. In reality, the EU is the expression of the common agenda of capitalist elites. But that common agenda is, at the same time, limited and in times of crisis it will be overridden by the competition between those same capitalist elites, as illustrated by the Eurozone crisis and by the next one around the corner. Because of that, Europe cannot be truly united on a capitalist basis, as competition is inherent to this system, and so are its crises, which make the competition all the more intense, unscrupulous and nationally-driven.

So is there an alternative to capitalist EU and to capitalism in general possible? Absolutely. More than that, it’s necessary. The old slogan of the 1990s, “Another world is possible”, is not good enough anymore. It’s no longer enough to simply reject the plethora of moronic reductio ad Stalinum arguments, which reduce any alternative to capitalism to some form or another of totalitarianism. The time of defence is over. It’s time to go on the offensive. We need to argue more forcefully for socialism as the only alternative to barbarism. The sheer survival of the planet is at stake. We can only save it by building a truly democratic society, where we control resources to meet the needs of all and finally liberate humanity from the shackles of wage slavery, war, oppression, poverty and natural destruction.

Note: We are very proud and excited that this interview with Vladimir Bortun galvanised the appearance of a more in-depth sequel that took the shape of a different medium. Listen to a new episode of Dezarticast in English, run by the virtuous memesters behind Dezarticulat, here.

Interview taken in the context of the relaunch of Kajet Journal's digital platform, found in altered form in the Imagined Exchanges book published by Dispozitiv Books and co-funded by the AFCN (Administration of the National Cultural Fund of Romania).

Vladimir Borțun is a Romanian political scientist and activist from Bucharest currently living in Barcelona. Member of the Committee for a Workers' International. PhD in political science at University of Portsmouth with a research project on neo-reformist left parties in Southern Europe.