Left Unity, Left Chimera? A Critical Look at Developments in Britain

by Michael Ford on May 9, 2013

Originally published with the title “Left Unity” by 21st Century Manifesto.

Left unity is the motherhood-and-apple-pie of socialists.  The unspoken (and sometimes spoken) assumption is that if only the left could crack the unity problem – the Rubik’s Cube of political intervention – then anything is possible, up to and including the relevance that has long eluded most of the left for many years.

As a result, there is from time to time a modest flutter around the issue, and this is one of those times.  The reasons for this renewed interest in left unity include the reasonable and the nonsensical.  In the former category comes the agonising but inescapable fact that, five years into an enormous capitalist crisis, the left in Britain has made negligible political impact.  This is allied to a widespread and understandable disgust at Labour’s record during its 13 years in government until 2010, and at its continued hesitancy in moving away from New Labour positions, most obviously in relation to issues like welfare and privatisation, on which the old Blairite positioning still predominates.  There is an argument that Labour no longer represents the broad progressive coalition that it once did to at least a limited extent, having become both less democratic and more bourgeois over the last generation.  That is not an argument that should be dismissed.

Among the bad reasons we would have to place all the over-excitement generated by the incremental implosion of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a group with small and shrinking influence on the course of events whose recent travails have surely by-passed most of the world at large.  Nevertheless, whether it is grappling with New Labour or picking up the pieces of the SWP, left unity is now presented as the answer.

Here it will be argued that this project – not so much “left unity” per se, but founding yet another new Left Party to fight elections – is founded on a flawed analysis, is misguided, and, to whatever extent it makes progress, in any case irrelevant to the actual political situation and what the left should be focusing on. A more fruitful course of action for socialists will be suggested.  Our “text” is the most recent proposal advanced by the founders of the Left Unity website, Andrew Burgin and Kate Hudson, by Nick Wrack of the “independent socialist network” and by the film director Ken Loach – their founding document and various articles written in support of their proposal.  These are far from the least capable comrades to embark on this road, and for that reason – as well as the fact that theirs is the variation on “left unity” presently on the table – it is worth unpacking their proposals.

The idea that the time is now ripe for socialists to prioritise another unity project, leading to the creation of a new party to the left of Labour, rests on three connected propositions.  First, that the experience of New Labour has vacated a considerable political space on the left which no-one is filling and that many voters feel deprived of any party expressing their views and values in society in general or on election day in particular.  Second, there is a European-wide revival of such a left, which Britain is missing out on – we should not, in the words of the Left Unity draft statement, “remain outside… the political developments in Europe and beyond.”  Finally, the continuing economic crisis demands a fresh, and united, left response since existing political responses have been inadequate.

We should consider each of these in turn, bearing in mind that together they form a political package.  Before doing so, we need only note two things.  First that the proposal is, for the launch of a new political party, a modest one:  there is no grand vision, or call for revolution, or even broad realignment.  Essentially, it is about bringing together those people who want more done to challenge austerity and feel politically homeless at present.  Second, there is no explicit recognition of the fact that several such Left electoral parties already exist in Britain today – Respect, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, and the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) on the electoral side of things; with Solidarity and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) in Scotland, as well as a variety of other far left parties, and not forgetting the Green Party which many people would certainly regard as “left”.  So this is not a call for an occupation of presently empty territory.

Political Space

It is beyond dispute that the main working-class political parties internationally have moved well to the right over the last generation.  The mass social-democratic parties have embraced neo-liberalism, and none more luridly than the Labour Party in Britain, to the extent that classical social democracy could be said to scarcely exist as a major political force.  Communist Parties have disappeared or been reduced to the margins (with a few exceptions) and, in the case of many of the former ruling parties, openly converted to social-democracy and, hence, variants of neo-liberalism.

All this is true, but it only of itself creates “political space” if one takes an entirely mechanical view of politics, in which opinion is ranged on a left-to-right spectrum in more-or-less non-variable quantities and in which, therefore, a shift to the right by a large party must automatically leave a compensating space to the left unrepresented.  Clearly, this is a perspective which could only hold true if nothing else were changing in the world, if classes were not rising, falling, recomposing and decomposing; if ideological propositions were not being tested, adopted and discarded by the masses in the light of their experience; if capitalist society were an endless assembly line that might break down but never develop or mutate.

In relation to Britain, this misjudgment was first given a public viewing courtesy of the SLP, which assumed that Tony Blair’s abandonment of Clause Four would mean masses of socialists, their Party snatched from them, would flock to the old standard.  All the SLP proved was that even the greatest working-class leaders, in whose number Arthur Scargill should surely be counted, can mistake their own views for being the mood of the masses, which at the time would have regarded any Labour government as a relief, and were living through a “post-socialist”/“end of history” phase.

Nearly twenty years later, the same show is being played, to an even thinner audience, by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which fails to attract more than the smallest number of either to its standard, never mind appeal to the class itself.  Its existence is predicated on the belief that such is the disgust with New Labour, even in opposition, that the working-class will rally to stentorian champions of a sort of Old Labour-Plus.  No amount of raspberries blown by the voters have shaken this belief so far, and perhaps they never will, since those who argue the case for an electoral alternative have adequately immured themselves behind arguments through which reality cannot penetrate.  Essentially, the masses are being offered what they need, and if they are rejecting it, it can only be for some contingent reason or other.

If that sounds too harsh, read the rationalisations for poor election results offered by, say, the Socialist Party throughout its post-Militant years.  If they fail to breakthrough (in spite of, naturally, tremendous electoral campaigns) when Labour is in office, it is because at the last moment working-class voters are seized by an unexpected determination not to let the Tories back in.  When results do not improve under a Tory or Tory-led government, it is because the same voters believe their interests are served by voting to get the Tories out and hence vote Labour.

Clearly, the beauty of this argument is that it covers all contingencies, and can be used on each isolated occasion until one considers the slightly longer duree and joins the dots.

It is not that comrades do not reflect on these experiences and analyse them (although the present project is definitely light on self-reflection), it is that they draw the wrong conclusions.  This was expressed by Ken Loach at a meeting recently.  He announced that “we all bear the scars of previous attempts” and must learn the lessons of past abortive efforts.  Of these there were two, apparently – don’t let a single group dominate and beware charismatic leaders.

So far, so good for the new Left Unity campaign it could be said (although inevitably some far-left fragments are already sniffing around the project).  But Loach’s warnings seem perverse.  Any party needs committed activists, and the idea of “left unity” seems to presuppose bringing together people who are at present likely to be in existing organisations.  And charismatic leaders are generally a political asset, although not the be-all and end-all.  The problem is that where left initiatives have had any charismatic leaders, they have only had one, which is clearly a position fraught with difficulties.  Having several would be very helpful for drawing masses of people to its side, as well as averting any tendency towards a monopoly of political authority.  Respect with George Galloway has fallen short of an electoral breakthrough on a significant scale, but Respect without Galloway would not detain anyone’s attention for a minute.

However, it is true that neither the adhesion of existing groups, nor charismatic leaders, nor even the leadership of a trade union the size of RMT (in the case of TUSC), impart any significant social ballast to an electoral initiative.  That point seems incontestable in the light of experience, and it cannot be overcome by rallying calls, appeals to goodwill, nor even the online adhesion of thousands of the well-meaning.  The Left Party has a fine mass leader among its protagonists in Kate Hudson, rightly highly-regarded.  But the reluctance of the NUM to follow Arthur Scargill into the SLP in 1995 or subsequently – not to mention the long experience of Communist Party members whose overwhelming support from workers in the factories evaporated when they stood in local or parliamentary elections – shows that having such individuals in membership, or even leadership, is not sufficient to turn base political material into electoral gold.

Social weight – deep roots in society – is the missing element which has sunk every previous initiative of its kind (SLP, Socialist Alliance, SSP, Respect, TUSC) generally sooner rather than later, and which Left Unity does not address.  The fact is that despite these varied appeals over the last 20-odd years to desert Labour at the ballot box,  the masses and their organisations have not moved, and have held true to their previous engagements, even with a diminished enthusiasm reflected in an increasing rate of electoral abstention.

Actual political space does not necessarily continue to exist simply because it was once clearly populated.  It is brought into being by factors quite other than the wishes of potential occupiers of it.  And it is always in flux.  It is determined above all by the emergence or disappearance of classes as and other social formations as political actors.  Its scope and duration can be shaped by purposeful intervention, but it cannot be invented by propaganda.

For example, the war against Iraq launched by a Labour government and the vast scale of the mass movement against it clearly opened up a “political space” which Respect was temporarily and partially able to fill more successfully than any other left electoral initiative (although the Liberal Democrats were the major beneficiary overall), electing a member of parliament (MP) and several councillors in east London and Birmingham.  However, even Respect did not endure as a serious electoral force outside, presently, Bradford. To state the obvious, Respect would not have come into being without the mass anti-war movement, and no comparable movement exists today.  It could further be argued that the anti-war movement created a “space” which was itself not capable of being filled, absent the durable support of any actual class-based organisations which could underpin an electoral intervention once the immediate war crisis receded.

Political space is ultimately generated by social weight, the sort of thing that comes from the adhesion of mass organisations or mass movements rooted in important social classes. Social weight does not step into a declared political space by kind external invitation from its self-anointed gate-keepers.  Electorally, the space to the left of Labour is presently filled by…the Labour Party.  The elephant in the Left Unity parlour is the fact that many people whose views are to the left of the Labour leadership still vote for the Labour Party.  That was true when the Labour leader was Tony Blair, and it is also true when it is Ed Miliband, about whom people on the left generally feel a good deal more comfortable, his having apologised for the Iraq war and moved on in some measure from the bewitched-by-bankers economic strategy of Brown.

The obvious question is:  if that “space” could not be filled by a left alternative under the most ideal circumstances imaginable – a widely reviled war-mongering Labour government under a discredited leader – why on earth should it be expected to do any better today, when those circumstances no longer apply, when most people on the left see the enemy as the Tory-led government, and view the possibility of a Miliband-led Labour government with moderate optimism?

Naturally, that does not exhaust a discussion about the Labour Party today – but that is the discussion that is needed.  It would encompass a realistic assessment as to the roots sunk by the “New Labour” clique in the Party, the extent to which the changes wrought by Blair and Brown are irreversible, or to what extent they were contingent on the neo-liberal “Edwardian summer” which ended in 2008; the remaining importance of trade union involvement in the Party, and the possibilities of their influence being extended and deepened; the direction of the Miliband leadership and so on.

These are not just questions for debate, they are questions of the class struggle today.

One can certainly argue a view that the Labour Party on its own will never secure a socialist society; likewise one can certainly argue that the Blair-Brown government was a government of imperialism and the City of London.

