Heat, light and confusion
Sheffield LU comrades have been debating with Tusc. Mike Copestake reports
A quote from Bertolt Brecht
Unusually for a left event where more than one group is present, the purpose of the Left Unity Sheffield public meeting, which featured a speaker from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, was not for one left group to ignore all the others, to pretend not to exist at all for the sake of running a ‘front’ group, or to diplomatically tip-toe around our political differences. Most unusually the declared purpose of the meeting was to seek a way forward for the utterly abject and decayed position of the far left and meet the crying need for unity against the background of the recent general election results.
It was this background which dominated the discussions, however, rather than the question of socialist or Marxist unity, although afterwards it was agreed by most present that it had been a useful discussion, and that we should aim for a local open socialist forum that can host discussions amongst socialists in Sheffield belonging to any group.
The meeting, organised by the Left Unity student society at the University of Sheffield, took place in a bright, light and spacious room. It was addressed by local Socialist Party in England and Wales member Alistair Tice, who spoke for Tusc, and by Left Unity national speaker Pete Green, who had travelled up from London for the occasion.
Comrade Tice opened first, effectively summarising the immediate aftermath of the Conservative victory and other broader factors, and took heart from the marches and protests that occurred soon after the result in numerous towns and cities across the country. Similarly, he looked forward to the June 20 People’s Assembly demonstration in London. According to the comrade, we have “a weak government” with a narrow social base and only a slim majority, which was likely to be faced with another economic crisis within the present parliamentary period.
As for ‘what next?’, comrade Tice believed that there would be a large upswing in single-issue campaigns, and perhaps something like the re-emergence of an Occupy-type phenomenon, or rioting. He did not expect a lead on anything to be taken by the trade unions, whose leaders are disoriented and timid. As for ‘what we need’ it was, of course, am anti-austerity, “anti-capitalist” party - a statement which was echoed almost word for word by Pete Green, who agreed with much of the analysis presented by comrade Tice.
Such a party would, continued the SPEW comrade, provide a bigger sea in which Marxists could swim. It may or may not be Tusc, he added, whose aim is to help bring about, or catalyse the formation of, a “new workers’ party”. SPEW had never claimed that Tusc is the finished product. It had existed only since 2010, and the creation of such a party would require either massive new class struggles or important developments in, say, the trade unions, involving a break with Labour. Praising the joint ticket with Tusc that most Left Unity parliamentary candidates had stood on, he repeated the call for LU to join Tusc, taking advantage of its federal nature.
Emphasising that some of his comments would be made in a personal capacity, comrade Green began by agreeing with the broad political picture drawn by comrade Tice. He did, however, disagree that we could assume that the present government is weak and referenced the SWP’s notoriously incorrect call to this effect about the last government. Both speakers agreed that Labour was in dire straits at present, with a gag-inducing array of likely leaders, but, given the prospect of the Conservative Party overseeing the next five years of austerity, comrade Green doubted that Labour would undergo “Pasokification” during this period - a process which he speculated would be a necessary prerequisite for creating a broad left, Syriza-type party in the UK.
He criticised the Weekly Worker for characterising the Greens as a “petty bourgeois” party, which he said is both a meaningless term and in any case should not be applied in a broad-brush manner to the tens of thousands of largely young, leftish-inclined people who have recently flooded into its ranks. Thankfully though, he was against Left Unity merging into the Greens, even if some of our members had now left to join it. For this he blamed the platform debates within LU as “off-putting”. Like comrade Tice, comrade Green called for the creation of an “anti-capitalist” party, in which socialists would be active, not a specifically socialist party.
A mixed debate followed, both in subject matter and quality. For Alison Higgins of the local Marxist reading group the two speakers had been too Britain-centric, and had not analysed the rise of the UK Independence Party and anti-mass migration sentiments in general.
Tina Becker of Sheffield Left Unity and the Communist Platform thanked both of the speakers for giving us, for once, a degree of political interaction on the left. Moving straight to the question of unity and ‘what next?’, comrade Becker criticised Tusc’s refusal to adopt a democratic structure and its policy of allowing a veto to the four participating organisations (not least the RMT union), most obviously on vexed political issues like immigration. This, along with the question of Europe, is only going to grow in importance over the coming period - a situation which does not credibly allow silence. Contrary to comrade Tice’s SPEW orthodoxy, she insisted that Labour is still a bourgeois workers’ party, no matter how fallen from its supposed social democratic heights. Quite clearly it remains the principal UK political party based on integrating the working class as a class into capitalism, however distasteful we may find this, and is thus by definition a bourgeois workers’ party. Rather than seeking to create a pointless and improbable federal Labour Party mark II, Marxists needed to unite within a single, fully democratic party.
