I am active in the Anti Capitalist Initiative (ACI) and some of you may know me from my 10 years in Workers Power (WP). There was a lot of debate and struggles towards the end of my own and some other comrades’ time in WP about the nature of the left and the problem of building small fighting propaganda groups. The criticisms that came out of that quite radically changed our thinking about the left and how it should go forward.
I want to start with a bit of background in terms of where I think things are going, as that will help situate what the left should be doing. I think it is quite clear for anyone with eyes to see it that the current crisis is not just an ordinary crisis of capitalism. Milton Friedman pointed out that you can use a crisis to fundamentally change the organization and structure of society and that is what the bourgeoisie are doing internationally. They are using the reality and also the excuse of the financial crisis to turn that into a social crisis which will see the end of the period of the post-war welfare state as we understand it.
The consequences of this are enormous. People of my generation — I am 31 now, so I am talking about my age and younger — will not have a standard of living as good as our parents’ or even our grandparents’. This is a very serious attack on people’s living conditions — all in the interest of sustaining a system which is failing in many ways and struggling to survive.
People are talking about “zombie capitalism” – what with the bailouts to keep it alive and so on. But it is also “cannibal capitalism.” In other words, it begins to eat away at the conditions of its own reproduction. That is why I think that the welfare state, the public sector — the strongholds of the left — are being attacked.
So how does the left respond to this? There is a very serious problem with the whole idea of “capitalist realism,” which the social theorist, Mark Fisher, has written about, and I think this is a very interesting idea: even in the midst of the capitalist crisis people cannot really see an alternative. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the so-called “communist” states, there is a situation where China is ruled by the Communist Party, yet is one of the most successful capitalist countries in the world. People are critical of capitalism, critical of what it is doing to them, to their work and to society, but they are not sure what the solution is. Do we want to go back to the Soviet Union? Well, not really. Do we want to go back to the 1950s and 1960s and old Labor?
These are very real questions and the left, so far, has not been able to articulate a convincing way forward out of the crisis.
There is, of course, an even bigger problem in relation to the struggle against the cuts and austerity in Britain, and I do not have to point this out to comrades in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). The real problem is not just the division and failure of the far left: it is also the trade unions. If we move at the pace that the union leaders want us to, then we will not be able to stop any government attacks. And there are no serious moves by the far-left organizations to try and remedy this. Some groups talk about rank-and-file movements, they talk about being critical of the bureaucracy and so on, but I do not see anything serious in terms of putting the resources, the consistency, into the fight to actually change that situation.
And the far left itself?
So I think we can agree that there is a very serious problem.
Where does the Anti-Capitalist Initiative fit into that? It is a recognition that all the major projects of the revolutionary left in Britain over the last 20 years have failed. The left, and left groups like the Socialist Workers Party, is smaller now than when I first came into politics. Some groups have stayed about the same size, but none are able to make any kind of breakthrough. And there is a real lack of new thinking.
Now, I am not saying that we should scrap all of the old and burn all the works of Lenin and Marx — of course not! But we have to be more creative and look beyond our own sect orthodoxy to how we might try to win people to the wider ideas of Marxism. And that is what the ACI is trying to do.
The ACI is a network, it is a space. It has a Web site. It has some local groups and initiatives. It is a place to meet, to organise some small-scale actions. But it is a process — a process of becoming something else. That really is the problem with the CPGB’s criticism of the ACI. The CPGB sees it as it is now and says this is an unpolitical space, it is liquidationist, it is an anti-Marxist initiative which is being set up.
But it is far from that.
What the Marxists in the ACI want to do is open up a process in which we can build a wider, broader organization and develop working relationships with activists who may not consider themselves Marxists at the beginning, but to work with them in a political project fighting the cuts, fighting against oppression, opposing the government or if there is going to be an attack on Iran or anything like that, to develop that political basis within the ACI.
We’re going to have a conference in December in which we will pass a rudimentary program. It will not be as long and involved as the CPGB Draft program is — it will be more modest because the organization is only just beginning and we are getting things going.
From that, we really want to open it up to other forces on the left. Our message is: if you really are interested in revolutionary unity, if you are interested in trying to elaborate new political answers and work with people who you may not normally work with, then the ACI is ready to welcome you, and you should come and get involved. I think it is a real shame that the CPGB has not had a more positive approach, because I think it is exactly the sort of thing that five or six years ago you would have been interested in getting involved in and trying to influence.