It is another thing to simply seek to bypass or ignore a Party which is evidently the only alternative government to the Con-Dems at present, which retains the affiliation of the main working-class organisations in Britain today, which includes more socialists than all those grouped in the parties further to the left aggregated, which controls (with variable results) many local authorities, and whose level of electoral support runs at perhaps forty times that of the further-left.  To in effect dismiss all that with the observation (quoting the Loach/Hudson/Achcar article on the Guardian  website) that “its achievements are in the past” is scarcely serious.  All achievements of which we can be certain are in the past, and no achievements in the future will be secured by ruminating on electoral fantasies as opposed to addressing the difficult tasks of the present.

European Dimension

As already noted, much of the case for a new Left Party seems to rest on the observation that we are in the midst of a continent-wide economic crisis which is leading to similar parties existing and prospering elsewhere.  Clearly, there is nothing wrong with learning from abroad and, indeed, an international perspective is not an add-on but a starting point for socialist politics. However, the envious gaze cast at the left in other European countries needs to be tempered with realism.

What is there to be envious of?

First of all, there is the generic nature of these parties.  One must generalise, acknowledging that not all points apply to all European left parties with equal force. The euro-Left parties stand to the left of contemporary social democracy in advocating more radical measures, in varying degrees, to tackle the economic crisis. They are, on the other hand, constitutional and electoral parties – they do not aim at revolution.  Their measure is electoral support which they seek to secure through advocating pro-welfare and egalitarian policies which broadly mitigate the effects of the slump on the working-class. Their ultimate aim may be a socialist society (although this is not always clear), but it is to be attained primarily by parliamentary means.  Broadly they disown the record of socialism and revolutionary politics in the twentieth century.  To some extent, they could be described as “two-and-a-half parties” in the manner of the left parties which positioned themselves between the second and third internationals, between revolution and counter-revolution within the workers’ movement after World War One, before speedily retreating back to the embrace of social democracy.

The present-day two-and-a-half parties make no claim, as the centrists of 1919-21 did, to stand for revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  They are explicitly reformist. Their attraction as a new left model derives from the absence of a revolutionary international and major revolutionary parties in almost all European countries.  Two-and-a-half looks sweet when there is no Three. But that does not make it necessarily the answer to the crisis of working-class political representation. In practice (with the exception of the Greek situation, which will be considered shortly), the summit of the ambitions of the Left parties Europe-wide at present is to secure enough parliamentary seats to be considered a coalition partner in a government which would be dominated by the “old” social democratic parties, perhaps with the addition of Greens, or of centre-ground bourgeois parties.  As the Left Unity Draft Statement accurately notes, these parties challenge “the capitulation of social democracy to neo-liberalism”.  Implicit in this formulation is the demand – make social democracy social-democratic again!  The spirit of 2013 is to be the “spirit of 45” indeed.

That project is most advanced in the catastrophic situation pertaining in Greece, where Syriza, originally an amalgam of left factions of varying ideological provenance, has effectively displaced PASOK as the main party of the left (also apparently securing votes from the communist KKE).  The scale of the economic calamity in Greece, of a different order (so far) to almost anywhere else, and the fact of PASOK’s deep and corrupt implication in the management of it, have conditioned this development.  Syriza has not merely won over many voters from mainstream social-democracy, it has also acquired chunks of the erstwhile PASOK apparatus, as the latter party crumbles.  Syriza secured a huge increase in its votes in the two general elections of 2012, but in neither did it secure anything like the support won by PASOK in its prime, and in neither did it secure enough parliamentary seats, even if those won by Democratic Left and the KKE were added, to form a government.  Nor does it begin to match the influence of the KKE (or PASOK for that matter) in the trade union movement in Greece.

It is possible that Syriza could do better next time the opinion of Greek voters is sought (which may not be for three years).  Indeed, under Greek electoral procedures, if Syriza were to secure the greatest share of the vote in a future election it would possibly be able to govern in its own right.  Then the essential contradiction in its politics – opposition to austerity while supporting Greece’s continued membership of the EU and the single currency will move centre-stage.  There is limited value in speculating as to what may happen then, beyond noting the studied ambiguity of Tsipras, the Syriza leader, as to whether he stands for socialism or a “non-austerity” capitalism.  The KKE says that the situation in Greece demands a “systemic rupture” – that is the overthrow of capitalism and an exit from its imperialist international alliances.  That sounds far from unreasonable, since Greece is a country in which the decomposition of capitalism and its conventional methods of rule are most advanced, but that is not to say it is actually possible with the present correlation of forces.  If politics ultimately polarises between Syriza and the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, which is no more than a possibility but which cannot be dismissed, it should not be assumed that the entire Greek and European bourgeoisie will line up behind the fascists.

At any event, what does this mean for the British left (beyond the obvious necessity of solidarity with Greek working people in their struggle)?  Some will be enthused at the prospect of British Eurocommunists, Trotskyists, and Maoists joining together in a similar common electoral front.  Others would rather spend a week at the dentist.  An obvious conclusion is that the British working-class will support a British Syriza when they regard the British Labour Party in the same way as the Greek working-class regards PASOK.

That is far from where we are at present.

Beyond Greece, what is the record of these parties of the European left?  It would be wearisome to examine every European country in turn, so I will limit the review to the three largest, most decisive states in the EU, which are that respect are most comparable to Britain. A reality check is in order.

In France, despite the optimism attending the powerful presidential candidacy of Jean-Luc Melenchon, the Left Front polls less than half of the vote secured a generation or so ago by the PCF, on whose shrunken but tenacious local electoral base it still largely rests. And of course Melenchon himself was convincingly beaten for a parliamentary seat in an industrial constituency by the leader of France’s far right, a sober indication that the left’s hegemony over the working-class vote in France cannot be taken for granted.  The Left Front scarcely appears to be exercising a big influence over President Hollande’s administration.  The PCF has recently decided to abandon the hammer-and-sickle from its membership cards, no doubt in pursuit of more votes.  And the once-feted Nouvelle Partie Anticapitaliste has shrivelled to near-vanishing point.

In Italy, Rifondazione Communista, much celebrated throughout the euro-left a decade ago, has disappeared from the lower house of parliament (a process triggered by its embrace of the NATO Afghan occupation) and the left – in a country where the Italian Communist Party secured more than 30% of the vote less than thirty years ago – has disappeared from parliament.  The left’s franchise is now divided between the tired post-social democratic Democrats (notably lacking a charismatic leader) and the MS5 movement of Pepe Grillo.

As for Germany Die Linke rests, for electoral purposes, mainly on the legacy of the former SED in the eastern part of the country.  Its main hope (government it clearly not on the cards) seems to be to keep ahead of the five per cent threshold which determines representation in the Bundestag, and the largest threat to that modest ambition is a new Party of Pirates.  It has been riven by divisions in recent years, in part consequential of its ambivalent role in local and state government.

On the basis of this short summary, we can say that the euro-left is hardly decisive outside Greece, that it polls less in general than when it was explicitly Communist in times gone by, and that it risks being outflanked both by the far right and by a gallimaufry of clowns and “pirates” whose advance signifies the contemporary decay of both bourgeois politics and of the labour movement.  And all these are parties which have arisen on the basis of either the influence of a pre-existing mass Communist party, or a serious split in social-democracy, or a prolonged regroupment of far-left organisations, or some combination of all three.  None have arisen as a consequence of a Facebook appeal, so if the new Left Party succeeds, it will certainly represent a sociological first.

If this all seems a bit post-modern, it is because it is, and it strikes to the consideration at the heart of the contemporary situation and, indeed, the speculations about “political space”.  That is the decline of the working-class movement in Europe along almost every axis over the last generation, to the point where its constitution on a new basis is the only question which need really detain anyone serious about creating an alternative to capitalism which exists anywhere outside blogs and leaflets alone.  This is both at the core of a critique of the existing left, unity initiatives included, and the heart of a positive programme of work for socialists.

In this space, we can address this in relation to the situation in Britain alone, for the most part, although the problem is clearly international.  A full survey of the world situation is beyond our scope here, and setting out tasks for the left in overcoming this common problem in each particular country would be of very limited value.  We should only note that the differences over the last century – mass Communist parties (France/Italy/Greece); a socialist regime over part of the country introduced via the entirely unforeseen medium of cataclysmic military defeat (Germany); partisan and resistance struggles (Italy/France/Greece); a crushed revolution (Germany); civil war (Greece); fascist dictatorship (Italy/Germany/Greece) divided trade union movements (France/Italy/Greece);  the lack of a full-throated Anglo-Saxon  neo-liberal offensive (all four) – mean that any perspective overly-based on events in those countries is likely to be flawed. It is an error to take the Brussels assumption of a very high degree of pan-European political homogeneity at its own valuation.

“Why should Britain go without?” a blog comment on the Socialist Unity website asked, debating this issue.  If the appropriate reply is not “go without what exactly?” then it must be because Britain has also “gone without” so many of the phenomena listed above, from a divided TUC to partisan warfare.  This is not meant in any spirit of self-satisfied isolation.  The traditions of the British labour movement are in many respects worse than those in the countries listed.  That can be debated, but they are unarguably enormously different.

Impact of the Crisis

However, it could well be argued that the economic crisis changes the calculations and has, or will shortly, create the elusive “political space” for a new party of the left.  In a sense the answer to this has already been supplied.  The strength of the left in all countries in Europe is less than it was in easier times a generation ago, as measured by election results.  It is, of course, a reconfigured left with some of the old polarities superseded.  But the old saw that economic crisis favours the right before the left appears to have some merit still.

In fact, the assumption that economic slump equals a boom for socialism has little historical evidence to support it.  The last crisis of this severity in Britain saw off, inter alia, the last party of substance which remotely corresponded to the two-and-a-half initiative Left Unity is championing – the Independent Labour Party.  Squeezed between the Labour Party, with no socialist head but a substantial trade union body at the time, and the Communist Party advocating revolution, it incrementally disintegrated.

Crises impact variably on politics, depending on the state of the political landscape at the time.  The oil price slump of the early 1970 was met by a united and fairly self-confident labour movement, which was able to defend its own organisations and working-class living standards and, politically, secure the re-election of a Labour government, but which ended by capitulating before the demand of the International Monetary Fund.  That unity and confidence was already crumbling (as a result) by the time the Thatcher offensive opened up, coinciding with the big economic slump of the early 1980s.  The left, within the Labour Party and without, believed the space was opening up for a radical left programme; but the main political consequence of the crisis was the breakaway of a considerable chunk of the Labour right to form the Social Democratic Party.  This split had the support of more than 30 sitting Labour MPs, the covert backing of some trade union leaders and the overt support of significant sections of a panicky establishment, of course.  That is worth remembering as constituting the sort of “weight” required to get a new party off the ground as a serious force.

By contrast, not a single Labour MP left over the Iraq War, despite 142 voting against it (Galloway was expelled); and no MP is contemplating such a departure now.  As for Britain today, the Labour Party has, as already described, recognised the possibility of space opening up to its left and moved to close it, to an admittedly limited and timorous extent, by shuffling leftwards.

