Unity or Austerity? We Decide

by Pham Binh on May 17, 2012

A project is launched in Britain, bringing together activists from around the U.K. in a new network for united action and open debate.

Will the “Leninists” within it continually misrepresent those who disagree with them? Or will they be able to put their schemas and dogmas aside and play a constructive role in undermining the counterproductive divisions on the U.K. left that benefit only the 1%?

The answer depends on what they do. Judging by Kady Tait’s article about the Anti-Capitalist Initiative (ACI) on the Workers Power (WP) Web site, it seems that the latter possibility is highly unlikely. A real pity.

Tait’s most egregious political errors revolve around two issues: why the left has failed in the U.K. to defeat the austerity drive and the issue of a revolutionary party.

To hear Tait tell it, the left in the U.K. has lacked a “clear programme” since at least the end of World War Two, which has allegedly led to failure after failure, from Pablo and Healy (whoever they were) to RESPECT. Oddly enough, Tait later cites RESPECT’s electoral success in Bradford as a positive reason for ACI to take a hard line against imperialism. A successful failure is something I’ve never heard of; perhaps I should brush up on my dialectics (or rather doublethink).

Call me cynical, but even the clearest of clear programs has no actual power in the real, material world to stop a vote in Parliament to privatize (really Americanize) your National Health Service (NHS), colonize Afghanistan, or anything else. To stop or reverse these attacks, you need power — electoral power, political power, economic power, class power, street power, people power, institutional power, even cultural power.

The reason the banksters that run the globe are pissing their pants over SYRIZA’s election victory in Greece is because, for the first time in a long time, a radical left force may soon hold political power, and, from the look of things, SYRIZA is not going to back down or compromise on its incredibly simple, incredibly clear, and incredibly powerful program: no more austerity for the Greek people

Programs don’t get any more clear than that.

The notion that I, Louis Proyect, or Hal Draper (what an insult to Draper to put my name next to his) ever argued that “adherence to a clear programme [is] the cause of nothing more than endless demoralising splits” and led to the far left’s impotence internationally is false to the core. I challenge Tait to substantiate that claim with quotes or evidence.

As for the issue of a revolutionary party, Tait sets up a false dichotomy, writing that the debate within ACI on this question is “between libertarians who want to limit it to a network of activists, and Leninists who want it to become a revolutionary party.”

First of all, a party is a network of activists, a highly developed one, but a network nonetheless. All parties are networks, but not all networks are parties.

The above is an example of how not to build a revolutionary party…

Secondly, how could the ACI’s launch meeting of 80 activists, in a brand new formation, with people from a variety of ideological backgrounds possibly “become” a “revolutionary party,” which to me means a party with the power (there’s that word again, power) to guide a social revolution to victory? Should ACI also be condemned as hopelessly pacifist for not electing the provisional leadership of the future U.K. Red Army since activists are up against a highly centralized military force?

This rhetorical question is just a way to highlight the fact that WP’s prescriptions for ACI flow from timeless abstractions (“we need a revolutionary party” is an equally applicable statement in 1840, 1940, 2002, and 2012) rather than a concrete analysis of the tasks that stand before ACI, given its people, their backgrounds, and the context of the U.K. in 2012. WP’s defeated resolution for what ACI should stand for as a starting point demonstrates this: “resisting the attacks on the welfare state, bringing down the government through a mass strike wave, overcoming the division of the anticuts movement into rival campaigns through a national federation of anticuts groups, building a rank and file movement in the unions, supporting unemployed, migrant and precarious workers, opposing imperialist wars and occupations, supporting the Arab revolutions and the Palestinians, opposing racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia, defending the environment, and – most controversial of all – fighting for the formation of a mass working class political alternative to the Labour Party.”

This “laundry list of worthy goals” approach reminds me of what the U.S. Party for Socialism and Liberation usually calls for as “points of unity” through its anti-war front group, ANSWER, although they would include freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier alongside of defending North Korea and condemning the “pro-imperialist rats” for overthrowing Ghadafi at a demonstration focused on getting U.S. troops out of Afghanistan.

The items on the wish list may differ but the underlying methodological approach is the same.

It would have been ridiculous if the 80 people at the ACI meeting voted for this WP resolution. How can anyone even talk about bringing down the U.K.’s government through a massive strike wave when it’s painfully obvious even to an overseas observer like me that trade union activists are only in the very beginning stages of creating a rank-and-file counterweight to the official union leaders? What’s needed is not grandiose posturing about mass strikes (which at this stage in the game is as useful as debating what venue the London soviet will meet in) but deeds that can facilitate the creation of networks of union members that can serve as an independent power base for actions against the bosses, actions that will probably not take the form of strikes at first.

There is a lot of difficult, creative, and risky organizing that needs to happen for this process to begin. Resolutions that call for things that would be wonderful developments like a national federation that unites all the anti-cuts groups need to include detailed next steps or at least suggestions for getting to those worthy goals if they are to be taken seriously.

For example, to begin networking with all of the anti-cuts groups in a given locality, break the ice, and establish relationships of trust and good faith between the rank-and-file of these groups, a series of informal socials or parties featuring a prominent unaligned speaker (Tariq Ali, George Galloway) or artist (Lowkey) might be what’s needed. The more people can be pulled out of their respective corners of self-isolation to forge long-term working relationships, the better.

That painstaking process is not aided by laundry list resolutions mentioning Palestine, the environment, and a new left-of-Labour Party because they do not include any practical steps to answer the question “what is to be done?” to move an inch or two forward to those strategic goals, which are miles down the road at best. A resolution shop is no better than a talking shop because neither help us get what we need: the power to make what we would like to see a reality.

It’s unfortunate but we in America lag behind comrades in the U.K., to say nothing of the exciting and important regroupment/unity efforts that are beginning to pay off politically in Egypt (Workers Democratic Party), France (Left Front), and of course Greece (SYRIZA). There are fewer organized socialists here than there were in 1898; we have as many active organized socialists as the U.K. does (around 5,000) but far more socialist groups and a population of 300 million compared to the U.K.’s 60 million. America is usually first in things it should be last in and last in things it should be first in, and our socialist movement is no exception.

The worst part is that almost none of the existing U.S. socialist groups as a whole are interested in experimenting with the looser, provisional, inclusive non-sect(arian) approach of ACI. Nearly a year of Occupy and the greatest radicalization in four decades has not shaken our socialist left out of its lethargy, bad habits, compartmentalization, slow growth, self-inflicted irrelevance, and defeatism.

In an attempt to facilitate something like ACI here, I am pleased to announce that thenorthstar.info will be changing its exclusive focus on Occupy to something more ambitious: facilitating the kind of united anti-capitalist left that is needed to block the austerity regime from destroying the last citadels of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society: Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare, all of which will be on the chopping block during Obama’s second term without a doubt. This is what is at stake if we don’t get our act together here, just as NHS is on the line in the U.K. if the left doesn’t change its ways there.

I am optimistic about the prospects for a new, non-sect(arian) anti-capitalist left in the U.S. but realistic that it may be a decade (or three) before we have a party worthy of the name that is feared and hated by the 1%, much less one that can honestly be described as “revolutionary.”

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