For Richard Belbin a problem with Tusc was its purely electoral nature - he noted that people in single-issue campaigns will only listen to you if you stick around year on year. He emphasised that the left must face up to and argue for the principle of free movement, but without lapsing into simply screaming ‘racist’ at people who disagree.
SPEW comrades naturally disagreed with the comments made by others regarding Tusc, but I cannot say that the quality of their contributions was outstanding. More than once they were highly disappointing. Comrade Alan Munro resorted to a repetition of various ‘traditional’ sectarian clichés. Yes, apparently, the left has “too many meetings” in “dark, stuffy rooms”, where we “slag each other off” and engage in worthless “theoretical masturbation” instead of getting out there and talking to working class people about “what matters to them”, which is, of course, “bread and butter” issues. In other words, the line with which the Labour right bashes the Labour Left was repeated almost verbatim by the comrade.
In the first place, the left simply does not sit in meetings with each other and talk politics at all - more likely there is diplomatic silence. Additionally, as far as the left press is concerned, for The Socialist it is as if the SWP just does not exist most of the time. Vice versa for Socialist Worker in relation to SPEW. Indeed, this was the first political discussion of its kind that I can remember between left groups in many years. The charge of “theoretical masturbation” is interesting, as one can only masturbate with ideas if one has any. (As an aside, the level at which the debate was conducted was entirely undeserving of being credited as “theoretical” in any way, never mind masturbatorally so.) Ironically, the only comrade who could take any pleasure from comrade Munro’s contribution was comrade Munro himself - proving once again how fatal is the separation of theory and practice.
For Alison Higgins it amounted to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. She neatly countered comrade Munro’s lines about “bread and butter”, using the pertinent local example of Maxine Bowler’s relatively good vote in the Burngreave ward, which originated as a political vote against the Iraq war, not for bread and butter. From history we should point out that what Marx identified as the first working class movement in history, Chartism, was a political movement, not an economic one. And if you hate “theoretical masturbation”, then you had better chuck away all your books on Marxism and disown all your political heroes: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg - all suffered lifetime addictions to it.
A SPEW comrade called Terry made a much more coherent, comradely and spirited response. He contested the idea that Tusc closes down outside election periods, saying that the coalition’s materials regularly featured on the Socialist Party’s own stalls. Of course, you cannot actually join Tusc, so this is undoubtedly of limited value. He also recommend that, given the small political differences between the two organisations, it made sense for Left Unity to become a federal part of Tusc, which could then pave the way for “the next step”. After the debate I asked him if by “next step” he meant a democratic rather than a federal party, but got no definite answer.
An odd episode followed, when comrade Becker stressed again the value of having a single, united socialist party by pointing to the benefits which have accrued to groups like Die Linke and Syriza, which for all their political faults are a picture of strength and health compared to the sect wilderness in the UK, and which have shown in practice that you can have different platforms and open democratic debate inside a untied party. All Marxists, she argued, can and should be in the same party.
Immediately following this, Anna from SPEW, who by her own admission was rendered incoherent with rage, attacked those present for arguing with each other despite our largely similar views and for supposedly contending that we could not all be in the same party - the exact opposite of what comrade Becker had said. When this was pointed out - ie, that we should all be in one united party - she exclaimed in frustration: “But there are already parties”. No-one quite knew what to make of this.
Summing up, comrade Tice gave a reasoned response to both Pete Green and the discussion. In his view, Tusc does not fudge its line on immigration. Tusc activists have argued on thousands of workers’ doorsteps - far more than its critics in the room - against anti-migrant sentiments, for the defence of migrants and asylum-seekers, and for seeing the capitalist system as responsible for the shortages of housing, low wages, the failing NHS services - not foreigners. Could we make the same claim? Addressing the use of the veto in Tusc and the upcoming EU referendum, comrade Tice thought it was likely that Tusc would not be able to run a united campaign because of the differing viewpoints within it, in which case the Socialist Party would run a leftwing ‘no’ campaign.
The meeting ended with a more positive tone and all of those present - even those most irritated by the supposed left wrangling - agreed that it would be worth attempting to set up an open discussion forum in Sheffield for all the city’s socialists, of any party or none. Hopefully, we will see the comrades again on June 17, when we plan to discuss the practicalities of this in more detail.