But the “crisis” argument also reflects more profound political weaknesses, a sort of bastardisation of the view that politics is nothing but concentrated economics.  This leads much of the left to be almost overcome with excitement when a crisis hits, at the same moment that most working-class people (and even their organisations) risk being overcome with anxiety.  It is a close relation to the view that strikes and mobilisations against poverty are “real” class struggle, while anti-war or other “democratic” campaigning is all very well for filling in time until a slump bites but not the real work of socialists; and to the view that revolution emerges from economic misery.

Other views have been advanced, of course.

“We cannot tell…how soon a real proletarian revolution will flare up [in Great Britain] and what immediate cause will most serve to rouse, kindle and impel into the struggle the very wide masses who are at present dormant…It is possible that the ‘breach’ will be forced, ‘the ice broken’ by a parliamentary crisis, or by a crisis arising out of the colonial and imperialist contradictions…”

Thus Lenin in 1920.  Not a word about slumps or strikes, but in a time when the two political issues which have gripped the masses over the last ten years are a “parliamentary crisis” (MPs expenses) and an “imperialist crisis” (the Iraq War) he may not have been so wide of the mark.  And certainly he saw the masses making their own political space.

Lenin is all very well, it could be argued, and he certainly doesn’t figure in the Left Unity scheme of things.  But the rigorous focus on anti-austerity politics as the gateway to electoral rewards does not seem to me self-evidently correct.  What is right is Left Unity’s critique of the feeble nature of the Labour response to the crisis to date, and the requirement for it to stand far more clearly and unequivocally on the side of the poor in the face of this onslaught, allied to developing an alternative around which the movement can rally.

It is far from certain, given the prevailing level of combat in the movement, that any of these things will happen, and raising the level of struggle is the aim of the People’s Assembly against austerity, uniting trade unions and activists fighting on a range of issues, and the campaign it needs to generate around the country.

Introducing a new Left Party into that struggle as an attempted electoral vehicle, when no mass organisation is calling for it and the voters are not flocking to others offering it (TUSC, Respect, SSP) risks not only being merely irrelevant but also almost (well-intentioned) sabotage through division.  There is no need – indeed, no possibility – to make the People’s Assembly a pro-Labour vehicle, but to turn it into an anti-Labour one, as Ken Loach at least appears to desire, is the route to undermining the developing movement.  It is a mass campaign to unite people locally and nationally in opposition to austerity, and the present indications are that it will be a big step forward towards providing the united front against the politics of ruling class social aggression that is sorely needed.

The Left Party project will be used – is in fact being used – to inhibit the formation of that front.

What Sort of Left Unity?

The next and final issue to be considered before turning to directly positive proposals is the particular nature of the new Left Party being proposed, beyond the points already made.  This would appear to still be in formation.  Some of its defining parameters are explicitly negative – the Loach remarks cited above, an attack on the “brutal” structures of the existing left – and some of it is implicitly negative:  it is not Respect, TUSC, the Socialist Alliance.  Obviously some of those left organisations are presently still available to be joined, and indeed most of Left Unity’s promoters have been in one or other of them fairly recently and some have been in all of them.  So we can assume that they are all regarded as inadequate vehicles for Left Unity’s ambitions because of charismatic leaders and the affiliation of existing far left groups.

Other proposals could be described as inconsistently positive.  Opposition to war is by some way the most important political issue of this century to date, so the Left Unity Draft Statement’s rejection of imperialism and war is right and essential.  However, it can only be vitiated by the fact that the Comment is Free (Guardian)  piece which has been the project’s most significant public statement to date does not mention a word about the issue, doubtless because it is co-authored by Gilbert Achcar, a supporter of “humanitarian intervention” and NATO’s mission to protect.  A diplomatic silence on the most important issue in order to form an expedient alliance marks a retreat from the politics of Respect and TUSC.

Other negatives:  as in the tradition of all two-and-a-half formations, the Left Party will be non- or even anti-Leninist.  One may infer that this is designed to make it easier for the new Party to scoop up those refugees from the SWP who believe that their party’s problems are due to a “Leninist” regime. The “brutality and distortions of traditional left structures” are rejected without qualification as, more justifiably, is the “reproduction of…gender domination” within the left.  Presumably this is a nod towards the drama within the SWP over the handling of an allegation of rape against one of its leading members.

This is ridiculous. The experience of Leninism is the story of the world’s first successful socialist revolution, of working-class state power, of the construction, defence and ultimate disintegration of world socialism in the twentieth century, of parties which led masses in the struggle against capitalism, fascism and imperialism, and of millions who died on the battlefields and in the dungeons of the bourgeoisie as partisans of a world movement for a communist future, all with its historic achievements and imposing crimes and errors.  To imagine that anything can be added to the analysis of this experience (essential for any serious socialist organisation) by studying the goings-on in small and marginal groups mainly peopled by the petty-bourgeois is merely testimony to the capacity of some of the left to depart from the real world into their own self-referential Truman Show.  Pace Professor Callinicos, there is absolutely nothing that can be adduced for or against Leninism from the arguments inside the SWP, any more than the results obtained by the Large Hadron Collider need verifying by observing the Duracell Bunny.

Marxism fares a little better in the Draft Statement – it is to “inform” the Party but not “define “ it, presumably meaning membership is open to Marxists and non-Marxists alike, which is curious since more people are now turning to a Marxist analysis of society in the wake of the slump than has been the case for many years.  Its actual centre of ideological gravity will be considerably lower – opposition to austerity, support for welfare; opposition to racism, support for equality; democratic, pluralist, green etc.  “Normal” social democracy in effect.

Now,  if we acknowledge a great deal of truth in Left Unity’s founding premise that the left is feeble and atrophied in Britain today, we still need to ask whether this sort of Party, with the experience of Leninism discarded, and that of Marxism muted,  is the solution to this incapacity.  And can it be woven out of the existing left-of-Labour left?

That left is an agglomeration of organised groups, some of which style themselves “parties” and which range from the small through the very small to the miniscule and a number of individual “independent socialists” who have mostly passed through one or several of the aforementioned organisations and have suffered thereby.  Beyond that, the project aims to appeal to a much larger diaspora of people of progressive views who feel disenfranchised by the present parliamentary parties – mainly, of course, the Labour Party.

This left (individuals and ‘parties’ both) reflects several pathologies which have in part conditioned not only its failure to make much of the economic crisis but its effective abstention from serious political intervention (with some significant exceptions) for the last generation or more.  One of the most obvious is the obsessive identification with the symbols, structures and strategies of the past (be it 1917, 1968, 1971-74 or all of them); to the point where the Jacobins of the Paris Commune appear as futuristic speculators.  We know that “the traditions of all the generations of the dead weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” but even Marx could not have envisaged the brain of the British left of 2013.

Second, and connected, is the treatment of the idea of socialism as if it were unproblematic for the mass of people today.  Experience and opinion polling does indeed indicate broad support for what might be termed socialist values and sometimes policies, but the systemic socialism that has been advocated by the left does not properly account for the widely-held belief that it has been tried and, in both the main variants understood as socialism by most people (Soviet socialism and Labourite social democracy), failed.  The left generally addresses that problem by disassociating itself from the consequences of the past even as it perseveringly seeks to replicate that same past in its own proceedings.  “That wasn’t socialism” it is argued (in relation to the USSR and Harold Wilson alike) by comrades who then seek to establish organisations replicating in detail those which created and presided over this “non-socialism”, whether it is to be a new revolutionary party or a new trade union party.

The product of this contradiction is an “offer” to the working people of the 21st century what amounts to “we want to re-run the twentieth century, but this time, get it right.”  The appeal of this pitch is unsurprisingly negligible, since no-one can take seriously the proposition that if the Soviet Union and/or Labour governments were indeed disasters, it was only because Peter Taafe/Ken Loach/“comrade Delta” were not in charge.  Nostalgia for 1945 (imperialist-funded social democracy, in essence) is no basis for a 21st century political intervention, that much is clear.

Third, the contemporary left is almost entirely isolated from the working-class it seeks to speak for.  More prosaically, it has limited engagement with “ordinary people” in general.  The Left and the working-class have never been the same thing of course, but the divergence has only widened over the last generation as the working-class has seen its institutions and organisations reduced to near-rubble, and the political left has retreated into a self-referential subculture from which it only emerges to address the class through propaganda rather than as a living part of the whole.  Every failure sends it not deeper into society but back into the garage to further fine-tune its ideological principles and proposals.  Next time we will get it right!  As the Arabs say, the dogs may bark, but the caravan has moved on.

Any left project has to address these problems.  The list of them could be extended.  Left organisations tend to be heavily male-dominated and to have only barely absorbed the insights of feminism.  They can be uncomfortable in working across cultural differences in an increasing diverse working class.  They obsess about maintaining the “tradition” appropriate to their own group, apparently oblivious to the historic irrelevance of most of them and their very slight impact on the course of events over the last fifty years or so.  And so on.  These shortcomings apply pretty much equally to those organisations of the Left which operate within the Labour Party as to those outside.  Some of them apply to the new Left Party project with greater force than others, but they all need to be explicitly addressed if there is to be the remotest chance of progress.

Making something straight of this crooked timber is challenging.  However, the negatives point towards a positive.  What left politics today lacks is that union of socialism with the mass movement that can be the only real foundation of a social transformation.  That is to say, serious campaigning and propaganda within the working class, first of all for an alternative to capitalism, and an explanation of the means of struggle needed to achieve that objective.  That must include both an attractive, 21st century, presentation of socialism, and work within the existing organisations of the working class in a persevering way, learning as well as lecturing.  The estrangement of the left from the “agency” it has historically prioritised cannot be overcome by creating yet another external organisation offering itself as a solution to their problems – at least not if the aim is to politically organise and mobilise the working-class as the vanguard of human emancipation.

If on the other hand the crying need is to establish a new more-reformist-than-Labour party, then the assistance of socialists is scarcely essential. Indeed, the whole “Left Unity Draft Statement” reads like a putative manifesto for a trade union party.  More-or-less the whole of it could be passed at a Unite policy conference without anyone batting an eyelid.  To be fair, the points outlined by Nick Wrack in the speeches he has been making on the subject do include an explicit recognition of the need to engage in mass struggles and to raise the aim of socialism alongside an emphasis on electoral work by this new “working class party”.  This on its own does not overcome the problems identified above, not least the fact that this is a project relying on the organisation of fractious groups mainly or entirely external to the working-class movement intent on bringing a gift (better electoral representation) that the latter shows no signs of desiring.  Nick’s prospectus is close to a call for the reconstitution of a Communist party of the 1960s/1970s, without addressing the reasons for that party’s collapse, or the insufficiency of the forces available for its recreation.  That would have to include a reflection on the failure of the many efforts to set up such a Party, or some variation on it, over the last 15 years.