I mean, at the ACI meeting in April you sent Ben Lewis on his own with a leaflet saying that the ACI is not adopting a Marxist program, but you did not submit a Marxist program for us to discuss. Of course, you could have done that. You could have come along and said, “This is what we think should be on the agenda,” but instead you just turned up with a leaflet saying you did not think it was going to work and then left. You are not going to get very much out of that sort of intervention. There are people in the ACI who might not call themselves Marxists at the moment, but they are interested in left, revolutionary, anti-capitalist ideas and I think that is an audience which genuine, serious revolutionaries should be talking to.
So what do I want to come out of the ACI? I want a revolutionary party which must have Marxist principles. It must therefore have a class perspective and it must have a much more open approach to debate and differences — the kind of things that the CPGB has been saying for quite a while, actually. My experience in WP of the kind of “democratic centralism” that group practiced has convinced me that it is wrong. The idea that everything is just discussed internally and that, even if 40% of your membership disagree, they are not allowed any remit to talk about it publicly or express their reservations in journals and so on — I think this is the wrong approach. There must be a much more open-minded approach to differences.
In any case, if you are a small revolutionary organization it is not really going to matter if you carry something in your journal taking a different position to the majority. It is not really going to change the big picture of the class struggle at the moment.
An organization that uses a very top-down, bureaucratic “democratic centralism” to just instruct members — “Ah, you’ve joined now and you’re paying your subs, so you all have to go to this demo or that meeting” — is not the type of organization we need. We need a leadership within an organization that motivates the members in a political project in which they are emancipated, not one that just tells them what to do all the time. I think that is very important.
Will the ACI fail? It could do, of course. It might be the situation that it does not attract enough forces, or does not have enough members or activists in order to achieve “escape velocity,” as it were, and take itself to a higher level. But I think in the current context in which we find ourselves, where none of our groups are going forward in the way we would want them to, where none of the projects of the far left are making the kind of gains we need in this real crisis of the system, I would rather be trying a new approach to win over new layers to revolutionary politics than merely existing. Merely existing as a revolutionary in a small sect of 20, 50, a few hundred people — that really is not success. We need to have much bigger ambitions than “Oh good, we didn’t collapse this year.”
What will be interesting to discuss is not just what kind of anti-capitalist party we need, but how we are going to get any kind of mass party, whether you call it a revolutionary party, a Marxist party, a Leninist party … How are we going to do it? People talk about new workers’ parties, they talk about Marxist parties, but no one has been able to achieve any of these things. So we really need to think about how we get out of our comfort zones and our safe areas in order to reach out and so on.
It seems to me that whenever the far left begins to make headway, whenever it begins to penetrate the national political consciousness, that nearly always results from some kind of new party formation. For example, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in France, SYRIZA in Greece, Die Linke in Germany. I know you can say that the examples I am giving are all blowing apart or politically degenerating, but the point is that at least there was an attempt to create a party. You might criticize their political basis and I would agree with you in that the political criticisms I had of these projects as a member of Workers Power have not gone away.
If you think about the success of SYRIZA in Greece, probably one of the worst things that could have happened would have been for it to have been elected. It would have found itself governing a capitalist state in the middle of a crisis and that would have busted it more quickly than any kind of internal wrangling or factions. But build such a party, get some people elected and take steps forward — maybe it will fail, but maybe it will succeed.
I think it is very problematic if we just say, “Oh, it hasn’t been set up on the right basis and it’s going to fail, so I’m not going to get involved.” That is a passive attitude of the type that socialists should not adopt in relation to such initiatives. If lots of people are joining, then we should join too to try and win it over, to change it.
The anti-capitalist party we need has to be anti-systemic, in that it has to attack the philosophical and organizational nature of capitalism itself. It cannot do that from a reformist perspective: it has to be revolutionary, it has to seek to activate and to explode the class antagonisms at the heart of the capitalist system and do it in a way which empowers the workers to liberate themselves, not expect to have things done for them through top-down directives from central committees and so on. It has to be a process whereby the working class themselves feel empowered to overthrow their oppressors.
I will end on a note of confidence. I think it was Trotsky who said, “We need to drive pessimism out of the workers’ movement.” I quite like that sentiment. I know that at the moment things are not going very well for the left or the workers’ movement in Britain. There are very serious problems which we have not yet been able to find ways of overcoming. Some of the old problems that have existed for years remain in an ever more insidious fashion, but we should not be pessimistic about it.
As I said, the changing nature of capitalism itself, the way that capitalism reproduces the basis of its existence, is going to be very different over the next 10 or 15 years, compared to what we experienced in the post-war years. And the fact of that change itself opens up the possibility for a revolutionary left which is not sectarian, which is not opportunist, which tries to reach out to wider layers and engage them in revolutionary politics in order to build a genuinely revolutionary, class-struggle organization. That opportunity is still out there: the question is whether we can seize the opportunity when it presents itself, and really follow in the footsteps of Marx and Lenin and all the comrades who came before us.