It would seem, in summary, that the Left Party proposed will be a gathering of well-meaning individuals, some Marxist, others not, organised primarily around electoral interventions on a fairly broad common-denominator of anti-austerity pro-equality policies.  It will have very limited working-class support.  It will almost certainly not secure significant support at the ballot box, and it will absolutely certainly not achieve socialist revolution, because it will not be organised for that.  It will likely hover between being another left electoral alternative to Labour and being another attempt at far-left regroupment, while succeeding at neither. “What right has anyone got to say that such a political formation cannot or should not be built?”, its promoters have asked.  No one at all, of course, but  we should also pause to consider the possibility of a better use of the left’s time and energy.

Working-Class Politics

The centre of any strategy for socialism has to be the working class – not an abstract working class assigned a particular political role because that is what it ought to perform, but the concrete, actual working class of today, in Britain and internationally.  Only the working class can emancipate itself, and thereby open up better prospects for the world.  The sober fact, already briefly argued above, is that the labour movement in Britain, and to varying degrees in other countries, has been reduced over the last generation to the point where it scarcely articulates an independent political project.  It has degenerated to the point of being perceived as simply one interest groups among many in a sociologically spliced-and-diced society that is unquestionably capitalist but where the class struggle has been at a very low level for a fairly long time.  It has to a certain extent internalised that perception as self-perception. That has both caused and further conditioned the state of the trade unions and other working class organisations, and of course its historic vehicle for electoral intervention, the Labour Party.  A class for itself?  Not so much right now.

It is trite to observe that the working-class has changed.  Women have always constituted around half the working-class, but no longer can they be treated as a sort of auxiliary detachment in the struggle, backing up the main industrial army.  Likewise, heavy manual work, or employment in manufacturing of any sort, are now fairly small minority occupations.  Globalisation has given further impetus to the migration of labour and the consequent transnationalisation of the working class, a historically progressive but politically challenging development.  In a nutshell, surplus value is created by a greater diversity of people working in a wider diversity of situations across all remaining boundaries.  These changes make it all the more essential that socialists engage with the actual organisations of the working class rather than simply invoking the class as an abstraction as if nothing had changed.  Thousands of individual online socialists are no substitute, however well-intentioned.

Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of working-class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, is therefore the main task for socialists to address.  Without it, there is no prospect for advancing beyond specific and limited single-issue interventions, with at best local/partial successes that cannot change the fundamentals of the prevailing system.

What does this reconstitution mean?  Not going back to the labour movement of the past, obviously, since that is neither possible nor, as that movement never achieved socialism, necessarily desirable.  But some of the objectives that have to be set include the strengthening of trade union organisation numerically, in the workplace and ideologically; the re-connection of organised workers with the wider working-class community, where the links of work-union-community have atrophied or disappeared; the elaboration of campaign goals and policies that prioritise the capacity for the working-class to stabilise and strengthen itself (in the fields of employment, housing); the fighting and winning of strikes that build collective confidence; the creation of unity between British-born workers of various ethnicities and immigrant workers; special attention to reaching out to the young and connecting with campaigns that already mobilise youth (anti-war, students, UK Uncut); and the reassertion of socialism as the only real solution to society’s crises, with a fresh elaboration as to what such a system would look like.

The labour movement then (and in parallel, these tasks cannot be sequential) has to use its immense potential capacities to lead struggles which point towards an alternative society across the board – that is anti-war/anti-imperialist struggles and democratic struggles for social equality.  It is a fact that the ruling elite in Britain is more discredited than it has been since 1940 perhaps, there is a growing sense of the unfitness of the ruling class to rule – yet there is no (or little) confidence in the capacity of ordinary people to take over the running of society themselves.  Only a revived labour movement can give the leadership to fill that political space as it expands.

The role of socialists in all this is clearly essential.  There have been examples in the last few years of the left making a big impact in society – the Stop the War Coalition in one way, and Ken Livingstone’s Mayoralty in London, in another.  Neither was perfect but lessons can be learned from both as to how to intervene in a purposeful and effective way, as well as from their shortcomings.  The main limiting factor, which affected both in different ways, it could plausibly be argued, is the very weakness of a strong labour movement able to take the fight to a higher level. Socialists who intervene in the movement with a view to raising its political capacity (definitely not just a question of building bigger organisations alone) are playing a central role in developing the only force able to challenge and overturn capitalism.  In different ways, and with their common and different limitations, the Communist Party, Counterfire, Socialist Action, and of course individuals in other groups can be found playing that sort of role – building the movement, seeking to shape it politically, setting new challenges for the organisations of the class and then working to meet them.  Greater unity among such forces would really be a “left unity” worth having.  And there may indeed be scope for the creation, not of new competing groups, but of new campaigning organisations that can help and strengthen the movement politically and ideologically.  Of course, this cannot be left to trade unions alone with their own limitations.  The key element is the orientation towards the labour movement, which is to say towards the working class and its organisations, rather than a form of substitutionism which, while acknowledging the role of the working-class in the abstract, avoids engagement with it in practice and instead exalts the role of individual progressives.

It is in this context that we should return to the question of the Labour Party.  Under circumstances of a stronger and developing working-class movement, can it be turned into an instrument of deeper social advance – not a revolutionary party but one which can contribute towards opening up the way to socialism?  The only honest answer at the moment is – who can say for sure?  The main working-class organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode – the first, and successful, step, being to work for the election of the best of the possible leaders on offer, Ed Miliband.  Since then, some progress has been made away from the worst positions of New Labour but it has undeniably been uneven and incomplete – pretending New Labour is dead is as wrong as pretending nothing has changed since 2010 (the Left Party position in effect).  No one can assert that it is likely that a 2015 Labour government will master the economic crisis in the interests of ordinary people, although it could certainly be an arena of struggle over its direction that could bring benefits in itself in terms of strengthening the movement and create circumstances for the working-class to recover a measure of confidence.  That is the task that the major organisations of the class (Unite, Unison, GMB etc) have democratically set themselves and the chances of them now abandoning it in favour of a new Left Party are zero.  That can only be held as inconsequential if one regards the working-class and its organisations as mere fingerbowls at the great socialist buffet.  The fact that almost no individual socialists presently in the Labour Party (still far greater than the number outside) and absolutely no Labour MPs, even among the 44 who recently revolted over the front bench’s workfare capitulation for example, are prepared to sign on for the Left Party merely underlines the point.  And any “UKIP of the Left” (unattractive formulation!) would need to reckon with the fact that it is much easier to cut with the grain of bourgeois ideology and media prejudice to secure electoral success than it is to fight against it, particularly if one does not have the trade unions alongside one.

It is certainly possible that the working class will learn through experience, over the next few years, that the struggle to “reclaim Labour” (not a great formulation, I would agree) is not going to work.  If it doesn’t, then that will be because of one of two factors – the working-class itself lacks the “social weight” in the here-and-now to sustain its own political project, at least on that scale, in which case the necessity for socialists to redouble their efforts to rebuild the strength of the class is obvious (and a new mass socialist party, resting on a serious and durable foundation, may eventually come out of such an endeavour) but we would be in for a definite period of bourgeois political domination at the parliamentary level at any event.  Or, the effort will be thwarted by establishment manoeuvres, with what has been termed the “Blairite undead”, supported by a frightened elite, obstructing democratic and constitutional efforts to transform Labour.  Under those circumstances, the creation of a new class Party might be higher up the agenda, because the class is already fighting for it, although it would not look very much like the Left Party we are presently discussing.  Time will tell, and probably before very long, but in the meantime to stand outside the general objective of electing a Labour government as the only alternative to the Coalition by engaging in separate and marginal electoral interventions is profoundly self-defeating.

It is not the case that trade unionism should therefore be the sole focus of socialists’ work, still less that unions alone can achieve a socialist society.  Indeed, the feebleness of the trade union political intervention during the Blair-Brown years will have given rise to an understandable skepticism about their capacity or willingness to confront the weaknesses in the Labour Party. But that is clearly starting to change, and it also remains the fact that the unions are far deeper-rooted in society, and the working class in particular, than the socialist left, and that they alone have the heft to rebuild the labour movement as a plausible alternative to capitalist class rule.   Any left political intervention which does not partake of that strength and those roots is either very narrowly focused (aimed at attaining some specific short-term objective) or it is inconsequential.  Nor is it necessary (luckily, because it is clearly not possible) for all socialists to join the Labour Party to take part in the work of reformation of the class “for itself”.  Most of what is needed does not require a Labour Party card to be delivered, but it does require a focus on the matter at hand rather than speculative political ventures.  Homes can be created for the “politically homeless” in movements and non-electoral interventions that bring people together rather than dividing them.

Socialists and the unions need to reach out to each other more, integrate their work more closely where possible and elaborate common projects, of which the People’s Assembly is an example.  Certainly, only socialists can set out “the line of march”, but they can only do so if they are themselves marching with the body of the troops.  Engage with the movement as it is in order to make it something better!  That may not arouse the excitement of setting up yet another new Party, but winning 5% of the vote a few years down the line (I am being extremely generous here) should no more be the stuff of socialist dreams than it  would be of bourgeois nightmares.

In summary, the project for a new Left Party:

  • is based on a flawed assessment of how socialist political parties can emerge and sustain themselves;
  • prioritises “left unity” over class unity, to the detriment of the latter;
  • misreads European experience and its applicability to the situation in Britain;
  • fails to seriously address the Labour Party and working-class support for it;
  • ignores the failures of numerous similar initiatives and, indeed, the actual problems of the left in Britain today;
  • draws a causal connection between economic crisis and political radicalism which is at best questionable;

and therefore

  • cannot best direct the efforts and resources of socialists at the present juncture – indeed, it risks being an impediment to making the most of actual opportunities for advance and reconstruction.

I hope the comrades involved will address these points and consider the possibility that they may be wrong.

More coverage of British politics from The North Star:

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis Proyect May 9, 2013 at 4:15 pm

The experience of Leninism is the story of the world’s first successful socialist revolution, of working-class state power, of the construction, defence and ultimate disintegration of world socialism in the twentieth century, of parties which led masses in the struggle against capitalism, fascism and imperialism, and of millions who died on the battlefields and in the dungeons of the bourgeoisie as partisans of a world movement for a communist future, all with its historic achievements and imposing crimes and errors.

This is quite possibly the stupidest thing I have ever read on North Star.

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Brian S. May 10, 2013 at 10:57 am

No one quite seems to know who this guy is – and he seems shy about revealing his identity. But I suspect this statement is a holdover from his early political formation, so perhaps shouldn’t be held against him too strictly.

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Arthur May 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm

The immediately following sentences are closely connected:

“To imagine that anything can be added to the analysis of this experience (essential for any serious socialist organisation) by studying the goings-on in small and marginal groups mainly peopled by the petty-bourgeois is merely testimony to the capacity of some of the left to depart from the real world into their own self-referential Truman Show. Pace Professor Callinicos, there is absolutely nothing that can be adduced for or against Leninism from the arguments inside the SWP, any more than the results obtained by the Large Hadron Collider need verifying by observing the Duracell Bunny.”

Acknowledgement of the real importance of the actual experience of Leninism is naturally “stupid” for people produced by and still obsessed with the lemmingist sects.

As for the article itself, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. From a quick read I didn’t notice anything that would justify deeper study. The points about the actual political situation and projects for a new “Left” party being chimerical seemed blindingly obvious but no actual argument was offered in support of the author’s apparant ambivalence about the well established futility of the Labour party.

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Richard Estes May 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm

Two things:

(1) the working class itself is curiously absent from the article

(2) I am having trouble understanding this quote, with the exception of the implausibility of the KKE policy, which strikes me, unlike the author, as far from reasonable:

“The KKE says that the situation in Greece demands a “systemic rupture” – that is the overthrow of capitalism and an exit from its imperialist international alliances. That sounds far from unreasonable, since Greece is a country in which the decomposition of capitalism and its conventional methods of rule are most advanced, but that is not to say it is actually possible with the present correlation of forces. If politics ultimately polarises between Syriza and the neo-nazi Golden Dawn, which is no more than a possibility but which cannot be dismissed, it should not be assumed that the entire Greek and European bourgeoisie will line up behind the fascists.”

I am especially having difficulty with the last sentence, does it say that the outcome of a polarization between SYRIZA and Golden Dawn is uncertain?

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PatrickSMcNally May 9, 2013 at 8:48 pm

It’s rather that the author is suggesting that a Greek and European bourgeoisie might very well back Richard Nixon over George Wallace. It’s not so much a prediction of an outcome of an actual battle but rather an assessment of whether or not it is to be expected that the Greek and European bourgeoisie honestly wants to give fundamental authority to Golden Dawn. I doubt that they do.

Of course, the German bourgeoisie never wanted to give any fundamental authority to Adolf Hitler. He gained the Chancellorship at a time when the NSDAP had begun to decline in the voting polls. He became Chancellor because Franz von Papen was determined to unseat Kurt von Schleicher from the Chancellorship. Papen simply underestimated Hitler, but there is no evidence that it was ever Papen’s intent to make Hitler the dictator of Germany. He assumed that getting Schleicher out of the Chancellorship would be a maneuver to his (Papen’s) advantage and wholly overlooked the possibility that Hitler might use this as an opportunity to consolidate full power into his own hands.

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Richard Estes May 10, 2013 at 12:38 am

Greece is a relatively small place, with a population that can be reached fairly easily without enormous amounts of money. Older, seemingly antiquated forms of personal political outreach are still effective there (unlike, say, the US). In such conditions, more aggressive moves to the right or left are possible. Hence, the success of SYRIZA and the threat of Golden Dawn. As an inexact comparison of what is possible, think Arizona here in the US, where the right has launched a white supremacist assault upon Latinos, with the expressed intention of eradicating Latino culture. Given the severe situation in Greece, much worse is possible. Of course, the EU would prefer that such an enterprise be incorporated within a more moderate politics that ensures loan repayment, but, as you say, it could go horribly wrong, as it did in Germany.

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Brian S. May 10, 2013 at 10:58 am

Actually, Richard the working class is CENTRAL to the article (its main strength). Go back and read it and if that is still your view I’ll happily provide chapter and verse.

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Richard Estes May 10, 2013 at 12:08 pm

actually, it discusses groups that would purport to organize the working class

it says very little about the working class itself

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Brian S. May 10, 2013 at 2:58 pm

@Richard. I always keep my promises:
“Working-Class Politics
“The centre of any strategy for socialism has to be the working class – not an abstract working class assigned a particular political role because that is what it ought to perform, but the concrete, actual working class of today, in Britain and internationally.Only the working class can emancipate itself, and thereby open up better prospects for the world. The sober fact, already briefly argued above, is that the labour movement in Britain, and to varying degrees in other countries, has been reduced over the last generation to the point where it scarcely articulates an independent political project. It has degenerated to the point of being perceived as simply one interest group among many in a sociologically spliced-and-diced society that is unquestionably capitalist but where the class struggle has been at a very low level for a fairly long time. … That has both caused and further conditioned the state of the trade unions and other working class organisations, and of course its historic vehicle for electoral intervention, the Labour Party. A class for itself? Not so much right now.
“It is trite to observe that the working-class has changed. Women have always constituted around half the working-class, but no longer can they be treated as a sort of auxiliary detachment in the struggle, backing up the main industrial army. Likewise, heavy manual work, or employment in manufacturing of any sort, are now fairly small minority occupations.Globalisation has given further impetus to the migration of labour and the consequent transnationalisation of the working class, a historically progressive but politically challenging development.In a nutshell, surplus value is created by a greater diversity of people working in a wider diversity of situations across all remaining boundaries. These changes make it all the more essential that socialists engage with the actual organisations of the working class, rather than simply invoking the class as an abstraction as if nothing had changed. …
“Reconstituting the labour movement so that it becomes a powerful expression of the working-class interest, and thereby a means of the working class giving a lead to everyone interested in a new and better society, is therefore the main task for socialists to address.Without it, there is no prospect for advancing beyond specific and limited single-issue interventions, with at best local/partial successes that cannot change the fundamentals of the prevailing system.”
That’s “curiously absent”?

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Louis Proyect May 10, 2013 at 2:54 pm

I don’t know who wrote the article but the website seems to be the property of Nick Wright, a one-time member of the CP in Great Britain–the old line party rather than the Weekly Worker people who publish Lars Lih.

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walter stoecker May 10, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’m surprised this article hasn’t generated more commentary.

I think the author does a good job problematizing the notion of ‘political space’ and qualifying the connection between economic crisis and radicalism. I also found think the author struck the right question when he raised the relationship between the Left Unity project/People’s Assemblies/and Unite/GMB/Unison attempt to retake the Labour Party. My own view, however, is that these projects can be made to reinforce each other rather than being in competition.

I’d also question the utility of analyzing the Euro-left parties through the framework of the ‘second and a half international’, and in terms of reformism vs. revolution. Also the record of these parties is far more robust than the author portrays.

The Left Front in France, in contrast to the analysis presented by the author, recently mobilized nearly 200,000 people in Paris in a left of PS demo, has consolidated itself in the political system and social movement, its spokesmen receive regular media attention, and on a local level it has, through its citizens assemblies, created a space for the organic unity of the anticapitalist left in opposition to austerity.

In short, in the Anglophone world we need to celebrate and find a way to translate this success, not hold it up against the politics of the early 20th century in order to demonstrate that this is simply reformism renewed.

The idea that outside of Greece broad left projects have failed to be ‘decisive’ is redundant, radicals need to conceive of some intermediate stages in-between being a totally irrelevant political force and being ‘decisive’. We must aspire to be known and then relevant before we can talk about being decisive.

Rather than measuring the success of broad left projects in terms of whether or not they are primed to storm the winter palace, we should recognize that in putting themselves at the front of building mass parties to resist the right wing projects of the day, revolutionaries have achieved a political reach far beyond their contemporaries in the UK or the US.

Left Unity has facilitated discussions of fusion amongst SR/ACI/ISN, and has the potential to fill the space voided by the SWP with an open and non-sectarian left, with far more potential for growth than the Leninist pyramid scheme model its poised to replace. It could also put wind in the sails of the Unite effort to push Labour to the left by consolidating a political core to the left of Labour and providing a potential alternative as that project reaches its limits.

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Brian S May 11, 2013 at 1:39 pm

@walter stoecker The debate on this is going on mainly on the Left Unity site: http://leftunity.org/.
I agree with the thrust of what you say – and that this article underestimates the significance of the left-of-left formations in continental Europe. But it also makes the valid point that the framework for attempting to reproduce that is significantly different (or even largely absent) in Britain: the main continental formations have been able to draw on mass “left of social democracy” traditions (and even organisational legacies). And an important point not made by the author is the barrier created by the English/UK electoral system.
“We must aspire to be known and then relevant before we can talk about being decisive.” Spot on – but that is an argument for not starting this journey with an electoral initiative. I fear the “parliamentary road to (mass) centrism” (and I use the term “centrism” without any negative implications) is a long way ahead of where the UK left is now.

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Brian S. May 10, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Wright is connected with the Communist Party of Britain – descended from the Stalinist wing of the old CPGB. But the author of this article doesn’t have their line and he’s described as “a senior figure from the labour and trade union movement ” The only person I can see asfitting the bill is from a Trotskyist background.

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Kirk Hill May 10, 2013 at 5:24 pm

When early on I read “It is beyond dispute that” I thought, oh , dear, is this going to be the garbage that I suspect. Sure enough, I quickly found more such gobblydegook ( “Clearly”, “All this is true”, “However, it is true”) and many more. I gave up after a few pages. This sort of writing yields such gems as: Granted, the law of gavity cannot be questioned. It’s largely nonsense. While I didn’t finish the article, I noticed the comment that the working class is absent from the article. This shold not be surprising as workers don’t talk in the passive voice.

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Brian S May 11, 2013 at 1:21 pm

If you base your assessment of arguments on their syntax then you’re not going to shed much light on the world. And the working class is considerably more diverse than you seem to recognise.

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Joe Vaughan May 13, 2013 at 8:26 pm

Briefly the sense of this piece as I understand it is that Socialist Unity as a party is bound to fail, as must all broad-left parties with electoral aims (except maybe in Greece, where Syriza definitely isn’t winning), leaving only one alternative:

Under circumstances of a stronger and developing working-class movement, can [the Labour Party] be turned into an instrument of deeper social advance – not a revolutionary party but one which can contribute towards opening up the way to socialism? The only honest answer at the moment is – who can say for sure?

No wonder all those assertions of self-certainty ring false.

Frankly, I prefer the way they’re handling this over on the World Socialist Web (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/05/09/left-m09.html):

Left Unity is … a vehicle through which the representatives of the pseudo-left in Britain hope to secure a direct governmental role as apologists for capitalism and policemen of social and political discontent. Under conditions in which austerity and economic crisis are preparing major class struggles, Left Unity’s role will be to support the bourgeois state in its efforts to brutally suppress the working class.

I don’t find their case for this particularly persuasive, but at least they come to a conclusion.

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Louis Proyect May 10, 2013 at 6:49 pm

Murray Smith, a critic of sectarianism, responds to this article:

http://leftunity.org/will-the-real-european-left-stand-up/

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Andrew Coates May 19, 2013 at 7:36 am

It is pretty obvious where the person (who is said to be from UNITE) sees himself on the British left

“In different ways, and with their common and different limitations, the Communist Party, Counterfire, Socialist Action, and of course individuals in other groups can be found playing that sort of role – building the movement, seeking to shape it politically, setting new challenges for the organisations of the class and then working to meet them. Greater unity among such forces would really be a “left unity” worth having.”

Personally I agree with the part that gives priority to “building the movement, seeking to shape it politically, setting new challenges for the organisations of the class and then working to meet them.”

That is why the People’s Assembly, which is left and trade union unity in action, and involves the BCP and Counterfire, but most importantly, is backed by all the main trade unions, is important for many of us.

This will be of naturally limited impact on the broad national political scenes.

If, “The main working-class organisations have set it as their task to try to accomplish that transformation after the disastrous New Labour episode ” what might a more thorough-going chance be?

The author ignores the Labour Representation Committee which is the largest group on the Labour left (far far outweighing the minuscule Socialist Action).

It would be interesting to have his views on the LRC, its policies and limitations, and its role in such a transformation.

A major difficulty for the left is the way the Labour Party makes policy today, after the Partnership in Power was brought in during the 1980s, through an elaborate system of ‘forums’ that culminate in the National Policy Forum (whose membership is 186 members representing government, European and devolved assemblies, local government, affiliated trade unions, socialist societies and others, and individual members of the Labour Party, who elect representatives through an all member ballot).

It is worth noting that even when policies are passed through this complicated mechanism (such as the 2004 ‘Warwick Agreement’ on trade union rights) the Labour leadership has the right, if it so chooses, to ignore them, partially or wholly.

As a “centrist”, that is a Democratic Non-Leninist Marxist (and explicitly so) I would say that it’s in this stream of reflection and organisations, that we may, I underline may, be able to find a way of answering the problem that “the widely-held belief that it has been tried and, in both the main variants understood as socialism by most people (Soviet socialism and Labourite social democracy), failed.”

It is finally worth noting that Left Unity falls at the first hurdle by being led by those who were until very recently prominent in George Galloway’s Respect Party.

Few would take that seriously as a model of anything.

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Patrick A. May 30, 2013 at 1:03 am

A new article from the Socialist Party: “TUSC and the road to a new workers party”

http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6331

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Pham Binh May 30, 2013 at 10:14 am

“In its three years’ existence, 582 candidates have stood under the TUSC umbrella, in a range of contests from parliamentary elections, to city mayoral polls, to local council elections. In the recent county council elections, TUSC stood more candidates than the BNP – ‘the first time in recent history’, according to the New Statesman, that a left-wing party ‘will be better represented than Griffin’s mob’. This did not stop the BBC from carrying items on the BNP while refusing to acknowledge on its website that TUSC was standing any candidates at all, until the day before polling day.

“More than 100,000 votes have been cast for TUSC candidates in that three-year period – still a modest electoral record but not insignificant. Overall, TUSC is still only a ‘pre-formation’, a precursor of a future mass workers’ party that could impact decisively on the political struggle against austerity. But it is the most promising development, at this stage, and certainly not one to be lightly pushed aside for ‘the next new thing’.”
http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/6331

This is a good example of putting the best possible face on a rather dismal reality instead of a hard-headed assessment of TUSC’s strengths and weaknesses, successes and (yes, gasp) failures.

TUSC contested 20 council elections and averaged 2.5% according to Clive Heemskirk (http://www.independentsocialistnetwork.org/?p=2196) and 17 of those candidates got less than 1.0% (http://markwrightuk88.blogspot.com/2013/05/where-is-tusc-heading.html). The vote totals on the Wikipedia page are painful to look at, and I’m not a CWI member either: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trade_Unionist_and_Socialist_Coalition

Like the rest of the British far left, CWI (and its IMT brethren) has really struggled to deal with the Labour Party’s shift to the right into the neoliberal camp. The rise of right populists like UKIP does speak to the dissatisfaction with the traditional parties but it also speaks to the far left’s utter failure to tap into that judging by the paltry results of all left-of-Labour electoral initiatives from the 2000s onward. What has not been demonstrated on a mass scale to anyone’s satisfaction is that the existing Labour Party cannot be shifted back to the left and so it is tough to argue with Owen Jones and Phil (formerly of CWI) who contend that the fight is not for a new workers’ party but within the existing one: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=5189

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Patrick A. May 30, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Binh, what advice do you have for the TUSC in order to take the process of reformation forward?

What do you think are the fundamental reasons that the TUSC has been able to gather support in the unions (particularly the RMT) but not make a breakthrough electorally?

What do you think of what the article says about how the TUSC is structuring itself and approaching the rest of the left?

Also, what do you think about the points in the article that do address Owen Jones’s strategy for building the movement against cuts through Labour?

“Unite’s political strategy to recruit 5,000 new members to Labour in one year, agreed at its December 2011 executive council, has not produced the results hoped for, with just 600 signed up by the December 2012 meeting. In one constituency where there had been some success, Falkirk West, the parliamentary candidate selection process was suspended in February and the Unite-backed candidate withdrew, according to the Guardian (13 May), after allegations that new members’ “fees were being paid en bloc by the union”.

“Meanwhile, Unite members who are Labour councillors who defend union policy by voting against cuts in Labour-controlled councils are either suspended (in Warrington) or expelled (Southampton) from New Labour. Significantly, the Southampton ‘rebel two’ anti-cuts councillors are now backing TUSC.”

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Pham Binh May 30, 2013 at 2:11 pm

1. Start with an all-sided re-assessment that deals explicitly with the low vote numbers instead of evading those difficult issues with only the good news.

2. Most unions are still behind/in Labour. RMT is unfortunately just one exception. Also, support by RMT leaders is not necessarily indicative of where the rank-and-file put their ballots on election day.

3. I am more interested in what the rest of the left has to say about how it is being approached by TUSC than what TUSC says about how it is approaching the rest of the left.

4. I don’t think Jones’ strategy can accurately be described as, “building the movement against cuts through Labour.” His strategy is Labour-inclusive, not Labour-centered as far as I understand it. Even so, the expulsion of councillors has not resolved whether or not the party can be moved back to the left on a mass scale, involving tens of thousands or millions of people. All it proves is that fighting within Labour against New Labour is going to be a tough and prolonged fight because it will run into institutional resistance, as any struggle, anywhere does. It takes more than that for a give-up-and-start-from scratch party-building strategy to be sensible.

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Patrick A May 30, 2013 at 2:34 pm

As far as I understand it, Syriza got low vote totals and was a relatively marginal force in Greece until 2012. Does the Syriza vote-breakthrough experience provide any lessons about patient work in preparation for big opportunities yet to come in Britain? Syriza benefitted from having a mass struggle against austerity develop while the traditional workers party (PASOK) was in power. Is it more likely a big electoral breakthrough for the left in Britain would occur with a Labour government in power? Arent you just being impatient?

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Pham Binh May 30, 2013 at 4:10 pm

SYRIZA was well over 1.0% from the jump and they emerged as a split from a mass-based workers’ party, the KKE. They won 241,539 votes (3.3% of the total) and elected six MPs in their first attempt in 2004. I don’t think there’s much of a basis for comparison given that TUSC did not emerge as an organic split from Labour and has not become a rallying point for different forces on the left the way SYRIZA has by uniting ex-Stalinists, Maoists, Trots, and Eurocommunists.

Am I being impatient? I don’t know, but based on my understanding of the social and political forces in Britain, I don’t think another 10 years is going to see support for TUSC grow into the 5% range. Should I simply be more patient and extend that assessment to 20 years? Again, I don’t know, but I find the strategic thinking underpinning moves to form a new workers’ party in Britain that has little/no roots in the actually existing Labour Party to be thin regardless of whether it’s CWI, IMT, SWP, Countefire, Left Unity, or my comrades at the Anti Capitalist Initiative doing that thinking.

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Patrick A. June 2, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Another contribution to this discussion from a Socialist Party member: http://andrewwalton.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/the-left-in-britain-1990-2013/

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Mike June 2, 2013 at 9:55 pm

I think most of the article by Ford is very good.

A key problem for the radical left (those inside and outside the Labour Party) is that there is no credible model of how a socialist society would function. Yes, it would be more equal. Yes, it would be more democratic. Yes, it would be [insert whatever nice thing you wish…]

But the strength of the Marxist critique of capitalism has never been matched by an equally credible and robust account of how socialism would work in a hard-headed and practical sense. Dream-like prose about the wonders of ‘associations of free producers’ is not good enough.

It is hardly suprising then that today few people rally to the banner of socialism.

Until we stop promising that socialism will be all things to all people (which it won’t and can’t be), stop dismissing the actual legacy of 20th century socialism as irrelevent to ‘real socialism’, and start explaining in concrete and credible ways how things like economic democracy and productive efficiency can be reconciled, we will rightly attract the disdain of most those whose support we so desperately wish.

Of course, the easy thing is to simply argue that ‘we cannot and should not try to blue-print the future’. A lazy and self-defeating avoidance of difficult issues.

Perhaps we should spend a little less time on organisational questions, and instead confront the reality that many of those who argue for ‘socialism’ literally have very little idea what they are talking about.

It is good illustration of just how insular and self-referential the far left has become that so little time and energy has been given to defining what we are fighting for. Critique is not enough.

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Arthur June 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

Agree with the general point. Not so much a “model” and not so much “socialism”.

Goal is communism and socialism is a period of transition. Its certainly true that only historical actions of the masses will decide how that transition proceeds.

What’s missing is even the foggiest conception of proposals for the BEGINNING of such a transition. In particular proposals as to what a revolutionary governments would actually do to deal with the problems that resulted in revolutions.

For some initial thoughts about that three decades ago see:

http://www.marxists.org/history/erol/australia/rem-unemployment.htm

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Pham Binh June 3, 2013 at 9:28 am

This problem is why I used the Occupy encampments as a model to explain to people (and to a certain extent disprove the old tired tropes about human nature) what a post-capitalist society with majority rule over the economy would be like. Does this rise to the task as you’ve posed it? No. But it sure beats referring to soviets, which requires an entire history lesson in and of itself and therefore disqualifies itself as a useful, handy example.

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Red Blob June 3, 2013 at 12:18 am

Mike theres a very good reason that we Socialists don’t and can’t tell people what socialism will look like and thats because when it happens ‘the people’ will tell us what it looks like. ie when soviets of workers and peasants were formed it wasnt because socialists said something it was because it was the spontaneous mobilisation of the masses. During every revolutionary surge workers throw up their own organisations to answer specific questions of that particular time. If we are still around it will be good if we dont get in the way let alone offer some useful leadership.

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Arthur June 3, 2013 at 7:56 am

From the 30 year old article linked above:

“It has been said often enough that there can be no blueprints for the future because the people themselves will decide how to build the new society as they are building it. Fundamentally I agree with that, and will therefore refrain from attempting to present any blueprints. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to put forward a few ideas for discussion about what a revolutionary government might do to start building socialism. Consistent refusal to do so suggests that we are not fair dinkum about having an alternative. “No blueprints” is often a cop-out excuse for “no ideas”.

Revolutionaries need to have a “program” that is more than an analysis of the present society and a promise for the future. We need to develop a clear statement of the concrete measures a revolutionary government would aim to take, so people can decide whether or not they want to fight for a revolution. Too many “parties” talk about “revolution” in the abstract, and none at all seem to be serious about it concretely.

These days people are rightly cynical about the “policies” and “programs” of political parties, whether “revolutionary” or not. Revolutionary Leninist ideas are widely discredited by the sterility of their apparent supporters, and Marxist concepts that sum up important truths from the history of revolutionary struggle seem empty because they have been repeated so often as banalities. One hesitates therefore to use the word “program”, let alone “party”, for fear of being taken for yet another loony with pat simplistic answers to all the world’s problems.

Nevertheless, in a crisis situation, people will judge according to how the measures proposed by revolutionaries compare with those advocated by the existing regime. It will be a very real life and death question for a revolutionary party to have clear policies to deal with unemployment and similar questions. If the revolutionaries do not form a political party that aims to take power from the old regime then the old regime must continue. It will not just disappear in a burst of anarchist enthusiasm. If the revolutionary party does not propose policies that are more desirable and effective than those of the old regime, then why should anyone support a revolution? Even if there was a revolution, there would be a counter-revolution when the new regime failed to solve the problems that had discredited the old regime in the first place.

So we need to go beyond denouncing what the existing regime is doing and start offering constructive alternatives, even though any such proposals are bound to be half-baked at this stage. Reformists will make constructive proposals as to how the present regime should deal with problems, with or without a change in the political parties administering the regime. Revolutionaries will make proposals about how a new regime, a workers’ state or “dictatorship of the proletariat”, would cope with these questions.

Only left sectarians will talk about revolution in the abstract, without having in mind anything so mundane as taking political power and running the joint. But unfortunately the “revolutionary” organisations in western countries are overwhelmingly sectarian. Their concern is to defend their own organisations and “principles” and not to make revolution. A discrete veil is usually drawn over the question of what a revolution might actually do about unemployment or anything else for that matter, because the alleged “revolutionaries” have no idea what they would do, and have not even thought about it. This does not worry them much, because they are not serious about actually establishing a new regime, but only wish to denounce the present regime more extravagantly than a “mere reformist” would denounce it.

So let us talk about what communist revolutionaries should do, if we had the political power to do it. No doubt anarchists will disapprove, and insist that discussion of government policy implies we are bureaucrats no better than the old regime. But the choice society faces at present is between revolutionary government or counter-revolutionary government, and the road to abolishing all government lies first through establishing a revolutionary government (but certainly doesn’t end there). Therefore if we want to eventually abolish the state, we need to start exchanging views about proposed government policy now. The reformists talk about government policy because they are perfectly serious about governing, and there is nothing “unrealistic” about this intention of theirs. Revolutionaries should do so too, for exactly the same reason. Those who disdain to talk about government policy obviously have no belief in either reform or revolution, but only a slave’s inclination to whinge occasionally.”

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Mike June 3, 2013 at 5:03 am

Sorry, Red Blob, I don’t buy that for a minute.

It is not serious politics to compete for the political loyalties of millions of workers in a country on the basis of struggling for a future society whose operation you cannot explain.

Of course, any democratic socialist politics has to allow for all manner of unexpected initiatives, variations and experiments as we transcend capitalism. But that does not preclude being able to outline a logical, coherent and convincing outline of how a socialist economy may function.

Unless we can explain what we want and offer a credible strategy for how to get there we will remain in the political wilderness. At the moment much of the Marxist left can do neither. Therefore, most workers could care less what we say.

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Red Blob June 3, 2013 at 8:45 am

Mike there are just too many unknowns. Look at the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks seize power based on their majority in the soviets. They start to run society one way but the Capitalists go on strike forcing nationalizations and the Mensheviks and SRs walk out of the soviets and the Whites begin a civil war prompting the Bolsheviks to run the society in a different way until the peasants wont co operate with war communism and they have to run it in a different way until the scissors crisis and they have to find yet another way. OK my point, up until November 1917 most socialists saw socialism coming about in a completely different way. Up till 1914 most saw it as a parliamentary struggle that would turn revolutionary because the forces of reaction would be unable to allow for a peaceful transformation.
At every turn in history people are surprised at what comes next. What I do know is that when push comes to shove working people spontaneously form democratic workers councils to put some organization to chaos. You see it in microcosm every time you see a strike committee go into action.
I’m looking forward to being surprised. We will develop correct ideas because we will have our ideas tested by struggle lets hope we have the strength to junk the ideas that don’t work.
Sorry that I only talk about the future in generalities but thats all I got.

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Pham Binh June 3, 2013 at 9:30 am

100-year-old examples from foreign countries really don’t help in this regard, unfortunately, especially when none of us read Russian and therefore cannot grasp much less communicate to anyone else the organic “flavor” of what 1917 was like.

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Mike June 3, 2013 at 8:37 pm

The left needs to get real. We need to be able to communicate socialist politics in an accessible and popular vocabularly that avoids jargon and history lessons.

The truth is that too many members of far left organisations are not really interested in doing this. They have invested so much of their time and energy over the years in becoming amateur experts in Russian history and Marxist theory that they prefer the ease and comfort of discussing and debating among like-minded intellectuals and activists to trying to connect with the working class as it really is.

In his history of British communism, Raphael Samuel observed that Communist Party branch meetings often served not as a forum to discuss real politics, but as a refuge from real politics. Branch meetings were places where the faithful could gather and receive comfort and reassurance that their view of the world, which was viewed with hostility or indifference by most British workers, was of real value and significance. As such, internal Party life served to insulate activists from the actual irrelevance of their politics.

This is the situation today in many far left groups. It is one of the reasons many such groups display a shocking inability to relate to the working class and concrete political trends in anything other than a hyper-abstract manner. To admit empirical reality would disrupt the comfort and reassurance that many members value and which provides the basis for their highly ritualised form of politics.

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Red Blob June 3, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Mike I think that you need to give examples. The first political party I joined was a Social Democratic one and I was soon out the door as branch meetings were totally apolitical and they wanted me to letterbox some football calanders which on one side had the calander and on the other said “Supporters of all teams vote Labour”
I joined a clone group of the Brittish SWP and they were totally different very commited to producing material that anyone with a basic interest in the issues could read, very commited to running petitions about issues that non members were interested in. Very commited to going out to where workers were engaged in struggle. Very commited to debating with people who had different ideas. So my experience of the far left is at complete odds with the picture that you are painting.
As to your example of the Brittish CP well who would have thought that a bunch of old stalinists would need to be coccooned from the harshness of reality.

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Mike June 4, 2013 at 12:56 am

Red Blob, I think the British SWP is an example of what I am talking about.

Yes, it does lots of activism. But it tends to learn very little from it. It works with a pre-set ‘master narrative’ about how politics works: that class radicalism is the product of economic crisis and inequality. Hence, the absurd perspective that the 1990s was ‘the 1930s in slow motion’, and that the end of the post-war growth in the UK in the early-1970s signalled an emerging pre-revolutionary situation.

It filters actual politics through this pre-set narrative, excluding theories and evidence which run counter to the foundational world-view it embodies. This helps to sustain an ultra-leftism (and hyper-activism) that is detached from real political conditions.

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Red Blob June 4, 2013 at 1:57 am

Im not too critical of the way the Australian ISO went about their business. The tone of the organisation would be set by the “perspective” This perspective was arrived at by members circulating position papers, by branches holding perspective discussions and then branch delegates would attend a conference where a national comittee would be elected whose responsibility was to oversee the perspective implementation. Im hardly uncritical of the ISO but as an organisation that attempted a high level of intra organisational democracy they were a lot better than other groups that I have come into contact with.

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PatrickSMcNally June 4, 2013 at 7:18 am

“Hence, the absurd perspective that … the early 1970s signaled an emerging pre-revolutionary situation.”

Putting aside the issue of specific evaluations of the SWP-UK, it has to be noted that this was an error which was widely pervasive on the Left in all its forms, not merely Cliffites, not merely Marxists, not merely proclaimed socialists of whatever stripe. Many people coming out of the 1960s and seeing the stagflation crisis in the early 1970s did indeed regard this as evidence of an emerging revolution. As someone who was born early in the second week of 1966, I never fell prey to these illusions since by the time I started to notice politics Ronald Reagan was already heading towards the Presidency. But I can at least understand how someone from that time would have made such an error.

But it needs to be emphasized that this was absolutely not peculiar to any particular branch of the Left. A variety of self-proclaimed black nationalist groups which grew out of the 1960s simply dried up in the 1970s. Those which didn’t largely merged themselves into the Democratic Party a la Jesse Jackson. Ditto among the mélange of women’s groups which came out of the ’60s. While it’s fine and necessary to make critical retrospective assessments, one shouldn’t overdo it here.

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Pham Binh June 3, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Agreed. I took a stab at it: http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=2328

I’d put this up against any socialist newspaper or pamphlet produced in this country in the last 50 years.

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Aaron Aarons June 4, 2013 at 4:20 pm

Binh writes: “Agreed.”

I’d have to hod a ruler against my screen and measure the indentation of your comment and ones preceding it in order to figure out what you agree with, Binh.

But your evaluation of your own pamphlet is over the top.

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Pham Binh June 4, 2013 at 4:25 pm

If you’ve seen better, please post. I think Camejo as a speaker tops any scribbling I could come up with.

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PatrickSMcNally June 3, 2013 at 7:05 am

The idea that one should work out what socialism will look like was a common premise among utopian socialists of the 19th century. Marx & Engels argued that all of these attempts to formulate the correct society could not go anywhere except in a context where the dynamics of capitalism were creating a force for revolution. The reason why people in the First World stopped listening to socialists was because the economic boom of 1945-70 made socialism seem redundant. Even the slow steady signs of decline which have accumulated for the last 4 decades have not yet changed the fact that most US workers, regardless of race or gender, have a valid basis for seeing themselves as better off than workers in Bangladesh. That obstacle can’t be hopped over by simply talking about what socialism is supposed to look like.

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Arthur June 3, 2013 at 8:07 am

True enough. But that doesn’t excuse the present cluelessness.

Again from the 30 year old article linked above:

“In its normal state, capitalism has become an obsolete oppressive system that ought to be got rid off. A relatively small minority recognise this and are consciously anti-capitalist, but the masses continue trying to satisfy their needs within the system rather than by overthrowing it. So there is no real possibility of overthrowing that system and attempts to do so degenerate into futile reformism and/or terrorism, whatever the “revolutionary” rhetoric.

But during periods of economic crisis, the contradiction of capitalism sharpen and the possibility of actually getting rid of it arises. A substantial proportion of the population is drawn into active political struggle as they confront questions of what society is to do to get out of its impasse. There is no crisis that the ruling class could not resolve if it was allowed to, but with the masses politically active, the possibility arises of the ruling class not being allowed to, and of people taking things into their own hands.

In boom conditions, capitalism develops the productive forces at its maximum rate. That may be far slower than would be possible for a communist society, but there is no basis for comparison, so the obstruction is not so noticeable.

The “development of the productive forces” is not some abstract question. It means concretely that the wealth of society is increasing, not just materially, but also culturally and in every direction. Opportunities for development are open and people who want to better their own situation can do so by grasping those opportunities. Most workers can expect better jobs, with a higher standard of living and better conditions. Capitalists can find opportunities for profitable investment. International trade is expanding and the different nations, classes and sectional interests are fighting over their share of an expanding “cake”. Such fights may be acute, but there is always room for compromise about who benefits more, when nobody is actually asked to accept being worse off than they are already. Reforms may be fought bitterly, but there is scope for reform without shaking the whole system apart. Within a “pluralistic society”, there can still be “consensus”.

In crisis conditions all this is reversed. The cake is contracting and the fight is over who is to bear the loss. Among capitalists the fight is over who is to survive and who is to eat whom. Between capitalists and workers there is no room for compromise. Reforms become impossible and even past achievements may be rolled back. “We can’t afford these luxuries any more”. Within the working class too, there is less unity as people find themselves in “hard times” where it is “everyone for themselves”. The “social fabric” unravels, consensus breaks down and capitalist society stands revealed as based on sharply antagonistic interests.

The last major capitalist crisis was the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Subsequent economic fluctuations, including the present one, have not amounted to much more than “recessions”, so the inevitability of capitalist crisis has been forgotten until the next crisis again smashes the illusion. But even in “recession” the sharpening of contradictions can be seen, together with the complete inability of the reformist “left” to come up with any serious alternative program. All the signs point to a gathering crisis, much deeper than the 1930’s, and the necessity for a serious revolutionary alternative opposed to trying to patch capitalism together again.”

“If we want a revolution, then left-wingers, revolutionaries, will have to take on the functions of directors and managers of big businesses, as well as government ministries. Not many genuine left-wingers and revolutionaries have any great hankering to be on the board of directors of the Reserve Bank or BHP. But if revolutionaries are not leading the workers’ councils to implement a socialist economic policy, then it can only be right-wingers, or unreliable middle-of-the-road “experts” who are doing (or sabotaging) the job of management. Indeed in socialist countries, economic management functions seem to have been breeding grounds for revisionist bureaucrats.

Just saying “the workers will do it” does not solve a thing. Who are these workers who will do it after the revolution, without discussing what they will do, before the revolution? Power will pass from the hands of the bourgeoisie to the hands of the working class, because the working class will put forward a clear cut program to rescue society from the impasse it finds itself in under bourgeois rule. Slogans simply demanding a change in power because it is “more democratic” will get nowhere. The issue of “who decides, who rules” only arises in the context of “what is to be done”.

Revolution occurs when those who presently hold power are unable to do what has to be done, and when the only way it can be done is for their opponents to take the power to do it. The most class conscious and politically conscious workers will be the ones discussing these problems beforehand, and if we do not have any ideas, how can we expect others to?”

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Red Blob June 3, 2013 at 9:02 pm

“Who are these workers who will do it after the revolution, without discussing what they will do, before the revolution.”
Arthur these workers are the ones who have been involved in struggle prior to the revolution. They will be joined by millions who have a leap of consiousness that a revolution demands.
Socialists are always trying to learn more and to raise the level of organisation but we have to start where ever we are and invole our self in what ever struggle exist, to do anything else is to live a phantasy world where iether it will be done by some revolutionary elite or spontaneous self activity.

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Aaron Aarons June 4, 2013 at 12:32 am

“The reason why people in the First World stopped listening to socialists was because the economic boom of 1945-70 made socialism seem redundant.”

But didn’t the majority of the working class in, at least, France and Italy, remain self-identified as ‘socialist’ or ‘Communist’ until around the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ‘Soviet Bloc’ around 1990? Was that difference from most of the other imperialist countries due to the history of armed anti-fascist resistance in those countries?

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PatrickSMcNally June 4, 2013 at 6:23 am

It was mainly a consequence of the parliamentary forms in Europe which some here are so enamored of. The CPs and social democrats in western Europe adapted themselves to a Bernsteinian program and made no attempt to claim anything more. At the same time, they were still able to carry around a hammer & sickle as they saw fit. In a place like the USA with first-takes-all voting it is more natural that during times of substantial bourgeois economic reform, such as 1945-70 reflected, the majority simply fold up the red banners.

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Mike June 3, 2013 at 8:00 am

SOCIALIST: Come join the struggle for socialism! Life will be better! Many of your problems and the problems of the world will be solved?

WORKER: Sounds good. But how will socialism solve many of my problems and those of the world?

SOCIALIST: I don’t know. No one does. But come join the struggle for socialism anyway!

WORKER: You’re an idiot. Go away.

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PatrickSMcNally June 3, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Rather than making up imaginary conversations why don’t you critique something concrete like D’Artagnan Collier’s speech in Detroit?

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/06/01/detr-j01.html

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David Ellis June 4, 2013 at 10:50 am

The Cold War was possibly the golden age for the sects. The political stability of the bi-polar arrangement between Stalinism and US-led imperialism meant stability for them too. They even became the extreme left wing of the trade union bureaucracy. But of course just prior to and ever since the Cold War the sects have been exploding, fragmenting, disintegrating, disolving one by one as the sharp political turns of the new fluid world order leave them stranded high and dry or myred in contradictions. Unfortunately despite this fact people keep trying to reinvent it. If Left Unity do not adopt a popular manifesto for working class power and the transition to socialism then it will represent yet another attempt to do just that. It will show that it is yet another apolitical sect conducting its business behind closed doors, behind the backs of its members and the public, horse-trading with various left trade union bureaucrats and labour party MPs. Respect is political and there is no doubt that Blair’s wars impacted minority communities in the UK in a much more profoundly existential way than everybody else unsuprisingly. By being political at least about the war Respect was able to capture a serious social base. Undoubtedly the effects of austerity are beginning to have an existential impact on much broader swathes of the working class. A group that approached the matter politically could do very well and could find itself in a position to initiate princpled United Front’s with Labour on certain matter quite quickly.

Your quip about Scargill was a doozey: `All the SLP proved was that even the greatest working-class leaders, in whose number Arthur Scargill should surely be counted, can mistake their own views for being the mood of the masses.’

Scargill is a Stalinist. For him the miners were never more than a potential tool of Soviet foreign policy.

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Aaron Aarons June 4, 2013 at 4:28 pm

“Scargill is a Stalinist. For him the miners were never more than a potential tool of Soviet foreign policy.”

Can you provide evidence for the latter assertion?

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PatrickSMcNally June 4, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I’ll second that request. My own cursory impression of Arthur Scargill has long been that I place him on a spectrum between the poles of Harry Pollitt, a vulgar Comintern apparatchik, and Bill Bland, a die-hard Hoxhaist ideologue. While there is much to criticize about Bland, I would never characterize him as a tool of Soviet foreign policy during the era when he was predominantly active (which was mainly after 1956 and Khrushchev’s not very Secret Speech). Scargill does not come across as either like Pollitt or Bland, as far as I can tell. I don’t know of anything which suggests that he actually followed the will of Brezhnev in the 1970s a la Gus Hall. Maybe someone else does.

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David Ellis June 5, 2013 at 6:34 am

Well you don’t ask me to prove that Scargill is a Stalinist because that is common knowledge and of course being a Stalinist means that the most important thing to you politically (not to mention financially) is or was the foreign policy of the Stalinised Soviet Union and its promotion. I think his constant assertions during the strike that the miners could win alone meant that he saw this strike more as a bargaining chip in the Cold War relations between the US and the Soviet Union. It was like saying if you attack the soviet union this is just a taster of what we could do. But of course he and his fellow trade union bureaucrats had no intention of doing it. Anyway Stalinism is dead apart from a few diehards who treat the Russian imperialist kleptocracy that stole the Soviet Union with the help of Stalinism as if it was still `really existing socialism’ so I’d rather discuss the `apolitical/ideological’ nature of sectarianism.

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PatrickSMcNally June 5, 2013 at 8:31 am

“being a Stalinist means”

Not really. That’s a pretty vulgar simplistic view. Someone like Bill Bland certainly considered himself to be “Stalinist” in the sense that he was ideologically devoted to Dear Old Uncle Joe (and Comrade Enver, of course). Bland went so far as to maintain that Georgi Dimitriv was a conspiratorial agent who had collaborated with the Third Reich and Western imperialism in a plot to undermine the Comintern against the good Marxist Dear Old Uncle Joe. Some of Bland’s stuff was really over the top. But no one could ever charge him with being a servant of the foreign policy of Khrushchev, Brezhnev or any of the other post-1956 Soviet leaders.

“the miners could win alone”

Isolating strikes is something with a long history among labor bureaucrats, especially among pro-Cold War unionists, but not only there. It doesn’t seem necessary to bring in accusations that Scargill was working for the Kremlin in order to account for this.

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Arthur June 5, 2013 at 9:27 am

Well we don’t agree on much, but its certainly welcome to see an acknowledgement that people who actually had some respect for Stalin were generally hostile to the post-Stalin Soviet Union.

The post-Stalin regimes were virulently hostile to Stalin, denouncing him as a mass murderer as extravagently as the Trots (indeed the Trot claims had negligible audience on the left until given credibility Khuschev’s endorsement – many people simply assumed that his successors would be covering up his crimes rather than inventing them, without any grasp that they were in fact his opponents rather than his successors).

Ttots were generally far more sympathetic to Soviet policy. Some even insisted it was some kind of deformed socialism when Maoists were saying a social-fascist form of capitalism had been restored and that Soviet imperialism had become more dangerous than US imperialism following the US defeat in Vietnam.

Claiming connections between the miner’s strike and Soviet foreign policy sounds more like a lunar form of Thatcherism than a lunar form of even Trotskyism. Most of the sects arn’t quite THAT sectarian.

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David Berger (RED DAVE) June 5, 2013 at 9:59 am

A question, Arthur. Do you consider yourself to be a Stalinist?

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Red Blob June 5, 2013 at 6:38 pm

Red Dave I think that this is or at least was Arthur’s position
http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/author.asp?id=139

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Red Blob June 5, 2013 at 8:23 am

David I think that the reasonable definition of what a Stalinist is, Is that the person so accused supports the idea of socialism in one country IE the ideological contribution of Joseph himself. There for people like Mao who was pretty anti the post Stalin USSR was still a Stalinist

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